Tiger Tiger... Intel Reveals the New 11th Gen Tiger Lake H-Series Mobile Platform

👤by Tim Harmer Comments 📅11.05.2021 11:10:02

Intel have a history of dominance in the mobile PC space stretching back decades. The segment saw the debut of the Core moniker in 2006 that’s now adopted throughout the range alongside an efficiency-driven chip design ethos. Despite waxing and waning demand for desktop chips, their portable models have offered leading performance in laptop chassis styles from hulking desktop replacements down to razer-thin ultraportables. Now into the 11th Generation and beset by a familiar foe, Intel’s Core CPU for mobile applications are receiving a major update that addresses the performance market head-on.

During CES 2021 Intel launched the first selection of 11th Generation Core H series ‘Tiger Lake’ processors for lightweight laptops with configurable CPU TDP below 35W. You’d be forgiven for believing that 10th Gen. Comet Lake H designs would be dominate the performance landscape for yet more years as these new chips were restricted to 4-core/8-thread topology, a familiar refrain for promising architectures that didn’t quite make it into performance-oriented systems. This tiger however would remain caged for only a short while.

Today the balance of 11th Generation Core H series ‘Tiger Lake’ processors will debut in the mobile space, and Intel are certainly not playing it safe on this safari. The range is tailored to satisfy the requirements for laptops set to be equipped with a discrete GPU, including not only modest gaming but even ‘halo’ enthusiast creations with overclocking capabilities. Featuring up-to 8-cores and 16-threads and integrated into OEM designs with cutting-edge graphics and panel technology, there will be a large number of discouraged desktop customers who will suddenly find themselves questioning their allegiance to the bulky box in the corner.

Intel are boasting of over 80 design wins to be announced in the coming weeks and months for this range of processors, spread amongst models from the likes of Dell, HP, ASUS, MSI and Lenovo. It’s easy to see why they’ve immediately captured the imagination of OEMs the world over: 19% IPC improvement is immense in the mobile space, and if gaming performance can live up to expectation then they’ll be able to sate some of the demand building up in the desktop market.

Generation Highlights

Willow Cove Microarchitecture on 10nm SuperFin

Intel’s 10th Generation ‘Ice Lake’ introduced the Sunny Cove core, a necessary update to a processor architecture that for years had received relatively minor revisions. Such was its revolutionary nature that many of Sunny Cove improvements were ‘back-ported’ into the Rocket Lake-S desktop CPUs, giving the core a much-need IPC boost despite remaining on a 14nm manufacturing.

‘Tiger Lake’s’ Willow Cove core is an evolution of Sunny Cove developed on the same 10nm manufacturing process, but bolstered to handle more cores, new PCIe standards and faster DDR4 memory. Direct performance comparisons between Tiger Lake and Ice Lake are not available (nor necessarily valid given that Ice Lake was restricted to quad-core layouts) but Intel’s internal testing places Tiger Lake-H at up to 19% higher IPC than Comet Lake-H in like-for-like laptop tests.

But is that headline claim backed up by core count parity and high operating frequencies?

8-cores/16-threads and clocking up to 5.0Ghz

Sitting at the top of Intel’s new mobile processor hierarchy is the Core i9-11980HK, a halo replacement for the i9-10980HK. This 8-core/16-thread behemoth has a sizeable 24MB Cache and support for DDR4-3200 memory, comfortably surpassing the 10th-Gen counterpart in the latter two metrics. Within the same 65W cTDP the processor nominally clocks to 3.3GHz, opportunistically pushing from a floor of 2.6GHz to as high as 5.0GHz (2 cores) should operating conditions fall within predefined criteria.

Intel Turbo Boost Max 3.0 is a large part of what allows the i9-11980HK to reach such dizzying heights despite the limiting mobile platform. The technology determines your fastest two cores and apportions load among them when the overall workload is only lightly threaded, making the most of the available silicon and thermal headroom. The frequency is determined by general factors including wider system load, power consumption and more, deriving benefits from the cooling solution of each laptop model. This top frequency is however a little lower than the 5.3GHz possible on the i9-10980HK, so it’s lucky that Tiger Lake has that 19% IPC improvement to fall back on.

This ‘HK’ model is also one of the few in the mobile space to support overclocking and advanced turning features, letting OEMs and even some enthusiasts tweak their performance within the limits of the former’s engineering. As part of the overclocking tools Intel now exposes Per-core voltage control, CPU Intel BLCK tuning and other enhancements via the eXtreme Tuning Utility, a tool that will no-doubt see plenty of action in the hands of a few (and fear in the glances of many).

At a 65W TDP the processors will need to be supported by significant cooling infrastructure, particularly when paired with still-more-toasty discrete graphics. Some designs will no-doubt be a legacy of those perfected for use with the also-65W TDP 10980HK.

A Sparse but Necessary Processor Stack

Only five CPU models form part of the new Intel 11th Gen Ice Lake lineup for consumers. Directly below the i9-11980HK are the i9-11900H and i9-11800H; both 8c/16t SKUs that differ through operating frequency and ITBM 3.0 (the latter of which doesn’t support the tech.). Both sit within a cTDP envelope of 35W and neither is unlocked for overclocking, so expect either to be a favourite of gaming laptops designs that aim to satisfy consumers straight out of the box rather than open up means of endless tinkering.

Two additional SKUs are introduced further down the product stack. The i5-11400H and i5-11260H are both 6c/12t processors, and the main differentiating factor appears to be a slight dip in operating frequencies from one to the next. Each sits at a cTDP of 35W and clock up to 4.5GHz/4.4GHz respectively, while the integrated graphics option of the 11400H is a little more accomplished.

Each of these processors is equipped with up to 32 Execution Units conforming to Intel’s new Xe class graphics architecture, itself a significant update over the prior generation for hardware-accelerated tasks. They won’t be taking up any significant gaming duties in these laptops thanks to the discrete GPU but may still prove valuable for encoding/transcoding and other workload-dependent tasks.

Remember that these H-series processors slide in alongside the trio of quad-core models launched at CES 2021. So far as we’re aware the i7-11375H, i7-11370H and i7-11300H will continue to be sold in ultralight laptops, but the naming scheme could confuse the unwary. These chips, as well as the UP3-class <15W Tiger Lake models, are equipped with more Xe execution units as part of the Iris Xe series of products, befitting a platform that has no guarantee of discrete graphics capability.

Dominant in Gaming and Content Creation

As part of today’s announcement Intel shared internal test results showing a performance advantage of between 5% and 21% over the previous generation across a range of titles. More significantly, their tests indicated that the ‘Tiger Lake’ flagship was between 11 and 26% faster than AMD’s Ryzen 5800HX when both are paired with near identical hardware. That’s a thumping that may make the red team just a little bit nervous.

Note however that the devil might be in the detail - each chassis design tested was not identical and, with dynamic overclocking so dependent on cooling, the results could easily be indicative of differences in platform design. We’ll have to wait on independent tests to really tease out the realities of this situation.

It is unquestionable however that Intel have leapfrog AMD’s technology lead with Tiger Lake’s launch in at least one key area. The blue team chose to equip the platform with a full 20 PCIe 4.0 lanes for both graphics and storage, rather than limit it to 20 PCIe 3.0 lanes as on AMD’s Ryzen 5000H-series. This means that it can take advantage of the full bandwidth available to high performance NVMe storage and NVIDIA’s RTX 30-series graphics solutions, resulting in parity with the capabilities of their Rocket Lake desktop counterparts.

Intel have also added Resizeable BAR support to their platform toolkit, allowing the CPU to address the entirety of video memory rather than only a limited segment. The impact will vary according to application but early reports in desktops indicated a small but notable uplift in single figure percentages. You can read more about the feature in NVIDIA's primer on the topic.

At the time of writing Intel have only confirmed notebook models equipped with NVIDIA GeForce RTX 30-series discrete graphics, without going into too much detail on the specific SKUs. The RTX 3080 is obviously highly probable, but the 6-core CPU models may well be paired with GPUs slotting in at the RTX 3060-level and below. This would easily cater to the requirements of 1080p60 gaming, with plenty of models in between to hit 120Hz refresh rates, 1440p resolutions and eventually the dizzying heights of 4K.

In keeping with this gaming edge, Intel 11th Gen mobile laptops will be among the first to be kitted out with displays supporting refresh rates of up to 360Hz, and even a limited number of panels hitting 120Hz at 4K. NVIDIA’s RTX technology suite, particularly DLSS and Reflex, will be key in making these halo specifications achievable in real games played today.

The Balance of Features

For all the talk of performance, Intel really take a platform-focussed approach to the laptop market. In combination, their processors and mobile chipset aims to offer technologies that aren’t just important today, but are forward looking in such a way as to maximise the flexibility of the laptop purchased. While you might have bought your notebook with a single use case in mind, Intel want you to be able to shift to new environments and take your system with you.

The platform’s support for Thunderbolt 4 is easy to ignore, but shouldn't be. Thunderbolt 3 was opened up as a standard to non-Intel platforms some years ago, which will result in a greater number of Thunderbolt-compliant devices in the market over time. Pushing to the new standard early will offer some level of future-proofing as well as making this a more versatile platform overall.

Intel Killer Wi-Fi 6E meanwhile will help to tailor wireless connectivity to your home and work environments. The Killer set of tools allows you to prioritise traffic to ensure that gaming (or other important) data flows unimpeded, and updating your local wireless network to Wi-Fi 6 helps to support a far greater number of discrete devices within a ‘Smart’ home.

Some features will be available on a per-model basis, enabled by partner OEMs as they deem appropriate, but on the basis of an overview this certainly appears to be a highly promising release.

Workstation Not Overlooked

As part of today’s launch Intel are also introducing a selection of 11th Gen. ‘Tiger Lake’ H-Series Mobile CPUs for Commercial Applications and Workstations. These models are vPro compliant, integrating a wide selection of advanced security and system management features at the silicon level for SME through to enterprise-class businesses.

Included among the new vPro features for 11th Gen. CPUs are two additions to Intel Hardware Shield:

Intel Control-flow Enforcement Technology: Helps protect against classes of attacks which previously evaded software-only solutions.

Intel Thread Detection Technology: AI-based threat detection of ransomware and cryptomining attacks enabled at the silicon level. Currently an exclusive to Intel’s 11th Gen vPro processors.

Robust security apparatus is only becoming more important as we delve deeper into this digital age, and proactive threat detection and mitigation is a toolset that any system manager will welcome with open arms. They’re joined by ECC memory support, Total Memory Encryption and Intel Active Management Technology.

Modern businesses with AI-based workflow items can also take advantage of Intel Deep Learning Boost, a hardware-accelerated toolkit for neural network inference supported in hardware by their latest processors.

Performance advantages of the new 11th Gen processors for Workstations vary greatly by workload, but those who are refreshing their hardware on a two-generation (2-3 year) cadence can expect clear double-digit improvements according to industry-standard productivity benchmarks.

Burning Bright?

It's easy to be swayed by grandiose claims of performance gains over competitors and previous generations, showing an almost inexorable advancement to tease the money out of over-taxed wallets. If we were to take such claims as gospel then independent review sites would be unnecessary, but for now at least expectation must be tempered with caution. And that's as important today as it ever has been.

Enormous pressure has built up in the consumer IT industry for systems of any stripe or performance level. The desperate are paying premium prices for new and second hand GPUs, and until recently new CPUs were also commanding a premium over their MSRP. New laptops entering the market, potentially with modern GPUs and limited cryptocurrency mining capabilities, can create a rush within which it's easy to hide key platform oversights.

That being said, Intel's 11th Generation 'Tiger Lake' H-series processors are some of the most exciting products they've previewed in years, bringing the laptop space up to parity with desktops from a technological and performance standpoint. In another time they would have been launched with glitzy in-person marketing events and a host of laptop models from OEM partners to show, but we're not in that situation yet.

And so, with demand (and expected prices) so high, the true litmus test will be availability. Intel have claimed 80 design wins, but will these laptops enter the market in sufficient numbers to satisfy demand and maintain sensible pricing. We're hopeful.

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