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Deciphering Intel's Codenames: What's With All the Lakes?

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Let's take a trip to Intel processor land. Would you rather perk up your PC's performance by drinking in some Coffee Lake or by skating through to 10nm with Ice Lake? You could follow the Skulltrail or descend into Ghost Canyon, but don't forget to cross the Ivy Bridge first. If you're confused, welcome to the club. Intel gives all of its processors code names which could be based on real lakes, bridges, canyons, mountains or  . . . something else. Eventually, all the products end up with marketing names such as Intel 10th Gen Core Series, but these names aren't particularly helpful when a "10th Gen" product could easily be either Ice Lake or Comet Lake, which are completely different architectures.

So we wondered: just who comes up with Intel processor code names and do they have any greater meaning than just "this is a different one than the other one?" In a quest for answers, we spoke with both official current Intel Senior Strategic Planner Jeff Tripp, who gave us the official company line, and former Principal Engineer Francois Piednoel, who provided an inside scoop.

How did Intel get its geographic code names? 

"Everything is a name found in North America," Tripp told us about Intel's naming scheme, laying the groundwork for all of the company's modern code names. "The place might have a physical it's close to the Oregon design team...or the name might be interesting (or least to us.)"

This holds true all the way back to the '90s. Many of Intel's early products, such as 1997's Tillamook, got their code names from American cities. However, it isn't completely true across Intel's entire history. The '90s also saw the occasional more creative name, like Thor (named after the Norse God) or Batman (named after the decidedly more copyrighted superhero).

Even the geographical names didn't have to stay bound to cities, though, as the company branded its 1998 Pentium 4 processor "Willamette," after Oregon's Willamette river. And as the company continued to grow, it saw more and more products follow similar naming schemes. With the introduction of its Rock Lake motherboard in 2003, Intel unwittingly started a trend that would later become its main way of naming its consumer-oriented products.

"Recently, we've shifted to more of a theme-based approach to picking those names," Tripp told us. "There's no real reason why a theme was picked and Intel has a very diverse set of people that participate in the naming so anything goes."

From Big Lake to Eagle Lake, Lake-themed code names would become more and more common at the company up until 2015's Skylake, after which they would become the dominant naming scheme for the company's consumer-facing projects into 2020.

"When we started this system, code names were really more of an internal thing — today they're used basically through the lifetime of the product," Tripp explained, walking us through what might have influenced the change from cities to more general natural features. "When that happens, we have to be a bit more conscious of the name and it's more of a branding/marketing/legal discussion than just planners and engineers."

This matched information Piednoel later shared with us, when he recounted legal issues Microsoft faced after they code named Windows 95 under the alias "Chicago."

"So, usually, the [Intel engineering] team decided on a codename, but then you run into legal problems with your codenames," Piednoel said. "So for example, Microsoft had a problem with this with Chicago...So then Intel learned that your codename should be something that not many people care about. You don't have to go and fight the mayor of Chicago because you were using the name of the city for one of your products."

This also probably explains why we haven’t seen a new Intel Batman since the motherboard’s “Batman’s Revenge” follow-up launched in 1993.

As for geography, the lake and river based naming schemes weren't the only time that Intel ditched city-based code names. 2007's Sandy Bridge CPU architecture saw the introduction of a bridge-based naming scheme, for example, with similar peak (Evans Peak, Ibex Peak, etc.) and bay (Shark Bay, Shell Bay, etc.) themes also debuting in the same year.

"We have a formal process for what types of things are lakes vs. bays vs. peaks," Tripp told us. However, he didn't elaborate on what that process was. "Different components are named after different geographic areas."

"In general," he elaborated "on the client side of the company, our SOC name and platform names are now the same and they are lakes." So, while Intel fans might be familiar with Comet Lake, only enterprise or specialty customers will likely know about products like Snow Ridge.

As for what kind of lake to choose when picking a code name, Tripp said "We obviously want names that give off an image of strength, speed, power, etc." For instance, Tripp told us that the team had once considered "Strawberry Lake" as a code name, before striking it down because it reminded too many people of the Strawberry Shortcake line of children's toys.

Still, sometimes the final code name could be decided on factors as arbitrary as when the meeting to decide it is held.

"Coffee Lake was named in a very, very early meeting," Tripp told us. "The planner admitted to being in a state of extreme coffee need...It gets interesting every single time...Everyone has an opinion."

While Coffee Lake is indeed a place in Oregon, we doubt that was the final deciding factor when the company chose it as a code name. 

Francois Piednoel, Performance Gurus of Intel in 2003 posing with the 1st Extreme Edition Processor. (Image credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Why are Intel code names so confusing? 

We spoke to Piednoel shortly after getting in contact with Tripp, and while much of their information matched, Piednoel was more open about Intel's reasons for the geographic naming scheme, as well as more critical of Intel's reliance on code names in general.

Francois Piednoel should be a familiar name to anyone who followed Intel in 2017, when he left the company after almost 20 years of employment. As a principal engineer, he was the key mind behind the dual-processor enthusiast gaming Skulltrail platform and helped to launch the company’s high-end line of Extreme Edition CPUs. He also aided in engineering on products code named under Katmai, Conroe, Penryn, Nahalem, Sandy Bridge and Skylake, just to name a few.  His departure from the company after such a long and prolific career made a splash in tech news circles, and he has continued to provide information and commentary on Intel since.

"So, of course, you know, they are going to refuse to tell you" were the first words out of Piedneol’s mouth as soon as I asked him why Intel names its products the way it does, which immediately cast doubt on the rosy, mostly casual picture Tripp had earlier laid out for me. "The goal for them is to get something people can understand what it is internally, while outside, people are confused about what it is."

For example, if Intel now names everything after lakes, it's difficult for those outside the company to tell products apart. There's also no immediate reason why "Rocket Lake" might be better than "Comet Lake," going by just the name. The reason for this, Piednoel said, is secrecy — both to protect the company's products from being stolen, and to be able to surprise the press.

"So one of the biggest problems of Intel is to keep it secret," Piednoel explained. "One thing I'm very proud of is, when we were doing Core 2 Duo, so Conroe and Merom. We successfully surprised the market. Even guys like Anand and the people from Tom's Hardware. When we showed up at IDF, with Conroe in the room, the first day we showed it, nobody knew about it. Nobody knew even the code name of the thing."

He continued, "If you want to disrupt the market, code names are very convenient, but they actually give up [information] as well. They help the outside world to regroup [figure out] what it [the product] is." 

This meant, in the case of Conroe, that Piednoel's team was the only group at Intel to know what it was. More impressively, they also sent it off to OEMs and ODMs for evaluation by disabling its execution unit and telling them it was a better Yonah — an earlier Intel processor. So while this made their work more difficult, it also meant they were able to show up at trade shows with a completely unleaked processor that was suddenly "40% faster than the previous processor."

"And nobody expected it," Piednoel said. "If you had leaks, that would have been a lot less funny."

In other words, it's not just the audience or the whims of the naming team that Intel considers when choosing (or revealing) code names. It's also the press and leakers, hence the touch of confusion to the naming scheme. Ideally, according to Piednoel, an Intel code name only really needs to make sense to the people who need it.

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

How do confusing code names affect marketing? 

Unfortunately, Intel doesn't live in an ideal world. Because its official product names aren't much more descriptive than specifying a generation — much to Piednoel's frustration — customers and press often resort to using the code name when discussing an Intel product, also making them part of the branding. 

"To me, code names are something that people use by default because they have nothing else to grasp," Piednoel told us.

Tripp has a different view about why  people outside Intel rely on the company's internal code names. Speaking with us, he argued that code names maintain relevance simply because that's what people get used to calling products while they wait for an official name. "Our codenames are intended to be used with products and technologies that are in development, before they're commercially available. Ideally, everyone would switch to the correct, official name after launch. That said, we understand it's hard for people to make this switch."

Still, that "Ideally" echoes Piednoel's earlier statement about code names being prioritized for internal understanding. However, Tripp did contradict Piednoel's assertion that the company's confusing code names are intentional. "We definitely work hard to avoid any confusion for our fan community," he continued.

Regardless of their reasoning, though, both of our interviewees agreed that code names are now an important part of marketing, meaning that image is as important as information — or lack thereof.

"Intel is a company that likes looking very peaceful and very nice," Piednoel explained to us. "So if you look at the code name, it's always a lake, it's always a river."

Piednoel then told us that this attitude hasn't been around at the company forever, but has started increasing as the company hopes to maintain a professional (aka unexciting) reputation with business partners. Referring to an older Intel product that he worked on code named Skulltrail as an example, he said "If you show up in a discussion with, I don't know, Amazon, and you tell them 'Next week, I'm going to sell you 20,0000 Skulltrails,' it's probably not going to work out. You need to sound more professional."

What’s the process for deciding on a code name and how has it changed? 

"So sometimes you just call a person, you get the code name, and then you run with it," Piednoel told us about how he actually got code names for his products at Intel, contradicting Tripp's claim that there's a formal process, or at least revealing that engineers might not always have as much access to that process as marketing. "There's no official corporate recipe."

More commonly, though, Piednoel's experiences saw code names being decided by teams. "Usually, you have a couple architects, they work on something, then they figure out 'Oh, I would like to call it this,'" he started. "Then, you know you have this corporate marketing strategy team that does the planning...and then they give you a name."

This mirrors Tripp's statements about a process a bit more, but also points out a homogeneity that Piednoel finds troubling.

"The reason why we picked Skulltrail was because it had meaning to us," he said, referring back to the Skulltrail platform that he helped name. "We were getting beat up really bad, and then Core 2 Duo shows up, and we wanted to make a point that we are not going to give up anymore. So, a skull trail is an old place where people are just dying on the side of the trail. So we made an effort that was very quick. In six months, we made a motherboard, a dual processor for high end desktops. So we knew we would lose some of our house doing this. We had a meaning when we called it Skulltrail."

Essentially, Piednoel's team chose Skulltrail as a code name because it was a last-ditch effort. Modern Intel code names don't allow for that kind of specificity or emotional weight — you won't be seeing a new Intel Thor get released anytime soon — and without official names that do allow for that, Piedneol thinks that's a problem.

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Are code names even important? 

Both Piednoel and Tripp agreed earlier that Intel code names shouldn't matter as much to the public as they do. The official name, both told us, should take precedence. But Piednoel was the only one to go into why he thinks it doesn't.

"It's proving something that people are getting attached more to the code names than the brand of Intel processors. It's that the branding is terrible," he said.

Since introducing its Core line of processors in 2006, Intel's main line of consumer end CPUs have maintained that same naming scheme for more than a decade, simply updating the generation number on the box. For example, the company officially branded 2018's Coffee Lake line of processors as "9th Generation Intel Core" processors, while it called this year's Comet Lake line of processors "10th Generation Intel Core" processors. It's to the point, but according to Piednoel, it's not descriptive enough to be useful to customers, so they don't.

"It's like in the movie 'Airplane,' where there is a poster for Rocky 23 or 24. We're getting there, right," he told us. "Like, we're the 10th generation Core i7. In 10 years, we're going to be at 21," he posited.

Aside from the annoyance of the public not using the official name, however, Piednoel thinks that Intel's acceptance, or even reliance, on those outside the company using its internal code names can hurt business.

More seriously, he said "Maybe people don't understand this, but the biggest competitor for Intel is a four years old PC from Intel," with the idea that simply updating the generation number on a product gives the impression that it is simply a slightly improved version of a last-gen processor, rather than a unique piece of hardware with specialized abilities of its own.

"If you have an awesome product that comes in, it's easy to excite people. If the computer gets a lot faster and all of your games run better, it's easy," Piednoel explained. "If you give the impression of being incremental, then you lose excitement after a while."

Giving an example, he said "If I look at Skylake and I look at Coffee Lake, there really is a huge difference in between. They're not the same architecture. They are extremely advanced versions of previous processors." However, and he argued that this applies to both official names and code names, "Because they keep the lake name [across both], they end up giving the impression of just being incremental."

For code names, Piednoel suggested that fixing this issue would be as easy as just dropping themes. "I think they should stop doing this and go back to names like Katmai, Willamette, Prescott. They don't sound the same."

Meanwhile, his suggestion for official names was a bit more involved. "They [Intel] have no branding attached to, like 'you should have an Intel Core i9 gaming' or something like this. You know, the best for gaming. 'If you do mining, you should have the best processor for mining.' Intel should brand their products for the tasks they're best at."

Calling every major Intel processor Core, Piednoel argued, doesn't give customers enough information about how to buy Intel products, which is why he thinks code names still work their way into common use. While Piednoel acknowledged to me that the Core branding was clever when it first started, because every computer needs cores, he also said "When Sean Maloney decided to call it 'core,' a lot of people were confused, because it's hardly predictable. It's a common name, so you can't really put a brand on this. Intel does, but you know, the core of an apple is not something you can brand."

Seemingly frustrated with the tech market’s eccentricities, Piednoel used another high-end hobbyist market- cars- as an example of how he believes processor naming should work.

"If you drive a BMW 750 from the '80s, you're not saying 'I'm driving an E32 [the code name for that model]'," he said. "Nobody does. This is the only market where hobbyists are using the code name more than the brand...You have people using code names more than they use the generation number. So it shows you that the thing is eroded. And it's probably time to go do something else."

Towards a less confusing future 

Piednoel ended his interview with me by saying that he thinks Intel might be on the verge of addressing his problems, partially by moving into a new field that would require the specific branding he wishes the company had.

"You can see the graphics effort; you can see the FPGA effort," he said. Referring to the company's secrecy, he then continued that the lack of recent leaks might point to something big coming soon. 

"The number of leaks are very low. They are paying attention not to have benchmark leaking. So, I think they are preparing something cool. That's my opinion."

When I pressed him on what exactly that cool thing might be, he told me "I think they have been transforming. I left Intel two and a half years ago, so they were already starting the transformation. So I think they are close to popping the egg, to getting out of their shell. I think, this year, they should be pleasing to look at."

Intel CPU Code Names Through the Years 

Year First ReleasedCode nameNanometersOfficial nameTop Model
2010 (or earlier)Bloomfield45nmIntel CoreIntel Core i7-930
2010 (or earlier)Arrandale32nmIntel Core Intel Core i7-640M
2010 (or earlier)Lynnfield45nmIntel CoreIntel Core i7-880
2010 (or earlier)Clarkdale32nmIntel CoreIntel Core i5-680
2010 (or earlier)Clarksfield45nmIntel CoreIntel Core i7-940XM Extreme Edition
2010 (or earlier)Gulftown32nmIntel CoreIntel Core i7-990X Extreme Edition
2010 (or earlier)Nehalem EX45nmIntel XeonIntel Xeon X7542
2010 (or earlier)Wolfdale45nmIntel Pentium, Intel XeonIntel Xeon X5270
2010 (or earlier)Pineview45nmIntel AtomIntel Atom N470
2010 (or earlier)Lincroft45nmIntel AtomIntel Atom Z625
2010 (or earlier)Penryn32nmIntel Core, Intel Celeron, Intel PentiumIntel Core 2 Extreme X9100
2011Sandy Bridge32nmIntel Core, Intel Xeon, Intel CeleronIntel Xeon E3-1290
2011Cedarview32nmIntel AtomIntel Atom D2700
2012Sandy Bridge EN32nmIntel Pentium, Intel XeonIntel Xeon E5-2470
2012Ivy Bridge22nmIntel Core, Intel Xeon, Intel Pentium, Intel CeleronIntel Xeon E3-1290 v2
2012Centerton32nmIntel AtomIntel Atom S1260
2012Knights Corner22nmIntel Xeon PhiIntel Xeon Phi Coprocessor 7120p
2013Gladden22nmIntel Core, Intel XeonIntel Core i3-3115C
2013Haswell22nmIntel Core, Intel Xeon, Intel Pentium, Intel CeleronIntel Xeon E3-1286 v3
2013Bay Trail22nmIntel Atom, Intel Celeron, Intel PentiumIntel Pentium J2850
2013Rangely22nmIntel AtomIntel Atom C2338
2013Avoton22nmIntel AtomIntel Atom C2550
2014Crystal Well22nmIntel CoreIntel Core i7-4980HQ
2015Broadwell14nmIntel Core, Intel Xeon, Intel Pentium, Intel CeleronIntel Xeon E5-1630 v4
2015Braswell14nmIntel Celeron, Intel Atom, Intel PentiumIntel Pentium J3710
2015Skylake14nmIntel Core, Intel Xeon, Intel Pentium, Intel CeleronIntel Xeon W-2155
2015Cherry Trail14nmIntel AtomIntel Atom x7-Z8700
2016Kaby Lake14nmIntel Core, Intel Pentium, Intel Celeron Intel Core i7-7740X-series
2016Apollo Lake14nmIntel Atom, Intel Pentium, Intel CeleronIntel Pentium N4200E
2016Knights Landing14nmIntel Xeon PhiIntel Xeon Phi 7290
2017Kaby Lake R14nmIntel Core, Intel Pentium, Intel CeleronIntel Core i7-8650U
2017Whiskey Lake14nmIntel Core, Intel CeleronIntel Core i7-8665U
2017Coffee Lake14nmIntel Core, Intel Pentium, Intel CeleronIntel Core i9-9900K
2017Gemini Lake14nmIntel Celeron, Intel PentiumIntel Celeron J4005
2017Denverton14nmIntel AtomIntel Atom C3750
2017Knights Mill14nmIntel Xeon PhiIntel Xeon Phi 7295
2018Cannon Lake10nmIntel CoreIntel Core i3-8121U
2019Gemini Lake Refresh14nmIntel Pentium, Intel CeleronIntel Pentium Silver J5040
2019Amber Lake Y14nmIntel Core Intel Core i7-10510Y
2019Cascade Lake14nmIntel Core, Intel XeonIntel Xeon Gold 6210U
2019Ice Lake10nmIntel CoreIntel Core i7-1065G7
2020Comet Lake14nmIntel Core, Intel Pentium, Intel CeleronIntel Core i9-10980HK
2020Snow Ridge10nmIntel AtomIntel Atom P5942B
Expected 2020Tiger Lake10nmIntel CoreTBA

Michelle Ehrhardt is an editor at Tom's Hardware. She's been following tech since her family got a Gateway running Windows 95, and is now on her third custom-built system. Her work has been published in publications like Paste, The Atlantic, and Kill Screen, just to name a few. She also holds a master's degree in game design from NYU.