Intel is in the midst of a reinvention process, marked by a few missteps from the company on the manufacturing side and a change of leadership at the top. The company recently exited the 5G smartphone modem business and attempting to get back on track with its 10nm manufacturing process node. Intel is also facing competitive pressure from multiple fronts, which it hasn’t experienced in quite some time. But as anyone in the industry will acknowledge, competition usually encourages companies to step up and let go of the old way of doing things. Let’s take a look at the ways Intel is attempting to bounce back.
Ice Lake is finally here
Likely the most anticipated product that Intel revealed at Computex was its 10th Gen Core processors code-named Ice Lake. These 10th Gen Core processors utilize a new Sunny Cove CPU architecture and are built with Intel’s much awaited 10nm process node, which previously had some issues regarding yields that Intel claims are now resolved. Intel says these issues are behind them and that we can see volume production of 10nm with this 10th Gen of Core processors. These new Ice Lake processors also feature the new Gen11 graphics chip, which should elevate Intel’s performance in integrated graphics further to enable even better entry-level gaming. The 10th Gen Core processors announced at Computex range from Core i3 up to Core i7, with up to 4 cores and 4.1 GHz max turbo frequency. These processors target 2-in-1 and thin and light laptop form factors, so having a 4.1 GHz max turbo frequency AND 1.1 GHz GPU frequency is quite impressive.
Intel claims the Iris Plus graphics inside of the 10th Gen core processors (based on their Gen11 graphics) provide double the performance over the previous generation in some benchmarks. The company also claims double the HEVC encode performance, which should help with creative people wanting to do on-the-go video editing. Additionally, Intel claims double the FPS in 1080P games. While this would obviously be a pretty significant improvement, it will likely depend heavily on how the thermals are managed by the device manufacturer and over what period.
Intel also integrated both Thunderbolt 3 and Wi-Fi 6 into the 10th Gen Core processors, which is a pretty big deal for those who care about connectivity. Wi-Fi 6, formerly known as 802.11AX, is the future of Wi-Fi and will bring significant improvements to the quality of service, performance, and efficiency. Intel and others are doing the industry a favor by aggressively pushing the standard. Integrating Wi-Fi 6 will help to increase the adoption of Wi-Fi 6 and improve the user experience of PC users. The more users with Wi-Fi 6 devices on a Wi-Fi 6 network, the more efficient the network becomes. Everyone’s speeds (including non-Wi-Fi 6 users) go up. There are also coverage and quality benefits to Wi-Fi 6, but those are more dependent on the access point. Thunderbolt 3’s integration is also important because it is an incredibly versatile high-bandwidth interface that helps improve a device’s modularity with things like docks, displays, and drives. I believe that Thunderbolt 3 integration will improve adoption more than it has in the past by taking some of the burden off the OEMs.
OEMs will launch systems with the 10th Gen Core processors this holiday season, which is a bit later than one would expect with a May announcement. With the new process node and design principals, the 10th Gen Core processors are poised to usher the company into a new era.
While the 10th Gen Core processors are a big deal, what’s equally important is how Intel is designing around these processors with its OEM partners. Intel announced Project Athena late last year. Project Athena is Intel’s new moonshot program that is designed to help tighten the PC user experience in a way that is both measurable and tangible to users. We got more details about the project at Computex, including the announcement of the 1.0 version of the specification (which includes hardware requirements and key experience indicators). Intel realizes that building processors and a system without awareness for the user experience is the wrong way of doing things. These new metrics put systems through a verification process to ensure that they meet users’ expectations in real-world conditions. A lot of focus is being put on battery life, which is good—in the past, many of the PC battery life statistics haven’t matched real-world experiences. In addition to battery life, Intel also requires consistent responsiveness—a similar experience on battery power as when plugged in. Intel also requires that the system can wake up from sleep in less than one second.
To facilitate all these requirements, Intel provides co-engineering support across the entire ecosystem and is building open labs facilities around the world to help accelerate the adoption of Project Athena’s standards. Intel claims to already have more than 100 companies signed on to the project, and the company had initial designs from Acer, Dell, HP, and Lenovo on display at Computex. I hope that Intel will be more transparent about the battery life tests and how they’re going to be improved over the past. I think a lot of people would really like to see a more transparent process when it comes to battery life so that everyone can trust battery life numbers once again.
I think Project Athena will make a big difference for the experience of the regular PC user and improve overall sentiment towards the PC as a computing platform. Intel did this before with Centrino and Ultrabooks to considerable success, but I believe that Project Athena will be far more transformational. Systems will now be designed, built, and tested around user experiences rather than an external physical design. I believe that this will also help Intel’s partners to build better systems, which will ultimately result in more satisfied customers down the road. I am a bit curious to see what Athena has in store for cellular connectivity. Intel talks a lot about Wi-Fi 6, but there is an impending threat of 5G PCs powered by competitors like Qualcomm. Intel’s place in 5G modems for PCs is somewhat in limbo, and it needs to clarify its 5G modem strategy for non-smartphone devices.
Intel also talked about Overclocking at Computex, though I wasn’t able to attend the event the company held before Computex. At the show, however, Intel did announce a new desktop SKU, the Core i9-9900KS, which is an even faster version of the already very fast Core i9-9900K which the company has been selling quite a bit of lately. Intel is now delivering the ability with the 9900KS to run 5 GHz clock speed on all eight cores instead of just one core. To me, this announcement sounds like a binned part that is a direct reaction to what AMD announced and was designed to ensure that AMD didn’t take away the performance crown from Intel on mainstream desktops. Running that much frequency on all eight cores will result in some very high performance, but also some very high TDP and power draw. Because of this, I expect that this CPU might not even be available in retail, and may be used only as an OEM part.
Intel has had some struggles in the last few years, especially when it comes to offering processors with the latest 10nm process node. Ice Lake is Intel’s most significant processor update in years, and I believe this, along with Project Athena, will significantly elevate the PC user experience. Intel had many of its partners on stage at Computex to show how they were going to leverage both 10th Gen core and Project Athena to deliver better experiences to their customers. I am excited to see what 10th Gen Core will translate to in real world performance and battery life and to see Project Athena’s first step into the real world.