Here's Why Intel Corporation Is Doing Something Strange With Coffee Lake

Intel's upcoming chipset strangeness may be explained by the company's manufacturing plans and capabilities.

Ashraf Eassa
Ashraf Eassa
Jun 10, 2017 at 11:45AM
Technology and Telecom

In August, Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) is expected to release the first of what appears to be two waves of its eighth-generation Core processors (code-named Coffee Lake) for the desktop market.

The first wave is expected to consist of four- and six-core processors targeted specifically at the enthusiast/gaming market -- a market that Intel has repeatedly said is growing at a double-digit percentage rate.

An Intel executive holding a wafer of seventh-generation Core processors.

Image source: Intel.

These Coffee Lake-S chips will work with motherboards that use a platform controller hub (PCH) chip branded Z370.

What's interesting is that after the initial wave of Z370-based motherboards come out, the company is reportedly planning to launch a second wave of PCH chips for the Coffee Lake-S platform coincident with the broader rollout of the processor family in the desktop personal computer market.

The Z370 chip, according to ASMedia president Lin Che-Wei (via DigiTimes), "will not natively support USB 3.1." This seems to corroborate the rumor that's been floating around that Z370 is basically a rebadged version of the Z270 with the "real" 300-series PCH chips (with additional features) coming in the first half of 2018.

Why is Intel planning to do this? Let's take a closer look.

The Coffee Lake pull-in
Intel had originally planned to launch the Coffee Lake desktop processors in the first quarter of next year, but it appears that competitive pressures in the enthusiast/gaming processor market are pushing Intel to try to refresh its offerings here as soon as practicable.

Transitioning from seventh-generation Core processors (Kaby Lake) to eighth-generation Core processors likely doesn't have a significant impact on the company's manufacturing plans. The Coffee Lake-S chips are expected to be manufactured in the company's 14nm++ technology, which is a derivative/enhancement of the 14nm+ technology that's already being used to build the Kaby Lake chips.

Switching over a relatively small portion of the company's overall processor volumes from 14nm+ parts to slightly larger 14nm++ parts shouldn't pose much of an issue from a capacity perspective (particularly as Intel usually keeps some capacity on a given manufacturing technology unused as "whitespace" to account for upsides in demand).

However, transitioning from manufacturing the Z270 chipset to the "true" 300-series PCH chips early would likely pose some issues.

A full-node transition
The Z270 PCH, and almost certainly the Z370 PCH, are manufactured using Intel's 22-nanometer technology. Intel indicated at its recent Technology and Manufacturing Day that it plans to transition its PCH chips to its 14-nanometer technology in the first half of 2018.

I expect, then, that the "true" 300-series PCH chips will be manufactured in some flavor of the company's 14-nanometer technology.

While I suspect that the various 14-nanometer derivatives are manufactured using largely the same manufacturing infrastructure, 22-nanometer chips are manufactured using distinct equipment and capacity.

So, if Intel had planned for its 22-nanometer factories to be busy building the bulk of the company's PCH chips through 2017, then it'd be hard to change course midway through the year for a couple of reasons:

  • Ending Z270 production on 22-nanometer could lead to underutilized 22-nanometer factories, which would negatively impact the company's gross profit margins.
  • Starting 300-series PCH production on a 14-nanometer derivative could require incremental 14-nanometer capacity that just isn't there (Intel may have, for example, planned to gradually transition the 22-nanometer capacity to 14-nanometer capacity over the course of the year), leading to product shortages and lost sales.

To deal with this product pull-in, it therefore makes more sense for Intel to "rebadge" Z270 as Z370 to allow it to work in motherboard designs intended for the true 300-series PCH chips and then transition to those 300-series PCH chips when the Coffee Lake chips were originally planned to launch.