Intel’s Skylake rollout hasn’t been nearly as halting as the Broadwell rollout, but the company is still doling out information (and processors) bit by bit rather than all at once. We got our hands on the high-end, overclockable desktop version a few weeks ago, and Intel told us more about the CPU and GPU architectures at IDF. Today at IFA in Berlin, the company is finally taking the wraps off of specific CPUs for laptops, Ultrabooks, and mainstream desktops.
Intel is updating its full range of socketed desktop chips for the first time since Haswell was released in 2013—our coverage of those chips, which span from Core i7 all the way down to the Pentium, is here. As usual, though, Intel is devoting most of its attention to its mobile lineup. The new Core m3, m5, and m7 chips promise big CPU and GPU performance improvements for fanless designs like the Retina MacBook and the Asus Zenbook UX305. And some of the U-series Ultrabook chips should get a nice GPU performance bump—they’ll ship with embedded eDRAM for the first time, something that had previously been limited to high-end quad-core CPUs.
Core M: Meet m3, m5, and m7
Intel’s first Broadwell chips last year arrived in the form of Core M, a new name meant to differentiate Y-series Core i3, i5, and i7 CPUs from their faster laptop and desktop cousins. Those numbers didn’t disappear, but they were only visible in the products’ model numbers rather than their official, consumer-facing names.
Skylake tweaks things yet again. The monolithic Core M has been split up into Core m3, m5, and m7 families. Aside from clock speed, though, there’s very little that separates the three families; all support Turbo Boost, all support Hyperthreading, all include the Intel HD 515 GPU, and all include 4MB of L3 cache.
All three families also have configurable TDPs that PC makers can use to adjust their performance and heat output for different systems; all use a 4.5W TDP by default, but the Core m5 and m7 chips can go down to 3.5W and the Core m3 chips can go down to 3.8W. For higher-performance systems, all four can also be bumped up to 7W.
This family still isn’t large—there are just four Core M chips, plus a less-flexible, low-end Pentium chip. It has 2MB of L3 cache, a lesser “Intel HD Graphics” GPU, no Turbo Boost, and a higher 6W TDP. It can’t go up to 7W like the Core M chips can, but it can go down to 4.5W for slower systems.
There are two things you should keep in mind regarding the Core M family. The first is that Intel is promising some impressive year-over-year improvements, the largest that it’s advertising for any of the Skylake chips. CPU performance should be up by between 10 and 20 percent depending on your workload, while GPU performance is supposed to increase by as much as 40 percent.
The original Core M systems had wildly varying performance, so we’ll need to wait to see the Skylake version in shipping systems before we get too excited. Depending on the TDPs that PC makers choose to use and how quickly these chips throttle under load, the performance gains could be smaller in real life than they are on paper. But if these claims are accurate it could make the thin, fanless systems that Core M ushered in more plausible replacements for Ultrabooks from 2011 or 2012, the kinds of laptops that will be coming up for replacement during Skylake’s run.
The one banner Skylake feature that the Core M chips don’t get is DDR4 support. The new Core Ms can support faster 1866MHz LPDDR3 or DDR3L as well as the 1600MHz speeds supported by Broadwell but no DDR4. All of these CPUs should be available to OEMs now, and they ought to begin showing up in shipping hardware in the next month or two.
And finally, one new feature that has nothing to do with speeds and feeds: the Skylake version of the Core M CPU package is drastically smaller than the Broadwell version. This move will save motherboard space in laptops—things like the already-tiny MacBook logic board can now get even smaller, leaving more room for battery or other components—and let Core M fit into smaller enclosures. That’s one reason why Intel can now offer a Core M version of its Compute Stick HDMI dongle.
One feature that isn’t exclusive to the Y-series but will probably see the most use with Core M chips is support for the kinds of I/O devices more commonly seen in tablets and phones. This includes things like eMMC, I2C, and UART along with more typical interfaces like SATA and PCIe 2.0 and 3.0. Those tablet-y interfaces were typically only included with Atom processors, but now they’ll be an option for higher-end Core PCs as well. Core chips also include a basic 13MP image signal processor (ISP), something that won’t hold a candle to top-end phone cameras but should prove sufficient for supporting basic front- and rear-facing cameras on devices.
Best case, support for different kinds of storage should help some of these Skylake chips fit in different kinds of devices—once again, the new Core M Compute Stick is a good example. Let’s just hope that OEMs don’t use eMMC support as an excuse to cut costs by saddling laptops and convertibles with cheaper, slower storage.