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Why Intel’s Tiger Lake CPUs will make laptops more confusing to buy

Why Intel's Tiger Lake CPUs will make laptops more confusing to buy


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Why Intel’s Tiger Lake CPUs will make laptops more confusing to buy

How it can be that two Intel 11th-gen Tiger Lake notebook PCs, with exactly the same chip inside, can offer performance that differs by up to 37 percent? And more importantly, how can you tell the difference?

The short answer is: You can’t. An unfortunate side effect of how Intel develops processors like Tiger Lake will make it more difficult for consumers to determine the actual performance of a laptop just by reading a list of its features, and it will probably get harder over time.

The problem is that Intel is designing mobile microprocessors like Tiger Lake to allow laptop makers greater flexibility in how they choose to “clock” them, or at what frequency they’re assigned to run. A laptop that uses a specific processor could run 37 percent faster than a second laptop that includes exactly the same chip, Intel executives say.

That means laptop buyers will have to look harder at actual performance reviews with comparative data to understand what they’re getting.

The problem actually cropped up earlier, as Intel moved into its prior (10th-gen) Ice Lake chips. But Intel executives highlighted it during its Tiger Lake launch as something to watch out for. And it all goes back to how laptop microprocessors have evolved over time.

story tiger lake speeds and feeds power intel Intel

This column in Intel’s “Tiger Lake” list of processors is a subtle tipoff that Intel has moved away from its limited thermal-design-power metric that has existed for decades.

No fixed frequencies

Traditionally, chips have carried thermal design power (TDP) specifications, defining the power draw and clock speeds at which the chip could safely operate without overheating. Laptops had to manage and sometimes throttle their power demands to keep the chip within certain thermal limits. If a chip exceeded that for some reason, the laptop could throw errors or crash.

Over time, Intel (and AMD) began adding “turbo” capabilities, allowing the chip to exceed its rated voltage through overclocking for a short time, until a risk of overheating forced it to slow down yet again. Intel processors now typically provide single-core turbo modes, all-core turbo modes, and even cherry-pick select cores for overclocking tasks.

Notebooks typically don’t run at a fixed frequency, but bounce up and down depending on the demand. Some call the standard level PL1 and the turbo mode PL2, and refer to a third number, tau, as the time a processor core can spend in a boosted state. 

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