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How much additional performance does Intel’s Kaby Lake refresh deliver?

Earlier this year, Intel announced it would no longer operate according to the tick-tock model that drove its product introductions for almost a decade. Instead, it would deliver on a P-A-O cadence. New process nodes would debut first, followed by a new architecture, followed by a further optimization of the process node. Kaby Lake is the first product Intel has formally delivered on this cadence, and there have been questions about how the company’s latest spin on 14nm would compare to its previous efforts.

PC World has done a deep-dive on this topic with three Dell XPS laptops that are nearly identical, save for their choice of CPU. This type of comparison is as close to a best-case scenario as you can get when comparing mobile hardware — manufacturers often make decisions about thermal solutions and throttle points that can result in wide variation between systems with identical specifications. This is even more true today as companies cut thickness and integrate features into smaller packages, and it makes these types of comparisons more difficult than their desktop counterparts.

We recommend reading the full PC World review if you want specifics on various workloads and comparison areas. But the broad conclusion is that Kaby Lake delivers a noticeable performance improvement to both CPU and graphics workloads. The Core i5-7200U (2.5GHz base, 3.1GHz Turbo) is roughly 10% faster than the Core i5-6200U (2.3GHz base, 2.8GHz Turbo). Battery life has improved by roughly 14% in hardware-accelerated video workloads — unless you test using the 10-bit HEVC 4K workloads that Skylake couldn’t fully decode in hardware. In that case, battery life is 3.5x better.

Kaby Lake offers roughly the same amount of relative improvement over Skylake that AMD’s Carrizo offers compared with its earlier Kaveri. Both CPU manufacturers delivered an update that dramatically improves power consumption and battery life in specific scenarios, with a general level of improvement in the 7-15% range depending on the specific application. The difference, apart from AMD’s lower level of performance, is that many of AMD’s initial Carrizo systems were handicapped by poor OEM designs and single-channel memory. AMD’s Carrizo refresh, codenamed Bristol Ridge, is supposed to be better than its predecessor in this regard, but HP and Lenovo only began shipping Bristol Ridge a month ago and detailed benchmarks aren’t available yet. AMD has previously claimed Bristol Ridge will offer a 10-15% performance improvement over Carrizo as well. With Intel serving up the same level of improvement in Kaby Lake, it won’t really change competitive positioning between the two companies.

AMD’s APU business is currently stuck in an awkward spot. Zen’s launch next year is expected to be a major event, and Zen CPUs should offer significantly better performance and power efficiency compared with Intel’s current lineup. Exactly how much better is still unknown, but AMD doesn’t need to beat Intel across its entire product family and at every price point to compete much more effectively. Zen APUs aren’t expected until later in 2017, which means AMD will have to flog its Carrizo-derived hardware for 9-12 more months before new products are finally available. As for Kaby Lake, its ~10% increased performance and improved battery life probably aren’t a reason to upgrade from Skylake. But if you have older mobile hardware based on Sandy or Ivy Bridge, you might see real improvements on all fronts.

Now read: How L1 and L2 CPU caches work, and why they’re an essential part of modern chips

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