Kaby Lake is the latest generation of CPUs from Intel following the undeniably successful Skylake generation. Powering the vast majority of mainstream laptops and PCs, including the Dell XPS 13 and the latest MacBook Pro 2017, so far we can say it’s been a roaring triumph.
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But it’s also been a confusing and frustrating generation for fans of Moore’s Law. Unlike in years past, where the “tick-tock” model would shrink process technology down biennially, the 7th and now 8th-generation Kaby Lake processors are the third and fourth Intel microarchitectures, respectively, to utilize Intel’s 14nm node.
As such, we’ve made it our duty to write up everything you need to know about Intel Kaby Lake – from its price to its availability to the range of processors available.
Cut to the chase
- What is it? Intel's 7th- and 8th-generation Core processors
- When is it out? Now for both desktops and laptops
- What will it cost? Ranges from $42 (£39, AU$66) to $350 (£415, AU$469)
Intel Kaby Lake release date
Last summer, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich confirmed that Kaby Lake chipsets had dispersed from factory conveyor belts and were subsequently dispatched to PC builders. In other words, Kaby Lake had officially arrived on our doorstep.
Since then, we’ve seen companies as reputable as HP and Dell, Lenovo and Microsoft release their own Kaby Lake-touting notebooks and desktop PCs. The spec has even made its way to ultra-thin and light gaming notebooks taking advantage of Nvidia’s Max-Q technology, like the Asus ROG Zephyrus GX501.
Of course, there were no shortage of spills leading into release of Kaby Lake. But, with most of the processors out in the open, we finally have the numbers we need to reach a consensus on the evidenced advantages Intel’s 7th- and 8th-generation chips boast over their predecessors.
Kaby Lake revealed CPUs
Outside of mobile, there are well over 20 Kaby Lake chips now on the market. From the Celeron G3930 to the Core i7-7700K, practically all the choices you had last generation are still present, albeit with better power efficiency and even a slight spec boost.
The Core i7-7700K is the flagship processor this time around, unlocked for overclocking as indicated by the discrete "K" moniker. Like the generations before it, the Kaby Lake architecture opts for a numerical naming convention: it consists of the “7” series CPUs to Skylake’s generation 6, Broadwell’s gen 5 and so on.
However, Intel is trying something with Kaby Lake that’s practically unprecedented. By refreshing its 7th-generation processors with more cores, better clock speeds and improved graphics, the company has been able to create an entirely new generation out of its Kaby Lake processors as well, hence the Core i7-8550U being used in the new HP ProBooks.
As far as Intel’s 7th-gen mobile processors are concerned, the most powerful lie in the “H” series, consisting mainly of the Intel Core i7-7700HQ and the Intel Core i7-7820HK. The former can be found in the 15-inch MacBook Pro while the latter is featured predominately in high-end gaming notebooks like the Alienware 17 R4.
At Intel’s low- to medium-power range, there’s the Core i7-7500U, which initially leaked alongside the i7-7700K, but has since been found in the HP Spectre x360 as well as the Razer Blade Stealth. Intended for Ultrabooks on the top-end, this is a relatively high performance chipset, but still belongs to the "U" ultra-low voltage family.
Meanwhile, Intel’s 8th-generation Kaby Lake processors marked the debut of quad-core processors for Ultrabooks. These include the top-end Intel Core i7-8550U, which operates at a base clock speed of 1.8GHz and a boost speed of 3.7GHz. As for the graphics, you can expect integrated UHD Graphics 620 from Intel.
Further on the mobile front, the higher-end Core m5 and m7 mobile chips of the past are now being interspersed into the Y-series Intel Core family. These include the Core m3-7Y30, the Core i5-7Y54 and the Core i7-7Y75, which are being used in top-end laptops with fanless and convertible designs to complement the more power-hungry U-series processors.
Many of Intel’s 7th- and 8th-generation selections also support Optane, a memory technology that brings hard drive speeds up to par with that of SSDs.
Intel Kaby Lake first laptops
Where have these chipsets ended up? Well, they’re currently featured in a long list of notebooks, several of which we’ve already reviewed. The aforementioned Razer Blade Stealth and HP Spectre x360 are joined by the likes of the Lenovo Yoga 720 among many other Ultrabooks, 2-in-1s and full-on laptops.
The MacBook Pro, too, has been given the Kaby Lake treatment, though our review of that model is pending. Because the “H” series Kaby Lake processors typically used in the 15-inch MacBook Pros weren’t available at the time of its release, Apple’s late 2016 laptops were still clinging to Skylake up until being hastily refreshed at WWDC 2017.
Other laptops equipped with Kaby Lake processors include the new 2-in-1 Dell Latitude 7285 featuring WiTricity magnetic wireless charging and the acclaimed Samsung Notebook 9 Pro convertible laptop. Plus, there are even more Kaby Lake-based laptops expected just around the corner, like the Surface Book 2.
Intel Kaby Lake architecture
Cannonlake is likely to prove a much more exciting update than Kaby Lake and even Coffee Lake thereafter. You see, Kaby Lake is very similar to the Skylake family we're already using. This is not what we originally expected of the Skylake successor, but Intel has changed how its processor development works.
Since 2007, Intel has worked in a 'tick, tock' rhythm of upgrades, where one generation shrinks the die, followed by a generation that alters the architecture. That changed this year. As of 2016, Intel now uses a "Process, Architecture, Optimization" approach, and Kaby Lake represents that last, frankly least interesting stage.
It's still a 14nm processor that’s fairly similar to Skylake throughout, and the desktop variants will use the same LGA 1151 socket. Unless something goes terribly wrong, Cannonlake will shrink Intel CPUs down to the long-promised 10nm die in 2018.
While there are some performance improvements in store, it seems unnecessary for those with a Skylake CPU to upgrade to a Kaby Lake processor of the same level. That said, there are more options this time around, with higher end Kaby Lake-X CPUs making an impression.
Intel Kaby Lake upgrades
Despite not being the most thrilling generation of processors, there are some distinct improvements that inhabit Intel’s Kaby Lake CPUs. The first is fully integrated support for USB-C Gen 2. Skylake machines can offer this already, but need an extra third-party piece of hardware. Now, its “native”. Again, not exciting, but it is necessary.
Gen 2 USB 3.1 enables bandwidth of 10Gbps, rather than 5Gbps. Thunderbolt 3 support is in, too. In a similar vein, HDCP 2.2 support is native in Kaby Lake. This digital copy protection is a newer version designed for certain 4K video standards. Ultra HD Blu-ray is the key one, though 4K Netflix on Windows 10 also requires a Kaby Lake processor.
That’s right, Kaby Lake also offers integrated GPUs better-suited to 4K video. Thanks to a new media engine built on a Gen9 graphics architecture, users can edit real-time 4K video using nothing more than integrated graphics. For video consumption, the new VP9 and HVEC 10-bit decode will enable all-day 4K video streaming on a single charge.
Better yet, Intel’s 8th-gen processors bring integrated UHD Graphics, designed to enhance the playback of 4K video. As a result, an Ultrabook using 8th-gen chips can display across three 4K monitors at once or even power a Windows Mixed Reality headset. It should also be noted that 8th-generation Kaby Lake processors are said to be 40% faster than their 7th-gen counterparts.
Kaby Lake only officially supports Windows 10 among Microsoft’s operating systems. This is yet another attempt by Microsoft to push those lingering on Windows 7, or anything a little older, into the present.
Apollo Lake: Kaby Lake's poor cousin
It's also worth considering the low-end Atom chipsets you'll see used in very cheap laptops, Windows 10 tablets and low-power mini PCs Intel calls NUCs (Next Unit of Computing). Although they’re not part of Kaby Lake, the latest “Apollo Lake” chips started to appear in late November, with Asus and HP being among the first to implement them.
These, too, are capable of 4K video playback acceleration by way of the HEVC and VP9 codecs. This is due in part to the move from Gen 8 to the Gen 9 graphics found in Skylake processors.
Kaby Lake-X: a higher-end future
If you're only interested in mainstream Kaby Lake models, the future isn't looking too complicated. They're trickling out, before being replaced by Cannonlake CPUs in late 2017. However, the outlook for seriously high-end hardware is more convoluted.
As of a couple of months ago, the newest high-end CPUs were part of the Broadwell-E series, even though among mainstream processors Broadwell is already old news. But in June, Intel released its more powerful Skylake and Kaby Lake “X” series processors, the latter of which comes in two flavors:
- 4.0GHz quad-core Intel Core i5-7640X (up to 4.2GHz with Turbo Boost)
- 4.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7-7740X (up to 4.5GHz with Turbo Boost)
Both of these bear TDP ratings of 112 Watts in addition to supporting quad-channel DDR4-2666 memory. They’re still built on the same 14nm manufacturing node as less “X-treme” Kaby Lake chips, but they’re very obviously geared towards gamers seeking a “great VR experience,” as all of Intel’s marketing materials would suggest.
What mere mortal laptop and desktop buyers need to take from Kaby Lake, though, is that a.) we'll see even more machines using the new chipsets very soon and b.) unless you already need an upgrade, you might want to see whether 2017's Intel Coffee Lake introduces more exciting refinements.