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How Intel Hopes to Catch Rivals With Its Latest Chips

After years of delay, Intel is offering a new line of processor chips for laptops that could close the gap with rivals that have surpassed the company in semiconductor manufacturing technology.

On Thursday, Intel unveiled details about 11 chips that can power everything from thin, light laptops to more powerful devices suitable for video editing, developing software, or playing high-resolution games (chips for the highest-end, power user laptops will be coming later, however). Intel said the new line of chips, dubbed Ice Lake, was already in production for laptops that would go on sale by the holiday shopping season from Dell, Hewlett Packard, Acer, and Lenovo.

Intel’s announcement comes as it tries to play catch up to rivals like Taiwan Semiconductor and Samsung in manufacturing high-performance processors. Those rivals in turn make chips for direct Intel competitors like Advanced Micro Devices, Qualcomm, and Nvidia.

New Intel CEO Bob Swan has pledged to get Intel back on track, partly by seeking less ambitious improvements in future chips. Still, Wall Street sees a long battle ahead over server, laptop and desktop PC chips, one that could dent Intel’s profits and market share for the next few years.

The Ice Lake laptop chips include up to four separate processing cores each, built-in support for graphics processing, and top speeds as fast as 4.1 GHz. Intel said the chips could play top video games or process edited videos at twice the speed of its prior generation of chips. But the company didn't include the results of any typical PC benchmark tests and the graphics performance claims.

Intel said the chip are its first to include a special features to speed up machine learning and artificial intelligence apps even on the lightest laptops. That could help with increasingly common tasks like recognizing people in photographs and interpreting voice commands.

The new chips also incorporate the next wireless standard, called Wi-Fi 6, which Intel said transfers data at three times the speed of older Wi-Fi using the current 802.11ac standard. (The standard has nothing to do with the next-gen mobile standard 5G.)

The new technology Intel developed for the chips, which the company first touted would be ready as early 2015, allows it to cram more transistors on each processor, speeding calculations and requiring less electricity than older chips.

It has taken about five years for Intel to shift from chips at a scale of 14 nanometers down to Ice Lake's 10 nanometers, or about 1/10,000 the width of a human hair. Although the nanometer-based standards are more of a shorthand than an exact measurement of chip features, smaller scale means less power consumption and higher performance in the same-size chip.

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