Intel dropped a lot of Ice Lake news today, including an embargo lift on performance data concerning the new CPU. ExtremeTech was not aware that Intel had held a testing event in which reporters from various sites were invited to benchmark Ice Lake under controlled conditions and did not include this data in our initial coverage earlier today. We have reached out to Intel to clarify the situation, given that we were on hand at Architecture Day last winter to report on the initial Ice Lake CPU architecture and have covered Intel’s foundry research and developments for the past eight years.
Now that we actually know what CPU performance factually looks like, we’ve got a much better basis for discussing it relative to Intel’s Whiskey Lake. Our sister site PCMag has done a thorough comparison of Ice Lake against Whiskey Lake, with the Core i7-8565U represented in multiple form factors and systems from different OEMs. That’s actually incredibly useful because it shows just how large the gap between laptops can be, and how important proper testing (and thermals) are.
We’re going to excerpt benchmarks from the PCMag article and highly recommend you read the full story for that publication’s in-depth analysis. Let’s start with Cinebench R15:
Right off the bat, we can see that Ice Lake has some issues in a 15W envelope. The fact that the CPU’s single-threaded performance improves by 1.22x when given room to breathe in a 25W design is evidence that CPU power consumption is throttling the core badly. There’s only a 5 percent spread between the Core i7-8565U machines as far as single-thread is concerned. When we move to multi-threading, giving the CPU 1.66x more thermal headroom results in a 1.33x improvement in performance. Comparing 15W with 15W, the older Intel CPUs are all faster, particularly the HP Envy 13.
In the 25W configuration, ICL wins the benchmark overall but is only 5 percent faster than the HP Envy 13. The Ryzen 5 2500U is outperformed (PCMag did not have a Ryzen 7 to compare against or an updated 3000-series APU in a mobile system).
POV-RAY shows some very interesting performance figures, in part because they’re completely different from the Handbrake distribution. The HP Envy 13, which was the fastest Core i7-8565U in Cinebench R15, is the slowest system in Handbrake (apart from the Pentium Gold, which doesn’t really count for our purposes). The Zenbook 13 is a whopping 20 percent faster than the 15W ICL testbed, though that system’s performance is on par with the Spectre X360 and Envy 13. Giving the CPU 25W to play with instead of 15W improves performance by about 24 percent, allowing ICL to beat past its rivals.
There are other results for the CPU-side available at PCMag and I’d look at them for a more complete picture. What we see in aggregate is that a 15W power envelope is a tight fit for the 10th Gen CPU family. Sometimes ICL is a bit faster than the 14nm Whiskey Lake CPUs, sometimes it’s slower, but we don’t see much evidence of improvement in the lower power envelope.
At the same time, however, we also see substantial variation in 14nm Core i7-8565U results. This isn’t surprising; Intel started giving OEMs more freedom to design SKUs back when Core M debuted, but all systems are not created equal. Certain laptops may be noticeably faster than others in certain circumstances. We recently talked about how increased variation in silicon performance explains many of AMD’s decisions around 7nm and the company’s Ryzen 7 products. This is a variation of a decidedly different sort, but that’s actually the point. Silicon companies have begun to design around variance in many ways because simply annihilating it has proven either prohibitively expensive or downright impossible.
That addresses the CPU component of Ice Lake. What about the GPU? Here, the news is much more positive.
In Rise of the Tomb Raider Low, ICL can maintain 40fps at 1366×768 and 26fps at 1920×1080. Interestingly, giving the system more headroom for power took the score down, not up at 768p and held it constant in 1080p. AMD’s lower-end Vega 8 does not compete well here, and while Vega 11 would provide some additional GPU headroom, it’s unlikely to completely close the gap. Only the MX150 and MX250-equipped laptops, with Nvidia GPUs, beat out Intel’s integrated graphics.
Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege is impressive, with equal performance between the 15W and 25W CPUs. Again, only the MX150 and MX250 exceed Intel’s integrated performance. AMD’s Vega 8 turns in playable performance at 1366×768 but doesn’t meet the minimum 30fps threshold we consider minimum for 1080p gaming.
All of the GPU figures basically follow this pattern. You’ll see AMD hold its ground better in some than others, but Intel is ahead on the whole. Vega 11 would improve these results, but likely not by enough to change the outcome in most games.
Implications and Conclusion
In our earlier coverage written today, I implied that one reason for Intel’s lower CPU clocks might be because Intel used a larger amount of TDP to provide GPU performance. While there’s probably some truth to this, the 15W-25W performance pattern is different for CPUs compared with GPUs. Moving from 15W to 25W almost always improves CPU performance. Moving from 15W to 25W improves synthetic GPU benchmark performance on ICL, but has a weaker impact on actual games. Only World of Tanks enCore appears to respond strongly to the additional TDP headroom, suggesting that in most cases, that additional wattage isn’t going to the GPU — it’s being used to accelerate the CPU.
Gains for Ice Lake relative to Whiskey Lake are fairly anemic, though this can vary dramatically depending on which Whiskey Lake system you own now. When there’s a 10-15 percent variance between different systems equipped with the same processor, that’s obviously going to impact how ICL compares. Overall, we’d say Ice Lake is comparable to Whiskey Lake — sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but rarely dramatically distinguishing itself one way or the other.
The GPU improvements, on the other hand, are enormous. Assuming that the Ryzen 7 3700U and 3500U are a relatively modest improvement on their predecessors, AMD will need to have 7nm APUs in-market to take ICL on. We have no timeline on when that may happen. Of course, AMD is currently focused on the desktop and server spaces, which means we don’t even know when Intel’s 10nm silicon will face off against AMD’s 7nm in-market.
The third pillar is power consumption and battery life, and we don’t know yet how ICL compares on these metrics; Intel forbid testing the sample laptop for such things. Right now, Ice Lake delivers massive improvements in one area, settles for small gains to small losses in another, and offers an unknown level of improvement in the third. Gamers who want some ability to play on thin-and-lights should be the major beneficiaries of the improvements we’ve seen thus far. If this performance holds, AMD will either need to hit back at Intel on 7nm or see its long domination of the integrated mobile GPU market finally fall — which isn’t honestly a sentence I used to think I’d ever type.