Kaby Lake is the latest generation of CPUs from Intel following the undeniably successful Skylake generation, and so far we can say it’s been a roaring triumph. Not only does Intel’s Kaby Lake microarchitecture power the world’s thinnest convertible laptop, but reportedly even the MacBook Pro will make the switch.
Here are all the details you need to know on the upcoming Intel Kaby Lake CPU revolution.
Cut to the chase
- What is it? Intel's 7th-generation Core processor
- When is it out? Now for both desktops and laptops
- What will it cost? Mostly similar to Intel's Skylake processors
Intel Kaby Lake release date
Last summer, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich confirmed that Kaby Lake chipsets were dismissed from factory conveyor belts and subsequently sent to PC builders. In other words, Kaby Lake had formally arrived on our doorstep.
Since then, we’ve seen companies as reputable as HP and Dell release their own Kaby Lake-touting notebooks and PCs. The spec is making its way to everything from the ultra-light and long-lasting Toshiba Portégé series to the gamer-friendly Gigabyte Aero 14.
There were no shortage of leaks leading into the release of Kaby Lake. Now, however, with most of the processors out in the open, we finally have the numbers we need to reach a consensus on the evidenced advantages Intel’s 7th-gen chips boast over their predecessors.
Kaby Lake revealed CPUs
Outside of mobile, 20 Kaby Lake processors have managed to slip through the cracks. From the Pentium G3930 to the Core i7-7700K, practically all the choices you had last generation are still present.
The Core i7-7700K is the flagship processor this time around, unlocked for overclocking as indicated by the discrete "K" moniker. Like the generations before it, the Kaby Lake architecture opts for a numerical naming convention: it consists of the “7” series CPUs to Skylake’s generation 6, Broadwell’s gen 5 and so on.
The i7-7700K is a quad-core hyper-threaded CPU, and while benchmarks leaked all the way back in March suggested it to be clocked at 3.6GHz with a 4.2GHz turbo boost, the actual results illustrate a more fruitful 4.2GHz/4.5GHz core/boost clock.
Of course, real-world experiences may vary. The silver lining is that early overclock tests have proven to be quite impressive, managing speeds of over 7GHz, according to a HotHardware report via Russian tech site OCLab.
Pricing for the i7-7700K is about the same as its Skylake equivalent of yesteryear at $350 (£337, AU$498). So while it may not be worth the slight performance boost to upgrade from the i7-6700K, it’s still the 7700K is still the obvious choice if you’re torn between the two.
Next up is the Core i7-7500U, which initially leaked alongside the i7-7700K, but has since been found in the HP Spectre x360 as well as the Razer Blade Stealth. Intended for Ultrabooks on the top-end, this is a relatively high performance chipset, but still belongs to the "U" ultra-low voltage family.
This processor has two cores, four threads, and is clocked at 2.7GHz with a 2.9GHz turbo. Some of you might turn your noses up at dual-core laptop chipsets, but they still have a place in today’s world, particularly if you aim to save on battery.
On the mobile front, the higher-end Core m5 and m7 mobile chips of the past are now being integrated into the Y-series Intel Core family. These include the Core m3-7Y30, the Core i5-7Y54 and the Core i7-7Y75, which are being used in top-end laptops with fanless and convertible designs to complement the more power-hungry U-series processors.
Many of Intel’s 7th-generation selections also introduce Optane, a memory technology that brings hard drive speeds up to par with that of SSDs.
Intel Kaby Lake first laptops
Where will these chipsets end up? Well, they’re currently featured in a shortlist of notebooks, several of which we’ve already reviewed. The aforementioned Razer Blade Stealth and HP Spectre x360 are joined by the likes of the Dell XPS 13 refresh among many others Ultrabooks, 2-in-1s and full-on laptops.
If you’re wondering why the latest MacBook Pro still clings onto Skylake, the answer is simple: at the time of its release, there were no H-series Kaby Lake processors yet for Apple’s laptop to take advantage of. Fortunately, as earlier predicted, many of these showed up at CES 2017 having been implemented in gaming laptops from Acer and even one hardy contender from Alienware.
Some say Apple may skip over Kaby Lake altogether, but this seems unlikely when its successor Intel Cannonlake is not due to arrive until the second half of 2017; according to schedule, the 12-inch MacBook should get the Gen 7 treatment this spring.
Intel Kaby Lake architecture
Cannonlake is likely to prove a much more exciting update than Kaby Lake. You see, Kaby Lake is very similar to the Skylake family we're already using. This is not what we originally expected of the Skylake successor, but Intel has changed how its processor development works.
Since 2007, Intel has worked in a 'tick, tock' rhythm of upgrades, where one generation shrinks the die, followed by a generation that alters the architecture. That changed this year. As of 2016, Intel now uses a "Process, Architecture, Optimization" approach, and Kaby Lake represents that last, frankly least interesting stage.
It's still a 14nm processor that’s fairly similar to Skylake throughout, and the desktop variants will use the same LGA 1151 socket. Unless something goes terribly wrong, Cannonlake will shrink Intel CPUs down to the long-promised 10nm die in 2017.
While there are some performance and efficiency improvements in store, it seems unnecessary for those with a Skylake CPU to upgrade to a Kaby Lake processor of the same level.
Intel Kaby Lake upgrades
There are some distinct improvements involved in Kaby Lake, though. The first is fully integrated support for USB-C Gen 2. Skylake machines can offer this already, but need an extra third-party piece of hardware. It'll soon be 'native'. Again, it's not exciting but is necessary.
Gen 2 USB 3.1 enables bandwidth of 10Gbps, rather than 5Gbps. Thunderbolt 3 support is in, too. In a similar vein, HDCP 2.2 support is native in Kaby Lake. This digital copy protection is a newer version designed for certain 4K video standards. Ultra HD Blu-ray is the key one, though 4K Netflix on Windows 10 also requires a Kaby Lake processor.
That’s right, Kaby Lake also offers integrated GPUs better-suited to 4K video. Thanks to a new media engine built on a Gen9 graphics architecture, users can edit real-time 4K video using nothing more than integrated graphics. For video consumption, the new VP9 and HVEC 10-bit decode will enable all-day 4K video streaming on a single charge.
Kaby Lake only officially supports Windows 10 among Microsoft’s operating systems. This is yet another attempt by Microsoft to push those lingering on Windows 7, or anything a little older, into the present.
Apollo Lake: Kaby Lake's poor cousin
It's also worth considering the low-end Atom chipsets you'll see used in very cheap laptops, Windows 10 tablets and low-power mini PCs Intel calls NUCs (Next Unit of Computing). Although they’re not part of Kaby Lake, the latest “Apollo Lake” chips started to appear in late November, with Asus and HP being among the first to implement them.
These, too, are capable of 4K video playback acceleration by way of the HEVC and VP9 codecs. This is due in part to the move from Gen 8 to the Gen 9 graphics found in Skylake processors.
Kaby Lake-X: a higher-end future
If you're only interested in mainstream Kaby Lake models, the future isn't looking too complicated. They're trickling out, before being replaced by Cannonlake CPUs in late 2017. However, the outlook for seriously high-end hardware is more convoluted.
Right now Intel's newest high-end CPUs are part of the Broadwell-E series, even though among mainstream processors Broadwell is already old news. Quite simply, the real high-end hardware comes later. We're talking about CPUs like the $1,049 (£851, AU$1,355) Core i7-6900K.
The Kaby Lake alternative will not be called Kaby Lake-E but Kaby Lake-X, rather, and is expected to launch in the second half of 2017 alongside Skylake-X. That's right: two generations at the same time. Kaby Lake-X will reportedly offer a four-core processor, while Skylake-X will man the ascent to the almost-baffling 10-core version.
What mere mortal laptop and desktop buyers need to take from Kaby Lake, though, is that a.) we'll see even more machines using the new chipsets very soon and b.) unless you already need an upgrade, you might want to see whether 2017's Cannonlake introduces more exciting refinements.
Joe Osborne and Gabe Carey have also contributed to this article