Dip your toes into Kaby Lake, the near future of PCs
Kaby Lake is the next generation of CPUs from Intel. Right now, we’re in the Skylake generation. At least most of us are, unless you’re an early adopter of, say, the Dell XPS 13 refresh.
You’ll still see quite a few laptops from the previous Broadwell and Haswell series on sale, but they are officially past-it.
Here are all the details you need to know on the upcoming Intel Kaby Lake CPU revolution.
Cut to the chase
- What is it? Intel’s 7th-generation Core processor
- When is it out? Out now for laptops, Q1 2017 for desktops
- What will it cost? Likely similar to Intel’s current Skylake processors
Intel Kaby Lake release date
On July 22, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich confirmed that Kaby Lake chipsets were dismissed from their residence on factory conveyor belts and subsequently sent to PC builders. In other words, Kaby Lake is officially on our doorstep.
This means we can expect to see a few Kaby Lake PCs arrive before the end of 2016. However, right now we don’t know the exact chipsets that will arrive in the first wave.
Kaby Lake includes desktop CPUs, Intel Core i3/i5/i7 laptop CPUs and new Core M chipsets, as well as server-class models.
Even after Intel’s keynote at its very own 2016 Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, Calif., we do not yet know the release date of the 7th generation of Intel Core series desktop processors, but all signs point to CES in January, at least according to GDM.OR.JP.
In the meantime, there have been no shortage of leaks ahead of Kaby Lake’s final release. A handful of tech outlets, such as WCCFtech, have uncovered documents featuring leaked pricing and specs while others, like Tom’s Hardware, claim to have acquired their own (possibly retail) Kaby Lake CPUs.
Kaby Lake revealed CPUs
Outside of mobile, 20 Kaby Lake processors have managed to slip through the cracks. From the Pentium G3930 to the Core i7-7700K, practically all the choices you had last generation are still present.
The Core i7-7700K is the leaked flagship processor this time around, unlocked for overclocking as indicated by the discrete “K” moniker. This tells us the Kaby Lake naming convention will remain similar: they are the “7” series CPUs to Skylake’s generation 6, Broadwell’s gen 5 and so on.
The i7-7700K is a quad-core hyper-threaded CPU, and while benchmarks leaked all the way back in March suggested it to be clocked at 3.6GHz with a 4.2GHz turbo boost, the latest reports tease a more fruitful 4.2GHz/4.5GHz core/boost clock. Of course, actual results may vary.
The original leaks stem from the SiSoft benchmark result database, but unfortunately those specs are significantly worse than the current-gen i7-6700K. On the bright side, the latest hearsay is more credible, with the core/boost clocks increasing 200MHz and 500MHz, respectively, over its predecessor.
It also hints at a price tag of $350 USD (about £275, $AU469), about the same as what you might expect to shell out for its Skylake equivalent of yesteryear.
Next up is the Core i7-7500U, leaked alongside the i7-7700K. This is the sort of CPU we might end up seeing in a high-end ultrabook. It’s a relatively high performance chipset, but still belongs to the “U” ultra-low voltage family.
It has two cores, four threads, and is clocked at 2.7GHz with a 2.9GHz turbo. Some of you might turn your noses up at dual-core laptop chipsets, but they’re pretty important.
On the mobile front, the higher-end Core m5 and m7 mobile chips of the past are now being integrated into the Y-series Core i family. These include the Core m3-7Y30, the Core i5-7Y54 and the Core i7-7Y75, which are being used in top-end laptops with fanless and convertible designs to complement the more power-hungry U-series processors.
Intel Kaby Lake first laptops
Where will these chipsets end up? Well, they’re currently featured in a shortlist of notebooks, several of which we’ve already reviewed. The Razer Blade Stealth and HP Spectre x360 are joined by the likes of the Lenovo Yoga 910, among many others Ultrabooks, 2-in-1s and full-on laptops.
If you’re wondering why the latest MacBook Pro still clings onto Skylake, the answer is simple: at the time of its release, there were no H-series Kaby Lake processors yet. Fortunately, DigiTimes has reported that we’ll see these high-end laptop chips at CES in January.
Some say Apple may skip over Kaby Lake altogether, but this seems unlikely when its successor Intel Cannonlake is not due to arrive until the second half of 2017; according to schedule, the 12-inch MacBook should get the gen 7 treatment this spring.
Intel Kaby Lake architecture
Cannonlake is likely to prove a much more exciting update than Kaby Lake. You see, Kaby Lake is very similar to the Skylake family we’re already using. This is not what we originally expected of the Skylake successor, but Intel has changed how its processor development works.
Since 2007, Intel has worked in a ‘tick, tock’ rhythm of upgrades, where one generation shrinks the die, followed by a generation that alters the architecture. That changed this year. As of 2016, Intel now uses a “Process, Architecture, Optimisation” approach, and Kaby Lake represents that last, frankly least interesting stage.
It’s still a 14nm processor that’s fairly similar to Skylake throughout, and the desktop variants will use the same LGA 1151 socket. Unless something terrible goes wrong, Cannonlake will shrink Intel CPUs down to the long-promised 10nm die in 2017.
While there are likely to be some performance and efficiency improvements, it seems unnecessary for those with a Skylake CPU to upgrade to a Kaby Lake processor of the same level.
Intel Kaby Lake upgrades
There are some distinct improvements involved in Kaby Lake, though. The first is fully integrated support for USB-C Gen 2. Skylake machines can offer this already, but need an extra third-party piece of hardware. It’ll soon be ‘native’. Again, it’s not exciting but is necessary.
Gen 2 USB 3.1 enables bandwidth of 10Gbps, rather than 5Gbps. Thunderbolt 3 support is in too. In a similar vein, HDCP 2.2 support is native in Kaby Lake. This digital copy protection, a newer version designed for certain 4K video standards. Ultra HD Blu-ray is the key one, though 4K Netflix also requires a Kaby Lake processor.
That’s right, Kaby Lake also offers integrated GPUs better-suited to 4K video. Thanks to a new media engine built on a Gen9 graphics architecture, users can edit real-time 4K video using nothing more than integrated graphics. For video consumption, the new VP9 and HVEC 10-bit decode will enable all-day 4K video streaming on a single charge.
Kaby Lake only officially supports Windows 10 among Microsoft’s operating systems. This is yet another attempt by Microsoft to push those lingering on Windows 7, or anything a little newer, into the present.
Apollo Lake: Kaby Lake’s poor cousin
It’s also worth considering the low-end Atom chipsets you’ll see used in very cheap laptops and Windows 10 tablets. Although they’re not part of Kaby Lake, the latest “Apollo Lake” chips started to appear in late November, with Asus and HP being among the first to implement them.
These, too, are capable of 4K video playback acceleration by way of the HEVC and VP9 codecs. This is due in part to the move from Gen8 to the Gen9 graphics found in Skylake processors.
Kaby Lake-X: a higher-end future
If you’re only interested in mainstream Kaby Lake models, the future isn’t looking too complicated. They’ll trickle out, before being replaced by Cannonlake CPUs in late 2017. However, the outlook for seriously high-end hardware is more convoluted.
Right now Intel’s newest high-end CPUs are part of the Broadwell-E series, even though among mainstream processors Broadwell is already old news. Quite simply, the real high-end hardware comes later. We’re talking about CPUs like the £1,000 i7-6900k.
The Kaby Lake alternative will not be called Kaby Lake-E but Kaby Lake-X, and is expected to launch in the second half of 2017 alongside Skylake-X. That’s right: two generations at the same time.
Kaby Lake-X will reportedly offer a four-core processor, while Skylake-X will man the ascent to the almost-baffling 10-core version.
What mere mortal laptop and desktop buyers need to take from Kaby Lake, though, is that a) we’ll see even more machines using the new chipsets very soon and b) unless you already need an upgrade you might want to see whether 2017’s Cannonlake brings more exciting improvements.