Intel has debuted its seventh-generation Core PC processors made in a 14nm+ process and focused on delivering better 4K video. The family provides the first indication of what more modest product advances may look like as Intel stretches Moore’s law to cover with one process node multiple generations of chips.

Kaby Lake processors gain a 12% improvement from enhancements to Intel’s 14nm process. They also include a modestly updated media engine with hardware support for decoding VP9 video and encoding and decoding 4K 10-bit HEVC video. Otherwise, the chips use the same architecture as the previous Skylake generation, including the existing Skylake x86 pipeline.

The new generation is the first to break Intel’s tick-tock cadence of alternating between a new process node and a new microarchitecture every year. With the increasing complexity and costs of pursuing Moore’s Law and a slowing PC market, Intel decided to stretch one process generation across three years and three families of chips.

The 14+nm process delivers transistor-level enhancements such as taller fins and improved gate pitch, interconnect speed and aspect ratio to deliver 12% better performance. At its Intel Developer Forum earlier this month, the company said it plans to make product families in three generations of its emerging 10nm process.

At the systems level, Kaby Lake should enable 19% faster browsing and photo editing. Systems should deliver 4K resolutions for games running at 35 frames/second and support 4K movie playback for up to 9.5 hours.

EETI Kaby Lake 01 Figure 1: Intel updated two blocks on the Skylake media engine focused on video acceleration. (Source: Intel)

Mobile Kaby Lake processors running at 4.5W-15W are shipping now with systems using them expected this fall. Higher-end notebooks and desktops with up to 65W processors will follow early next year.

Many of the systems will sport innovations not directly related to the new processors. For example, as many as 120 designs are expected to use the Thunderbolt 3, a 40Gbit/second link using the USB Type C connector. More than 50 systems are expected to adopt 4K panels and fanless notebooks such as the Asus Transformer 3 are expected to measure less than 7mm in thickness.

Intel said the new systems will deliver “more than 70% faster mobile productivity than a 5-year-old PC and 3.5x better 3D graphics performance than a 5-year-old PC.”

The comparisons deflect attention from the lower performance numbers compared to last year’s 14nm Skylake chips. They also hope to encourage upgrades from users holding on to their systems longer than in the past.

Weighing modest performance gains

Performance gains with Kaby Lake are modest, but significant, said David Kanter, an analyst for the Linley Group who maintains his own online blog. Getting “a 12% better performance boost through metal and transistor changes is non-trivial,” he said.

The smaller than average step forward for Intel will be a boon to its distant rival AMD which announced its next-generation x86 core last week. One of the first products AMD disclosed is an eight-core chip called Summit Ridge for high-end desktops targeting gamers and other enthusiasts.

Intel should be able to squeeze out greater incremental gains as it looks to deliver two variants of its 10nm process in the next few years

“By the time Intel discovered the yield issues with 14nm and that they would continue for 10nm, they could not tell their architecture teams to tweak the CPU and GPU cores again” for Kaby Lake, he said. “External circumstances pushed them in a corner and they leaned on manufacturing as their biggest lever to get them out of a sticky situation so they could have a consumer annual refresh of processors for their partners to sell,” he added.

Intel will detail specific speeds, power consumption levels and prices for Kaby Lake chips, typically at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Initially it showed just a few tests running on a 3.6GHz chip.

Kanter estimated the process improvements could translate into 200-500MHz speed gains for CPU blocks and 100-200MHz increase for GPU blocks compared to Skylake chips.