Does Intel's Core i7 7700K Gaming Chip Deliver?

Early next month, microprocessor giant Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) is expected to launch its seventh-generation Core processors for desktop personal computers, code-named Kaby Lake. The highest end of the Kaby Lake models will be a chip known as the Core i7 7700K, which will be targeted at personal-computer enthusiasts and gamers.

A wafer of notebook-grade Kaby Lake chips. Image source: Intel.

The enthusiast/gaming market, though a relatively small portion of Intel's overall business, is one that is growing. It's also a market that Intel has previously said it wants to increase its focus in.

Website HardOCP, a respected technology review site, managed to get a hold of a pre-release sample of the 7700K and ran it through the wringer. The test results essentially showed the following:

  • The Core i7 7700K delivers the same performance per clock cycle as the prior-generation Skylake-based Core i7 6700K part.
  • The 7700K runs at a higher clock frequency out of the box and has the potential to be overclocked -- that is, it can run at a speed greater than what Intel rates it -- to higher frequencies than the 6700K can. Performance, incidentally, is generally a function of the work that a chip can do per clock cycle, as well as the number of clock cycles per second, or frequency.
  • At the same frequency, the 7700K consumes up to 12.84% less power than the 6700K.

In other words, it's exactly what Intel promised: higher performance because of an improved manufacturing technology process.

The site, however, had this to say about the part:

Why is the reviewer so disappointed with this part? It comes down to the fact that although Kaby Lake runs at higher frequencies, it doesn't deliver more performance per clock cycle than the prior-generation Skylake.

"As you know we like to look at IPC (instructions per clock) when a new processor releases as we know most of our readers never intend to run these CPUs at their stock speeds," the introduction of HardOCP's review read.

Although I can understand the reviewer's viewpoint, I think a closer examination of the recent history of Intel's gaming/enthusiast processor architectures shows that from a total delivered performance perspective, the 7700K is an appropriate next-generation enthusiast desktop chip.

Single-core performance history

In the following table, I include Intel's mainstream K-series chips released from early 2011 to what Intel will launch in January. These chips are all quad-core processors with simultaneous multi-threading, a technique that allows a single core to be viewed as two to improve a core's resource utilization.

Source: Intel ARK.

Here's the single-core performance improvement generation-over-generation in visual form:

Data source(s): Intel ARK, Intel paper, author estimates.

The data reveals some interesting information. The average single-core performance increase generation over generation among Intel's mainstream K-series Core i7 chips is 8.39%. The Core i7 7700K, even though it's based on the same architecture as the 6700K, appears to deliver a bigger performance improvement over the 6700K than the 6700K did over the prior 4790K, though both are below average generational jumps.

Looking toward the future

Intel's follow-on to Kaby Lake in this line of processors (mainstream Core i7) is known as Coffee Lake. According to recent leaks, Coffee Lake, will be based on the same Kaby Lake processor architecture -- which is, in turn, based on the Skylake processor architecture.

The main improvement, according to the leaks, will be a move from four cores to six processor cores. Further manufacturing technology refinements might allow Intel to push the peak single-core frequency up a little bit more, perhaps to 4.6GHz, but I don't expect a big push on that metric.

It'll be interesting to see if consumer software, such as 3D games, begins to take better advantage of more cores beginning in 2018, as Intel begins to rely on increased core counts for more performance.

The next significant jump in per-core performance for the mainstream Core i7 processors should come in early 2019, and then Intel is likely to launch processors based on its new Ice Lake architecture.

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Ashraf Eassa owns shares of Intel. The Motley Fool recommends Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.