Intel's next-generation processor lineup goes from Kaby Lake to Coffee Lake, Ice Lake, and Cannon Lake — but what do those names mean and what improvements will they offer?

Intel CPUs have been at the heart of Apple's Mac laptops and desktops since the switch from PowerPC back in 2006. Currently, that includes the Core Duo series used in MacBook Pro, Mac mini, and iMac; the Core m series used in MacBook; and the Xeon series used with Mac Pro. Each processor is also distinguished by generation: Previously Haswell or Broadwell, currently Skylake or Kaby Lake.

Once upon a time, Intel was on a "tick-tock" schedule where one generation would introduce a die-shrink (tinier and tinier transistors) and the next a new architecture. Now that the company is hitting 14 nanometers and approaching 10 nanometers, physics has forced them to slow down … and pad out. That means the generations have gotten more complicated and more confusing. Instead of going from Skylake to Cannon Lake, Intel is going from Skylake to Kaby Lake to Coffee Lake to Ice Lake to Cannon Lake.

Here's what that means for you and for the Mac.

Kaby Lake

Kaby Lake is Intel's 7th generation architecture and is currently available across most of Apple's Mac lineup. Although very little changed from Skylake, the previous generation, to Kaby Lake — both being on the 14 nm process — Kaby Lake's refined process allows for better quality CPUs with less power consumption.

It also offers slightly faster clock speeds, both base and higher turbo, and hardware support for video codecs such as H.264, HEVC (H.265), and VP9. Key for Apple, Kaby Lake supports 10-bit HEVC. That means current generation Macs cannot only play back 4K video with hardware support, but 4K HDR (high dynamic range) video.

An upcoming Kaby Lake refresh is slated for mobile, low power configurations.

Coffee Lake

In spite of the Kaby Lake refresh coming up, Coffee Lake CPUs are set to be available later this year.

One of the most impactful changes in Coffee Lake is the addition of 2 more cores on the processor. Depending on the model, you'll now have up to 6 cores and 12 threads. The current breed of Intel desktop CPUs have topped out at 4 cores and 8 threads for their consumer level products. Having more cores and more threads will allow for faster computations for productivity related tasks such as image manipulation and video editing.

There will also be support for faster memory speeds, and updates to Thunderbolt 3.0 and USB 3.1 ports. Although not necessarily a response to AMD's 16 core 32 thread Ryzen Threadripper CPU, it's nice to see that competitive products give consumers better and faster technology.

Cannon Lake

Cannon Lake is the codename for the Intel CPU architecture slated for release sometime late 2017 to early 2018. It will also be the company's first CPU based on the 10nm process.

Going from Coffee Lake's 14nm process to Cannon Lake's 10nm process helps in a number of ways.

First, cost. When manufacturing a CPU or GPU, the manufacturer will create a multitude of CPUs on a single sheet of silicon called a wafer. The smaller the manufacturing process, the more CPUs or GPUs a manufacturer can create on a single wafer. Wafer's can also have inherent microscopic defects that won't be discovered until after all of the CPUs are cut or created. Having a smaller process will reduce the chance that any one CPU will have a defect.

Second, CPU size (die size). If Intel were to make no changes between the 14nm Coffee Lake and the 10nm Cannon Lake, the smaller die size would still require less power to run it. That translates into longer battery life and lower thermal output. Both good things.

With those reductions, Intel can (and probably will) increase the core clock speed to allow for even faster CPUs. They can also improve performance by increasing the number of transistors and the number of cores (thanks again also to pressure from AMD consumer CPUs).

On top of the process shrink to 10nm, there might also be improvements to the various hardware components like Thunderbolt and USB ports.

Ice Lake and beyond

Ice Lake has only just been announced by Intel. Both Ice Lake and the subsequent Tiger Lake processors will still be part of the 10nm process.

Assuming 10nm is difficult, Intel could do with Coffee Lake, Ice Lake, and subsequent generations what the company did with the decompressed 14nm generation: roll out smaller, more incremental changes over time as quality, yield, codecs, interconnects, and other technologies mature.

Any questions on Mac processors?

Personally, I don't want to wait for future Intel processors to get lower power requirements, more cores, and faster clock speeds per core when AMD is already offering faster processors with Ryzen. I want Apple to have the option for AMD Ryzen CPUs in their lineup, the way the company already offers AMD graphics.

If you have any questions or comments, let me know below!