After the initial hype of Arc, spearheaded by the hiring of AMD Radeon graphics chief Raja Koduri in 2017, Intel embarked on the long work of releasing discrete graphics chips for the first time. The competition has only been strengthened since then. Nvidia has been a huge success in both the enthusiast and enterprise worlds. Meanwhile, AMD is putting pressure on Intel with a force we haven’t felt since the early days of the Athlone.
In short, it’s a tough time to be a new face in discrete graphics. But Roger Chandler, vice president and general manager of the Intel Graphics and Gaming team, believes that’s exactly why Intel is so successful. He believes that Arc can build on Intel’s history of strong partnerships with hardware manufacturers and software developers to provide a unique alternative for both creators and gamers.
It remains to be seen if Intel can deliver, but my time on the Jones campus at Intel’s farm — where I measured the company’s first Arc laptop GPU — made it clear that the team doesn’t lack passion.
Where is the gear?
Intel’s Arc A370M could offer competitive performance with AMD and Nvidia, but that’s not worth much if the hardware isn’t available. That reality still looms over Intel, which just announced another delay in desktop availability.
I asked Chandler if 2022 is still the year for Arc to start, or if it will be delayed further. “This is the year,” Chandler said boldly, before adding a catch. “This is the year our first generation of products hit the market.”
He emphasized that Arc takes a slow and steady approach where the laptop, rather than the desktop, takes the lead. (Nvidia and AMD typically release desktop GPUs first, then their mobile variants months later.) Why? Intel feels the Arc is best for delivering an immediate edge in the laptop space.
“It really fits our strategy,” Chandler said. “We build on this foundation of integrated graphics, which we are steadily improving. This is our foundation.” He also mentioned Intel’s long history of working with OEM laptop manufacturers.
Matt Smith / IDJ
However, the Arc Mobile app itself is still experiencing delays. Samsung’s Galaxy Book2 has a configuration with the Intel Arc A350M, but that configuration is not yet available in North America. Lenovo Yoga 2-in-1s have been announced with Intel Arc but won’t hit stores until June.
“I think we are all eager to bring the rest of the designs from our customers to market,” Chandler said. “When you work on partners with notebooks, you’re really working on their schedule and calendar.” Chandler said supply chain issues remain an ongoing obstacle to laptops.
Intel also wants to get the right user experience, especially for enthusiasts – whether they’re on mobile or desktop. The team doesn’t want to ship an unfinished experience just to get it off the shelves.
“Desktop systems are really important. Just to be honest, about 80 percent of people in the overall graphics world are hardcore gamers,” Chandler said. “The gaming experience should be very powerful. These are the products that are most reviewed and scrutinized. By being streamlined, this gives us an opportunity to truly deliver our software business.”
Intel wants to play games right the first time
Of course, delivering user experience is easier said than done, and Intel should make up for lost time. AMD and Nvidia have decades of experience working with game developers to improve their discrete graphics.
Chandler said the Arc software team is growing in strength and that Intel has expanded its developer relations organization to include twice the number of deep partnerships it had a few years ago.
“If I said this would work flawlessly, and 100 percent of every game would be great, that would be disingenuous,” Chandler said. “But I can say based on the testing we’re doing, it looks really good.”
Much of this workload falls on a team of approximately 50 people led by Dave Astle, Director of Game Enablement Engineering. Astle, now with seven years at Intel, has led his team to a more consistent release schedule for game-specific driver improvements — and Intel’s transition to discrete graphics opens up new possibilities.
“With integrated graphics, there will always be high-quality games that go above and beyond what we can support,” Astle said. “With discrete graphics, that is no longer the case. So now we are pretty much involved with every high-end game developer.” Astle highlighted Intel’s Xe Super Sampling (XESS), a feature similar to Nvidia DLSS that uses AI upscaling to deliver lower resolution and then upgrade the score.
I lobbied Astle on whether Intel would change the pace of driver update along with Arc. He seemed confident that the current pace of releases for integrated Intel graphics could keep up with what gamers would expect. He noted that the current pace is around one driver improvement release per month, and given the work required for validation, increasing that wouldn’t necessarily improve game support or performance.
“The goal is to unleash the rhythm we need to ensure a good experience,” Astle said.
Arch monument to contemporary creators
Regardless of the delays, Intel Arc will likely reach a wide segment of users, from content creators to hardcore gamers, until late 2022. Chandler spoke passionately about his belief that these groups are not separate.
“We are trying to build for this new generation of players and creators,” he said. “People are using games to connect with each other, and more people are building careers as broadcast creators and creators.”
Chandler cited Arc’s support for the AV1 video codec as a tangible benefit. Intel Arc provides both hardware decoding and encoding for AV1, a feature that can be useful for a variety of streaming devices and video creators.
Intel also works with software vendors to take advantage of both Iris Xe and Arc discrete graphics simultaneously for content creation tasks. This effectively turns the laptop into a dual graphics platform, a series of features that Intel calls Deep Link.
“For the most part, in a laptop system, if you have a discrete graphics card, the integrated graphics are pretty much ignored,” Chandler said. “With our systems engineering capabilities, we’ve explored all of these ways in which the discrete and the integrator can work together.”
Gamers shouldn’t get too excited – it’s not as simple as flipping a switch, and Intel doesn’t expect games can use this feature. However, it can allow live stream creators to use discrete Arc graphics to play a game while Iris Xe graphics are used to speed up streaming software.
Priya Pulluru, Software Enablement and Optimization Engineer, works with partners such as Topaz and BlackMagic to enable the simultaneous use of integrated and discrete graphics in their software. Topaz already offers an experimental feature that supports this. In one test, an Intel Arc A370M paired with Intel Iris Xe graphics delivered a roughly 40 percent improvement over a laptop with Nvidia’s RTX 3050.
Arc A370M graphics laptop may not work for all content creators, especially those who do extensive work on Topaz AI or DaVinci Resolve. However, Boloro believes that Arc can expand the definition of a laptop suitable for content creation. This can help experienced creators work on the go – or make high-end content creation possible at a mid-range price point.
“Now, content creation is everywhere,” Boloro said. “And any laptop, a mid-range laptop, can now run Resolve. My daughter did it for a school project.”
Ark set her sights on the horizon
Matt Smith / IDJ
This topic – “Content Creation Everywhere” – sounds like a guiding light for the Arc team. Of course, it will compete for the attention of hardcore gamers, but it is clearly in a position to do more than speed up 3D games. Instead, Arc appears to be uniquely positioned as the last step in a system-wide strategy.
I left Jones Farm feeling that Intel isn’t interested in discrete GPUs specifically selling Arc graphics, but instead in selling Intel hardware as a complete platform for modern PC users—many of which play, create, and surf YouTube on the same device. Intel may be new to using mainstream discrete graphics, but Chandler seems to think this new approach is exactly why Intel can get it right with Arc. “We can take a completely different approach,” he said. “The world is different than it was 20 years ago.”
Further reading of Intel Arc: