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CPUs Decoded: Understanding Intel’s Microarchitecture Names

A blue Core i9 Comet Lake package in front of a PC.
Intel

What’s in a name? A lot, actually, if we’re talking about Intel processors. Intel uses internal code names designed to hide what the company is working on until it’s ready to go public. So, it’s no wonder these terms aren’t very meaningful to the uninitiated.

Why Intel Code Names Matter

These code names inevitably become known (Intel does publish them), and, if you do a little research, you’ll find they have a lot of significance.

In fact, Intel’s code names can often provide a better understanding of CPUs than the official marketing names you see on the box. Let’s consider the most recent Intel 10th generation laptop processors. These CPUs are comprised of several CPU microarchitectures. However, unless you can reference their code names, the official names get a little confusing.

Take the Core i7-1065G7 and Core i7-10510U, for example: both are mobile CPUs for laptops and other devices, and both are considered 10th generation chips (hence the “10” after the dash). However, the G7 is an Ice Lake CPU, while the other is Comet Lake.

Most people looking for the “best” would go with the 10510U since it has a higher clock speed. However, Intel claims a Comet Lake laptop chip is better for productivity and multithreaded workloads, while Ice Lake performs better for AI and graphics.

This is why it helps to have at least a cursory understanding of Intel’s various chip generations when heading out to buy a new PC or laptop. It’s not something you should get hung up on, but understanding code names can help you decipher online reviews, as well as marketing materials on store shelves and packaging.

RELATED: Intel's 10th Gen CPUs: What's New, and Why It Matters

Intel’s Development Model

An Intel Core i7-8700 in a motherboard.
An Intel Coffee Lake CPU. yishii/Shutterstock

We can’t talk about code names without talking about how Intel makes its CPUs. For around a decade, Intel developed its processors based on the famous tick-tock model. Each year, Intel would introduce a new microarchitecture (tock), and the next, it shrunk it down (tick). (Yes, that’s actually “tock-tick,” but it’s the simplest way to explain it.)

Tick-tock was replaced around 2016 with the process-architecture-optimization model (PAO). The die shrink is the first stage of this process, and then a new architecture is introduced, just like the tick-tock model. Then, however, there’s an optimization phase during which the architecture is made better without having to make a leap in the manufacturing process.

PAO isn’t necessarily a three-year model, though—the optimization phase can go on indefinitely, as we’ve seen on the desktop since 2015. It also appears the PAO model isn’t a hard and fast rule, as it’s been rumored upcoming desktop CPUs might have a new design (the “A”) prior to a die shrink (the “P”).

So, what’s a chip’s microarchitecture and die shrink? In the most simplistic terms, microarchitecture is a chip’s design. Every new CPU has either a totally revamped design or an improved version of an existing one. A new microarchitecture can bring new capabilities, as well as improvements in instructions per cycle/clock (IPC) that boost performance.

Additionally, every CPU uses a manufacturing process, such as 14nm, 10nm, or 7nm (the “nm” stands for “nanometer”). For our purposes, we’ll look at each process as a marketing term to know whether a new CPU has made a leap in chip manufacturing, or if it’s just an improvement on an existing technology.

Generally, a shift from a larger to smaller nm process (also called a die shrink) means better performance and more efficient power consumption.

RELATED: Decoding CPU Reviews: A Beginner's Guide to Processor Terms

It’s All About Skylake for Now

An Intel Skylake Die.
An Intel Skylake Die. Intel

To discuss modern Intel CPUs, we have to start with Skylake—if you’ve read any CPU reviews in the last five years, you’ve most likely seen it mentioned.

Skylake processors rolled out in 2015, as a follow-up to Broadwell–a 14nm die shrink (tick) of the 22nm Haswell (Intel’s pre-Skylake tock). Skylake was the last time we saw a “tock” (an entirely new microarchitecture for desktop CPUs).

Since then, Intel CPUs for desktops have all been an optimization of Skylake or one of Skylake’s descendants. This has led to better processors, as recent generations have brought more cores and higher clock speeds. These have provided better performance, but base improvements and new features have been rarer.

After Skylake came Kaby Lake, which was designed to fill the gap when Intel’s next “tick” (or die shrink) from 14nm to 10nm didn’t pan out. Instead, Kaby Lake rolled out as a 14nm+ improvement to Skylake.

Coffee Lake for desktops started rolling out in 2017, using Intel’s so-called 14nm++ process. Then, servers and high-end desktops got Cascade Lake CPUs. Finally, in 2020, we’ve gotten Comet Lake, which is, again, built on a 14nm++ process. At this writing, these are the latest desktop processors, and they offer some very nice performance improvements over their predecessors. The top CPUs in this generation have more cores and the ability to go past a clock speed of 5 GHz.

Yet all of these desk- and laptop improvements can be traced back directly to Skylake, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as we mentioned earlier. A new Comet Lake-S chip for desktops is certainly a better choice than an original Skylake CPU.

The interior of a gaming PC with blue, yellow, and RGB lighting on its components.
Intel

Still, Intel fans and desktop PC builders are eagerly awaiting the next jump in CPU desktop design from the company. This could come in late 2020 or early 2021, with the new Rocket Lake processors.

If current reports are correct, Rocket Lake will be the biggest change to come to Intel desktop CPUs in five years. According to claims, it houses a new microarchitecture distinct from Skylake, yet still relies on a 14nm++ process like its immediate predecessors.

Double Names

Just as Intel’s desktop CPUs look set to receive an overhaul, so do its naming schemes. For example, if you look at Intel’s Ark site, you won’t find any products referred to as “Palm Cove.” This is because, while that name refers to the CPU core design, the few mobile CPUs using Palm Cove cores are called Cannon Lake.

Intel also did this in 2019 with Sunny Cove cores in its Ice Lake CPUs for laptops, which brings us back to what’s next for desktops: Rocket Lake. These new desktop CPUs, expected in late 2020 or early 2021, are reportedly based on Willow Cove cores. Willow Cove is also the basis for 10nm++ Tiger Lake laptop CPUs expected in mid-2020.

So, now we have two active code names for Intel processors: one for the core design and one for the new generation of CPUs. These naming schemes currently follow the pattern of giving the core designs a “Cove” designation, while the CPUs get a “Lake” name. Don’t count on that cove-to-lake naming scheme to last forever, but it’s a helpful guide for now.

Again, code names aren’t descriptive in and of themselves. However, if you learn what’s behind the names, they’ll help you understand what kind of CPUs are currently available from Intel.

Even if you don’t learn the names of all the cores and CPUs, it’s enough to know that there are core designs with code names which then become CPUs with different code names. Armed with just that bit of general info, you can better comprehend what the heck all those CPU reviews are talking about and purchase a better PC.

RELATED: What Do "7nm" and "10nm" Mean for CPUs, and Why Do They Matter?

Ian Paul Ian Paul
Ian Paul is a freelance writer with over a decade of experiencing writing about tech. In addition to writing for How-To Geek, he regularly contributes to PCWorld as a critic, feature writer, reporter, deal hunter, and columnist. His work has also appeared online at The Washington Post, ABC News, MSNBC, Reuters, Macworld, Yahoo Tech, Tech.co, TechHive, The Huffington Post, and Lifewire. His articles are regularly syndicated across numerous IDG sites including CIO, Computerworld, GameStar, Macworld UK, Tech Advisor, and TechConnect.
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