On social media, FanlessTech, a source that has published accurate information about upcoming processor products in the past, made the following claim:
Ice Lake and 10 nm+ are on track 👍
— FanlessTech (@FanlessTech) March 7, 2018
For those of you unfamiliar with these terms, Ice Lake is the code name of chip giant Intel‘s (NASDAQ:INTC) new processor family, which is expected to launch either late this year or early next year.
The Ice Lake processors are expected to represent a completely new design from the company’s current processors, known as Coffee Lake, which are based on the same fundamental design as the company’s Skylake processors, which were launched in the second half of 2015.
Moreover, Ice Lake is expected to be built using the company’s upcoming 10-nanometer-plus (I’ll refer to it as “10+” for short) manufacturing technology, which should enable substantial power efficiency improvements over Intel’s current processors, which are manufactured in its 14-nanometer++ technology.
If FanlessTech’s information is accurate (I have no doubt in FanlessTech’s credibility — it’s just that things could be taken off track), then that’s good news for Intel and its customers. Here’s why:
Some historical context
Since the release of Skylake, Intel’s processor technology has stalled. This isn’t due to a failing of Intel’s processor development organization, but rather due to issues that the company had in bringing next-generation chip manufacturing technologies into production.
For some context, after Intel released its Skylake processors in the second half of 2015, the company was supposed to release a new-generation of processors known as Cannon Lake in the second half of 2016. These parts were supposed to be manufactured in the company’s 10-nanometer technology and would have also had several design improvements to boost performance and efficiency.
Since Intel’s 10-nanometer technology wasn’t ready for production in 2016, Intel added another product generation to the mix — Kaby Lake. It was based on the same basic design as Skylake, but thanks to some improvements in the underlying 14-nanometer manufacturing technology (Intel refers to it as 14-nanometer+), the Kaby Lake chips were a bit faster than their Skylake counterparts.
Intel also introduced a Kaby Lake-Refresh processor for the notebook computer market that doubled the number of cores compared to their Skylake predecessors.
After the Kaby Lake/Kaby Lake-Refresh products launched, Intel began releasing its Coffee Lake processors, which were manufactured on an even better 14-nanometer++ technology, for the segments that Kaby Lake-Refresh didn’t target (high-performance notebooks and desktop computers). These also brought core-count increases relative to their Kaby Lake predecessors.
Ice Lake, however, is likely to be a far more substantial update. In addition to improved processor cores, Ice Lake should incorporate a new graphics processor, enhancements in memory support, a more powerful image processor, and possibly more. On top of that, the move from 14++ to 10+ should mean a huge improvement in power efficiency, which could mean much better battery life for Ice Lake-powered computers.
In short: After several generations of relatively underwhelming generational processor improvements, Intel is set to bring a truly worthwhile generational leap in processor performance, capability, and power efficiency.
Unfortunately, while Ice Lake may have been “on track” to Intel’s internal goals as of March 7 (when FanlessTech put out the tweet), the reality is that Intel has been “on track” with respect to its 10-nanometer technology and products before, only to be derailed.
For example, when Intel first announced that Kaby Lake would launch in place of Cannon Lake in 2015, management indicated that it would launch its first 10-nanometer product, Cannon Lake, in the second half of 2017 (and ship the chips in high volumes).
As of this writing, in March 2018, Intel has yet to formally announce any products built using its 10-nanometer technology.
On the bright side, Intel’s financial forecasts seem to contemplate a meaningful financial impact from the ramp-up of 10-nanometer processor production during the second half of 2018. This could suggest that Intel really is on track and is well prepared to tackle the challenges that it will need to resolve to get Ice Lake into mass production on time.