What do Intel codenames – such as Kaby Lake – mean?

Intel codenames - processors
A fun game for all the family: can you tell if this is a Kaby Lake processor?

Kaby Lake. Skylake. Sandy Bridge. Read any techie website and you’re bound to be hit by these Intel codenames, occasionally followed by a Core-iSomething or Pentium-Whatever.

What do the codenames mean? Why should you care? What kind of narcotics are they passing round the Intel branding department?

We can’t tackle the last question, but the first two are much simpler.

How to decipher Intel codenames

Kaby Lake refers to the seventh-generation of Intel Core processor (there was an older version of the Core processor, but I’m going to gently ignore that because life is complicated enough already). We started off in November 2008 with Nehalem, and have since gone through the following iterations:

2nd Generation — Sandy Bridge, released 2011 (example processor name: Core i3-2xxx)
3rd Generation — Ivy Bridge, 2012 (Core i3-3xxx)
4th Generation — Haswell, 2013 (Core i3-4xxx)
5th Generation — Broadwell, 2014 (Core i3-5xxx)
6th Generation — Skylake, 2015 (Core i3-6xxx)
7th Generation — Kaby Lake, 2016 (Core i3-7xxx)

At the risk of making everyone stop reading straight away, I should explain that Kaby Lake is a microarchitecture rather than a processor.

Silicon purists should close their eyes for a paragraph, but everyone else can think of a microarchitecture as the blueprint on which all processors are based. It dictates the order in which information is processed, what flows where, and defines a whole lot of not-very-interesting standards (unless you design processors, in which case you probably aren’t reading this).

In fact, all the Intel codenames you’re likely to have ever heard of refer to microarchitectures. They’re like generations of blueprint: each becomes more advanced as time marches on, as the processors get smaller and we humans stare at screens more.

Fortunately, you can tell which generation a processor is by looking at its official name. I have a Core i5-5200U chip inside my laptop, and the “5” in the “5200” tells me that this is a fifth-generation Broadwell chip. To find out what the rest of the numbers and letters mean, read our guide “What do the numbers mean in Intel’s processors?

What’s so great about Kaby Lake?

An Intel PowerPoint slide showing off Kaby Lake

Kaby Lake does offer advantages over the previous generation of Skylake – clock speeds are a little higher, it can jump from a low-power state to a high-performance state more quickly, and the integrated graphics are slightly quicker – but there’s nothing jaw-dropping here.

This minor improvement is typical. It’s now rare that we see a big jump in performance or efficiency (longer battery life for laptops or lower power demands for desktop chips) between each generation of Intel processor. We’ve come to expect a 10% improvement in both each time.

But that does add up. If we assume a 10% improvement each year since the first-generation of Intel Core processor, that’s almost double the efficiency and speed by the seventh generation.

Perhaps more pertinently, the laws of maths tell us that there will be a 21% boost in the space of two generations.

The long and the short of it: it’s worth making sure you’re getting the latest-generation chip inside your laptop or PC.


About the author

Tim Danton

Tim Danton is editor-in-chief of PC Pro magazine and has written about technology since 1999. He enjoys playing with gadgets, playing with words and playing tennis. Email tim@bigtechquestion.com

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