About a year ago, microprocessor giant Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) began rolling out a family of products code-named Skylake and branded sixth-generation Core. These chips were designed on Intel's 14-nanometer manufacturing technology and delivered some fairly significant design improvements from the company's first crack at a processor built on its 14-nanometer technology, known as Broadwell.
Those following the various leaks around Intel's product plans probably thought the company's follow-on to Skylake was a product family known as Cannonlake, a part manufactured in Intel's upcoming 10-nanometer manufacturing technology.
However, in the summer of 2015, Intel revealed that the follow-on to Skylake wouldn't be Cannonlake, but instead a product manufactured in the company's 14-nanometer technology known as Kaby Lake. Cannonlake would be pushed out and serve as the follow-on to Kaby Lake.
Intel promised that Kaby Lake would offer "key performance enhancements" relative to Skylake. With the formal launch of the first Kaby Lake processors on Aug. 30, we can now see if Intel has delivered something worthwhile.
What's a Kaby Lake?
Kaby Lake is fundamentally based on the same basic architecture as Skylake, something that Intel CEO Brian Krzanich told investors on the company's most recent earnings call. The CPU core and the graphics engines are the same. The main improvement in terms of new features is the inclusion of a more robust media engine to handle more complex types of content.
The other big improvement is the use of Intel's new 14-nanometer+ manufacturing technology. According to Intel, a combination of an "improved fin profile" and an "improved transistor channel strain" enables a 12% increase in performance from the manufacturing technology itself.
These enhancements allow Intel to claim boosts in a number of areas. In SYSmark 2014, which Intel says is a gauge of "productivity" performance, Kaby Lake delivers a 12% boost in performance relative to a comparable Skylake part. In WebXPRT, a test that Intel says measures "web performance" goes up 19% from Skylake to a comparable Kaby Lake part.
The new media engine, according to Intel, allows for Kaby Lake-based systems to handle playback of 4K resolution video streams at much better power efficiency. Intel says that when it comes to playing back 4K video streams, Kaby Lake can deliver to 1.75 times better battery life compared with Skylake -- seven hours versus four.
A nice user experience boost
Despite the lack of radical micro-architectural enhancements, the combination of an improved manufacturing technology, a more feature-rich media engine, and what is likely a better circuit implementation at the chip level all combine to deliver a compelling generation-over-generation upgrade.
In fact, I went back to the slide deck that Intel provided to the press detailing its fifth-generation Core processor family. Even with a tweaked CPU architecture, improved graphics architecture, and a full manufacturing technology transition from 22-nanometer to 14-nanometer, the company claimed only a 4% improvement generation-over-generation in productivity tasks and a 22% improvement in 3D graphics performance.
I daresay that in terms of performance and feature improvements, at least in mobile form factors, Kaby Lake is a bigger advancement than 14-nanometer Broadwell was over 22-nanometer Haswell. Intel deserves kudos for being able to make some very sweet lemonade from the lemons that the delay of the company's 10-nanometer manufacturing technology left on its doorstep.