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Here's How Intel Corp. Can Refresh Its Gaming Desktop Processors in 2018

By Ashraf Eassa - Dec 7, 2017 at 5:48PM

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Slight speed bumps across the board are better than nothing.

Back on Oct. 5, chip giant Intel (INTC 0.82%) released a set of computer processors targeted at the gaming desktop PC market based on its Coffee Lake processor architecture. 

The Coffee Lake chips were notable because they delivered significantly more performance than the prior-generation Kaby Lake processors thanks to a combination of more processor cores (Coffee Lake comes in variants with up to six cores) and an improved manufacturing technology called 14nm++ (the previous generation was built using a lower-performing technology called 14nm+). 

An Intel Coffee Lake chip.

Image source: Intel.

Intel has said that it aims to update its personal computer processor families at an annual clip. Such updates give computer makers an opportunity to market new computer models, and the improved capabilities allows Intel to avoid the natural average selling price erosion of its processors over time. 

According to a fresh leak of an Intel desktop processor road map -- that is, a document that shows what products Intel plans to introduce over the next five quarters -- Intel plans to continue selling Coffee Lake-based processors into the desktop PC market for the entirety of 2018. 

Moreover, it would seem that the rumors that Intel was preparing an eight-core variant of Coffee Lake for the desktop PC market were incorrect -- the road maps indicate that the Coffee Lake desktop processors will come in two-, four-, and six-core variants for the entirety of 2018. 

So, this leads to the following question: Assuming that an eight-core Coffee Lake chip isn't in the works for 2018, how, if at all, can Intel refresh its desktop processor lineup for gamers and other performance-hungry customers? 

Frequency boost

In the past, Intel has sometimes produced speed-bumped versions of its processors. The chip designs themselves are unchanged, but because manufacturing technology matures over time, a higher percentage of the chips produced are capable of running at higher speeds. 

Moreover, Intel doesn't typically run the desktop processors that it sells at the highest speeds that the chips are physically capable of. That headroom is exploited by do-it-yourself computer builders as well as boutique computer makers to sell computers with Intel chips that run at higher-than-rated speeds. 

A bare die shot of Intel's Coffee Lake chip.

Image source: Intel.

What Intel could do, then, to try to refresh the Coffee Lake lineup for the enthusiast/gaming desktop market is to simply offer versions of the current gaming-specific parts (e.g., Core i7-8700K, Core i5-8600K, and Core i3-8350K) that run at slightly higher speeds. 

The speed bump wouldn't need to be huge -- Intel could probably get away with an increase of 100-200MHz (or 0.1-0.2GHz) -- though, of course, the more Intel can deliver, the better. 

This is likely what Intel will do

A little while back, computer diagnostic software maker AIDA64 published a log of changes that had been made in the latest version of the software. In that log, there was a reference to the addition of support for a Core i5-8650K, which, based on the model number, should be a speed-boosted version of the Core i5-8600K currently in the market. 

I wouldn't be surprised if we were to see other chips make it to market as part of a potential refresh, such as a hypothetical Core i7-8750K and maybe even a Core i3-8370K. 

Such chips won't change the game for Intel, but a slight refresh to the company's product line, particularly from a marketing perspective, could help its gaming and enthusiast-oriented product offerings seem fresh during the course of 2018. 

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