In 2015, microprocessor giant Intel (INTC -2.63%) disclosed that the follow-on product family to its then-upcoming Skylake architecture would be known as Kaby Lake. This generated quite a lot of buzz because this new product family would be built on the company's 14-nanometer manufacturing technology, rather than its upcoming 10-nanometer technology.
Traditionally, Intel would create two successive processor families on a given manufacturing technology and then transition to a new technology. By introducing a third generation 14-nanometer product, Intel was admitting that it wouldn't be able to transition to its next generation 10-nanometer technology as quickly as the company had originally hoped.
In a strange turn of events, the generally reliable folks at PC Watch revealed that the chip giant is working on a fourth generation of products manufactured on the company's 14-nanometer manufacturing technology -- Coffee Lake.
Didn't Intel promise 10-nanometer in 2017?
Late last year, Intel's former Client Computing Group chief, Kirk Skaugen, told investors to expect Kaby Lake in 2016 and then Cannonlake, a 10-nanometer part, to come in 2017. The information from PC Watch doesn't actually contradict this; in fact, the same report says that for low-power PCs (think systems that use Intel's 15-watt and 4.5-watt Core-based processors), Intel will transition to Cannonlake in late 2017.
So, no, it looks like the company will keep its promise with respect to the 10-nanometer ramp.
What seems to be going on, then?
Instead, PC Watch says that the Coffee Lake family is targeted at higher-power notebooks, think 35-watt to 45-watt processors. It's not clear what kinds of architectural changes the chipmaker will bring to the Coffee Lake chips, but PC Watch says that the highest performance models will come with up to six processor cores (up from a maximum of four in current products) and GT3e graphics.
Further, since the company's mainstream desktop processors are derived from the products that it sells into notebooks, it doesn't seem farfetched to expect the company's mainstream desktop platforms to see six core chips with beefier graphics as well (they have historically topped out at four cores and GT2 graphics).
Intel should clarify on July 20 earnings call
In light of this leak, I think that it would be helpful to investors if the company would provide a product/technology update on its July 20 earnings call. In particular, I would like to hear answers to the following questions:
- What's driving Intel to build a fourth generation of 14-nanometer products even as the company should begin mass production on 10-nanometers next year? Is it yields, or something else?
- Does the addition of a 14-nanometer Coffee Lake for higher-performance notebooks (and potentially desktops) in 2018 suggest that Intel's entire product road map here sees a slip? Or will Intel simply skip the first generation 10-nanometer product family for these segments and move directly to the second generation 10-nanometer product family for these markets in 2019?
- Should investors expect delays of 10-nanometer server processors, which are arguably more complex and difficult to build than high-end notebook processors, as a result of the same factors driving this fourth generation of 14-nanometer products?
I expect that Intel is aware of the Coffee Lake leak and could very well address these questions on the call. If Intel doesn't, however, I would keep an eye out for what the company has to say with respect to future products at its investor meeting in November.