Is Intel Corporation's Kaby Lake-X a Pointless Product?

Yes, but the concept isn't necessarily flawed.

Ashraf Eassa
Ashraf Eassa
Jun 9, 2017 at 11:00AM
Technology and Telecom

Back in January, Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) announced a family of processors dubbed Kaby Lake-S. These chips are part of what Intel calls its "mainstream desktop" family of processors.

These chips have generally included between two and four processor cores (though the ceiling is set to increase to six with the upcoming Coffee Lake-S processors) as well as integrated graphics processors.

Intel executive Navin Shenoy holding a seventh-gen Core (Kaby Lake) processor.

Intel executive Navin Shenoy. Image source: Intel.

The reason that they're considered "mainstream desktop" processors is that most desktop computers don't include stand-alone graphics processors anymore; instead, system builders rely on the graphics functionality that Intel builds into its processors.

Unsurprisingly, most desktop personal computers sold today use Intel's mainstream processors.

Intel also offers a separate line of desktop computer processors that it calls its "high-end desktop" (HEDT) processors. These are aimed at power users, personal computer enthusiasts, and high-end gamers.

While Intel's mainstream desktop processors sell for between $40 and $350, Intel's high-end desktop processors have typically started at around $400 and gone to north of $1,700.

With the release of the company's latest HEDT platform, known as Basin Falls, Intel lowered the price floor and raised the price ceiling for these parts.

At the very bottom of the lineup is a part known as the Core i5-7640K, a four-core, four-thread processor that lists for $242. One step above that is the Core i7-7740K, a four-core, eight-thread processor that Intel offers at $339. These chips are based on the Kaby Lake-X architecture.

These parts have seen quite a bit of derision in both the tech press as well as in some enthusiast circles. Today, I'm offering up my answer to the following question: Is Intel's Kaby Lake-X pointless?

It seems pointless...

First off, these Kaby Lake-X chips are little more than Intel's Kaby Lake-S processors but repackaged so that they will work in the same motherboards that the "true" HEDT processors, codenamed Skylake-X, work in. They also run at slightly higher frequencies than their Kaby Lake-S counterparts, so they should offer better CPU performance.

The trade-offs, though, are that the cheapest Kaby Lake-X compatible motherboard is going to be more expensive than the cheapest Kaby Lake-S compatible motherboard and that the integrated graphics processor on the Kaby Lake-X chips can't be utilized.

Now, on the surface, if it's true that a typical Kaby Lake-S motherboard is much cheaper than a typical Kaby Lake-X motherboard, then surely there's little point in going with a Kaby Lake-X-based system?

I'd argue that it's not so clear cut, especially if one considers the dynamics of the do-it-yourself personal computer market.

...but it's not!

If a customer is looking to maximize performance per dollar spent, then it'd make more sense to go with the top Kaby Lake-S part and a $100 motherboard than a similar-performing (and similarly priced) Kaby Lake-X part and pay around $160 at minimum for a compatible motherboard.

However, motherboard makers often release feature-rich and richly priced motherboards for Intel's mainstream desktop processors aimed specifically at the enthusiast market. For example, motherboard makers routinely release $300-plus motherboards for Intel's mainstream platform.

I think that for somebody looking to build a computer today and is dead-set on buying a high-end/high-priced motherboard, it makes more sense to go with the Kaby Lake-X chips and associated platform than to buy Kaby Lake-S for a couple reasons.

First, the Kaby Lake-X chips are slightly faster out of the box than their Kaby Lake-S counterparts for the same money. Next, the motherboards that support Kaby Lake-X also support an upgrade path to the higher core count Skylake-X processors and should also enjoy an upgrade path to at least one more generation of high-end desktop processors.

Kaby Lake-X probably won't succeed, though

As I outlined in a previous article, I believe Kaby Lake-X is likely to face a challenging time in the market due to the pulled-in schedule of Intel's next mainstream processor family, called Coffee Lake-S.

Per a recent leak, Intel is planning to launch Coffee Lake-S processors with four and six processor cores in August -- just a couple of months after the Kaby Lake-X launch. If Intel prices its Coffee Lake-S processors in line with its previous Kaby Lake-S products, then the value proposition of Kaby Lake-X could be destroyed.

It's a good thing that Intel is pulling in Coffee Lake-S, but if Intel hadn't done so and kept the launch scheduled for early 2018, then Kaby Lake-X could have been relevant through the holiday shopping season.

But that's not likely to be the case, so my hopes for Kaby Lake-X's market performance at current prices aren't high.