1 Problem for Intel Corporation’s Kaby Lake-X Chips

Nice chips, but they'll soon be made obsolete by the next round of Intel updates.

Ashraf Eassa
Ashraf Eassa
Jun 2, 2017 at 11:30AM
Technology and Telecom

In addition to announcing its high-end Skylake-X chips for desktop personal computer enthusiasts this week, Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) also announced a family of chips known as Kaby Lake-X.

The two Kaby Lake-X chips are the Core i7-7740K and the Core i5-7640K. These chips are based on the company's Kaby Lake architecture, and indeed, are based on the same exact silicon that powers the Core i7-7700K and Core i5-7600K, respectively, (codenamed Kaby Lake-S) that launched earlier this year.

Image source: Intel.

An Intel Kaby Lake-X chip.

The main differences between the Kaby Lake-X chips and the current Kaby Lake-S chips are the following:

  1. Kaby Lake-X can work in the same motherboards as the Skylake-X chips, while the Kaby Lake-S can't.
  2. The Kaby Lake-X chips come rated at slightly higher speeds out of the box than the Kaby Lake-S chips, and are also rated at higher thermal design power levels (112 watt versus 91 watt).
  3. The integrated graphics processor inside of the Kaby Lake-X chips is disabled and can't be used; the one on the Kaby Lake-S chips can be used.

The Kaby Lake-X and their corresponding Kaby Lake-S counterparts are otherwise the same, and are even priced identically.

Although I understand why Intel offers these chips (I don't believe they're pointless as some others do, but that's a topic for an upcoming column), here's why I don't think these Kaby Lake-X chips will succeed in the marketplace.

The Coffee Lake-S "problem"

Intel originally planned to release the successor to its Kaby Lake-S processor family, known as Coffee Lake-S, in the first quarter of 2018. However, various credible leaks suggest that the enthusiast/gaming-oriented SKUs of Coffee Lake-S will now launch in August, representing a three-quarter pull-in.

Coffee Lake-S promises to bring several compelling improvements over Kaby Lake-S. For one thing, while Kaby Lake-S (and, by extension, Kaby Lake-X) tops out at just four cores, Coffee Lake-S will pack up to six cores. Coffee Lake-S should also be manufactured in a higher-performing 14nm++ manufacturing technology (Kaby Lake-S/X are built using a lower-performing 14nm+ manufacturing technology).

On top of all of that, motherboards that support Coffee Lake-S should start at much lower prices than the motherboards that support Kaby Lake-X.

So, once Coffee Lake-S is out, if somebody came to me asking whether she or he should build a system using Coffee Lake-S or a system using Kaby Lake-X, it would be an easy decision: I'd tell them to go with Coffee Lake-S without any reservations.

Now, obviously this isn't exactly bad for Intel -- an Intel chip being more compelling than another Intel chip, which leads users to purchase an Intel chip, clearly isn't a situation that should bug the company or its stockholders.

However, it seems that Intel is determined to make its high-end desktop platform (the one that Kaby Lake-X is a part of) into the platform of choice for gamers and enthusiasts, and having the entry-level chips on the high-end desktop platform become obsolete after just a couple of months isn't conducive to that goal.

What Intel can do, then

Leaks suggest that Intel is planning a "Coffee Lake-X" chip for its high-end desktop platform at some point in the future. Presumably, this will be like Kaby Lake-X -- that is, the same fundamental silicon that's used in Coffee Lake-S, but reworked to be compatible with the high-end desktop motherboards.

If Intel can get this part out in a reasonable time frame (say, for the holiday shopping season), that would go a long way toward keeping the low-end of Intel's high-end desktop platform relevant to gamers and personal computer enthusiasts. But if this chip won't arrive until, say, mid-2018, then that'll simply be too late to be relevant -- just as the Kaby Lake-X chips are.