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Circuit Breaker

Intel’s first 10nm Ice Lake CPUs revealed: here’s your decoder ring

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Because “Core i7-1068G7” rolls right off the tongue

Photo by Sean Hollister / The Verge

After years of delays and false starts, Intel is finally shipping its first batch of 10nm processors to the world, the company announced last week. As we’ve previously discussed, the new Ice Lake CPUs are only for thin-and-light laptops no more powerful than a 13-inch MacBook Pro — but we’re now getting a rough idea how the lineup actually breaks down.

Today, Intel has revealed the first 11 processors based on its Ice Lake architecture, and some differences might not be obvious when you’re buying a laptop from a store — so I thought I’d whip up a little decoder ring to help you understand what a phrase like “Intel Core i5-1035G4” is all about.

Particularly because not all these chips are equal: a Core i7-1060G7, Core i7-1065G7 and Core i7-1068G7 might sound roughly the same, but they’re really not.

Intel’s naming scheme, broken down

You may want to reference this handy visual aid as we go, but don’t worry about digesting it all just yet:

As you can see, your typical processor name will be something like “Core i5-1035G7.”

  • Core i3 means you’re looking at a low-end chip with just two cores that can run a maximum of four operations at a time — but offer slightly higher base clockspeeds — while Core i5 and Core i7 each offer 4 cores and 8 threads. You also get 2MB of extra cache with each processor tier.
  • The first two digits are always “10,” and they simply mean you’re looking at a 10th Gen Ice Lake processor with all the benefits that confers, like faster graphics and better battery life when playing HEVC video, but also often a lower base clockspeed than before. If you see a “9” or an “8”, you’re looking at an older Intel processor.
  • The third digit seems to be how high a chip sits on the totem pole in terms of speed. For instance, a Core i7-1065G7 is clocked 100MHz higher than a Core i5-1035G7, and can boost 200MHz faster for short periods of time.
  • But the fourth digit is weirdly more important than the third digit, because it tells you the entire class of processor you’re looking at — a 0 means it’s a 9-watt Y-series chip that’s designed for fanless laptops and tablets that aren’t generally suited to sustained workloads, a 5 means it’s a 15-watt U-series chip that’s a little bit more powerful, and an 8 means it’s the beefy one — a 28-watt chip that, somehow, is the only processor in this lineup that starts at over 2GHz and can turbo to over 4GHz.
  • Lastly, Ice Lake’s faster graphics doesn’t mean fast graphics unless you see a high G-number at the end of the processor’s name, topping out at G7 for Intel Iris Plus graphics with 64 “execution units,” compared to G4 with 48 EUs or G1 which only have 32 EUs in tow. When Intel says you’re going to squeak by in e-sports titles at 1080p with integrated graphics, it’s a safe bet you’ll need the G7 to do so.

The big caveat: processing power isn’t as easy to identify anymore

Those are the basics, but I want to spend a little more time talking about digit number four and what that processor wattage (aka TDP) actually means — it stands for “thermal design power,” or the amount of heat a processor is expected to produce on average when it’s being used, and thus how much cooling it needs to run at full speed.

See how the Y-series chips are rated for 9W or 12W, or how the U-series chips are rated for 15W or 25W? That’s a tremendous range within each chip, and it means the exact same chip can run at faster frequencies for longer if manufacturers stick them in a larger laptop with better radiators and fans.

But also the fact that the Y-series TDP has crept up from 5W or 7W to what’s now 9W or 12W, while the U-series’ base clockspeeds have slunk down to around a Y-series-like 1GHz instead of hovering around 1.6GHz, suggest that U and Y are more alike than ever before — suggesting you may no longer be able to rely on a U-series processor to give you fast sustained performance unless it’s got enough thermal headroom to do so. Which you won’t find on a spec sheet, of course.

Here’s what Intel told us about the speed difference between Ice Lake Y and U:

[The] main performance difference between the 12W and 15W will be seen on multithreaded applications, which are more power limited. 3W of extra power will be used to increase average frequency into higher performance. We have seen between 5-15% performance increase on some benchmarks such as Spec06, SYSmark and 3DMARK.

That’s why that “8” in “Core i7-1068G7” is going to be the most important digit to look for later this year: it’s the only chip in the entire lineup that, for better or for worse, guarantees it’ll give you that minimum 2.3GHz in all apps. Just don’t expect the difference to be huge here either: Intel tells The Verge it’s seen a similar 5 to 15 percent performance increase from that 28W part compared to the 15W ones.

Intel says 35 laptops are lined up to deliver Ice Lake chips this holiday season, some of them Project Athena designs that’ll offer over 9 hours of real-world battery life. We’ll be eagerly waiting to see how they perform.