If there’s one thing you can count on going into the holiday season—aside from shorter days and pumpkin-spiced everything—it’s some player in the computing core-component business coming up with a reason (or reasons) to buy a new laptop or convertible. Often, those reasons revolve around advances in processor tech.
This year’s no exception. Intel’s just-announced 8th Generation Core processors, which the chip maker says show up in the first laptops and convertibles in September, promise “up to 40 percent more performance” compared to 7th Generation “Kaby Lake” chips. Kaby Lake CPUs made their debut in mobile devices just about a year ago.
No denying it: A 40 percent jump from one generation to the next (and that in a single year) sounds huge. And in some ways, it is. But from our early (possibly premature) analysis, we see a few important caveats to consider about these new chips. And also bear in mind that we are talking here only about processors meant for thin laptops for now, the U-Series; as the 8th Generation lineup extends into other devices as the year goes on, such as ultra-mobile/fanless PCs, all-in-ones, and full-size desktops, things are only going to get more complicated.
The reason for that coming complexity is different than in previous generations. It’s because Intel is going to issue processors with so-called “Kaby Lake Refresh” silicon guts and later, ones based on next-generation “Coffee Lake” architecture, both under the same 8th Generation Core brand. Usually, a given generation of CPUs is centered on a single architecture. Not so with the 8th.
Confused? We don’t blame you. Follow us below as we tease out the key things you need to know about Intel’s latest processor line, based on what we know so far, and whether the updates might make it worthwhile to upgrade to a new PC as we head into the fall and winter.
1. Four “U-Series” chips arrive first, with twice the cores of previous-generation chips.
The first 8th Generation chips to arrive, showing up in devices in the coming weeks, will be 15-watt U-Series parts, the kind normally found in midsize mainstream convertibles such as the Acer Spin 3$648.20 at Amazon and premium-price, slim ultrabooks like the Dell XPS 13$789.99 at Amazon. (Our review of the latter at the link is of the machine with a “Kaby Lake” Core i5 inside.)
Unlike the processors in those existing devices, the four new 8th Generation processors will all have four cores, rather than two. Just as interesting, all four new chips will have Intel’s Hyper-Threading technology enabled, so the processors can tackle up to eight computing threads at once. For serious multitaskers, content creators, and media crunchers, this should mean substantial performance gains versus equivalent 7th Generation processors.
Also, Intel says it has tweaked both the chip design and manufacturing processes to achieve higher burst clock speeds for quick tasks. The top-end chip (in this initial group), the Core i7-8650U, will be able to climb as high as 4.2GHz. In contrast, the rough previous-generation equivalent, the Core i7-7600U (there is no Core i7-7650U) can ramp only as high as 3.9GHz.
Keep in mind, though, that the maximum possible clock speeds (as well as how long a given system will be able to maintain those speeds) will be down, in large part, to the cooling scheme of the device that the chip is housed in, be that a laptop, a convertible, or a tablet. So these clock-speed numbers, we suspect, are a bit of a best-case scenario that won’t always translate precisely to real-world results.
2. The 8th Generation Core U-Series CPUs will have lower base clocks, more like lower-wattage Y-Series chips.
The thing we haven’t been able to suss out yet is the thermal and power aspect of these new chips. To stick within that 15-watt power envelope while delivering twice the number of cores, some tweaking of core clocks has to be happening somewhere. And on paper at least, it looks like that comes primarily in the form of lower base clock speeds.
The published base clocks for previous-generation U-Series chips hovered in the mid-2GHz range. But with these new chips, the base frequencies are as follows…
On paper, that makes these 15-watt U-Series chips look more like Intel’s 4.5-watt Y-Series CPUs (what it used to more universally call its “Core M” family), with their similarly varying clock speeds. One thing that’s not clear, though, is what else will be going on with clock speeds while you’re actually tasking your new 8th Generation Core chip. An Intel rep expressly told us that all four cores are identical within these chips. There isn’t, say, a pair of lower-power cores for tackling less-demanding tasks and a pair of higher-power ones for those times when you’re really taxing the CPU.
Given that, we have to assume clock-speed ramping will be changing in some way in these chips, both in order to stay within the same 15-watt thermal envelope, and because Intel is claiming only an “up to 40 percent” performance improvement. Logically, if you double the number of cores and all else remains the same, performance should increase by “up to” 100 percent, at least in tasks that make use of all available cores and threads.
Without further details from Intel, we’ll have to wait for some actual 8th Generation-based laptops to test to see how these changes will affect performance. But again, we shouldn’t have to wait long, since Intel says we should start seeing 8th Generation Core systems arriving in September.
3. Intel claims battery life is “uncompromised” by the addition of these extra cores.
The information we have on battery life is nebulous, although that’s pretty much a given for any battery-life claim. Intel’s materials expressly state that battery life is “uncompromised,” which should mean power draw on these new chips hasn’t significantly shifted, and we should see the same kind of device longevity we saw in 7th Generation Core systems.
But the “up to 10 hours” noted in the press image above has us scratching our heads, as we’ve definitely seen laptops in the last year or so, based on 7th Generation Core silicon, that have lasted longer than that. It all comes down to exactly how Intel is measuring battery life, and whether or not device makers vary battery size and capacity in new devices when moving from 7th Generation to 8th Generation platforms. Again, we’ll really have to wait and see when we get 8th Generation Core systems in to test ourselves.
4. Despite the new “Intel UHD Graphics 620” name, graphics performance will be the same.
As is usually does, Intel is changing the name of its integrated on-chip graphics for this new line of processors. The number will remain the same: Most mainstream 7th Generation chips employed Intel HD Graphics 620, and the new chips will be labeled with Intel UHD Graphics 620.
This is a change in nomenclature only, though. A company rep told us that because the graphics are capable of displaying UHD or 4K resolution (that’s 3,840×2,160 pixels), the company felt the name tweak made sense. You certainly won’t be gaming at that resolution with these chips, but they’ll be capable of running a desktop with that many pixels.
Beyond the name, though, Intel told us nothing is changing with the graphics silicon or its clock speed. You can expect the same performance with UHD Graphics 620 as with HD Graphics 620. So if light gaming is something you do with your laptop or convertible, and you already have a machine with a 7th Generation Core chip, you won’t see a boost by upgrading to this generation.
5. Plenty remains to be seen.
Beyond the above, details remain scarce. We’ll have to wait for actual systems to test how the extra cores affect key factors such as battery life and performance under various computing scenarios. But it seems likely that, particularly for heavy multitaskers and those who do high-end image and video editing, these 8th Generation chips should provide a significant performance boost.
And there should be plenty of options to choose from as 2017 progresses, as Intel is promising almost 150 systems with the new 8th Generation chips.
If you’ve been holding on to a laptop that’s more than a few years old and chugging through its daily tasks with noticeable hesitation, the second half of 2017 is looking like a good time to upgrade. We’ll know more as we get in machines equipped with these new processors. So stay tuned—and maybe start saving for that upgrade.