Back near the start of summer we covered the news from Computex and how Intel was shifting gears on its high-end desktop (HEDT) lineup. What we got was a lineup that didn’t seem to make sense at the time – a Core X-Series (which even I have, for some time, erroneously referred to as the Core X lineup) paired to a motherboard that didn’t seem to always line up with the processors that were going to utilize it. There has been a bit of question as well as to what justification people had to upgrade away from the previous HEDT lineup of Haswell-E and Broadwell-E. And, as we approach the release of Intel’s Coffee Lake unlocked lineup, I think we can finally start to make sense of where it is now and where they are headed.
Before we get into a deeper discussion it’s necessary to include a few notes here. First, this is based off of information publicly released by Intel at this point in time, with some credible rumors about what may be coming. We also have sent several inquiries to Intel regarding parts of this analysis. At the time of writing this we have not received any responses, but if any arrive they will be added in an update.
Intel’s Mainstream Lineup – 4 to 6 Cores next week, 8 possibly following year
Last week we received information from Intel about the Coffee Lake lineup that originally wasn’t supposed to go public until next week. Unfortunately someone decided to break that NDA and Intel, in an attempt to keep everyone on the the same timelime, released that information to the public shortly after. While we do see the departure of a 4-core, 8-threaded CPU from the mainstream lineup, each level gets more cores. For example, the former 4-core, 4-thread Core i5 becomes the new Core i3. Intel also decided to keep an unlocked version of this CPU around, meaning that users now have yet another unlocked option in a lower price range that isn’t branded as a Pentium. The Core i5 and i7 each get 2 additional cores to play with; the Hyper-Threading Technology remains only for the Core i7.
The Coffee Lake marketing strategy is targeting two sets of buyers: Both those who constantly upgrade to the latest and greatest as well as those who haven’t upgraded in 3 or more years, which still remains an industry recommendation for both home and business use. Intel has given each level a reason to upgrade on the CPU side; motherboards, however, are limited. Upon next week’s release the only choice on a motherboard chipset will be the Z370. Intel stated in their presentation that more will be coming in the first half of next year to fill out the rest of the lineup, but that it didn’t make sense to delay portions that were ready while the remainder is in the works.
Intel also noted that the entire lineup will be able to get up to 40 PCI-Express lanes. A maximum of 16 will be supported by the CPU and are generally used to connect a single video card; the remaining 24 will come from motherboard manufacturers utilizing the Z370 chipset and how they decide to allocate those. There has been some confusion on the topic given that companies do not have a standard method of sharing this information. The confusion alone on X299 from the previous X99 generation has led some system builders to even offer clarifications on their own sites to help inform buyers.
And what about those X99 owners? Back in May I offered a conclusion that there was little incentive to upgrade to the Core X-Series at the same CPU counts. That becomes especially true with the Coffee Lake and Z370 chipset as X99 owners can now get a better performing 6-core processor from the mainstream lineup than currently available in the X-Series lineup. It’s likely that the performance of the i7-8700K may even top a i7-5960X due to higher clock speeds. And if they want the higher core count they may not have alternatives available.
The 8 core CPU scenario gets even more interesting. Leaks from Intel presentations and system builders in Europe have already indicated that both an Z390 chipset and 8-core, 16-thread processor will be added to the mainstream lineup during the second half of 2018. While it has not been mentioned how many PCI-Express lanes either such a CPU or chipset would offer, it would be a minimum of what is already available. The 6 and 8-core consumers could choose the mainstream lineup and likely gain raw performance from the CPU at a lower overall hardware cost and less PCI-E lanes. But if they want the additional lanes for more hardware, such as GPU-based processing, they’ll likely choose the higher lane count that X299 and the Core X-series offer.
Core X-Series and Xeon Scalable Revisited: Separate Paths
Consumers of up to 8 cores will have a choice to make, either with Coffee Lake or the upcoming 8-core mainstream lineup entry next year. But why would Intel create a division in its purchase categories like this? For many this seemed to be a discussion of overclock headroom as well as a way to leave a longer upgrade path for those interested in that direction. But I honestly believe something else may be at play here.
Prior to the Core X-Series and Xeon Scalable lineups both consumer and enterprise had long shared socket designs. On a lower side of the spectrum, Intel’s mainstream consumer lineup shared the same socket as the Xeon E3 lineup. As we went higher they both transitioned to a bigger socket, most recently LGA2011. This had been the status quo for quite some time, so Intel deciding to go away from this is just as signficant as removing the mainstay 4-core, 8-thread i7 from the head of the mainstream lineup. Why would Intel possibly do this?
Technical differences between the new lineups and the previous are still missing crucial details, so it’s hard to explain this from a technical perspective. However, from a sheer marketing strategy it’s finally accomplished something that Intel has needed to do for quite some time. Since the consumer and enterprise processors had long shared the same socket it was hard to offer significantly different pricing between the two. After all, if they shared the same socket, what would stop enterprise users from just using cheaper consumer-based solutions for their needs?
Official support is often limited to those enterprise products and, often, deters potential buyers away from such instances. But now, by separating the two lineups, Intel has successfully been able to detach any lingering connections and interchanging between consumer and enterprise. In the short term I wouldn’t expect much to change. But moving forward this allows Intel to price the two separately, meaning they could become more competitive on the consumer side if they wanted to. At the same time this protects their enterprise revenue, something that is considered by many to be Intel’s “bread and butter” when it comes to sales and revenue.
We’ve asked some questions to Intel as to the technical reasons to split these and have yet to receive a response. We’ll be happy to share any details we receive.
Looking Ahead: Mainstream Coffee Lake & 2018
A lot of this is educated analysis; it’s easily possible that information may be provided that clarifies or debunks this article. Readers won’t have to wait too long for part of it as the initial Coffee Lake reviews are expected to be available on Thursday morning. And if you’re trying to make sense of where the new mainstream lineup fits in this bigger picture, you may want to keep an eye on this space that morning to gain a bit more insight. But once we get past Thursday a wait begins for 2018. During that time Intel will be working on bringing the remainder of the Coffee Lake lineup to desktop spaces, including additional processor and motherboard chipset options. AMD should, at the same time, be working on its second generation of its Zen-based processors.
2017 has been a great year so far for consumers, offering new choices and new pricing that has changed the status quo. If what we know is only the beginning, 2018 could very well see both Intel and AMD offering great products, each to their own strengths and in price ranges that will offer new options for almost every consumer level. In the end of that debate consumers will have a choice on their hands – but it will be their choice. And that’s a great problem to have as a consumer.