Double the performance, triple the battery: Intel looks to Skylake to revitalize PC business

Intel is hoping its next generation of processors will persuade hardware buyers to upgrade their ageing machines.
Written by David Shamah, Contributor

According to Intel, there are hundreds of millions of computers out there that were state-of-the-art in 2010, and are now due for an upgrade. With the introduction of its new Skylake processor family on Tuesday - along with a slew of allied technologies - the company hopes laptop and desktop owners, both consumer and corporate, will be persuaded to open their wallets for a new system.

Much of the work on the sixth-generation Intel Core processors was done in Israel, so Intel Israel provided local reporters with a sneak preview of the chips, two days before the rest of the world.

Based on the 14 nm processor technology that Intel recently installed in its Kiryat Gat fabrication plant, Skylake brings, said Shlomit Weiss, VP of Intel's platform engineering group, "a huge jump in performance, battery life, graphics, size, and user experience".

Microsoft's Windows 10 is also optimized for Skylake - meaning that users of Skylake-equipped hardware running the new operating system can expect results closer to top benchmarks than would have been likely with previous processor platforms. "We collaborated with Microsoft on some aspects of Skylake, to ensure maximum performance," said Weiss.

According to Intel, "more than 600 million computers in use today are five years or older," and those computers - desktops, laptops, notebooks, and even tablets - "can't take advantage of all the new experiences available today." That five-year-old benchmark harks back to the days of Intel's Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge processors - the last major processor hit for the company. The two subsequent generations, Haswell and Broadwell, offered incremental improvements in performance - and sales for the OEMs using those processors were incremental as well.

With Skylake, Intel hopes to entice customers back into the stores with a performance deal they can't refuse.

The processors are delivering more than double the performance, triple the battery life, and graphics that are thirty times better compared to those five year old systems, according to Intel. Because of the smaller processor size (a 4.5W version of Skylake is about the size of a dime), devices can also be half as thick and half the weight, have faster wake-up time, and provide almost all-day battery life - for example, extending battery life to enable a user to watch videos and play games for ten hours or more.

Skylake specs.
Image: Intel

On display at the event in the suburban Tel Aviv offices of Intel was a notebook connected to an external display, which was showing an HD movie (using Intel wireless display technology) - while on the notebook screen itself, a graphics-heavy video game was in progress. "All that activity is using up just 3W of power," said Valentin Kaplan, Skylake design manager. "On a Sandy Bridge system, this would have required 30W of power."

That power savings is due to optimization in a number of components - but especially to a new Intel strategy called Speed Shift, which essentially moves responsibility for power management to the processor, instead of sharing it with the operating system.

The difference this makes is significant, said Kaplan. "In the past, when the OS would control power use, you would need 30ms to change from the P1 state, when the processor is running full blast, to a P2 state, where less power is needed. With Speed Shift, that change takes 1ms." Add up all those milliseconds, said Kaplan, and you've got a major power saving that enables batteries to last longer than ever.

According to Roni Friedman, Intel VP and GM of intellectual property blocks and technologies, a technology like Speed Shift was only possible with the advent of 14nm processors.

"14nm alone requires less power than previous generations of processors," he said. "That enabled us to design algorithms that could further save power. We could have tried this in previous generations of processors, of course, but we wanted to be confident that it would work properly under all circumstances, and that is not something we felt we were ready for until Skylake."

The Intel Israel Skylake team, outside Intel's Haifa R&D center
Image: Intel

Of course, Skylake isn't just for laptops; the architecture can be iterated into processors for a wide range of devices, from those requiring 4.5W of power (tablets), 15W (two in ones, notebooks), 45W (desktops), and even 91W (overclocked multiple-core desktops and workstations). Skylake also includes various enterprise-friendly technologies, especially geared to security, supporting devices and software for fingerprint, facial recognition, and other technologies.

Gamers, an important consumer market for Intel, get much-enhanced graphics, with editing possible on 4K HD video with no performance loss (over the past decade, said Weiss, there has been a 100x improvement in graphics on Intel processors).

Thunderbolt 3/USB C support is built-in, as is support for an Intel 3D RealSense camera, SSDs, and much more.

Over the next few months, Intel plans to deliver more than 48 processors in the sixth-gen Intel Core processor family, featuring Intel Iris and Iris Pro graphics, as well as Intel Xeon E3-1500M processor family for mobile workstations and sixth-gen Intel vPro processors for business and enterprises.

"Nobody can predict what will happen with a particular product, but Intel has certainly done its homework in deciding what to put into Skylake," said Weiss. "We are very sensitive to performance and price, and we really wanted to make a splash with Skylake. When the engineering teams told me about what they had created, I thought to myself that I would see some nice technology, the kind Intel always puts out. But when I saw the speed, the form factors, and the other features we created, I was floored. We really have something special here."

(Left) Roni Friedman and (right) Valentin Kaplan hold Skylake SoCs; (center) Shlomit Weiss holds a "fresh from the factory" sheet of Skylake chips
Image: Israel Hadari
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