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Kaby Lake Bumps Up PC Performance

February 7, 2017

Author: David Kanter

Last fall’s teaser of Intel’s new Kaby Lake generation included only six products, mainly for high-end notebooks and tablet PCs. The company has now delivered a broader release of 57 Kaby Lake processors across five families that target everything from tablets and notebooks to desktops. The performance improvements are modest and unevenly distributed, however, with the greatest gains accruing to power-constrained systems.

Kaby Lake is essentially a stopgap in response to unexpected delays of Intel’s 10nm technology. These delays left insufficient time to design a new microarchitecture for a third-generation 14nm product. Instead, the company relied on its manufacturing prowess: it optimized the transistors to boost CPU frequency by up to 12%, calling the result 14nm+.

On the graphics and media side, Kaby Lake adds dedicated hardware for HEVC, VP8, and VP9 decoding as well as HEVC and VP8 encoding to reduce power consumption and boost throughput. The multimedia hardware also enables a wider color gamut for HDR content and HDR tone mapping, thereby setting a nice baseline for PCs and encouraging higher-quality content. These enhancements apply to everyone save enthusiasts who use discrete graphics cards, but they are most noticeable in compact systems, where dedicated hardware enables greater media quality in a small power budget.

The CPU performance gains, which derive solely from the 14nm+ technology, are much less consistent. Across the many new products, the average base-frequency gain is 8% and the maximum-frequency gain is 10%—results that are less than impressive. But the improvement for the most power-constrained Y-series is more pronounced at 16–19%. Similar to the Broadwell refresh, Kaby Lake is compelling for some product types, but it offers little for enthusiast desktops and similar systems.

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