Back in August, chipmaker Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) launched a new family of processors for the mainstream notebook PC market known as Kaby Lake Refresh. These chips were based on the same basic architecture as their predecessors, known simply as Kaby Lake, but with a twist: Instead of packing just two processor cores, they had four, which enabled better performance in use cases that can take advantage of more cores.
Intel needs to deliver new products at an annual clip because its customers -- the companies that build and sell computers around Intel's technologies -- need to release new products each year to keep their businesses humming.
And when Intel's customers do well, Intel does well.
Thanks to a new leak from noted leaker "chrisdar," Intel is planning to launch a new processor by the name Whiskey Lake to succeed the Kaby Lake Refresh processor for mass-market notebook PCs sometime in the second half of 2018.
Details of this chip are scarce, but I don't think it's too difficult to figure out exactly what Whiskey Lake is.
Let's dive in, shall we?
What is Whiskey Lake?
According to "chrisdar," Whiskey Lake-U is a so-called "4+2" processor -- this means that it has four-processor cores and Intel's so-called GT2 graphics.
He also says that Intel is targeting production of the products sometime between its workweek 27 and workweek 34, which suggests mass production roughly between July 2018 and August 2018 -- about a year after Kaby Lake Refresh went into production.
In the same conversation, "chrisdar" also said (per a translation of his comments from Chinese to English) that Intel's upcoming 10nm manufacturing technology is "really miserable" -- likely referring to the viability of the technology for mass production at acceptable costs.
So, if Intel's 10nm technology is "really miserable" but Whiskey Lake is slated to go into production in roughly half a year, this can mean only one thing: Intel is releasing yet another product family based on its now-mature 14nm manufacturing technology to serve notebook PC customer needs during the second half of 2018 and presumably through possibly the first half of 2019.
Kaby Lake Refresh is built using the company's second-generation 14nm technology, known as 14nm+, so it only makes sense for Whiskey Lake to migrate to Intel's newer 14nm++. This should lead to improved processor performance (roughly 10%) at the same power consumption.
Additionally, Intel's mobile chips tend to be what are known as multichip packages: Each chip "package" has the main processor chip (this includes the performance-sensitive technologies like CPU, graphics, memory controller, and so on) as well as a platform controller hub (PCH), which includes connectivity technologies as well as other technologies like audio processors.
Kaby Lake Refresh reused the same PCH chip that the older Kaby Lake chip did. In turn, Kaby Lake used the same PCH that the even older Skylake processor generation did.
However, Intel is expected to introduce a new, more efficient and more capable PCH with the Coffee Lake-U mobile processors. I wouldn't be surprised to see Whiskey Lake use the same PCH that Coffee Lake-U would use, although I think the fact that the upcoming 4+2 product is called Whiskey Lake instead of just a variant of Coffee Lake (Intel has in the past used the same basic platform name for different core count/graphics configurations of its processors) could point to Whiskey Lake using an even newer PCH for additional features and capabilities.
Indeed, I don't think it's unrealistic at all to expect that Whiskey Lake-U will include the PCH chip that was originally intended for Intel's second-generation 10nm processor family, known as Ice Lake.
What does this mean for Intel's business?
The good news here is that Intel's product teams are able to circumvent what appear to be perpetual issues with the company's 10nm manufacturing technology to deliver better products. Thanks to what will likely be implementation enhancements and incremental manufacturing technology improvements, Intel should be able to deliver a competent update to its mainstream notebook processor lineup for computers launching in the second half of 2018.
Furthermore, Intel's 14nm technology should be incredibly mature by the time it comes to ramp Whiskey Lake into production, so barring significant average selling price erosion due to competitive threats, the profit margin of Intel's Client Computing Group (CCG) business should remain strong in 2018.
The bad news is that Intel appears to have, once again, tried to lead investors astray as to the health of its 10nm manufacturing technology and the timing of the launches of products based on that technology and its derivatives (e.g., 10nm+ and 10nm++). Considering that Intel has routinely claimed that it has a multiyear leadership in chip manufacturing technology -- something that, frankly, rings hollow in light of the company's product launches over the last several years -- this isn't a good look for the company.
Indeed, on its Oct. 26 earnings call, Intel said that it is "on track to ship [its] first low-volume 10-nanometer part by the end of the year" and that "high volume and system availability" of 10nm-based products would happen in the second half of 2018.
I just don't see how this statement can be reconciled with the existence of Whiskey Lake unless Intel management's definition of "high volume" has changed dramatically from what it used to be.