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Intel Might Be Trying to Make Up for Lost Time

Ashraf Eassa, The Motley Fool

Just recently, word emerged that chip giant Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) was planning to introduce another product seemingly based on a derivative of its 14-nanometer chip manufacturing technology known as Whiskey Lake to sell into the mass-market laptop computer market in the second half of 2018. 

Shortly after the information about Whiskey Lake leaked, a second leak emerged indicating that Intel is planning to go into production on the successor to Whiskey Lake, known as Ice Lake, between February and May of 2019. Ice Lake is a processor that promises to include significant feature and performance enhancements compared to Whiskey Lake, thanks to a new design and the use of a denser, more power-efficient manufacturing technology known as 10-nanometer+.  

An Intel chip wafer with a dime on it.

Image source: Intel.

To be clear: Had Intel not faced significant issues with its 10-nanometer technology, Whiskey Lake and several of its predecessors would never have been developed. However, I have to wonder if Intel is going to be aggressive in trying to make up for lost time with shorter product cycles. 

Not the first time it's happened

Intel's first-generation product built using its 14-nanometer technology, known as Broadwell, saw a high-volume launch in early 2015 with Broadwell-U. Many computer manufacturers updated their systems to include the Broadwell chips since marketing computers with "fifth-generation Core" processors is easier for system vendors than marketing computers with "fourth-generation Core" processors. 

Broadwell was significantly delayed from its originally planned launch time frame of early 2014 thanks to Intel's issues with bringing its 14-nanometer technology into mass production at acceptable yield rates. 

Just two quarters later, Intel introduced the successor to the Broadwell-U processors, known as Skylake-U. Skylake-U was built using the same basic 14-nanometer manufacturing technology that Broadwell-U was, but thanks to significant design improvements, the Skylake-U processors were faster and more power efficient. 

Since then, Intel has been launching U-series notebook processors on roughly an annual cadence: Kaby Lake-U first launched in the third quarter of 2016 (though most of the chips in that family didn't come out until the first quarter of 2017), then Kaby Lake Refresh-U came out in the third quarter of 2017. 

Whiskey Lake-U looks like it's coming a year after Kaby Lake Refresh-U, and Ice Lake-U looks on track to launch solidly less than a year after Whiskey Lake-U comes to market. 

What will be interesting to see is when Intel intends to launch the U-series versions of the follow-on architecture to Ice Lake, known as Tiger Lake. Tiger Lake is expected to be manufactured using a third-generation version of the company's 10-nanometer technology, known as 10-nanometer++, which the company claims will offer performance and power efficiency benefits compared to the 10-nanometer+ technology that'll be used to manufacture Ice Lake. 

To be quite frank, I'd be impressed (and pleased) to see Intel launch the Tiger Lake-U processors at some point during 2019, but such a rapid-fire succession could be too much for Intel's system vendor partners (and the product itself may not even be ready in time). 

Ice Lake should be able to adequately serve PC demand during the 2019 back-to-school season as well as during the holiday season, but it'd be quite nice to see Intel continue to make up lost time by prepping Tiger Lake products for systems launched in early 2020 -- less than a year after Ice Lake systems are seemingly set to hit the market.

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Ashraf Eassa owns shares of Intel. The Motley Fool recommends Intel. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.