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Intel promises big PC speed boost with Tiger Lake chips this fall – CNET

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Raja Koduri, Intel's general manager of architecture, graphics and software, shows off a next-generation Xe graphics chip.
Raja Koduri, Intel’s general manager of architecture, graphics and software, shows off a next-generation Xe graphics chip.
Intel

If you need a new laptop, you might want to hold off until later this year when Intel’s newest chips are available. Tiger Lake chips promise faster speeds, better graphics and longer battery life.

Formally called Intel’s 11th generation Core processors, the chips will create more realistic explosions in Call of Duty and allow for longer PowerPoint slide decks before a PC’s battery drains. Intel showcased the Tiger Lake line earlier this week at its Architecture Day, along with a range of the chipmaker’s other engineering feats.

Intel has a lot riding on Tiger Lake, the company’s first major new chip design since last year. The Santa Clara, California, chip titan has struggled over the past several years. Apple has begun ejecting Intel chips from Macs while Microsoft has embraced rivals like AMD and Qualcomm. Intel stumbled years late to its current chipmaking process and announced another major delay in July for its next-generation manufacturing process.

At Architecture Day, Tiger Lake shared center stage with Intel’s new Xe graphics chip technology that’ll speed up basic graphics and high-end gaming. Intel wouldn’t share specific speed boost figures for Tiger Lake or Xe, one variation of which will be built directly into Tiger Lake. But a chart showing performance boosts set a new tone for discussions of Intel’s products and prospects.

Tiger Lake speed boost

Intel’s performance charts showed Tiger Lake outpacing today’s Ice Lake predecessors through a combination of improvements, including a new core chip design called Willow Cove and an updated manufacturing process now called SuperFin.

The Willow Cove core at the heart of Intel's Tiger Lake chips can run either faster or more efficiently than the Sunny Cove cores in today's Ice Lake chips.
The Willow Cove core at the heart of Intel’s Tiger Lake chips can run either faster or more efficiently than the Sunny Cove cores in today’s Ice Lake chips.
Intel

“I feel better about its future,” Patrick Moorhead, analyst at Moor Insights and Research, said of the chip giant. When it comes to chip architecture, Intel gave the world reasons to believe that “it could be back on top.”

Tiger Lake chips will give PC makers the option of a chip that’s faster at a given level of power consumption or that has better battery life for a given speed, said Boyd Phelps, Intel’s vice president of silicon engineering. For the most demanding tasks like gaming, where power consumption generally isn’t a big constraint, Intel also can crank up Tiger Lake’s clock speed even higher.

Other Tiger Lake abilities

Tiger Lake will have built-in Thunderbolt 4 and USB 4 support for plugging fast peripherals into your PC, new security protection called CET (control-flow enforcement technology), better AI circuitry for voice control and speech-to-text conversion, and support for more and higher-resolution displays.

In 2021, Intel plans to launch a successor called Alder Lake that uses a hybrid approach that marries two types of processing cores. Those cores are Golden Cove, a more powerful successor to Tiger Lake’s Willow Cove, and Gracemont, a smaller design that’s optimized for lower power consumption.

The Alder Lake chips will be built with an improvement on SuperFin manufacturing process with the placeholder Enhanced SuperFin. That should bring another speed boost in 2021.

Better graphics with Xe

A big part of Tiger Lake’s speed boost comes from better graphics delivered by Intel’s Xe design. For years, Intel built basic graphics abilities into its chips, but serious gamers and others who needed more graphics power relied on separate graphics chips from Nvidia or AMD.

For next-gen PCs, Xe will be built into Tiger Lake, but it’s much faster than earlier integrated graphics, judging by game demos that ran at much higher frame rates than on today’s Ice Lake chips. Intel will offer a variety of Xe graphics chips separate from Tiger Lake, including the DG1 shipping this year and a newly announced high-performance variant for gamers due in 2021. That model will include features like ray tracing that Nvidia pioneered for the gaming market.

“It’s definitely a serious competitor for AMD and Nvidia,” said Tirias Research analyst Kevin Krewell.

Mix and Match

Making the tiny on-off switches called transistors is key to chipmaking, but there are lots of areas where engineering can pay dividends. For example, Intel credits improvements in the metal data pathways immediately above the transistors for some of Tiger Lake speed improvements.

Intel is moving toward a variety of chip packaging techniques designed to let it mix and match different components to rapidly tailor chips to particular uses.
Intel is moving toward a variety of chip packaging techniques designed to let it mix and match different components to rapidly tailor chips to particular uses.
Intel

Intel also touted its abilities in chip packaging, a fast-developing and very competitive technology that lets processor makers link two silicon chips side by side or on top of each other. High-speed data links let them act as a single entity, and Intel’s got new improvements to those data links.

The company’s Lakefield chip embodies this technology, letting Intel cram memory, data input-output, processing and other functions into a single package. But Intel will spread the idea to other chips as it improves. The Foveros technology used to stack Lakefield’s elements currently offers up to 1,600 data links per square millimeter, a density that’s expected to increase to 10,000, though Intel didn’t say when.

“We’re leveraging every single thing we’ve invented to build our products,” said Brijesh Tripathi, chief technology of Intel’s PC group.

Intel’s manufacturing woes

Intel is switching up its production process with products beyond Tiger Lake. Intel reported $5 billion in profit on $20 billion in revenue for its most recent quarter, but it’s been held back by rigid development and manufacturing.

Before now, chip designs were married to the manufacturing process, a “tick-tock” cycle that improved the chip’s architecture one year then shrank its components the next. Now, Intel is moving to a “transistor resilient design” that’s no longer tied to a particular manufacturing process.

That will provide more flexibility, including a better ability to outsource production to rival chip foundries like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. (TSMC).

Intel’s future hinges on much more than just its PC chips. That future includes Xeon chips for the servers that pack data centers run by companies like Google and Baidu, customizable processors used in network equipment, optical networking hardware and memory chips used in SSDs and other storage technology.

At Architecture Day, Intel touted its ability to apply a range of manufacturing tricks to the whole span of its products. And in a new twist, it has added more emphasis to its software effort — specifically, how it is using a software layer to bridge the programming divides between its chip varieties.

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