Faster Ice Lake laptop chip gives Intel some of its mojo back

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After four years, Intel finally has a new processor design.

Ice Lake — officially Intel’s 10th-generation Core processor — clocks in at roughly 18 percent faster than its predecessor, Intel said. The processor’s graphics speed is 50% to 80% faster, and dedicated circuitry will boost AI software and double video-handling speeds.

The new processor also has built-in Thunderbolt support for faster connections to external devices, and a companion chip brings improved Wi-Fi 6 wireless network. It’s also got boosted gaming performance, with Intel demoing an Ice Lake laptop playing Destiny 2 at its Computex keynote.

The new chip kickstarts Intel’s manufacturing process, which stalled with the previous Sky Lake design. The earlier chip was supposed to be on the market for two years, but Intel instead extended its life with modest tweaks while working through its manufacturing problems.

Ice Lake will likely usher in thinner, faster and more capable laptops giving many of us a reason to upgrade our laptops. The software should also improve to take advantage of the more powerful brains that can run it. Combined, we might actually have a reason to put our phones down.

“Is there enough here to catalyze customers into saying, ‘Hey, I want to look at this new laptop?”‘ said David Kanter, an analyst at Real World Tech. “The answer is yes.”

Intel's Foveros chip-stacking technology will let it stack multiple processor elements together for faster performance, as in this processor code-named "Lakefield." Foveros is a foundation of first-generation Project Athena laptops designed to overcome today's mobile PC limits.

Of course, Intel still has massive challenges. Among them: a PC processor thrust from rival chipmaker Qualcomm; competition with the convenience and connectivity of smartphones; and the loss of its manufacturing technology lead to Samsung and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. In addition, Apple is rumored to be considering a switch from Intel processors to Arm chips in its laptops. The consumer electronics giant already uses the Arms family of processors in its iPhones and iPads.

In a separate plan, called Project Athena, Intel detailed the changes it hopes to bring to PCs. The company aims to enable a PC with processing power, snappy response, and long battery life.

Finally, Ice Lake’s new manufacturing process

Intel executives, describing their product ahead of the Computex show in Taiwan where Ice Lake’s specs were unveiled, were eager to discuss something other than the Sky Lake designs that arrived in 2015. Back then, Intel had a “tick-tock” approach to chip progress. A tick in one year moved to a more advanced manufacturing process, and a tock the next year updated the fundamental chip design, called its microarchitecture.

That system collapsed when Intel couldn’t get reliable results from its new manufacturing process with smaller circuitry. It’s been harder for the chip industry to keep pace with the steady progress charted by Moore’s Law, named for Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, but Intel was stalled on 14nm even as TSMC and Samsung moved ahead.

Ice Lake is built with electronics features that measure 10 nanometers — about five times the width of a DNA strand — a size that lets the company cram twice as much circuitry into a given area than with today’s 14nm chips. Intel has been stuck on the 14nm “tock.” The company has refined its 14nm process significantly and offered some rare 10nm chips. Still, Ice Lake marks the first serious arrival of 10nm manufacturing. It also introduces a brand-new microarchitecture called Sunny Cove.

“We’ve overhauled the microarchitecture to get better performance out of the box,” said Ronak Singhal, Intel’s director of CPU computing architecture. “Your apps will get faster just by moving to the latest hardware.”

Intel’s more optimistic tone is evident.

“Intel definitely has more spring in their step than they’ve ever had before,” said Anshul Sag, an analyst with Moor Insights and Strategy. “There’s a lot more ambition and excitement within the company, top to bottom.”

Intel not out of the woods yet

Ice Lake is a big deal for Intel, but it’s not victory.

For one thing, its use of 10nm manufacturing will be limited. Processors for desktop PCs — plugged into the wall for power and thus not needing Ice Lake’s better efficiency — will continue to use the Sky Lake design built on the 14nm process. “10nm has ongoing yield issues,” Kanter said, meaning that an undesirably high fraction of chips doesn’t meet quality standards.

Another challenge is that smartphone chipmaker Qualcomm is eager to sell its own Arm-family processors to make PCs work more like phones with long battery life and connections to mobile networks. Microsoft and others used to live in Intel’s world will likely provide the software support that will require.

“Microsoft has tried and given up in the past,” said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Tech potential. “But it really looks like Microsoft is going to make the long-term investments needed for Windows on Arm to succeed.” That support is necessary to get computer makers like AsusLenovoHP, and Dell to commit their design and sales teams.

The Arm-based Apple question

Finally, there’s Apple. It just upgraded it influential MacBooks to 9th-generation Intel Core processors. But moving to Arm processors, as persistent rumors suggest is likely, would be a major blow to Intel. Apple declined to comment on its plans.

With Ice Lake, though, Intel can legitimately say it’s again moving forward, improving power and performance.

It expects improvements over Ice Lake’s Sunny Cove microarchitecture — Willow Cove in 2020 and Golden Cove in 2021. Intel’s next-generation 7nm manufacturing process is due to go online in 2021, too, shrinking circuitry further. And its Foveros chip-stacking technology could enable more performance and flexibility.

“Things haven’t been as exciting in the processor world for many years,” said Christopher Voce, a Forrester analyst. With Ice Lake, though, “Everything they’ve shown is impressive. They turned it up a notch.”

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