A surprise twist from Intel

Intel is going to double the core count on 15-watt processors starting next month.

Any expectations I had of a slower and less turbulent late summer and fall for the technology and hardware segments is getting shattered today with the beginning stages of Intel’s 8th Generation Core Processors. If you happen to think that this 8th generation is coming hot on the heels of the 7th generation that only just released to the consumer desktop market in January of this year, you’d be on the same page as me. If you are curious how Intel plans to balance Kaby Lake, Coffee Lake, and Cannon Lake, all releasing in similar time frames and still use terms like “generation,” then again, we are on the same page.

Today Intel launches the 15-watt version of its 8th Generation Core Processors, based on a refresh of the Kaby Lake CPU design. This not a new architecture nor is this is not a new process node, though Intel does talk about slight changes in design and manufacturing that make it possible. The U-series processors that make up the majority of the thin and light and 2-in-1 designs for consumers and businesses are getting a significant upgrade in performance with this release. The Core i7 and Core i5 processors being announced will all be quad-core, HyperThreaded designs, moving us away from the world of dual-core processors in the 7th generation. Doubling core and thread count, while remaining inside the 15-watt thermal envelope for designs, is an incredible move and will strengthen Intel’s claim to this very important and very profitable segment.

Let’s look at the specifications table first. After all, we’re all geeks here.

  Core i7-8650U Core i7-8550U Core i5-8350U Core i5-8250U Core i7-7600U Core i7-7500U
Architecture Kaby Lake Refresh Kaby Lake Refresh Kaby Lake Refresh Kaby Lake Refresh Kaby Lake Kaby Lake
Process Tech 14nm+ 14nm+ 14nm+ 14nm+ 14nm+ 14nm+
Socket BGA1356 BGA1356 BGA1356 BGA1356 BGA1356 BGA1356
Cores/Threads 4/8 4/8 4/8 4/8 2/4 2/4
Base Clock 1.9 GHz 1.8 GHz 1.7 GHz 1.6 GHz 2.8 GHz 2.7 GHz
Max Turbo Clock 4.2 GHz 4.0 GHz 3.8 GHz 3.6 GHz 3.9 GHz 3.5 GHz
Memory Speeds 2400/2133 2400/2133 2400/2133 2400/2133 2133/1866 2133/1866
Cache (L4 Cache) 8MB 8MB 6MB 6MB 4MB 4MB
System Bus DMI3 – 8.0 GT/s DMI3 – 8.0 GT/s DMI2 – 6.4 GT/s DMI2 – 5.0 GT/s DMI2 – 5.0 GT/s DMI2 – 5.0 GT/s
Graphics UHD Graphics 620 UHD Graphics 620 UHD Graphics 620 UHD Graphics 620 HD Graphics 620 HD Graphics 620
Max Graphics Clock 1.15 GHz 1.15 GHz 1.1 GHz 1.1 GHz 1.15 GHz 1.05 GHz
TDP 15W 15W 15W 15W 15W 15W
MSRP $409 $409 $297 $297 $393 $393

The only differences between the Core i7 and Core i5 designs will be in cache size (Core i5 has 6MB, Core i7 has 8MB) and the clock speeds of the processors. All of them feature four true Kaby Lake cores with HyperThreading enabled to support 8 simultaneous threads in a notebook. Dual channel memory capable of speeds of 2400 MHz in DDR4 and 2133 MHz in LPDDR3 remain. The integrated graphics portion offers the same performance as the 7th generation designs, though the branding has moved from Intel HD Graphics to Intel UHD Graphics. Because Ultra.

But take a gander at the clock speeds. The base clock on the four new CPUs range from 1.6 GHz to 1.9 GHz, with 100 MHz steps as you go up the SKU ladder. Those are low frequencies for modern processors, no doubt, but Intel has always been very conservative when it comes to setting specs for base frequency. This is the speed that Intel guarantees the processors will run at when the CPU is fully loaded using a 15-watt TDP cooling design. Keeping in mind that we moved from dual-core to quad-core processors, it makes sense that these base frequencies would drop. Intel doesn’t expect users in thin and light machines to utilize all 8 threads for very long, or very often, and instead focuses on shorter use cases for multi-threaded workloads (photo manipulation) that might run at 3.x GHz. If this period of time is short enough, the cooling solution will be able to “catch up” and keep the core within a reasonable range.

The single threaded Turbo Speeds increase by 200 MHz as we move up the SKUs, hitting as high as 4.2 GHz on the Core i7-8650U. That creates a 2.3 GHz Turbo Boost range on that part, leaving Intel a lot of room to manipulate the voltages and clock speeds in order to maintain maximum performance in that slight, 15w thermal envelope. It also means that single threaded performance should be faster than we have seen from 15-watt parts previously, as the 8650U peaks at 200 MHz faster than any 7th generation mobile processor.

Even the Core i5-8250U will offer exceptional single and multi-threaded performance, combining a quad-core design (with HyperThreading enabled) that can scale between 1.6 GHz and 3.4 GHz.

The significance of this move in the thin and light market is substantial. Intel will essentially be able to offer nearly double the performance of the previous generation platforms in peak theoretical capability, though with some performance write off due to the need to clock lower to stay within thermal limits. But those thermal limits will be less of a problem for shorter, burst workloads. We have often talked about short, single threaded “bursty” workloads like touch screen recognition in our mobile stories, and the impact that high Turbo clocks can have on user experience. The same will apply for multi-threaded workloads that don’t need to run continuously, like image manipulation in Lightroom or Photoshop, collages, complex Office macros, etc. Intel continues to find ways to bridge the gap between strong single threaded and strong multi-threaded performance.

I am still trying to get my hands on an 8th generation system to see how this works in practice, but in theory, it leaves little doubt that Intel will continue to dominate in this space. Intel claims we will see more than 80 systems in the market by the holiday season using these 8th generation processors.

I don’t yet have an answer from Intel as to the pricing of the 8th Generation Intel Core Processors and how they will compare to the 7th generation. If Intel plans to keep both lines going, it would make sense that Intel would raise the price of these quad-core 15-watt processors to compensate. However, if Intel is more aggressive, and wants to push the higher core count solutions to the market with its full weight, it will closely match the pricing of the 8th generation 4-core CPUs to the 7th generation 2-core CPUs.

Pricing showed up on the Intel ARK database and for now only indicates a slight upcharge for the quad-core processors over the comparable dual-core options that are shipping today. In truth, pricing for mobile processors is very different than what you might be used to for consumer hardware with bulk deals, agreements based on co-marketing, etc. so we can only tell that Intel is at least starting from a similar place with the new 8th Generation CPU pricing.

Now, let’s touch on the secondary bit of information from today’s release: the 8th Generation Intel Core Processor family will be stretching across platforms (as it has traditionally done) as well as architectures and even process technologies. Those second two bullet points are brand new to the Intel branding scheme. In previous iterations, everything that was labeled “4th generation” or what have you would be based on the same CPU microarchitecture, the same architecture design, and the same process node technology. The 6th Generation Intel Core Processor family was all based on the Skylake architecture and was built on the 14nm process node. This meant that developers and OEMs had reasonable expectations of feature support and capabilities across the spectrum of 4.5-watt processors up to the performance consumer desktop space.

For what Intel is calling the 8th generation, the company has explicitly stated that it will feature multiple architectures, including the Kaby Lake refresh processors (like the 15-watt CPUs announced here), Coffee Lake designs, and Cannonlake designs. It will also have parts built on the 14nm process technology node currently in use today as well as the 10nm process technology due next year. Coffee Lake will likely find its way to the desktop consumer market later this year as a 14nm design while Cannonlake could be the 10nm refresh of Coffee Lake and span many different product segments.

In truth, it’s all very confusing, and unnecessarily so. Intel tried to justify the change by telling us that the generations will be viewed “through the lens” of consumers and business that have specific needs for performance, battery life, and features. To me, it seems that simply excluding the Kaby Lake refresh processors from the 8th generation branding would have solved much of this issue, but maybe other Kaby Lake-based processors are still coming to fruition that we aren’t aware of that will need the branding advancement.

Regardless of what Intel calls them and why, the 15-watt processor announcements today will have a dramatic impact on performance for consumers that fall into the 2-in-1 or thin and light landscape. As a user in this space myself, I can tell you I am personally excited at the idea of better performance for light video editing on the go (even if plugged into power) while no longer needing to be bogged down by a big, heavy notebook to ensure top performance. This move should put AMD’s Raven Ridge on notice, as the expected quad-core design will now have to rely nearly completely on its integrated GPU performance to stand out. It also puts Qualcomm on edge with the pending release of Windows 10 devices powered by Snapdragon that may have more trouble dealing with potential performance considerations.

As I said at the beginning, if you thought this fall was going to be a snooze-fest after the excitement of the summer, you are sorely mistaken.