5 Things to Know About Intel’s Skylake
Intel’s sixth-generation Core microarchitecture, also known by its development code name “Skylake,” made its official debut at Gamescom in August, with the release of its high-end Core i7-6700K and Core i7-6600K desktop chips. Now Intel has unveiled more details about how chips using Skylake fit into its lineup as a whole, and we know more about what we can expect from this series of chips, which are intended to work in everything from go-anywhere tablets to rooted-in-place desktops.
Here’s our five-point look at what Skylake means for Intel, and what it may mean for you if you’re in the market for a new PC.
1. Skylake boasts improved performance, particularly on mobile.
It wouldn’t be a new Intel microarchitecture launch without a boost in performance, and Skylake delivers that. As Intel’s new mainstream line, Skylake can include chips with either two cores or four cores, and that can take advantage of hyper-threading to respectively ratchet up to either four or eight threads (though this does not apply to every chip).
Skylake’s new performance comes from a variety of sources, such as the adoption of technologies that naturally prove speedier in certain applications. Yes, you get the expected notched-up chipset I/O throughput, as well as nods to more familiar technologies like DDR4 memory (which Skylake supports alongside low-voltage DDR3L, as if acknowledging that DDR4 isn’t yet quite ready for everyone) and PCI Express 3.0 (which gets an increased number of lanes in Skylake). But there are also things like embedded DRAM (eDRAM) memory; a new cache architecture called a “memory side cache” is designed especially for it, making the eDRAM fully coherent and allowing for faster C-state transitions, and it may now be used in either 64MB or 128MB configurations, making it more useful in more systems.
What does all this translate to in terms of real-world performance? In promoting Skylake, both at last month’s Intel Developer Forum (IDF) in San Francisco and in the more immediate lead-up to the microarchitecture’s release, Intel used PCs from five years ago as its benchmark of comparison. This has the double benefit of demonstrating just how far the technology has progressed in five years, while also (somewhat) downplaying more modest gains from more recent generations.
Mobile is where you see the biggest jumps, as Intel itself admits. The company touts Skylake mobile CPUs as delivering up to 2.5 times faster processing performance, 30 times better graphics performance, and three times the battery life of earlier-generation chips. (This is comparing the Skylake-based Core i5-6200U to the Westmere Core i5-520UM from 2010.)
Desktop models don’t see quite the same jump. When comparing the new Core i5-6500 to the older Core i5-650 (again from 2010), Intel points to 60 percent better processing performance, six times faster 4K video transcoding, and 11 times better integrated graphics performance. Bad? No, of course not. But for itchy-fingered upgraders, desktop Skylake doesn’t present as compelling a story as we’ve seen from Intel’s desktop chips in the past—another sign of how the chip world is rapidly moving away from the segment that has traditionally been its power king.
If all that new power still isn’t enough for laptop users, Skylake chips also have a special eye toward overclockability. The quad-core 2.7GHz Core i7-6820HK is the first mobile CPU with an unlocked multiplier, so either manufacturers or end users can tweak a chip’s performance to the extent of their patience and their laptop’s cooling abilities. (One final note for desktop lovers: At IDF, representatives from Intel and ASRock demonstrated how it’s possible to take the 4GHz Core i7-6700K to nearly 7GHz, so you don’t need to be left out of this, either—assuming you have enough liquid nitrogen to cool the chip, of course.)
2. Skylake embraces next-generation graphics technologies.
Like the processing side, Skylake’s integrated graphics system was also conceived to be scalable. The Intel HD Graphics 500 system (which Intel also sometimes refers to as its “Gen9” graphics) is currently divided up into four configurations for consumer mobile: 510 (used only in U-Series Pentium processors), 520 (U-Series Core i3, i5, and i7), 530 (all H-Series processors), and 540 (scattered usages in the Core i5 and Core i7 U-Series chips).
HD Graphics 500 will deliver some features that users will appreciate, such as better frame rates when using MSAA, larger caches for feeding the GPU, more back-end fill rate capabilities, and lossless color compression. Although these won’t translate to huge improvements in, say, gameplay applications, any little bit helps. (Though it’s also worth pointing out that any desktop or laptop user could effect the biggest change on graphics performance by getting a system with discrete video processing from either AMD or Nvidia; HD Graphics may suffice for standalone computing, but plunk down a smidgen of extra cash and you can get do a lot better.)
Also supported are other graphics technologies, many of which are in line with what you’ll see used in Windows 10, such as DirectX 12, OpenCL 2.0, and OpenGL 4.4, though Intel also touts new HEVC/H.265 encoding and decoding, as well as a better, lower-power H.264 encoder.
Intel’s primary focus, at least as far as selling Skylake as a practical solution to the public, has to do with 4K. No, 1080p is no longer good enough, and single-4K processing is old hat. Skylake chips can drive up to three 4K monitors at once, and transcode a 4K video up to 20 percent faster than one of last year’s Broadwell chips. Although user 4K adoption is struggling a bit on the PC side (as on the TV side), as it becomes less expensive and content using it becomes more plentiful, this has the potential to be a boon, most notably for laptops.
We’re also not entirely sure what you can expect in the way of 4K performance; though Intel was bullish about Skylake’s multi-4K-monitor prowess at IDF, those were of course controlled conditions. We’re looking forward to seeing for ourselves how native Skylake chips handle graphics workloads that hefty, and we’ll report back as soon as we’ve performed detailed testing.
3. Skylake offers superior power efficiency.
Any microarchitecture designed for devices as tiny as tablets as well as systems as towering as gaming desktops needs to be able to marshal incredibly varying amounts of power. That’s exactly how Intel has approached Skylake. At the low end (the Y-Series), chips using the microarchitecture need only 4.5 watts. At the opposite end of the spectrum (for Xeon workstation CPUs), they can use as much as 91 watts. This ability comes from a number of sources baked into the design, chief among them a new power management scheme is calling “Speed Shift Technology.” Speed Shift adds new power domains (System Agent and eDRAM I/O) and gives the hardware more control than ever over power states and the process of transitioning between them, so the system can save less energy in the whole process. Previously, hardware only controlled the chip’s base and Turbo Boost frequencies, and trusted everything else to the operating system. No longer.
Where has all this led? Intel claims that its mobile Skylake chips run up to 60 percent faster and use up to 60 percent less active power than earlier CPUs, with a laptop equipped with a Core m7-6Y75 processor and a 38Wh battery capable of playing a 1080p video for up to 10 continuous hours.
4. Skylake was designed for use with Windows 10.
You don’t hear the “Wintel” moniker quite as often these days as you used to, but it remains very much in force in many computer users’ minds. During the Windows 10 sessions at IDF, the relationship was still heartily played up, with many of Skylake’s innovations positioned with regard to the impact they would have on the Windows 10 experience.
Skylake, for example, supports hardware offloading for voice activation, something that could be significantly helpful when taking advantage of the Cortana digital assistant in Windows 10, which allows for the integration of a hardware “keyword spotter” based on a digital signal processor (DSP) “keyword spotter.” Or Windows Hello, the operating system’s new advanced authentication system, which almost seems designed to work hand-in-hand with what Intel’s RealSense cameras can do. And in case you think that power management is strictly a Skylake feature, Windows 10 takes a crack at it, too, with a new Modern Standby power state that doesn’t involve Wi-Fi and pings software considerably less often; supposedly, devices can last nine days or so in this state (called Disconnected Standby, the next logical step after the Connected Standby introduced in Windows 8.1).
This is probably not going to be something that will be noticed by a wide variety of users, and direct, useful connections between the two seem like the least you’d expect from any hardware company designing for what is by far the dominant operating system used with it. But those who want to know that their hardware and software get along well may be able to sleep a little better at night because of this.
5. Skylake is out now, but will take a while to propagate.
The chips announced today cover a broad swath of the computing landscape, with the new mobile chips sitting happily alongside the desktop Core i7-6700K and Core i7-6600K. A number of major manufacturers have already announced systems using Skylake chips, and there are more to come, though it will take a while for Skylake systems to become prevalent at major brick-and-mortar and online retailers. Expect to see them everywhere by the time the holiday season is in full swing, though you should have an excellent choice of computers at your disposal as early as October.
One thing to note: Intel hasn’t released all of its Skylake chips yet. Several in its vPro family (the Core i5, Core i7, Core m5, and Core m7), as well as Xeon server chips and lower-end Pentium and Celeron offerings, won’t hit until the last quarter of this year, and will take until 2016 to be even more broadly available. (This is also when you should expect the more advanced versions of Intel’s integrated graphics systems, Iris and Iris Pro, to appear.)