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Why Intel Corporation's Skylake Is a Bigger Deal for Mobile Than for Desktops

By Ashraf Eassa - Mar 26, 2015 at 11:13AM

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Intel's next generation processor will bring big improvements, but they may be more noticeable in laptops than in desktops.

Earlier this year, Intel (INTC -2.86%) released new processors for the low-power laptop market based on the Broadwell architecture. These Broadwell chips moved to Intel's new 14-nanometer manufacturing technology, and brought improved processor and graphics designs.

However, Intel has already signaled that it plans to release its follow-on to Broadwell, known as Skylake, later in the year. Further, Intel has made it clear that Broadwell isn't really a desktop-focused architecture; Skylake is expected to take over in earnest from Haswell in the traditional desktop PC market.

Interestingly enough, in the desktop market, Skylake represents a two-generation leap from Haswell. In low-power notebooks, Skylake will represent only a single-generation advancement from Broadwell. Even so, the improvements that Intel is reportedly planning to bring to Skylake should be a bigger deal for the notebook market than the traditional desktop market.

The big Skylake advancements are in power and graphics
In Intel terminology, Skylake represents a "tock." That means it's a significant architectural overhaul on a mature manufacturing technology, in contrast with "ticks," which represent mild improvements over existing architectures but are implemented in new manufacturing technologies.

From what has leaked about the Skylake architecture, Intel is overhauling the graphics architecture and adding significant media capabilities to the chip. It's also improving the processor core, although the extent of those improvements and the ultimate impact of those improvements on CPU performance remains to be seen.

I also believe that with Skylake, Intel will be transitioning the external platform controller hub support chip from its older 32-nanometer technology to its more advanced 22-nanometer FinFET technology. This should bring down power consumption at the platform level.

These are mobile-friendly improvements
The point, though, is that although these enhancements should be quite welcome in the desktop market (faster, more efficient CPUs are great), the big improvements in graphics and media are arguably more valuable in the laptop market.

That's because desktop buyers generally aren't as concerned with power consumption as laptop users are, since power consumption in laptops directly impacts usable battery life. Further, desktop PCs often include standalone graphics processors, meaning the improvements in the integrated graphics can often go unnoticed.

Where Skylake will shine in desktops: platform-level improvements
Although the improvements in Skylake look, in aggregate, to benefit laptops than desktops, I still believe Skylake will bring interesting platform-level improvements over Haswell for desktop users.

In particular, a leak from Chinese VR-Zone suggests that the new Z170 chipset will come with vastly higher PCI Express bandwidth (20 lanes of Gen. 3 PCI Express versus 8 lanes of Gen. 2 PCI Express on the Haswell Z97 chipset).

Those leaks also suggest that the Z170 chipset will bring additional features, such as additional USB ports, as well as support for additional M.2 and SATA Express devices.

We'll know everything soon enough
Rumors point to an August launch for Skylake, which aligns well with the expected summertime launch of Microsoft's (MSFT 1.07%) Windows 10. 

All told, Skylake should help make both desktops and notebooks more compelling, as per usual for new processor and platform launches. However, my view is that the improvements will ultimately be more pronounced for laptops than desktops. 

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