Kaby Lake is Intel's generation of processors, and it's starting to appear in all sorts of laptops. Here's everything you need to know.
Contributions from David Ludlow
The below information is only about laptop hardware: desktop chips aren’t set to land until January 2017, so we won’t get more information for a few months yet. However, both chips share the same core architecture, so many of the improvements found in the mobile chips will also be on the desktop versions.
What is Kaby Lake?
Kaby Lake is the code name for Intel's 7th generation Core processors. In the general scheme of things it's a minor upgrade over 6th-gen Skylake kit, but it's still a big enough improvement to make 2017's laptop market look very interesting indeed.
So far this year we've seen a few latops announced with Kaby lake processors on board, including the Dell XPS 13, Asus ZenBook 3 and HP Spectre. We'd also be very surprised if Apple's new MacBooks, due to be annouced this evening, didn't get an Intel Kaby lake processor or two.
Kaby Lake is a minor upgrade because Intel has ditched its ‘Tick-Tock’ approach to processor design, meaning there are no major structural changes to the chip or what it’s capable of.
Previously, each generation of Intel processors would see a reduction in process size (smaller, lower power consumption) and then an improvement in architecture (more powerful). This was called Tick-Tock.
Instead of Tick-Tock, Intel has now stretched out the lifespan of a given process size, in this case 14nm (nanometers), to three phases. Its new approach first sees a reduction in process size, then an upgrade to architecture with a final ‘optimisation’ phase added in to make the most of what’s been done so far.
Process, Architecture, Optimisation. Drum that into your head.
This is bad for fans of big-number upgrades, but obviously great for Intel, which is able to make the most of what has become an increasingly complex process of designing chips.
It also means it’s able to offer up fairly small semi-annual upgrades with brand-new model names, which laptop and desktop manufacturers can use to show off and shift more units.
In the case of this generation of 14nm hardware, 5th-Gen ‘Broadwell’ was the process redesign, Skylake was the architecture redesign (meaning an entirely new socket), with Kaby Lake the last hurrah for 14nm before Intel moves onto ‘Cannonlake’, which will be a 10nm design.
For 7th Generation Core, Intel is describing its 14nm process as 14nm+. With the move to Broadwell, Intel started to manufacture taller and thinner transistor fins. This essentially allows for increased drive current and performance. A continuation of this technology is what’s letting Intel drive more performance for Kaby Lake with the same power consumption as 6th Generation Core. Better efficiency in the chip also means that the processors can Turbo Boost to higher speeds for longer.
Kaby Lake Media Engine
Perhaps the biggest change to the processor is the addition of a new media engine, which can decode Ultra HD video on-chip. While previous Core chips may have been powerful enough to do so in software, the effect on battery life was noticeable.
By shifting decoding into hardware, Intel can improve battery life and reduce heat, and is quoting three times the battery life when decoding 4K video. That figure will depend on the particular laptop, but it’s certainly an impressive feature. Intel’s media engine will decode VP9 and HEVC 10-bit codecs, which covers the most popular Ultra HD formats, especially for streaming.
Kaby Lake specifications
The dual-core Intel Core i7-7500U is the first chip Intel has shown off. Expect to find this chip in ultra-thin laptops and tablets such as the next-generation Microsoft Surface Pro 5, whenever that appears. It’s a dual-core chip with Hyper-Threading.
Official Intel benchmarks explicitly compare the Core i7-7500U to the previous-generation Core i7-6500U. Intel is claiming a 12% performance increase in productivity, as measured by SYSmark 2014, and a 19% increase in web performance, as measured by WebXPRT 2015.
In short, your most frequently used basic applications as well as your favourite websites should be significantly snappier.
Below you can see a comparison table of the U-series processors that Intel’s announced, complete with their core specs.
Somewhat confusingly, Intel has re-branded its Core M line-up once again, rolling them into its Core i brand. This is fairly confusing for everybody involved, with the only way to spot whether your Core i laptop is actually a Core M laptop in disguise is to see the 'Y' in the model number, for instance the Core i7-7Y75 below.
Intel is claiming a similar performance increase for its 4.5W low-power Core M processors. In its benchmarks, comparing the new Core i7-7Y75 to the Core m7-6Y75, Intel is claiming a 12% performance increase for productivity apps and an 18% improvement in web browsing performance.
Elsewhere, Intel has said that the new HD graphics chips are capable of playing Overwatch in HD. If this claim rings true for other popular eSports titles, we might start seeing laptops without dedicated graphics cards being marketed as budget gaming machines.
Below, you can see the low-power mobile processors that Intel has announced, along with their key specs.
Kaby Lake desktop chips
We don't know much about 7th-generation desktop chips at the moment and we're not expecting any new information until later this year or early next year. Kaby Lake desktop chips will use the same socket type (LGA1151) as the current 6th-generation Skylake hardware.
In theory this means that if you have a current-generation motherboard designed for Skylake chips (H110, B150, Q150, H170, Q170 and Z170), a new Kaby Lake chip should fit nicely. But, you should confirm this with the manufacturer as, generally speaking, a fairly hefty BIOS update will be required to get a new processor to play nicely with a motherboard with an older chipset.