Everything You Need to Know About Intel’s 11th Gen ‘Rocket Lake’ Core CPU: Interview With Intel’s Marcus Kennedy


Intel’s 11th Gen ‘Rocket Lake’ Core i9, Core i7, and Core i5 desktop CPUs should soon be available for everyone across the world to buy. This isn’t another minor 14nm update, like we’ve seen for the past several years, as Intel struggled with 10nm manufacturing capacity. Instead of prolonging the wait further, Intel has taken the surprising step of leveraging its relatively more modern 10nm ‘Ice Lake’ architecture, but has backported it to a 14nm manufacturing process to get it out into the market. This approach allows the company to keep using its established and mature manufacturing capabilities while bringing new features and improvements to market. Considering all this, there’s a lot that gamers, enthusiasts, overclockers, and even casual users will want to know.

Gadgets 360 caught up with Marcus Kennedy, General Manager, Gaming Division, Client Computing Group at Intel, to talk about the 11th Gen desktop Core CPU launch, his outlook for gaming, and what’s in store for anyone who might be considering an upgrade.

Gadgets 360: So what’s new with Rocket Lake, and what should enthusiasts be most excited about?

Marcus Kennedy: With Rocket Lake, we know that we are going to be delivering unmatched speeds and better game performance on release, and also greater efficiency and increased workflow productivity with our first new core architecture on desktops in five years. We’ve got 19 percent IPC (Instructions Per Clock) improvement, generation over generation. We’ve got 50 percent better integrated graphics performance as we are including the new XE integrated architecture that was launched with Tiger Lake earlier this year. But we’re also bringing AI for the first time to the S series (desktop segment) which helps enable a lot of incredible performance on things like object detection and speech recognition as well.

Gadgets 360: Can you talk more about the AI features?

Kennedy: AI inference in general is what I’m talking about. Part of what that does and how we’re bringing that to market is through the GNA, the Gaussian Neutral Accelerator, in the silicon that enables these AI usages, and that’s inside the integrated graphics.

Gadgets 360: So is there anything major that we lose out on by not having Rocket Lake using 10nm?

Kennedy: We’ve backported the 10nm process onto 14nm, so though the transistors are larger we are still taking advantage of the core and graphics IP benefits. Are we losing out on any features? Well, no, but when we do make that jump to 10nm, obviously you would gain the benefits of the greater efficiencies that you get with scaling down.

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The key improvements of the 11th Gen ‘Rocket Lake’ architecture

Gadgets 360: Intel has been talking a lot about the 12th Gen (Alder Lake) which is coming up later this year. Where does that leave the 11th Gen, really? Has this been a lot of effort just for a temporary stopgap generation?

Kennedy: Well no, I wouldn’t call it a stopgap. We are really focused on delivering an annual cadence of products, and you can expect from us a new processor every year. Within some of those jumps you’ll see a new architecture or a new node. This is our normal state of being; continuing to keep up with the market, delivering new and exciting performance benefits year over year. Particularly with the gaming market, they demand performance. They want a refresh between two and three years, and developers are trying to bring the best experiences to gamers. The annual cadence really allows us to keep up with the demand.

Gadgets 360: You’re talking about an annual cadence but Intel has already said the 12th Gen will come out before the end of 2021, and it’s going to introduce its own new socket and chipsets. Where does that leave buyers?

Kennedy: Rocket Lake is absolutely an exciting product; it drives performance benefits not just gen over gen but also over the competition, and so for buyers who want the best product on the market, the highest clock speeds, the AI features, you absolutely want to buy this now. The [upgrade cycle] is 2-3 years; there are going to be new features every year. I think what we’re doing with the 11th Gen is making sure that we have an offering for the market to bring things like PCIe Gen 4, the AI, and the integrated graphics.

Gadgets 360: Considering that this is a big change in architecture, but you can still use a Rocket Lake CPU with a previous-gen motherboard, what should customers expect if they’re going to upgrade?

Kennedy: As with any new product, it is always best to upgrade everything if you want every feature and the best performance. In this case with the 500-series chipsets you get double the USB connectivity speed, support for PCIe Gen 4 lanes, and things like memory overclocking on all the 500-series chipsets, not just [the top-end Z590]. If you want Wi-Fi 6E and Thunderbolt 4, you’ve got to go with the 500 series. PCIe Gen 4 is enabled through the CPU, and so if you want Gen 4 you do have to upgrade to Rocket Lake. If you’re okay with PCIe Gen 3, just CPU overclocking, and your current USB speeds, it’s okay to stay with the current 400 series.

Gadgets 360: The top-end Core i9-11900K has eight cores, down from 10 on the Core i9-10900K. What are you doing to combat any perception that it’s not as great as the previous generation, or the competition which goes up to 16 cores?

Kennedy: Rocket lake, gen over gen, has multiple real-world usage improvements. The 19 percent IPC improvement is [accounting for] eight cores vs 10 cores, and you’re able to see improvements in gameplay performance up to double digits; you’re also able to see increases in things like workflow productivity. Now I think we all know that most applications don’t scale up with the number of cores. You top out at somewhere close to 8-10 cores. Some applications do continue on, and if you’re running nothing but multi-threaded applications then maybe sticking with Comet Lake is the right thing for you, but the vast majority of usages actually don’t scale that high. Even for people who are using multiple threads, you’re more than likely going to see an improvement in performance by upgrading to Rocket Lake. The second thing we’ve been able to do is bring some of that core and graphics IP that you don’t get in the previous generation – the Xe architecture; things we’re able to bring to market on AI; smoother gameplay performance.

Gadgets 360: And what’s new with the refreshed 10th Gen CPUs that are also launching? What’s changing?

10th Gen CPUs are fully compatible with the 500-series as well as the 400-series motherboards. The 10th Gen is being refreshed for Core i3 and below, but Core i5 and up is going to be 11th Gen. It’s a refresh of the lower end of the stack in order to help take advantage of some of the benefits of 500-series boards, bringing some of those features to more cost-conscious consumers.

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Platform-level advantages when using a Rocket Lake CPU with a 500-series motherboard

Gadgets 360: So this division of the stack at the Core i3 to Core i5 point, with the previous and current generations, is that just for launch time or is that permanent?

Kennedy: Well, all I can say here is that is what we have at launch time. I’m not going to comment on potential SKU-ing that we’re going to do later. We are always focused on listening our community. We’ve kind of leaned in on places like Reddit, doing “Ask You Anythings”. We have constant social monitoring, and so if our community speaks really loudly, we are listening.

Gadgets 360: A lot of the features that we​’ve talked about appeal to gamers and enthusiasts, the Core i7 and Core i9 buyers. What can people lower down the stack expect?

Kennedy: We’re addressing the Core i3 and Pentium SKUs, through the Comet Lake 10th Gen refresh. With the 11th Gen Core i5, we absolutely see the same benefits. That double-digit performance increase in games, the increases in productivity and creation applications; those are absolutely up and down the stack. The higher IPC gen-over-gen and the introduction of the AI feature sets that enable this, and we think that down the stack, it can be an even more valuable proposition, because your price-to-performance ratio looks really good.

Gadgets 360: One of the key advantages is the Xe graphics, but are you still putting out ‘F’ SKUs that don’t have integrated graphics at all? Is there anything buyers would lose out on?

Kennedy: We listen to our community and customers, and there are some who don’t care about the integrated graphics and who want only to use discrete graphics. If you get that SKU, there will be some things that you lose out on with some of the AI features, but users who are doing this are bringing in top-of-the-line discrete graphics cards, so they might be ok with that.

With Rocket Lake’s integrated graphics you actually get the ability to do 4K on normal streaming applications like Netflix, whereas entry-level graphics cards don’t enable that, so that might not be the right thing for you. One other thing that you wouldn’t get is faster image processing, even if you have a high-end 3D card, because the localised integrated graphics allows the application to decide where that workload’s going to run. If the compute happens more locally, it happens faster versus having to go over the [PCIe] bus. So you might see faster image processing when you have the integrated graphics.

Gadgets 360: Those ‘F’ SKUs were introduced largely to help Intel deal with its supply constraints and we’ve seen for quite a few years that CPUs have been hard to find or overpriced. Is that changing now?

Kennedy: First, I’ll challenge the notion that it was due to supply constraints, I was part of some of those conversations and the main reason we did it is we realised that there was a part of that market that just didn’t want integrated graphics and who really fully pair with high-end discrete graphics. It had very little to do with supply itself and more to do with what consumers demanded.

I don’t think anybody foresaw the explosion of demand that we had last year, and that’s continuing into this year. The kind of new normal is people wanting to upgrade, wanting the best thing while they’re stuck at home. With the Rocket Lake launch, we’ve made sure to increase our manufacturing capacity so this is the largest supplied processor launch on the desktop that we’ve ever had. Demand continues to skyrocket, and it is possible that there’s way more demand out there than we expect, but we’re really confident that we’ll be able to supply the demand.

Gadgets 360: Is this now finally the end of 14nm across all of Intel’s CPU offerings?

Kennedy: 14nm has had a great run, right? Comet Lake is still a great product; we’re still selling it in the market. What 14nm has allowed us to do with Rocket lake and with the manufacturing efficiency that we’ve been able to tune over the years, is maintain clock speeds while bringing a lot of 10nm transistor goodness to the market. And so [Rocket Lake is] kind of a sweet spot of 10nm plus 14nm. With the core and graphics IP performance, we think this is the right transition point. And yeah, the 12th Gen on desktop [will be on 10nm].

Gadgets 360: Do you think the supply and demand issues that Intel had long before the pandemic began are resolved?

Kennedy: We have absolutely looked at what happened in the past and corrected that through capacity planning.

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Overclocking features and improvements

Gadgets 360: Can you talk a little bit about what’s new with overclocking and specifically the decision to open up more features to the lower end chipsets. Why now, and what exactly changes?

Kennedy: You’re specifically referring to memory overclocking right? We are now offering memory overclocking beyond the Z chipsets, into the H570 and B560. If you want CPU overclocking it’s still a Z chipset [exclusive]. The reason why now, is it’s about our community. Between the last generation launch and this generation, we heard loud and clear that memory overclocking is something our community wanted and so we delivered it further down the stack on H and B, which are more for price-conscious consumers. We’re offering a new integrated memory controller that helps enable that too. The last thing is we also now have real-time memory frequency support so you can actually make changes to the DDR4 frequency in real time too, toggling between the boot frequency and XMP profile, which is super important if you really want to fine-tune it. Some of the other features you get are AVX2 and AVX512 offset, as well as an AVX enable/disable option.

And this is really important, because there are consumers out there who don’t want AVX on when they’re running certain applications. They want to turn that off and use that horsepower somewhere else. Others do want it, because with things like AVX512, you actually really get the ability, if you’ve got the right cooling solution, to really dial it up and crank the most out of your system. Giving that power and control back to the gamer, the overclocker, is really important to us.

Gadgets 360: Okay, so what should overclockers expect with the changes that have come from the new architecture? Are there any major new characteristics in terms of heat, power draw, cooling you’d require, the targets you can hope to achieve?

Kennedy: Well, I can’t promise anything because as you know all these things tend to be variable, but what I can say is with the top end higher bin, you can expect a couple of bins’ worth of performance as you start to start to turn it up. Now for those who do invest in a high-end cooling solution, we know through testing that you’ll be able to crank even more. It really depends on your configuration and making sure that your motherboard has all those things enabled as well.

Gadgets 360: Would that be connected in any way to Intel discontinuing its warranty for overclocking?

Kennedy: t’s a good question, and that comes back to our community too. The reality is that the overclocking community has now become more stable and more confident in what they’re doing, and so there is just less demand for that programme. We listened and said “Oh, you don’t want it, then we’ll stop offering it”, but we’ll continue to monitor it and if things change then we will adapt and listen to our community.

Gadgets 360: Talking about demand spiking because people have been stuck at home over the past year, did this affect the development cycle for the 11th Gen and possibly the upcoming 12th Gen? Have you made any changes to address that, at the technology level, the segmentation, or just how you promote everything?

Kennedy: One [aspect] is that more and more people are coming into PC gaming. There’s an expectation that there could be close to 1.4 billion PC gamers over the next year. It’s a crazy number, right? The second is that we know that the community is focused on performance, so we continue to try to update things like the BIOS and all these other things to try to just tune a little more and add a little more performance.

Gadgets 360: Do you think the gaming market has been affected at all, or at least what you need to address in the gaming market has been affected by things like the current GPU shortages and the launches of the newest consoles, how does that change your demand and supply equations?

Kennedy: With graphics cards in the desktop market, we’re lucky enough to be able to be able to just pop one out from one place and put it in the other, so as you upgrade to Rocket Lake you’ll be able to bring your old GPU along. You don’t need to wait for GPU supply in order to get the benefits we’ve talked about. We actually don’t an impact in that regard relative to the desktop market. It does impact the notebook market, obviously, but for the desktop market, we think people will be able to refresh even as they bring along their old GPU or wait for a new one.

The console is actually a slightly different answer. First and foremost, we’re very confident that the PC is still the best place to play, right? You can’t get 300 frames per second on a console, you can’t really even get 100; they’re capped around 60fps. The smooth gameplay experience, the amount of control, the immersion, you just don’t get it on a console and I’m speaking as a former professional video game player who played on both PCs and consoles. It’s just a different experience. That said, most gamers consider themselves multi-platform. Something like 60 percent of games who consider themselves enthusiast to hardcore play on multiple platforms including consoles and their phones. So we actually see the introduction of the new consoles as great for us. It’s like a great entry point for people to come in and then say, “Hey, I actually want to play more on my computer now”, and they’ll go and see that that’s a greater experience too. We see it as a good entry point for folks to come in and then the PC is kind of that step up.

Gadgets 360: Thanks for your time. Is there anything else you’d like to add, or anything we should look out for?

I will add one last thing: We are going to be launching with Rocket Lake a beta version of our anti-toxicity application; we call it Bleep. I mentioned earlier that the PC is the best place to play. We believe in putting power and control in the hands of the gamer and the person who’s using their computer. Toxicity is the number one pain point globally for people who want to play. We lose 15-20 percent of our community to social toxicity. This isn’t censorship; this is the ability to turn on and off what you’re able to hear. It’s real-time; it takes advantage of some of the AI that I talked about before to do real-time monitoring. So be on the lookout for that too.

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