Intel’s upcoming 10nm “Ice Lake” processor won’t deliver any more cores and threads than its current 8th-gen parts, and at slower turbo clock speeds. But what Intel is calling its 10th-gen Core chip here at Computex offers numerous improvements across the board: performance boosts across CPU, graphics, and AI tasks, plus platform-level enhancements like “Wi-Fi 6 Gig+” that offers more bandwidth than your wired router.
The Ice Lake-based 10th-gen processors will be Intel’s first widely available 10nm Core chips and the company’s first major chip redesign since 2015’s Skylake architecture. They’re now shipping, Intel’s Gregory Bryant, senior vice president and general manager of the Client Computing Group, is expected to say in his Computex address.
Since January, Intel has said that the first Ice Lake chips would ship to customers this quarter, specifically in June, as part of an initial crop of 30 notebooks which will appear on store shelves by this holiday season. Ice Lake will replace the current “Whiskey Lake” U-series and “Amber Lake” Y-series Core chips with 9W, 15W, and even some 28W versions.
While Intel’s holding back specifics on individual chips, we still now know quite a bit about the Ice Lake family as a whole: Core i3, i5, and i7 chips will be offered, with up to 4 cores and 8 threads—the same as Whiskey Lake. Ice Lake’s turbo boost speed of up to 4.1GHz is far less than the Whiskey Lake-based Core i7-8565U’s 4.6 GHz boost, but a new, improved method of turbo management may mitigate that. Finally, the return of (now Gen11) Iris Plus integrated GPUs could be a big deal that widens the options available for notebook gaming.
A Dell reviewer’s guide provided to PCWorld also added some additional branding detail that Intel didn’t provide: Ice Lake appears to use a “10xx” designation, with a graphics suffix. For example, the reviewer’s guide revealed the existence of the 10th-gen Core i3-1005 G1 (up to 3.4GHz); the 10th-gen Core i5-1035 G1 (up to 3.7GHz); and the 10th Gen Core i7-1065 G7 (up to 3.9GHz). (The “G” suffix probably refers to what graphics level is available—integrated or the Iris Plus.) In total, there will be 11 new versions of Ice Lake, Intel executives said.
Performance numbers, though, are still vague. The most concrete estimate of Ice Lake’s performance still comes from Intel’s investor meeting: two times the encode and graphics performance of Whiskey Lake. But there’s a wild card. Remember how Intel’s 7th-gen “Kaby Lake” processor was optimized for video playback, because of the rise of YouTube and Netflix? Ice Lake makes similar strides in AI. You’ll also see some unexpected perks in how Intel implements an enhanced Wi-Fi 6 Gig+ wireless technology and Thunderbolt 3, too.
In his Computex keynote, Bryant also announced 9th-gen vPro chips, with up to 8 cores and 16 threads reaching up to 5GHz on desktop and up to 4.8GHz on mobile—even a Core i9. Intel also launched 14 new Intel Xeon E processors for mobile and desktop workstations. Bryant also disclosed that a new series of “X-series” Ice Lake chips will debut this fall, alongside increased memory speed and an updated Intel Turbo Boost Max Technology 3.0. Bryant also showed off the new Intel Performance Maximizer, an automated overclocking tool.
How fast is Ice Lake? Here’s what we know
Much of Ice Lake’s design was informed by Project Athena, Intel’s redesign of the ultrabook. Chris Walker, vice president and general manager of the Client Computing Group at Intel, said that the modern workforce has to be used to switching back and forth between a power plug and a battery, between work and life. Consumers value connectivity and long battery life, Intel says, but they turn to the PC to focus on a task, wherever they may be.
“It’s not a separate work PC and a separate home PC, it’s one—and we’ll start to see that coming into our partners’ design language,” Walker said.
In some sense, that lessens the impact of Ice Lake as a CPU, and emphasizes the broader appeal of Ice Lake as a platform. The fact remains, however, that so much of the PC still revolves around the processor, and about Intel’s struggles to move beyond 14nm.
There’s an old adage in the chip industry: never launch a new processor design on a new manufacturing process, because of the increased risk of costly manufacturing errors. Intel seems to believe it’s dodged that risk, as last year it launched the untested 10nm process via Cannon Lake, a relatively unknown Core i3 chip that Intel shipped to Asia last year as part of a Lenovo notebook. Becky Loop, an Intel fellow and the Chief Client Architect, said that every piece of IP on Ice Lake was “touched” and optimized for 10nm.
Ice Lake, however, is built upon the new ”Sunny Cove” (now apparently spelled Sunnycove) core design that Intel disclosed late last year. Sunnycove was designed to be deeper, wider, and smarter, in the words of one executive. In reality, that means that Sunnycove chips like Ice Lake can perform more operations in parallel (5, versus 4 in Skylake) and with an increase of 8 to 10 execution ports. Sunnycove’s level 1 data cache has increased from 32KB to 48KB, and the level 2 cache from 256KB to 512KB. Caches are used to store frequently used instructions, versus having to hunt them down from system memory. Think about them in the same way that large, deep pockets are useful places to store things you frequently need.
In general, Intel’s claiming that the Sunny Cove-based chips will perform, on average, 18 percent more instructions per clock cycle than the Skylake architecture across a variety of benchmarks. Intel’s also added instructions for specific tasks, such as crypto performance, vector AES, and security enhancements such as User Mode Instruction Prevention.
Meet Ice Lake’s Gaussian Neural Accelerator
Intel, though, made at least two specific improvements for AI: adding DL Boost (Deep Learning Boost) instructions and a Gaussian Neural Accelerator, a dedicated logic core designed to speed up AI functions. Don’t think of AI in terms of digital assistants like Cortana or Alexa. Instead, both of Ice Lake’s new technologies are designed to speed up tasks such as background blurring in Microsoft Teams, semantic search in Microsoft Photos, or recognition and transcription of a business meeting.
It’s the latter task that Ronak Singhal, an Intel fellow and director of the CPU Computing Architecture, called out the Gaussian Neural Accelerator for. It runs constantly in the background, but at very low power, performing a computationally intensive task without blazing through your battery. Sunny Cove, Intel claimed, offers between 2 to 2.5 times more performance in AI compared to the “Whiskey Lake” Core i7-8565U.
Executives also said that Ice Lake uses AI to manage boost performance, what it calls Intel Dynamic Tuning 2.0 with Machine Learning. Unlike older generations, which used more of an “all or nothing” approach to apply the overclocking capability in a chip’s Turbo Boost, Intel’s Dynamic Tuning feathers the accelerator a bit, boosting sharply, then voluntarily backing off, while trying to determine the “just enough” level of overclocking performance and prolong that as long as it can. Intel hopes that this smart performance management will overcome the lower turbo boost threshold, though it remains to be seen if that’s true.
Unfortunately, Intel said very little about Ice Lake’s actual power consumption, though the shrink to a finer 10nm process should theoretically lower it, extending a notebook PC’s battery life. Ice Lake also includes fully integrated voltage regulators, Loop said.
Next page: Graphics and Wi-Fi improvements, Ice Lake vs. Ryzen 3000
How Ice Lake’s Gen11 graphics will boost PCs
While Intel works to bring its Xe GPU architecture to market, the Gen11 graphics at the heart of Ice Lake represent a “major leap forward in the journey to a full-scale built-out architecture,” according to Lisa Pearce, vice president of Intel Architecture, Graphics and Software. The overall design goal, Pearce said, was power efficiency.
The most distinctive features of the Gen11 graphics architecture are the increased number of execution units, plus Intel’s new support for adaptive sync displays. (EUs are Intel’s programmable shader units, with 3D rendering, compute, programmable and fixed-function media capabilities.) Notebook vendors (and you) will also be able to choose from either UHD or Iris Plus graphics options. That’s a change, as the prior Gen9.5 GPU generation attached to Intel’s 8th-gen Core chips skipped the Iris Plus designation altogether.
(Intel’s branding can be confusing. Intel’s Gen9 graphics debuted with Skylake; Gen9.5 was part of the Kaby Lake and Coffee Lake chips. Intel designed Gen10 graphics with Cannon Lake in mind, but since the only 10nm Cannon Lake chip that shipped was a Core i3, there was no need for high-end graphics.)
Intel’s Gen9.5 graphics used anywhere from 12 to 48 execution units, with the most EUs reserved for the Iris Plus Graphics. Ice Lake’s Gen11 graphics, on the other hand, now include up to 64 EUs running at up to 1.1 GHz, Pearce said, for a total of 1.12 teraflops of 32-bit compute performance. From a display standpoint, Gen11 graphics have the ability to support three simultaneous 4K displays at 120Hz, a pair of 5K displays at 60Hz, or a single 8K30 display. The graphics engine includes three display pipes that support DisplayPort 1.4 HBR3 and HDMI 2.08, plus HDR10 and Dolby Vision. There’s also a pair of fixed-function HEVC/VP9 video encoders.
While the integrated GPU will include a 3MB L3 cache, Intel’s next-gen graphics will once again share local memory with the CPU (specifically 0.5MB). Sharing the memory allowed for more performance efficiency, Pearce said. The Gen11 GPU also boasts an enhanced rasterizer with 16 pixels per clock, and 32 bilinear filtered texels per clock, versus 12 in the prior generation.
Ice Lake also marks the first time Intel has supported the VESA-standard Adaptive Sync implementation that AMD’s FreeSync technology is based upon and Nvidia recently embraced, kind of. Adaptive Sync technology synchronizes the refresh rate of compatible monitors and compatible graphics chips, providing a far smoother gameplay experience. Pearce also said that applying Adaptive Sync would yield 1.8 times faster frame rates than without it.
So how will this all play out in the real world? Intel published an early look at the frame rates you can expect from its new Iris Plus graphics GPUs, seen below. Intel’s Command Center software now performs one-click optimizations for 44 games. Otherwise, you can visit gameplay.intel.com and Intel’s cloud service will auto-detect your hardware and recommend playable settings for over 400 games. Intel’s new Gen11 graphics will be fully supported in Linux by the third quarter, too.
Wi-Fi 6 Gig+, integrated Thunderbolt 3
Like other Intel processors, there’s more than just the CPU inside Ice Lake. Though the Sunny Cove CPU core is fabricated on a 10nm package, what’s known as the Platform Controller Hub (PCH) is fabricated from an older 14nm process, and sits within Ice Lake’s multi-chip package. It’s here, on the PCH, that you’ll find Ice Lake’s power and connectivity features: the new integrated Wi-Fi 6 Gig+, I/O, and the new integrated power delivery system.
Ice Lake will support LPDDR4-3733 memory options up to 32GB, or DDR4-3200 up to 64GB. Intel’s Loop also said that I/O options will include up to six USB 3.1 ports, ten USB 2 ports, x16 PCI Express Gen 3 lanes, three SATA 6Gbps connections, and an eMMC 5.1 slot.
Wi-Fi 6 Gig+
Intel included support for Wi-Fi 6 (also known as 802.11ax) beginning in Whiskey Lake, and connectivity has become a watchword for Intel’s recent chips. (Intel integrates the 802.11ax MAC, leaving the RF separate for easier certification.) Wi-Fi 6’s chief benefit is what’s known as “Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access,” or OFDM—essentially, instead of forcing wireless devices to wait their turn to talk to one another, it divvies up the bandwidth to let devices communicate without waiting, decreasing network latency by about 75 percent compared to Wi-Fi 5, or 802.11ac.
Ice Lake, however, includes two Intel-specific twists: Intel’s supplying what it calls “Wi-Fi 6 Gig+,” an optional feature which increases the size of the available channels to 160MHz, allowing a total bandwidth of 1.68 gigabits per second. That’s substantially faster than even the Gigabit ethernet wired connections now found in home routers, even in a 2+2 configuration. Over time, however, Intel expects home routers to adopt the wired 2.4 Gigabit ethernet that some commercial routers are adopting, according to Kris Fleming, an Intel senior principal engineer.
Intel’s Wi-Fi implementation also includes Overlapping Basic Service Set (OBSS) support, a useful feature for someone like an apartment dweller. OBSS essentially allows a set of connected devices to communicate within the group even while another set in a neighboring space is also communicating. Normally, devices in separate sets would politely stop broadcasting if they detected any wireless device nearby.
Intel will even be supplying its own access points for consumers, though you won’t be able to buy them direct—they’ll actually be manufactured by third-party router manufacturers. However, the 4 stream (2+2) Wi-Fi 6 Gig+ routers and gateways (based on what Intel’s calling the WAV600 chipset) should be shown off at Computex, Intel executives said.
You’re forgiven if you haven’t noticed this before, but it’s true: given the physical limitations of the controller and the layout, Thunderbolt ports were only available on one side of a laptop, Intel executives said. With the redesigned Ice Lake chip, Thunderbolt 3 has now been integrated, and the new design allows for four Thunderbolt 3 ports, two each on either side of the laptop.
Ice Lake versus Ryzen 3000: Fight!
That’s a lot, and it boils down to this: Intel’s Ice Lake offers core counts that are flat with the prior 9th-generation Core chips, and with slower turbo boost speeds, too. But we don’t know how fast the base core clocks will be, and Intel’s intelligently managed boost speeds could elevate overall performance. Meanwhile, Ice Lake’s next-gen graphics and Wi-Fi connectivity should push the overall computing experience ahead.
So how will all this play out? As AMD announced earlier this week, the company is driving Ryzen hard on desktops, while trying to recoup some of its market share in notebooks as well. Intel still holds a dominant market share in terms of CPUs and graphics, thanks to its integrated GPUs, and Pearce said the company’s using Ice Lake to shift its grip toward discrete GPUs as well. Savvy buyers will also cautiously eye Intel’s production: can it supply enough of its newly-redesigned 10nm chips after a year of 14nm chip shortages? We’ll find out this fall.
This story was updated at 11:35 PM local time to add the “Ice Lake” model numbers that Dell revealed. This update was accidentally deleted in an earlier revision.
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As PCWorld's senior editor, Mark focuses on Microsoft news and chip technology, among other beats. He has formerly written for PCMag, BYTE, Slashdot, eWEEK, and ReadWrite.