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Intel's new Kaby Lake chips for PC: Here's the company's vision

Intel's new Kaby Lake chips for PC: Here's the company's vision

The Kaby Lake chips, targeted at PCs, could also be used in VR and AR headsets

New chips can be a reason to upgrade PCs. But does Intel's latest 7th Generation Core chip, code-named Kaby Lake, have enough bite to trigger replacements of old PCs?

Intel hopes so. The company is framing Kaby Lake PCs as go-to devices for productivity, virtual reality, and 4K gaming and video.

So far, Kaby Lake is off to a good start. About 100 laptops, 2-in-1s, and tablets with Kaby Lake installed will be available from PC makers by the end of this year.

On paper, Kaby Lake's launch comes at an inopportune time. PC shipments are slumping, the replacement cycle has slowed to six years, and consumers are instead using smartphones and phablets for computing. Many older PCs are powerful enough to run Windows 10.

Intel can't escape the overall decline in PC shipments, so it is focusing on the growing segments of 2-in-1s, gaming PCs, and virtual reality. It's also betting that Kaby Lake will aid in the revival of the PC, with the sudden emergence of VR.

Kaby Lake is faster and more power-efficient than its predecessor, called Skylake. It is also the first Intel PC chip with native 4K graphics support, and that feature is especially important to the company's fast-emerging virtual reality and mixed reality plans.

Intel may also have some surprises up its sleeve with Kaby Lake. There's a good chance that the Core processors make their way into an odd VR headset or two that need 4K graphics.

For potential buyers, it may be worth upgrading to a sleek hybrid laptop-tablet PC with Kaby Lake if your current laptop feels slow. The Kaby Lake CPUs are 12 to 19 percent faster than Skylake. Applications will run better, and battery life of laptops will improve.

Kaby Lake's graphics features stand out, with laptops able to play 4K video without the need for a discrete graphics card. Laptops will run continuously for 9.25 hours when running 4K video, said Chris Walker, vice president of Intel's Client Computing Group and general manager of Mobility Client Platforms.

You'll be able to stream 4K video from the internet, and casual 4K games will run smoothly. The 4K support will be included on chips from the lowest-powered 2-in-1 Core chips drawing 4.5 watts to the 15-watt chips for mainstream PCs.

The first batch of Kaby Lake chips will be targeted at Windows 10 PCs. There will be no Windows 7 PCs with Kaby Lake, Walker said.

For Windows 10 laptops, Intel is hyping the "Windows Hello" features, in which biometric authentication techniques can be used to log into PCs. 

In January, Intel will release a new batch of heavy-hitting Kaby Lake PC chips that will service VR headsets like Oculus Rift, which are attached to high-end PCs. Those chips will also be targeted at gaming PCs.

Around that time, gamers should be able to get their hands on super-fast Intel SSDs called Optane, based on a groundbreaking 3D Xpoint technology.

Over time, Kaby Lake will be installed in Intel's thumb-sized Compute Sticks and mini-desktops called NUCs. The chip will support Chrome OS, Walker said, meaning Kaby Lake will also be available for Chromebooks.

Intel's PC future also includes VR and augmented reality headsets, though details on the chip strategy for those devices are grainy. The company doesn't make chips specifically for headsets, but some use PC-based, low-power Atom and Core chips. 

At the recent Intel Developer Forum, Intel stunned the audience with its Project Alloy mixed reality headset. It included a Core chip code-named Skylake, and the device gave a subtle hint on the direction of Intel's PC chips.

To be certain, the Project Alloy headset was a prototype, and its specifications aren't finalized. But it raises a question: Will VR and AR headsets have Kaby Lake chips someday? Intel made no promises, but it's a possibility.

"Many of the power-performance attributes that 7th Generation [chips] have could be used in the future," Walker said.

Specifications for Alloy will be released later. Alloy will use Windows Holographic, and possibly other platforms, to run AR applications.

Intel's low-end Core Y processors, which consume 4.5 watts of power, could be used in headsets. They can handle 4K graphics, critical for VR headsets. The headsets won't match the experience of an Oculus Rift, but the performance should be good enough to stream movies from the internet.

Beyond content consumption, Kaby Lake PCs could be powerful content creation tools for VR and AR by using hardware-based 4K graphics encoding and decoding.

Kaby Lake is the third Intel PC chip made using the 14-nanometer process after Broadwell and Skylake. It broke the tradition of Intel making two PC chips per manufacturing process. Manufacturing problems forced Intel to add Kaby Lake to 14-nm and slow down its advance to the next-generation 10-nm manufacturing process.

Manufacturing issues or not, Intel plans to deliver a new PC chip each year. The successor to Kaby Lake will be the 10-nm chip code-named Cannonlake, slated for release in 2017.

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