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Intel's Kaby Lake arrives, refreshes Skylake processors with 7th Gen Core microarchitecture

By Vijay Anand - 30 Aug 2016

Kaby Lake deep-dive - microarchitecture highlights

Still on 14nm process node?

(Image source: Intel)

If you recall, earlier this year Intel declared that it will end its usual tick-tock manufacturing cycle cadence in favor optimizing existing process technologies to better meet the market needs. This also bodes well since it is open knowledge that going smaller than the 14nm process technology node is getting increasingly tricky and more time and resources would require to be invested. This in turn means Intel needs to better utilize the investment and thus increasing the lifespan of its current process technology and that of the next hop to 10nm.

As such, Kaby Lake is the third Core microarchitecture to be using the 14nm process technology after Skylake and Broadwell. Going by Intel’s new process technology utilization roadmap, Broadwell focused on making the 14nm process technology hop, while Skylake focused on bringing big microarchitecture changes and Kaby Lake is offering an optimized and refreshed Skylake for the 7th Generation Core processors.


Intel’s 14nm+ process technology

As highlighted earlier, Kaby Lake is an optimized and refreshed Skylake processor with an improved 14nm photolithography process (dubbed 14nm+) to yield processors that can be clocked higher while still maintaining the same TDP profile.

For example, the new Core Y-series is across the board 100MHz faster than Skylake variants and that’s just the base clock. Factoring Turbo Boost, you stand to gain anywhere between 300MHz to 500MHz gen-on-gen!

7th Gen Core vs. 6th Gen Core: Y-series (4.5W TDP)
Processor Model Base Frequency Max Turbo Frequency
7th Generation Y-series
Core i7-7Y75 1.30GHz 3.60GHz
Core i5-7Y54 1.20GHz 3.20GHz
Core m3-7Y30 1.00GHz 2.60GHz
6th Generation Y-series
Core m7-6Y75 1.2GHz 3.1GHz
Core m5-6Y54 1.1GHz 2.7GHz
Core m3-6Y30 900MHz 2.20GHz

7th Gen Core vs. 6th Gen Core: U-series (15W TDP)
Processor Model Base Frequency Max Turbo Frequency
7th Generation U-series
Core i7-7500U 2.70GHz 3.50GHz
Core i5-7200U 2.50GHz 3.10GHz
Core i3-7100U 2.40GHz N.A.
6th Generation U-series
Core i7-6500U 2.5GHz 3.1GHz
Core i6-6200U 2.3GHz 2.8GHz
Core i3-6300U 2.3GHz N.A.

Intel’s Speed Shift technology that debuted on the 6th Gen processors makes a comeback on the 7th Gen models, but this time with an improved silicon process, Kaby Lake is snappier and more responsive because it can reach maximum frequencies quicker than before and complete the tasks sooner. Here’s a quick slide from Intel to summarize the differences visually:-


Accelerating next-gen video streaming and editing

If you noticed our opening image, Kaby Lake or 7th Gen Core processors want to transform your computing experience with more immersive content and what better way than by viewing and created 4K content?

While creation and consumption have so far been revolving around 1080p content, 4K will soon be the norm considering the increasing number of phones, cameras and video cameras supporting this capability while TVs and monitors that support this resolution are in abundance these days. Over on the internet, YouTube’s VP9 codec has been extensively to enable users to view over 25 billion hours of buffer-free HD videos and is important that the next gen processor has acceleration support built-in to enable premium quality video viewing experience while using existing internet infrastructure.

With this in mind, Intel’s 7th Gen Core processors have updated two of the fixed function media engines – Multi-Format Codec (MFX) and Video Quality Engine (VQE). Primarily, the updated MFX adds:-

  • 10-bit HEVC & 8/10-bit VP9 decode
  • 10-bit HEVC & 8-bit VP9 encode
  • HEVC 4Kp30 real-time encode with HEVC 4Kp60 real-time decode capability
  • Power savings through a more capable media engine and lower CPU utilization

While Skylake processors could already handle three streams of 4K video playback, Kaby Lake is designed to handle eight streams of 4K content playback on AVC/HEVC codecs; ideal to tackle video wall digital signage and digital security surveillance usage models.

Hardware video codec acceleration combined with reduced CPU utilization yield lower system power consumption which means you can watch high quality content for much longer.

Even when viewing VP9 codec based video content, you can realize notable power savings which,  again translate to a longer battery life.

Meanwhile, the updated VQE now boasts HDR to SDR Tone Mapping support and has added Wide Color Gamut (Rec.2020) support.


Closing comments

By traditional expectations, enthusiasts would have been looking forward to a process technology shrink to hopefully gain new capabilities or much higher clock speeds. Kaby Lake brings some of these gains, but still maintains the 14nm process technology. Through enhancements and maturing of the 14nm process technology, Intel has managed to bring about higher clock domains and even more so for Turbo Boost speeds. Much of its raw performance capabilities are through these changes which Intel claims you should see a 10% to 20% gain in performance depending on the workload.

Meanwhile, improved media engine blocks with enhanced decode and encode support for popular codecs at 4K resolution like HEVC (H.265) and VP9 ensure that the 7th Generation Core processors can maintain a much longer battery life which allow you to enjoy more or produce more than ever before and at much higher quality. Because of this, you’ll notice that the Intel HD Graphics engine model number has increased in model numbering to 6xx as opposed to the 5xx on the Skylake counterparts. However, take note that the graphics engine and number of execution units remain status quo and see no changes. Games will still see modest performance increases, but it’s almost solely due to the higher clock speeds of the new processors than any other reason.

For a "Skylake refresh", the 7th Generation Core (Kaby Lake) seems to offer a decent boost where it matters most and is a welcomed update for the mobile computing segment. You should soon see us reporting of the various OEM and ODM partner products based on the new processors shortly. On a related note, AMD’s recent debut of the Bristol Ridge 7th Generation APUs at Computex 2016 also follow in the same vein, using an existing process technology, re-using most of Carrizo’s processor and graphics engines but updates the media engine block too. It looks like the 7th Generation processors as a whole aren’t that exciting, but nonetheless a useful if not tame update.

Meanwhile, for enthusiasts planning for their next big upgrade, look out for desktop and workstation oriented Kaby Lake processors early next year.

Waiting for the 10nm processor family like Cannonlake, Icelake and Tigerlake? They’re indefinitely delayed until further notice and we might hear more about them from mid-2017.

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