Intel Tiger Lake: great ambition, good figures, but what about availability?

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Intel details what’s under the hood of the upcoming Tiger Lake chips for laptops. The chip builder creates a promising picture, but the most important question remains unanswered.

On a digital edition of its Architecture Day, Intel reveals exactly what lies behind the name ‘Tiger Lake’. Tiger Lake is the code name for the manufacturer’s latest laptop processors. In principle, the CPUs will be launched next month. With Tiger Lake, Intel finally has to respond to AMD’s excellent Ryzen 4000 Mobile processors. The bar is therefore high: if that fails, AMD will have the opportunity to anchor itself in the laptop market as a better alternative.

10 nm SuperFIN

On paper, Intel has a powerful weapon in its hands. Tiger Lake is first and foremost baked at 10 nm. Fortunately, the manufacturer gets rid of the ‘+’ signs that indicated the version of the process. So for 10 nm there will be no repeat of 14 nm ++++: just say 10 nm SuperFin. SuperFin stands for ‘SuperMIM capacitor design and redesigned FinFET transistors’. Intel’s 10nm SuperFIN process is the technical equivalent of the 7nm process that TSMC uses for AMD’s processors.

Just say 10 nm SuperFin.

Tiger Lake is built on the Willow Cove architecture. It succeeds Sunny Cove, which was the foundation for Ice Lake. Ice Lake also includes 10 nm chips, but the CPUs are plagued by a total lack of availability. Unless you’re in the market for a handful of very specific premium laptops, Sunny Cove and Ice Lake only exist on paper.

More efficient and faster

Intel claims that Willow Cove is a quantum leap from Sunny Cove. The architecture is synonymous with more cache, additional security features, but most importantly significantly higher clock speeds. That’s important: Intel has been putting more cores into its CPUs in recent years and those cores are getting higher boost frequencies, but base clock speeds have dropped compared to before. Willow Cove should give Tiger Lake a boost in the GHz department without increasing the consumption and TDP of the chips.

Furthermore, Intel claims that Willow Cove is more flexible than Sunny Cove. The chips thus have higher frequencies at a given voltage, but can scale much more dynamically in the requested voltage. We will not know with certainty what that means for the autonomy of Tiger Lake laptops and the performance of a given CPU for a few months.

Powerful Xe graphics

With Tiger Lake, Intel is also making a huge graphical leap forward. The Willow Cove CPUs are combined on-chip with a brand new range of Xe LP graphics. The mediocre Intel HD and Iris graphics will therefore get a successor. The Xe architecture stems from Intel’s ambition to break into the GPU market. The manufacturer has been working on its own graphics cards for a while and is now using the knowledge acquired for Tiger Lake’s integrated graphics capabilities.

Also read: Intel shows Xe DG1: first discrete graphics card from its own stable

Intel is confident that the Xe graphics will sweep the floor with the competition. That is a tough claim. Even before AMD’s comeback, that manufacturer had one strength: the graphics capabilities on its APUs. Intel is confident that the Tiger Lake chips will outperform AMD’s alternatives. The chip maker bases this on its own test results. Previously leaked benchmarks showed that an Intel Core i7-i1165G7 outperformed an AMD Ryzen 7 4700 by 35 percent in the 3DMark Time Spy test. Note: this only concerns the graphics capabilities.

If the claims are correct, Intel will soon launch chips that are more economical than ever, yet offer more computing power than their predecessors and for the first time have graphics capabilities on board that you can do something with. Intel pats itself on the chest and hopes to put an end to a few difficult years with the processor.

What about availability?

Technically, CEO Bob Swan and his team have everything it takes to make that happen. Intel’s biggest problems at the moment are not the quality of the chips. Ice Lake processors are also very good, as our testing showed earlier. The problem is that those who want Ice Lake can choose from a handful of expensive ultrabooks and nothing more. For the majority of laptops, Intel serves you 14 nm Comet Lake for and that doesn’t warm anyone.

Actually, we have no doubt that Tiger Lake will be very good. What we mainly want to know is whether Intel can push the chips off the band in sufficient volume. The company remains suspiciously vague about this. In any case, there will be no 14 nm announcement next to Tiger Lake: the processor will only be available as the latest model. Intel does indicate that it is up to the OEMs to choose how long they choose certain chips, and that sounds like a hidden excuse to indicate that Comet Lake may still remain prevalent.

We especially want to know if Intel can push enough chips off the band.

Of course it can also be caution. Intel itself claims that it has overcome all 10 nm production problems in the meantime. A statement genre “any manufacturer who wants to put a Tiger Lake chip in their laptop, will be able to do so”, unfortunately remains. On paper Intel drew a promising chip with Tiger Lake. Now we just have to hope that it will soon be available in a wide variety of laptops.

Also read: What you need to know about processors and nanometers

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