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Why Intel's new Kaby Lake processors won't make your computer much faster

Analysis: Intel's seventh-generation Core processors are here -- but they're not a significant upgrade.

Nick Knupffer
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Apple's new MacBook Pro is an eye-catching new computer. So are Microsoft's new Surface Studio and upgraded Surface Book. But none of them use Intel's latest processors.

Is that a big deal? Not as much as you'd think. Here's our explainer from August on what "Kaby Lake" really means for your next PC.

Original story published August 17:

The clock has stopped. The chips are down.

Intel's seventh-gen Core processors, codename Kaby Lake, are now official -- but they aren't as big an upgrade as you'd expect from Intel.

Sure, they're a little bit faster and a little bit more power-efficient. But the best thing about Intel new CPUs might actually be this: the deals you'll find on PCs with last year's chips.

Here's why Kaby Lake isn't such a big deal.

What's a Kaby Lake?

Intel's seventh-generation Core processors, the latest and greatest CPUs the company has to offer. They're the successor to Intel's sixth-gen "Skylake" processors from 2015.

But Kaby Lake isn't a true successor to Skylake. It's more like Skylake+.

Usually, Intel creates a powerful new processor architecture, then the following year shrinks down the circuits for better efficiency. (Intel, much like Ke$ha, is industry-famous for that "Tick-Tock" product cycle.)

Kaby Lake isn't huge. It's about twice the size of California's Lake Tahoe -- a popular vacation spot for Silicon Valley residents.

Google Maps

But Kaby Lake doesn't do either of those things. The circuits are the same 14 nanometer size as Intel's earlier Skylake and Broadwell chips, and it's not a new architecture either. Intel had been trying to shrink down to 10nm with a processor called Cannonlake, but those chips were delayed.

So for now, we're stuck at Tock.

No, really, what's a Kaby Lake? Is "Kaby" a kind of fish?

Oh. No, it appears to be an actual lake in Canada. Maybe the CEO enjoys hunting moose in his spare time?

Is Kaby Lake any better than my existing computer processor?

Intel thinks so! The company says its thin laptop chips are 12 percent faster than Skylake in raw performance, and far more efficient at decoding 4K video.

In fact, Intel claims you could get 3 more hours of battery life while streaming YouTube 4K videos (7 vs. 4 hours) compared to last year's chips.

And for gamers, the company even showed an incredibly thin laptop playing fast-paced shooter Overwatch reasonably well.

That sounds great, no?

Sure -- until you take a hard look at how Intel generated those numbers.

It's not too surprising that Intel's Kaby Lake CPU ran 12 percent faster than the comparable Skylake -- because the new chip is clocked 12 percent faster anyhow! Which could be a problem, because faster clock speeds tend to generate more heat and consume more battery as well.

Intel shows performance gains of 12 percent. Perhaps it's because the chip is working 12 percent harder?

Intel

And while Intel's battery life numbers for 4K video are hard to ignore, Intel tells me that battery life should be "similar" -- not necessarily better than Skylake -- across other kinds of workloads.

We could easily be in a situation like Intel's Broadwell vs. Haswell, where the company claimed better performance with the same battery life, but devices actually consumed a bit more battery in real-world use. I'm optimistic, though, and we'll need to test for sure.

What about the gaming performance?

I wouldn't get too excited just yet. We took a closer look at Overwatch on a Dell XPS 13 with the new Intel chip, and it ran pretty smooth...but with a few caveats. Judge for yourself:

Also note that Intel may still have some more powerful graphics in the near future: we haven't yet seen how far the company's souped-up Intel Iris graphics have come.

Are there any sleek new laptops or tablets coming with Kaby Lake, at least?

Sure! Feast your eyes on the new Acer Swift 7:

We also saw a sleek HP Spectre with a new OLED panel, a refreshed Dell XPS 13, and a 6.9mm-thick Asus detachable tablet -- the Asus T305 -- with a fingerprint reader built right into the power button.

Intel says there'll be over 100 different slim computers with Kaby Lake chips by the end of the year.

When will Kaby Lake start showing up in new PCs?

Intel CVP Navin Shenoy holds up a Kaby Lake chip.

Sean Hollister/CNET

Well, that's the other thing...we'll see the first Kaby Lake computers in September and October, but only the types of chips that go into thin laptops and tablets.

Quad-core laptop chips (like you'd find in a MacBook Pro), laptop chips with Iris graphics, business-class laptop chips with vPro and desktop chips won't appear until early next year.

On the plus side, rumor has it you won't need a new motherboard for Kaby Lake desktop chips. They'll allegedly use the same LGA1151 socket as their Skylake predecessors.

Will they appear in the new MacBook Pro?

Depends on Apple (and Intel), but there's a decent chance they won't. Apple typically uses the most powerful Intel laptop processors available -- the 28-watt ones with better Intel graphics -- and again, Intel says they won't be ready until early next year.

That's not nearly enough time to get them ready for Apple's September 7 event.

However, Bloomberg reports that Apple won't refresh the Macs until later this year, and it wouldn't be the first time Intel has given chips to Apple ahead of schedule.

And if Apple decides to refresh the MacBook Air -- another Bloomberg rumor -- those thinner Intel laptop chips are now ready.

Update, October 27: Apple isn't using them.

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Should I wait to buy a new PC or Mac until Kaby Lake is available?

It definitely couldn't hurt. It's usually better to get the latest and greatest if you can afford it -- and Kaby Lake definitely sounds better if you watch 4K video. But as I've outlined above, most PCs probably won't get a big boost to performance or battery life with Kaby Lake silicon.

The real reason to wait: you'll almost certainly find some excellent discounts on Skylake computers once Kaby Lake hits the market.

What about AMD's Zen?

The Intel rival's new built-from-the-ground-up chips sound promising, but you won't be able to drop one into a desktop till 2017. AMD's new laptop chips will take even longer -- expect them in the second half of next year.

How will I tell Kaby Lake apart from previous processors when I'm computer shopping?

In one important way, Intel's making it easier than ever before: it'll say "7th gen" right on the familiar Intel sticker you'll find on the palmrest of a new laptop. It's a change we've been asking for.

The new "7th-gen" Intel Core branding scheme.

Intel

Unfortunately, Intel also made another change that could prove even more confusing.

Ever heard of Core M, Intel's line of ultra-low-power 4.5-watt processors for incredibly thin, fanless PCs?

As of now, the company's Core m5 and Core m7 processors are part of the Core i5 and Core i7 family, respectively. That means if you purchase a laptop with a "Core i7" label, it may not offer nearly the same sustained performance as a Core i7 machine from last year.

Of course, a thin laptop's Core i7 chip already wasn't as powerful as a thick laptop's Core i7 chip, and neither were as powerful as a Core i7 desktop chip, so perhaps we're just continuing that trend. These days, it's really the size of your PC that indicates its potential performance.

Besides, you can still tell the M chips apart if you look at the full model number. If you see a Y (e.g. Core i7-7Y75), it's one of the lower-performance processors.

I like specs and codenames. Which processors are actually being announced today?

Only six:

  • Intel Core i7-7500U (15W, 2 cores, 4 threads, 2.7GHz base, 3.5GHz turbo)
  • Intel Core i5-7200U (15W, 2 cores, 4 threads, 2.5GHz base, 3.1GHz turbo)
  • Intel Core i3-7100U (15W, 2 cores, 4 threads, 2.4GHz, no turbo)
  • Intel Core i7-7Y75 (4.5W, 2 cores, 4 threads, 1.3GHz base, 3.6GHz turbo)
  • Intel Core i5-7Y54 (4.5W, 2 cores, 4 threads, 1.2GHz base, 3.2GHz turbo)
  • Intel Core m3-7Y30 (4.5W, 2 cores, 4 threads, 1.0GHz base, 2.6GHz turbo)

Is Moore's Law dead?

How could you possibly suggest such a thing?

We're simply waiting for the clock's second hand to remember how to tick.