The Intel Coffee Lake processors are the next big CPU thing to spill out of the Intel skunkworks. These new chips will definitely be the most interesting part of the bizarrely mixed 8th Gen Core architectures. In a probably AMD-inspired move, they're replacing the 7th Gen Kaby Lake processors after less than 12 months, but what can these new chips offer the previous ones couldn’t?
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- Release date
Intel's next desktop gaming CPUs are set to launch in October 2017, and we're getting rather excited about them.
With the Ryzen competition Intel can't price their own six-core parts much more than the i7 and i5 of the 7th Gen, so expect the same sort of ~$350 pricing for the Core i7 chips.
There will be four six-core chips: two K-series and two 65W. The Core i7 8700K will top out at 4.3GHz, and the i5 8600K at 4.1GHz, all-core Turbo clockspeeds. There's also two four-core i3 chips finishing the lineup.
In terms of gaming, the new six-core CPUs should be excellent, and offer better multi-threaded performance than Ryzen's 1600X thanks to the much higher clockspeeds, and overclocking potential.
After less than a year of 7th Gen Kaby Lake processors, we're moving on towards the 8th Gen, featuring the brand new Coffee Lake and Cannonlake designs... as well as some lively refreshes.
Intel have unveiled the first 8th Gen Core CPUs, but don't think these are the six-core Coffee Lake chips getting their first outing. The 15W chips Intel announced in August are a set of ultra low-power Core i7 and Core i5 processors for super thin laptops, not the beefy desktop Coffee Lake CPUs some might have hoped for.
They are still exciting little chips, if you want a quad-core 2-in-1 or ultrabook-style laptop. Intel have doubled the core count, and left HyperThreading turned on for both i7 and i5 variants, giving them both eight threads.
That sounds like the opening salvo in the mobile war between Intel and AMD, with both Intel's 8th Gen and AMD's Raven Ridge processors set to launch in devices before the end of the year.
Intel have also confirmed there will be three different CPU architectures at play in the 8th Gen range, with Kaby Lake refreshes appearing alongside the Coffee Lake update, as well as our first taste of the much-delayed Cannonlake chips. That, in turn, means we're getting three different production processes on our 8th Gen processors too - 14nm+, 14nm++, and 10nm.
It might seem rather unusual for Intel to be retiring Kaby Lake so quickly, but there are a number of factors at play which are making this generation different from previous ones. For a start there is now increased competition in the CPU market from AMD’s Ryzen processors, but Intel are also struggling against the continual demand for CPU die shrinks and the increasing difficulty of making ever smaller transistors.
So now we’re looking at another stop-gap processor generation based on the same basic architecture as Skylake and Kaby Lake, as well as the same lithography Intel have been using since the 2015 Broadwell designs. Indeed there are set to be Kaby Lake refreshes mixed in with the Coffee Lake and Cannonlake chips too.
Intel’s old-school tick-tock release cadence - where they launched a new architecture on an old process before re-engineering it again for a smaller lithography - was retired because successive CPU generations were having to stick on a particular production process for longer periods of time. It was then replaced by a new release cadence they called Process>Architecture>Optimisation... which didn’t even make it through one cycle. Now it’s just Process>Architecture>Optimise>Obey>Submit.
So if it’s all essentially the same why should we care about Coffee Lake? Well, this time it’s all about the AMD-inspired increased thread-count and a six-core i5...
"We've made great progress on getting this product ready for market later on this year," he explained, "and in fact we expect to see the 8th generation Core in laptops and in desktops by the holidays season this year."
That italicised bit there is particularly interesting, because we were concerned Intel would follow their usual MO and might drop laptop parts this year for the back-to-school or holiday periods, leaving the desktop chips to twist in the wind until 2018.
What's actually happening is the mobile side is getting a refreshed Kaby Lake-based range of chips, with Coffee Lake desktop parts following this year. The 10nm Cannonlake range is likely to be held off until next year.
The latest leaks, deliberate and otherwise, have the new desktop processors launching sometime in October. The Facebook livestream Intel used to announce the 8th Gen contained a pair of awkwardly positioned coffee cups with 'October' and '10.2017' on them, which could indicate an October 10 release date. A subsequent leak from an etailer has pegged an October 5 date for launch, though that could just be when the products actually come into stock before their official release.
The normal Intel release cadence has seen the laptop version of a new generation arrive in the back-to-school or holiday period, with the desktop chips following in the new year. It's definitely welcoming to find them now looking to release both at the same time.
So, what generation is Cannonlake going to belong to? It's going to be in the same 8th Generation lineup as Coffee Lake because Intel have also said their future production process usage will be ‘fluid.’ To my mind that means each future generation will be made up of multiple lithographies across the range.
Intel have also announced the Ice Lake chips to be 'a successor to the 8th Gen' and not as the successor. That would indicate the 9th Gen will be a mixed architecture release too.
It kind of looks like Intel are struggling to nail down the 10nm node in order to create anything above the sorts of low-power processors they’ll drop into the next-gen ultrabooks. If the CPU yield of the 10nm parts is too low with the more complex desktop and high-end laptop chips then they would simply be too expensive to produce. By using multiple lithographies with this CPU generation Intel can still claim to have 10nm locked in for their 8th Gen chips while also holding back genuine mass production so the process can mature.
Recent reports claim Intel have brought forward the launch of the Skylake-X, Kaby Lake-X and the Coffee Lake CPUs so we may be looking at a different release schedule than we’ve seen in past Intel chip launches. Previous launches have seen Intel drop the low-power mobile chips to match the back-to-school or Christmas laptop markets and then follow up with the desktop parts at the beginning of the following year.
With increased competition from AMD, most especially on the core and thread-counts, it looks like the desktop processors may well see the light of day this year, with a potential August release being mooted. That seems a little early to my mind, but September would nail the back-to-school market.
It's probably going to be difficult for Intel to resist pricing the flagship six-core Coffee Lake CPUs higher than their current K-series chips, but I'm hopeful the increased competition from AMD will mean they can't push the prices of the Core i7 or i5 chips any higher than the current $350/$250 price point.
Some leaked info from LambdaTek seem to show that Intel are going to be following the same pricing structure as Kaby Lake, which kinda means we're getting those extra cores for free.
Unless Coffee Lake matches the Broadwell generation of chips, where Intel only released a pair of K-series desktop processors, then we ought to see quad-core CPUs with equivalent specs to the 7700K and 7600K arriving for a good deal less than their current pricing too. Simply dropping the pricing for what would have previously been Intel's top-tier gaming chips alone could make the 8th Gen Core range very interesting for us gamers.
If Intel can deliver cheaper pricing for a K-series quad-core i3 CPUs and if they can hold their nerve and release the six-core i5 at the same price as the 7600K, then Intel are going to have some winning gaming processors on their hands.
Coffee Lake is the next 14nm CPU design after Kaby Lake, which Intel is calling 14nm++ in an attempt to make it seem different. What’s making the new generation relevant, however, is the fact they’re bringing six-core / 12-thread processors into high-end laptops and standard desktops for the first time.
This is the big news for Coffee Lake: both the Core i7 and Core i5 ranges will have a six-core CPU at the top. The Core i7 will come with six cores and 12 threads while the Core i5 version won’t come with HyperThreading and so will be stuck with a straight six-core design.
That's rather exciting for us gamers because it means there will be a robust 14nm six-core part combining Intel's high-end single-threaded gaming performance with an extra two cores to give it decent multi-threaded chops too. Right now Intel's resolutely quad-core K-series i5 is able to either keep pace with, or beat AMD's six-core, twelve-thread Ryzen 5 1600X, so add another couple of Intel cores to the mainstream mix and you'll have a hell of a gaming chip.
The latest specs leak suggest there will be three six-core Coffee Lake CPUs at launch: a pair of Core i7 chips, one a K-series and another non-overclockable variant, and another two six-core i5 CPUs. The early specs leak suggested a disappointingly low Turbo clockspeed for the Core i5 8600K. Thankfully the latest information is suggesting a more acceptable 4.1GHz all-core Turbo clockspeed, putting it at least in touching distance of the single-core performance of the current Core i5 7600K.
There have also been rumours of a quad-core processor making its way into the budget-oriented Core i3 range too. It was reported to have HyperThreading enabled to allow it to deliver eight threads of processing power, which would be unprecedented for a Core i3 CPU.
Honestly, I'm struggling to believe Intel would risk cannibalising the sales of their lower-end Core i5 hexcore with such a powerful 4GHz i3, but they might be desperate after the impressive showing of AMD's Ryzen 3 1300X. It's now looking like that was a bit of wishful thinking as the new Coffee Lake Core i3 chips look like resolutely quad-core processors. That said, that kinda means they're essentially last-gen Core i5 chips for potentially $100 less.
We were hoping the new generation of Intel chips would use the architectural enhancements of the upcoming 10nm Cannonlake generation, but instead it looks like the new mainstream multi-core maestro is going to be rocking the same Kaby Lake design which arrived at the start of the year.
That means essentially the ol’14nm CPU architecture will continue from its introduction with Skylake in 2015 right through until part-way through 2018. It's like some tacit admission from Intel that architectural advances aren't that important to most users. After all, we can still happily game on an ancient Sandy Bridge i5 or i7 and those are around five years old, so maybe they're onto something.
We have previously seen an engineering sample of what looks like the six-core i5 tip up in the SiSoft Sandra database. That chip is running at a relatively pedestrian 3.5GHz, without any hint of a Turbo frequency. Given the latest leaked specs that might just be the standard speed of this engineering sample.
What else that SiSoft benchmark infers is that the overall Coffee Lake processors are the exact same size as the Kaby Lake CPUs despite having another two cores inside. This early sample looks like it’s running on a 200-series motherboard because it states the board is a Kaby Lake Client Platform.
The tricky thing with that is that ASRock have recently tweeted that "No, Coffee Lake CPU is not compatible with 200 series motherboards." They've reportedly confirmed this to subsequent press inquiries but other motherboard vendors we've spoken to say they've heard nothing about that. Given the Z270 and Z370 platforms look almost identical quite why the 200-series won't support Coffee Lake remains unclear. It does look like the 300-series will be backwards compatible, however, as there are supposed to be Kaby Lake refresh CPUs in the upcoming range too.
There will also be Cannonlake chips coming later on, and that might hint at why the new chipset needs to be separated out from the last-gen 200-series. But, at the moment it's still all speculation on that front until we hear a definite yes or no from Intel. But hopefully that won't be long coming.
We also have a better idea of the cache sizes for Coffee Lake too. The Core i5 sample chip in that old Sandra database is sporting 9MB of L3 cache - another 3MB (1.5MB per core) over the previous Core i5 7600. That indicated the Core i7 version would come with 12MB of L3 cache if it follows the traditional cache delta between i5 and i7 chips. That seems to depart from the latest specs leak, however, which claims that all three Coffee Lake CPUs are going to sport the same 12MB cache level.
Intel were originally claiming 15% better performance (albeit on SysMark…) for Coffee Lake compared with the previous Kaby Lake generation of chips, but at Computex this year they annouced the performance increase will be double that.
"Earlier this year you probably heard we committed to get a 15% performance improvement as we went from 7th generation to 8th generation core," said Intel's Gregory Bryant. "But you know our engineers, they weren't satisfied with that, they didn't want to stop there. They knew that they could do better and they dug in.
"Now I'm happy to report the 8th generation is going to deliver more than double that. That's right, more than 30% performance improvement generation over generation."
That would be an impressive generational performance uplift, especially considering the last few generations of Intel chips have struggled to even offer a modest 10% performance boost. The fine print at the bottom - which I even struggled to read on the big screen - claims the >30% comparison actually refers to the low-power, ~15W Core i7 chips of the two generations, not the desktop processors.
Now Intel are claiming the mobile 8th Gen chips are going to deliver a 40% performance improvement over the last generation of processors, and that's not just down to them offering two extra cores. Intel are saying that if it were just down to a core increase you'd get maybe 25% extra performance, but the rest is being made up by design and manufacturing optimisations on the 14nm+ process they're using. The 8th Gen mobile chips, then, are simply a Kaby Lake refresh. Yes, this generation has three different architectures in it...
The 14nm++ process optimisations are being saved for Coffee Lake and will result in improved processor performance. A leaked slide, supposedly shown at a retailer's event in China, shows the single-core and multi-threaded performance improvements specifically of the desktop 8th Gen parts.
We've had some Cinebench performance figures recently leak out, showing the performance of the 8700K running at a straight 3.7GHz. At that speed the benchmark figures are seriously impressive, offering single- and multi-threaded index scores of 196 and 1,230 respectively.
When the final release chips start bringing Turbo frequencies into play then you're probably looking at those scores topping 215 and 1,500. And we've heard from very reliable sources that the overclocking performance of Coffee Lake is potentialy rather stunning too. Topping 5GHz sounds like it might be pretty straightforward...
The Coffee Lake i7 ought to then be able to top the level of multi-threaded performance the similarly specced Ryzen 5 1600X offers but with the added bonus of Intel’s traditional gaming performance lead. In short, the addition of a six-core CPU at both the top two tiers of Intel chippery could make a huge difference to the processor landscape at the under $350 mark.
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