Intel’s new Kaby Lake processors: No performance gains

The new chips are pretty much even with the last generation. Is this reason for concern?

Intel’s new Kaby Lake processors: No performance gains
Credit: Intel

Intel recently released its newest generation of processors, the "Kaby Lake" generation, and performance tests are coming up wanting. It seems there is little to no gain at all from Kaby Lake over the prior generation, known as Skylake. 

I first heard of this a month ago, when the Chinese hobbyist site Expreview published a series of tests of Kaby Lake vs. Skylake. Kaby Lake runs at a higher clock speed than Skylake, but in one test they altered the clock so the two CPUs both ran at the same clock speed. 

At their stock settings, the Core i7-7700K (Kaby Lake) is up to 7.40 percent faster on average in single-threaded and up to 8.88 percent faster on average in multi-threaded performance compared to the Core i7-6700K (Skylake) when run at the stock settings. 

When both chips were clocked at 4.0 GHz and tested through the same 11 CPU benchmarks, the Core i7-7700K is 0.86 percent slower in single-threaded and 0.02 percent slower in multi-threaded tests. These are numbers that basically require a benchmark to find the difference. Your own eyes will see no difference, and that alone is problematic. 

Is desktop progress dead? 

At first, I waited for more reviews, and now one from Ars Technica confirms it. Any performance gains in Kaby Lake are negligible and gained because the clock speed went up. Ars Technica notes the small bump in base and boost clocks, and the GPU is largely identical to the Intel HD Graphics found in the Skylake model. 

"There are no major architectural changes, and it runs at the same 1150MHz clock speed. What you do get is support for 4K media decoding inside Windows 10's PlayReady 3.0 DRM, which makes 4K Netflix possible on PC," the reviewer wrote. 

The days of yesteryear, when a PC upgrade blew your hair back, are over. For some time, new generations of CPUs meant a bump of 10 percent in performance, maybe 15 percent. That's not much and is one reason for the decline in PC sales. PCs today are fast enough, and with 8GB of RAM and a SSD, there is nothing gained for a CPU upgrade. 

But now, with no gain at all and even a tiny loss, you have people (including Ars Technica) wondering if desktop progress is dead. As the increase in memory and advent of SSDs showed, there's more to computer performance than just the CPU. 

Kaby Lake not meant to increase performance 

But you also have to remember that Kaby Lake was not meant to be a performance boost. It's considered an optimization, not a new architecture. And it's not even a process shrink. Usually Intel shrinks its manufacturing process after two generations of chips, but not here, a reflection of how hard it is to get down to 10nm. 

Kaby Lake is not meant for desktops. It is designed for mobile. It will go into laptops and Surface tablets. Its design is meant to be more energy efficient and less taxing on a battery. What this means is laptops and tablets are going to be performance-competitive with desktops, since Skylake is quite a fast performer. That's the good news here.

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So, if you have a Skylake machine now, there is no need to upgrade at all. If you are running a Haswell-generation or older machine (like me), it might be time to look into an upgrade. Those a few generations removed will see the performance gain, plus enjoy the increased performance from USB 3.1 and PCI Express support.

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