Intel has had a pretty tough time of late, with constant delays to the 10nm process setting them back several years. Meanwhile, AMD has caught up and surpassed Intel across the board, often by eye-watering margins. Still, innovation is alive at Intel, and Lakefield is prime specimen.
At it's core, Lakefield combines two innovations from its rivals - AMD and Arm into one package.
CPUs are fairly simple. For the longest time, you had one core with multiple execution units, and that was that. In the mid-2000s, we saw a new innovation in forms of multi-core CPUs, first with AMD Athlon 64 X2, and then Intel Pentium D. The latter part of the decade saw CPUs based on Arm architecture come to prominence with the proliferation of mobile devices, led by smartphones. Arm CPUs went multi-core much later, with the Cortex-A9 series at the beginning of the 2000s.
But Arm had one neat trick up its sleeve - combining two or more different types of CPUs on one SoC. Today, pretty much all Arm SoCs feature big cores and little cores. The big cores, such as Cortex-A77, power on for high performance tasks. The drawback with these big cores is that they use a lot more power, and also, a lot more die area. So, these are complimented with low-power little cores, such as the Cortex-A55. Whether it be a Samsung Galaxy S11 or an iPhone 11 - pretty much all Arm SoCs feature this basic architecture. Indeed, they have advanced this concept with the advent of Cortex-X1 cores, so now we can have 3 different types of cores in one SoC. More like... MASSIVE.Big.little, amirite?
So what does this have to do with Lakefield? Intel has finally opted for a Big.little type approach. Or really, MASSIVE.little if we go by the previous analogy. 1 core in Lakefield is a cutting-edge Sunny Cove core - the same you find in some Core i7 10th Gen mobile CPUs. Of course, instead of 2-4 cores in those, we find only 1 here. There are 4 more cores though, of the Tremont architecture. I'm sure you remember the anemic Atom CPUs. Tremont is the latest iteration of that architecture. It's far more potent than the Atoms of old, but at the same time, it's designed with power efficiency in mind. Just like with the Arm SoCs, the Sunny Cove core will fire up only when required, while the smaller, more power efficient Tremont cores will deal with the more day-to-day tasks. The net benefit are two fold - it's going to increase battery life significantly. Intel is claiming a doubling of battery life in light tasks, and up to 25%. The other benefit would be a lower cost of manufacturing for Intel, mixing in smaller cores, something which may or may not be passed on to the customer in the form of more affordable devices.
Before moving on to the next innovation, it's worth noting that Intel has added a pretty beefy GPU to the mix - with 64 execution units. This should actually be faster than a Nintendo Switch!
Intel is stealing not just from Arm, but also AMD. The main innovation AMD's Zen 2 brought forward was using a combination of processes. Some of the high-performance bits of a CPU benefit greatly from being on a cutting-edge process like 7nm. However, these new processes are very expensive, and some of the more mundane bits of a CPU - the memory controllers, PCIe controllers etc take up a significant area, but don't really benefit from the more expensive process tech. AMD's solution was elegant but revolutionary - just split the CPU into two sections, one on a 7nm die, with the other on a cheap 14nm die.
Intel is using the same approach with Lakefield. The 1+4 CPU cores and the GPU are set on a 10nm+ die, while everything else resides on a die using the now ancient 22nm process.
That's not all, though, Intel has one final trick up its sleeve. The two different dies are stacked on top of each other - a completely new way to package CPUs.
New form factors
The net advantage of this new technology of stacking dies means Lakefield takes up a very tiny amount of space - much more comparable to a smartphone than a laptop or tablet. This will enable all new form factors, like Microsoft's Surface Neo, with a new brand of foldable devices.
But, of course, it'll also show up in more traditional form factors, like Samsung's Galaxy Book S laptop - now thinner and lighter than ever, without sacrificing battery life.
Lakefield is an exciting innovation, to be sure, but I've resisted mentioning its branding. Intel continues to have absolutely abysmal branding. I mean, what the heck is a Intel Core i5-L16G7 or a Core i3 L13G4?! It's just word soup at this point...