Intel is in somewhat of a tight spot. The industry demands new products on a yearly cycle, but as far as processors go, there isn't a whole lot more that PC and laptop buyers today need from their machines that they can't get from the ones they already have. Sure, everyone would like a lighter laptop and more power overall at the same price, but let's face it, there's no new killer app or usage scenario that demands a leap in performance, and there hasn't been for a long time.
The world's largest PC chipmaker can keep pushing transistor sizes down, squeezing more life out of each jump to a smaller manufacturing process, but the process gets more expensive and complicated with each generation. We're also facing the prospect of diminishing returns with each such transition.
Well over a year ago, Intel announced that it would break its longstanding practice of introducing a smaller process every other release cycle, and instead ship a third generation of products on the then-new 14nm node. A new codename, Kaby Lake, was inserted into roadmaps to serve as a successor to Skylake and fill the void created by pushing the 10nm Cannonlake generation a year out.
Much like all of Intel's releases, Kaby Lake is coming out in phases. The first wave, in late 2016, comprised of the low-power U-series and Y-series processors for Ultrabooks, 2-in-1s and similar small devices, since these are the hottest selling PC form factors. Manufacturers were thereby able to release new products in time for the busy US holiday shopping season. Now, the same architecture is coming to servers, desktops and more traditional laptops, and we have the top-end enthusiast desktop model, the new Core i7-7700K, with us for review already.
There's also a new generation of platform controllers, aka chipsets, to go with Kaby Lake. We received a shiny new Z270-based Asus Maximus IX Hero to test our CPU with, and we'll be taking a good look at it as well.
Intel Core i7-7700K architecture and features
Skylake was the first implementation of a new architecture, and Cannonlake was supposed to be the process shrink that followed. Now, we have an interloper, Kaby Lake - Intel is calling it the "optimisation" stage in a new three-year "process-architecture-optimisation" cycle. As such, there are few changes compared to Skylake. Intel is going so far as to say that Kaby Lake uses a "14nm+" manufacturing process, by which it means that performance gains can be realised thanks to improvements to the fabrication process alone. At the time of the U- and Y-series launch, Intel said that there would be a 12 percent increase in performance even if nothing else about the CPU itself was to change.
The Core i7-7700K in particular sits at the top of the list of offerings, and has a base speed of 4.2GHz with a maximum boost speed of 4.5GHz. The K indicates an unlocked multiplier for overclockers to tinker with. This is still a quad-core CPU with Hyper-Threading, as there are no major changes to the structure of the product lineup: all desktop Core i7s still have four cores and eight threads; Core i5 CPUs have four cores but no Hyper-Threading, and Core i3s have two cores with Hyper-Threading.
Still, there are some new things to talk about, most notably some major improvements to the integrated graphics capabilities of these processors. Desktop Kaby Lake CPUs will feature the new HD Graphics 630 integrated GPU which promises superior 4K video handling, including playback and encoding for the H.264, H.265, VP9, and HEVC standards at high bitrates.
Specifically, hardware acceleration for 4K HEVC 10-bit encode/decode and VP9 decode are new with this generation. 4K 60fps video can be decoded at up to 120Mbps, or if the quality is a more standard 4K 30fps, up to eight streams can be decoded simultaneously. There's also now support for HDR video tone mapping with a wide color gamut in accordance with the Rec.2020 specification which is part of the HDMI 2.0 standard and widely recognised in the broadcast industry.
Intel points out that Netflix and YouTube are aggressively pushing newer video standards in order to boost compression and reduce Internet bandwidth consumption, and that video is expected to account for 70 percent of all Internet traffic in 2017. This means there is a real appetite out there for such capabilities even in products aimed at consumers, not just content creators and professionals. People might not know the specifics of the standards, but "smoother and more efficient video streaming" is a highly relatable selling point.
Other than graphics, there are improvements to Intel's Speed Shift algorithms which govern when and how quickly the CPU adjusts its clock speed in response to changing workloads, with the goal of reducing power draw by either getting tasks over with quickly with a burst of speed, or slowing down to keep consumption below a point. Short bursts, in the range of milliseconds each, can help a PC feel more responsive.
Unsurprisingly for a stopgap product, there isn't really anything new to the CPU architecture itself. Intel is targeting people who use PCs and laptops which are now around five years old, and sure, users will see significant cumulative improvements if they haven't upgraded in that long. Kaby Lake doesn't push any new killer app or use-case scenario, but it will allow manufacturers to sell new PCs with newer, higher numbers on their spec sheets.
The 2XX platform
On the other hand, a lot has changed outside of the CPU, and so Intel is releasing an updated series of platform controllers, known colloquially as chipsets. Kaby Lake uses exactly the same socket as Skylake, and there is full cross-compatibility between both lines of CPUs and motherboards (with a BIOS update). You don't strictly have to match generations, but there's always more benefit in going with a newer motherboard.
The 2XX series will directly replace the 1XX series, and has almost exactly the same tiers: Z270 at the top end for enthusiasts and overclockers, H270 for mainstream needs, plus Q2XX and B2XX for businesses with remote management and mass deployment needs. Only the low-end H110 for home and casual users will not be replaced with a H210, for unknown reasons.
There's more PCIe 3.0 bandwidth now, with a maximum of 24 on the Z270, up from 20, and 20 on the H270, up from 16. That means more motherboards will feature standards such as USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10GBps) and Thunderbolt 3 (up to 40Gbps). Z270 boards will also be able to officially work with DDR4-2400 RAM, up from DDR4-2133, as well as Intel's upcoming Optane lineup of high-speed storage and memory products. Everything else, from the number of SATA and USB 3.0 ports to the other standards supported, remains unchanged.
The Asus Maximus IX Hero
Every motherboard manufacturer is riding this wave and releasing dozens upon dozens of new models. The one we have with us for our review is the Asus Maximus IX Hero, a Z270-based enthusiast model with a price tag of around Rs. 23,350. It's aimed squarely at overclockers who like to show off, but there's plenty of appeal even for less adventurous enthusiasts.
The board looks absolutely gorgeous, with a dark grey finish and subtle red accents. The heatsinks and port shroud have a sculpted angular look. It has a printed pattern, like most high-end boards these days, and thankfully it isn't garish at all. The layout is bog standard, with generous amounts of room around the CPU cooler.
Asus is pushing its Aura RGB lighting feature across its product line, and it's actually implemented really well on this new board. There are LEDs only around the PCH heatsink and port shroud, but they shine through various gaps and facets, looking great. There's a strip of LEDs aimed right where a CPU cooler's fan should be, lighting it up like a monument. If that isn't enough, you can connect standard LED strips to two headers on the motherboard and sync up your whole case. Of course, Asus hopes you buy one of its graphics cards and some more accessories too.
One very interesting touch is the abandonment of the much-unloved SATA Express standard. This is no loss at all, considering SATA Express SSDs never hit the market. The standard 6GBps SATA ports are complemented by two M.2 slots, one of which can accommodate extra-long modules up to 110mm and also supports SATA modules. The other one goes up to the standard 80mm and can only take PCIe modules. Both are raised, which we hope helps with cooling. There's no server-grade U.2, like we've seen on higher-end boards.
The rear port cluster has quite a lot going on. From left to right, there are buttons with which you can reset or update the BIOS without reaching inside your PC's case, then two Wi-Fi antenna terminals, DisplayPort and HDMI video outputs, four USB 2.0 ports, four USB 3.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, USB 3.1 Type-A and Type-C ports, five reassignable analog audio jacks, and digital S/PDIF.
The Maximus IX Hero features an ALC S1220 codec, ESS Sabre DAC and dedicated circuitry for its onboard sound. Asus of course lists a long line of high-quality components including capacitors, chokes, and regulators for the 8+2+2 phase power design.
For overclockers, there are power and monitoring terminals for water pumps and high-powered fans. There's even a debugging boot mode for those using liquid Nitrogen. We like Asus' numeric Q-code diagnostic readout, which helps diagnose boot-related issues. One final interesting touch is a new header for front-panel USB 3.1 ports, presumably including Type-C.
All in all, Asus has managed to make even an incremental update feel fresh, and if this one board is any indication, there will be a lot to like about the entire lineup.
Intel Core i7-7700K and Asus Maximus IX Hero performance:
We tested Intel's new CPU on a matching motherboard, and compared scores to those of our Core i7-6700K. Integrated GPUs were used throughout. The specifications are as follows:
|Intel Core i7-6700K
|Intel Core i7-7700K
|Gigabyte Z170X-Gaming 7
|Asus Maximus IX Hero
|2x8 GB Kingston HyperX DDR4-2666
|256GB Samsung SSD 950 Pro
|Cooler Master Hyper 212X
As expected, there were no issues getting our test system up and running. We ran a variety of tests designed to challenge the CPU as well as GPU capabilities of the new platform, beginning with with standard synthetic tests, and then moving on to some light gaming and then real-world usage.
|Cinebench R15 CPU multi-threaded
|Cinebench R15 CPU single-threaded
|Cinebench R15 OpenGL
|Basemark Web 3.0
|PCMark 8 Home
|PCMark 8 Creative
|PCMark 8 Work
|3DMark Fire Strike Ultra
|3DMark Fire Strike
|3DMark Time Spy
|SiSoft SANDRA CPU arithmetic
|SiSoft SANDRA CPU multimedia
|SiSoft SANDRA CPU encryption bandwidth
|SiSoft SANDRA CPU performance/Watt
|SiSoft SANDRA cache bandwidth
|Handbrake video encoding*
|7zip file compression*
|Rise of the Tomb Raider, 1920x1080, Low
|Unigine Valley, 1920x1080, Medium
|*lower is better
The one highlight of our report card is the Handbrake video encoding test. We transcoded a 1.36GB 1080p AVI file to 720p30 H.265 MKV for this test specifically to challenge the new CPU. The i7-7700K managed to finish its workload in just under half the time taken by the Skylake CPU, which is pretty impressive. This does have implications for home users as well as content creators. We just wish that overall performance had been improved to this degree.
We did try some light overclocking using Asus' bundled Dual Intelligent Processors 5 tool, which pushes speeds incrementally and performs stress tests at each stage, to verify that the system can run stably. Our sample CPU could be safely pushed to 4.8GHz using air cooling. However, when we ran our tests again, monitoring tools showed the CPU staying at 4.66GHz with only minor spikes above this level. Scores were not different enough for us to measure any significant improvement.
As you can see by the results, the new Core i7-7700K does outperform its predecessor consistently, but only by small margins except in very specific scenarios. Given that pretty much the entire Kaby Lake generation is a drop-in replacement for Skylake, this is not a bad thing at all. If you're about to buy or build a new PC and prices are the same, simply buy the new instead of the old. On the other hand, this launch doesn't give anyone a reason to rush out and upgrade.
While the larger buying public is unaware of Intel's behind-the-scenes roadmap changes and process technology delays, enthusiasts worry about things like whether Kaby Lake is a pointless stopgap created solely to keep a billion-dollar marketing machine running. The answer to that is while it might be true, customers are still getting slightly better performance at each level than they would have if Intel had simply prolonged the lifespan of the 6th generation. Plus, all process improvements will benefit future generations of products.
Our Core i7-7700K is a solid performer with reasonably low power consumption, and will not require massive, noisy cooling solutions, and we expect the rest of the lineup to be just as good. It might take a while for pricing to settle, especially in India, so if you find a Skylake equivalent part at a significantly lower price, you can go for it without feeling like you're losing out on anything.
The new GPU is of course welcome, but is more likely to be attractive to those who aren't going to pop in a much beefier graphics card, which means that desktop gamers and enthusiasts gain the least. Laptop buyers, on the other hand, would do well to look for the specific "7th Gen" wording on Intel's stickers - not only does graphics horsepower improve, but also battery life.
We're much more interested in the new flood of 2XX-series motherboards from Asus, Gigabyte, MSI, ASRock and others that will soon arrive in the market. More modern connectivity is always a good thing, and we can easily see ourselves recommending these boards over previous ones even for Skylake CPUs. The Asus Maximux IX Hero is probably overkill for many, but we were very pleased with it and would recommend it without hesitation.
For the past few years, reviews of high-end Intel processors have only made passing mention of AMD, the only other company in the x86 CPU race, for the simple reason that AMD has not had any product to offer that would even remotely be viable as a competitor. That could change in a dramatic way when Ryzen, its first high-performance lineup in years, is launched just a short while from now. We don't have solid information yet, but we're hoping for a fierce fight to reinvigorate this stagnant market.
Finally, if recent rumours and leaks are to be believed, 10nm is delayed even further there will be a fourth 14nm generation codenamed Coffeelake next year. With very little left in the way of fresh ideas, Intel is supposedly going to make six-core desktop models mainstream. Between Ryzen and this potential development, it sounds like there's enough reason to wait a little while before upgrading - or skip Kaby Lake entirely.
Intel Core i7-7700K
Price: Rs. 32,700
- Reasonable improvement over the Core i7-6700K at the same price
- New HD and 4K video acceleration capabilities
- Backwards compatible with Skylake motherboards
- Video benefits will be lost on anyone who uses a discrete GPU
- Not the huge performance leap we were hoping for
Ratings (Out of 5)
- Performance: 4.5
- Value for Money: 4
- Overall: 4
Asus Maximus IX Hero
Price: Rs. 23,350
- Excellent feature set
- Lots of connectivity including USB 3.1 Type-A and Type-C
- High-end overclocking supported
- Integrated Wi-Fi
Ratings (Out of 5)
- Features: 4.5
- Performance: 4.5
- Value for Money: 4
- Overall: 4.5
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