Intel makes a habit of announcing its new processor generations in gradual steps. A month ago, it introduced the first members of its sixth-gen Core family — better known by the codename Skylake — in the form of the overclocking-ready Core i7-6700K and Core i5-6600K, a pair of desktop chips primarily aimed at gamers. Today at IFA, the American chipmaker is unfurling the full breadth of its Skylake range, which will span the broadest spectrum of devices in the company’s history. Intel will have Skylake processors going from a 4.5W TDP designed for ultra-thin, fanless machines all the way up to 91W for workstation and enthusiast gaming purposes.
Kirk Skaugen, the general manager of Intel’s Client Computing Group and the person charged with expanding the company’s mobile business, will be presenting the news in a keynote address on Wednesday that will kick off a busy day of IFA 2015 press conferences. OEM partners like Acer, Asus, and Lenovo will then be following up with their announcements of new machines using the new processors, putting real hardware meat around the beating heart of Intel’s latest. Ahead of the show, Skaugen sat down for an interview with The Verge to discuss Intel’s strategy with its new family of chips and the close collaboration with Microsoft that leads him to believe that there’s never been a better time to buy a new PC.
"This is something that only happens once every decade or so," opines Skaugen while describing the perfect synchronicity in the release of Windows 10 and the sixth-gen Core processors. It’s rare for a brand new operating system to coincide so neatly with a new CPU generation, and the shared hype is likely to drive positive sales for both Microsoft and Intel. But there’s more to this coincidence than mere serendipity. Skaugen says Intel has been working on the Skylake architecture for more than four years, and it’s collaborated with Microsoft on generating some synergies along the way.
The RealSense cameras that Intel has been developing over the past couple of years now facilitate the Windows Hello face unlocking feature of Windows 10. For businesses, Skaugen promises "this will be the most secure software and processor combination ever" thanks to built-in software guard extensions. Intel is also integrating a sensor hub and an image signal processor into some of its mobile-focused processors, consolidating all processing and making things simpler for the software engineer.
The coolest new feature in Skylake, though, is a technology Intel calls Speed Shift. Before the sixth-gen Core CPUs, the operating system would be responsible for giving cues when more or less performance is needed and the processor would adjust its speed accordingly. That reaction would usually take 30ms, but now Intel has shifted the intelligence over to the processor and is allowing it to make the determination itself. The latency is reduced to just 1ms and the end result is a more responsive and power-efficient system: a win for Intel, Microsoft, and the end user. A Windows 10 update will enable this functionality in the "near term," and it might be something we can expect on Mac computers as well, though Skaugen refuses to divulge specifics on Apple’s plans. He would only say that the "architectural benefits and things that are in Skylake, we would hope and expect Apple to make use of."
Among the things encouraging Skaugen to be bullish about Intel’s present release is also the rapid pace of iteration that he anticipates with Windows 10. "The evergreen release cycle of Android and iOS coming to Windows helps Intel light up new hardware features that much faster." It used to be, he says, that Intel would have to wait for two or three years until a major OS update would harness the latest additions or integrated technologies in Core processors. Now, with Windows 10 being subject to continual and regular improvement, he sees opportunity for a much faster turnaround.
Intel might not keep up with Moore's Law, but "innovation won’t slow down."
With Intel CEO Brian Krzanich recently admitting that Intel may be slipping in its long-established adherence to Moore’s Law, there’s an understandable shift within the company to deliver more than just pure computing power. That’s not a recent phenomenon, but it’s felt more starkly now than ever. This is why, as Skaugen explains, more and more transistors in the chip are used for things beyond pure CPU performance. There’s security and graphics, and dedicated engines to help with things like 4K video encoding and decoding. All of these combined efforts, plus the help of willing partners like Microsoft, should ensure that "innovation won’t slow down for the end user." Skaugen is also unwilling to "accept the idea that things will slow down after 10nm," suggesting that the jump after the next shrinking in manufacturing size might not take as long.
But that’s all far off into the future. Intel is at 14nm today, with Skylake being a very fast successor to the Broadwell series that only debuted this January. It initially seemed like Skylake would focus on ramping up performance, given Intel’s launch of fast desktop parts, but Skaugen says Intel’s emphasis has been on the mobile end of the spectrum. The flagship Skylake product, if there were to be such a thing, would be the 2-in-1 hybrid device. Whether that’s a tablet with a keyboard attachment or a laptop with a 360-degree hinge, Intel has witnessed this category grow dramatically. Skaugen says that 2-in-1s are the fastest-growing device type after phablets, so it’s hard to fault Intel’s strategy.
The new Core M processor, part of Intel’s Y Series, will be much improved, and this time it will have enough performance flexibility to be segmented into three tiers: M3, M5, and M7. "With sixth-gen Core M," promises Skaugen, "you’ll get about twice the performance of the best tablet out there today, whether it’s an iPad or a Galaxy tablet." At the same time, Intel is working on developing a wireless charging standard for detachable keyboards, which it hopes to combine with these most mobile of chips to essentially turn your tablet’s keyboard into a charging dock, minus the charger wire. This is where Microsoft’s support and quick implementation comes into play again, and that relationship will continue to be important as Intel looks to push other technologies like its upcoming Thunderbolt 3 interconnect.
Employing a slightly more expansive definition of "mobile," Intel’s Skylake also marks the company’s debut of overclocking-ready K Series processors for notebooks. "We look at the enthusiast and gaming community," explains Skaugen, "and we see [that] increasingly, people are going mobile. People want to game when they’re traveling." Intel has seen great interest from "both the boutique gaming players and the big OEMs" and Skaugen expects them all to get into laptop gaming with a renewed vigor. As to the more professional user, there are now also mobile Xeon models among Intel’s sixth-gen lineup, which Skaugen says will allow 3D designers to work on the move without having to carry their assignments "all the way across town." The Xeon-powered machines, he says, will be "kind of luggable, but still portable."
There’s a symmetry of purpose between Intel’s efforts and Microsoft’s. One wants its software to be ubiquitous and running on everything, the other wants its chips to be omnipresent and powering everything. Skaugen articulates Intel’s mission as "a continuum of performance, from servers to wearables." But he also sees Intel’s role as evolving toward being a "communications and connectivity company as much as an IT company." A decade ago, Intel was "a PC company aspiring to sell PCs and servers." The new vision for the future is one where "if it consumes electricity, it computes; and if it computes, it connects; and if it’s smart and connected, it will be best to have Intel."
"if it consumes electricity, it computes; and if it computes, it connects; and if it’s connected, it will be best to have Intel."
The obvious gap in Intel’s connectivity continuum is actually the most popular and important category of them all: smartphones. That’s the Achilles heel that Intel doesn’t like to talk about much, but it’s certainly something the company is taking seriously. "Smartphones are incredibly important to our business," says Skaugen, while noting Intel’s growing 4G modem business and established strong reputation in China. Capitalizing on a positive brand association with quality and security might help Intel break into the highly competitive Chinese market, and Skaugen believes there’s opportunity there simply by virtue of "a tremendous customer preference for choice." Phone makers want to have more options than just Qualcomm modems and ARM processors, and Intel is working to try and provide them with viable alternatives. "We are making progress," says Skaugen, "and we are in this for the long haul."
Kirk Skaugen’s mission of transitioning Intel to being the provider of more than just PC processors is well under way. The funny thing is that it’s happening in parallel with Microsoft’s redefinition of what a PC is or can be, and so even as Intel moves into new device segments and areas of business, it might still find itself technically providing parts for Windows PCs. That will probably be just fine by Skaugen, who seems determined to ensure that every single electronic device out there has at least a little bit of Intel inside it.