In an unusual move for Intel, the chip giant has ever so slightly taken the wraps off of one of their future generation Core architectures. Basic information on the Ice Lake architecture has been published over on Intel’s codename decoder, officially confirming for the first time the existence of the architecture and that it will be made on Intel’s 10nm+ process.
The Ice Lake processor family is a successor to the 8th generation Intel® Core™ processor family. These processors utilize Intel’s industry-leading 10 nm+ process technology.
This is an unexpected development as the company has yet to formally detail (let alone launch) the first 10nm Core architecture – Cannon Lake – and it’s rare these days for Intel to talk more than a generation ahead in CPU architectures. Equally as interesting is the fact that Intel is calling Ice Lake the successor to their upcoming 8th generation Coffee Lake processors, which codename bingo aside, throws some confusion on where the 14nm Coffee Lake and 10nm Cannon Lake will eventually stand.
As a refresher, the last few generations of Core have been Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge, Broadwell, Haswell, Skylake, with Kaby Lake being the latest and was recently released at the top of the year. Kaby Lake is Intel’s third Core product produced using a 14nm lithography process, specifically the second-generation ’14 PLUS’ (or 14+) version of Intel’s 14nm process.
Meanwhile when it comes to future products, back at CES Intel briefly showed a device based on post-Kaby Lake designs, called Cannon Lake and based on their 10nm process. Since then Intel has also confirmed that the 8th Generation of processors for desktops, called Coffee Lake, will be announced on August 21st (and we recently received promotional material to that effect). Ice Lake then, seems poised to follow both Coffee Lake and Cannon Lake, succeeding both architectures with a single architecture based on 10nm+.
Working purely on lithographic nomenclature, Intel has three processes on 14nm: 14, 14+, and 14++. As shown to everyone at Intel’s Technology Manufacturing Day a couple of months ago, these will be followed by a trio of 10nm processes: 10nm, 10nm+ (10+), and 10++,
On the desktop, Core processors will go from 14 to 14+ to 14++, such that we move from Skylake to Kaby Lake to Coffee Lake. On the Laptop side, this goes from 14 to 14+ to 14++/10, such that we move from Skylake to Kaby Lake to Coffee Lake like the desktops, but also that at some time during the Coffee Lake generation, Cannon Lake will also be launched for laptops. The next node for both after this is 10+, which will be helmed by the Ice Lake architecture.
The way that the desktop and laptop markets will be diverging then converging is confusing a lot of people. Why is the laptop market splitting between 14++ and 10, and why is the desktop market not going to 10nm but straight to 10+? What lies beyond is a miasma of guess work, leaked slides, and guessing Intel’s strategy, but I believe the answer lies in Intel’s manufacturing technologies and the ability to move to newer lithographic nodes.
(We should interject here that the naming of a lithographic node has slowly lost its relevance between the features of the process and the actual transistor density and performance, such that TSMC’s improved 16FF+ is called 12FFN, but relies on similar transistor sizes with enhanced attributes. But 12 is a smaller number than 14, which is the marketing angle kicking in. By all accounts, Intel has typically been considered the more accurate foundry when it comes to numerical lithographic naming of the process, which others consider is to their detriment.)
Intel originally predicted that they would move to 10nm almost a year ago, at the end of 2016 and 2 years after the launch of their 14nm process. But the challenge in managing the technology required to advance to their version of 10nm has been fraught with difficulty. In all cases it can depend on external equipment, fine tuning a process, or getting acceptable yields – while one manufacturer might be satisfied with an 80% yield, another might consider that a failure. Being able to obtain high yields (ramp up) will also be a function of die size, and so the newest nodes are typically launched with smaller mobile parts in mind first, as the yields for smaller parts are better than larger parts at the same defect rate.