5 Things You Need to Know About Intel's New Skylake CPUs

Intel's next processor platform has arrived. Codenamed Skylake, the new 14nm architecture will power Intel's 6th Generation Core series CPUs, along with a new lineup of low-power Core M processors for tablets and hybrids. For the foreseeable future — likely a year or more — most new Intel-based PCs will use one of these chips, which promise longer battery life, stronger performance and the ability to play several 4K videos at once without breaking a sweat. Here are five things you need to know about Skylake.

1.An Hour Longer Battery Life

Skylake CPUs have a number of power-saving capabilities that promise significantly longer battery life. The integrated Intel 500 graphics chips use less power for more performance, enabling an hour of additional video playback over a similarly configured laptop with a prior-generation Broadwell CPU.

Intel's new Speed Shift Technology helps save power no matter the task by switching power states in just 1 millisecond — 30 times faster than prior CPUs, which relied on software to initiate the change. By changing such "P States" more quickly, Skylake avoids wasting electricity while it's waiting to go from full performance to idle after completing a task. It's also able to go from low power to high speed much faster, improving performance.

Skylake also provides "fine-grain" power gating, which means that it powers only the parts of the CPU that are in active use. While prior Intel CPUs had power gating, the new platform is able to target more specific "power domains" or parts of the chip. At a briefing, Intel VP of Platform Engineering Shlomit Weiss likened the new CPUs to a central air conditioner that only cools that part of a room where people are standing at the moment.

2. Ready for 4K Video

All Skylake-based chips have hardware 4K video decoding, which allows the chips to play ultra-HD movies without taxing the CPU. Intel says you can play RAW, uncompressed 4K files on the Intel Graphics 500 series GPUs that come with Skylake chips. A tablet running a low-power Intel Core M chip with Skylake can play four different 4K videos at once, with only 20 percent CPU utilization.

Intel also says that its current-generation Intel 500 series graphics chips are fast enough to beat more than 80 percent of discrete graphics cards on the market, making the Intel chips good enough for people who aren't hardcore gamers. The new GPUs can also drive up to three distinct 4K monitors at once, allowing for quite a productivity setup.

MORE: Laptops With the Longest Battery Life

3. Overclockable Laptops

For many years, desktop PC enthusiasts have been able to overclock their CPUs, pushing them to higher speeds than they are specced for, by tweaking some settings. Now, with Skylake, Intel is releasing an overclockable Core i7 processor for laptops, the Core i7-6820HK, which is designed to run at up to 3.2 GHz in turbo mode, but can be turned up way beyond that. During a brief demo, the chipmaker turned a laptop with the chip up to 4.2 GHz, using a software utility.

Why not just ship all notebooks overclocked to the max? Because of subtle manufacturing differences, two copies of the same model processor may have different maximum overclocked speeds. However, notebook vendors may be able to differentiate their products by providing better cooling, which will allow users to push the chips even higher.

4. Puts Your Old PC to Shame

Let's face facts. If you bought a new computer within the past year or two, you probably aren't going to replace it just to get the iterative performance benefits of Skylake over 2015's Broadwell or 2013's Haswell platforms. Skylake does promise better overall performance, graphics prowess and battery life than its predecessors, but you really notice the improvements when you compare against the older computers that most people have. According to Intel, more than 1 billion PCs are three years old or older, and more than 500 million PCs currently in use are from 2010 or prior.

Intel benchmarked a laptop with a Skylake-powered Intel Core i5-6200U against a system with a Core i5-520UM, which came out in 2010. The new system achieved 2.5 times quicker performance on the SySmark 2014 benchmark, which measures overall speed, and 30 times faster graphics on 3DMark Cloud Gate Gfx, a graphics test. Better still, the new laptop achieved three times the battery life when playing an HD video.

5. Three Series Options

With the exception of the low-cost Atom chips for tablets and phones, all of Intel's mainstream CPUs will be based on Skylake. The new processors will be branded either as Core M or as Intel 6th Generation Core series.

The mobile CPUs are divided into three distinct series based on power consumption: Y, U and H. The Skylake Y Series, officially branded as Intel Core M, operates with a 4.5-watt TDP (thermal design profile) and is meant for low-power tablets and hybrids. In a change from the previous generation, Skylake-powered Core M chips will be divided into three models based on speed: Core m3, Core m5 and Core m7 (using a lowercase m), with m7 being the fastest. Designed for mainstream and ultraportable laptops, Skylake U series CPUs have a 15-watt TDP and are branded as 6th Generation Core i3, i5 and i7.

Skylake H processors are branded as Core i3, i5 and i7, but are designed for workstation or gaming-rig class performance, with 35- or 45-watt TDPs and four cores (except for the Core i5).
One CPU, the Core i7-6820HK, will power a new generation of overclockable laptops. For those who want more mobile performance than a Core i7 can muster, Intel is introducing the first set of mobile Xeon CPUs for workstations.

Later in the year or early next year, Intel will introduce several additional products based on Skylake, including business-friendly SKUs that come with the company's secure vPro technology built in and budget-minded Pentium and Celeron chips.

Avram Piltch
Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master's degree in English from NYU.