Back to all articles

Intel Skylake: What’s the deal?


The new Skylake series of CPUs represent a narrow miss for Intel, as they went off their famous “tick, tock”release schedule thanks to problems with the 14nm production process. The 14nm Broadwell CPU line was released late, but Intel chose to release the “tock”architecture refresh on time, so we’ve barely had time to get to grips with Broadwell before it was replaced. The next generation will therefore be based on a smaller process, which means that Skylake represent the pinnacle of Intel's 14nm technology.

Refreshes of existing production processes usually focus more on better power efficiency and higher quality yields rather than outright performance improvements.

To get an idea of the performance delta we’re talking about here, compare the Skylake i5-6600k to the Haswell i5-4670k. The Skylake CPU gives an additional 17% of performance in benchmarks on average. Not earth-shaking, but the Haswell chips were certainly not slouches in their own right. That type of boost might not be worth shelling out for a upgrade, but if you are buying new or upgrading from an older generation system Skylake is clearly the better performer.

One significant difference is the inclusion of a dedicated H.264 video hardware decoder, which means video decoding duty can be performed by the CPU instead of the GPU. This is part of the overall strategy to improve power usage. Skylake CPUs can now directly manage their own power states thanks to the new Speed Shift technology, for better overall power usage. These improvements are clearly going to have the most impact in the mobile computer space.

Skylake also brings support for DDR4 (and still DDR3), which might be important for tasks that rely heavily on memory bandwidth, especially in light of improved branch prediction for the Skylake architecture.

The onboard controller also includes Thunderbolt 3 support, which means your Skylake laptop is ready for things like external Thunderbolt graphics over USB-C, should the manufacturer allow it.

The high-end binning on these parts also seem exceptional, with some publication claiming an overclock of 4.8Ghz on the 4 Ghz i76700K. While we never recommend overclocking for professional computers, such a stable overclock suggests great reliability at standard speeds.

Of particular interest is the launch of Skylake E3-1500M v5 mobile Xeons. This means that Intel has ushered in the era of mobile workstation CPUs, almost under our noses. Mobile computers with Xeon CPUs in the past have used desktop parts in custom chassis designs. These were, to put it mildly, not very battery friendly machines. These were portable workstations rather than mobile ones. Were still waiting on details, but expect high-end mobile computers with support for enterprise security, ECC memory and other features that set workstation CPUs apart from their desktop counterparts. Coupled with the aforementioned external graphics using Thunderbolt 3 and we could be looking at a much lighter load for the modern professional computer user.