Intel Arc Mobile Graphics Performance Preview: A New Player Enters The GPU Game

Intel Arc Mobile Graphics Performance Preview: A New Player Enters The GPU Game

It’s safe to say that the PC industry has been waiting with baited breath for Intel’s first discrete Arc graphics products to arrive in their various incarnations, whether mobile variants for laptops or desktop add-in cards. Simply put, the market is eager for a third player to take on NVIDIA and AMD, offering alternative PC graphics technologies for gaming, content creation and more. And while Intel noted its desktop GPUs would arrive sometime “this summer,” its mobile discrete graphics offering was slated to arrive earlier in a walk-before-you-run kind of strategy. These days, laptops for content creation and mobile machines that have gaming chops, are in high demand, so the arrival of Intel’s new Arc A Series mobile GPUs have been highly anticipated as well. Fortunately, the wait, with respect to laptop products at least, is just about over.

Recently, I was able to not only go under the hood of an Intel Arc reference platform laptop from one of the company’s OEM partners, MSI, but I can also now share with you an extensive array of performance metrics in a number of workloads, from popular content creation titles, to a myriad of games at various image quality settings.

Intel’s Arc A-Series Mobile Graphics Family And A Test Vehicle

The specific Intel Arc A-Series GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) on-board the laptop I tested is an entry level Arc A370M, with 8 Xe cores, 8 Ray Tracing units and 4GB of GDDR6 memory.

It’s important to note, however, where this particular Intel GPU lines-up in the Arc Graphics product stack. While the Arc A370M isn’t the lowest-end config for Intel’s new mobile discrete graphics lineup — that designation goes to the 6 Xe core-equipped A350M — the Arc A370M is still an entry-level gaming and content creation-targeted chip. In fact, Intel Arc 5 Series GPUs will offer up to 2X the graphics firepower of Arc 3 Series, while Arc 7 Series will offer up to 4X the GPU resources of the A370M I have on tap for preview here today. But before we dive too deep into the nuts and bolts, let’s look at the skins here, and get a sense the Arc Graphics test vehicle that Intel provided…

Weighing in at just a hair over 4.5 lbs, the Intel Arc reference design laptop is a relatively thin and light machine based on MSI’s Summit E16 Flip notebook, though again what I’ve tested here is not a retail product, but rather a prototype demo vehicle. The machine has a fast 165Hz, 16-inch QHD+ display, and was configured with 32GB of DDR5-4800 RAM, along with a 1TB Samsung NVMe Solid State Drive. The host processor on board is an Intel 12th Gen Core i7-12700H 14-core CPU that boosts up to 4.7GHz and has integrated Intel Iris Xe Graphics as well, which can work in concert with the Arc A370M discrete chip, for what Intel calls Deep Link acceleration in content creation workloads.

More on this shortly, but tearing things down a bit, we can get a look inside at Intel’s first new discrete GPU in decades…

Here you can see the top side of this laptop’s motherboard, with its dual heat pipe and blower thermal solution removed so you can see the primary processing engines on board, in this case Intel’s 14-core Alder Lake Core i7-12700H CPU (right) and the Intel Arc A370M Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) on the left. As you’ll note, it’s a fairly chunky piece of silicon, as GPUs typically are, and it’s actually built on an external 6 nanometer chip fab process at TSMC, rather than in an Intel fab. Moving forward, once Intel gets its IDM 2.0 chip fab expansion online, the company’s GPU manufacturing strategy may change.

Lighting Up Intel’s Arc – Content Creation Performance

In terms of performance, a unique feature that’s interesting to look at with Intel’s new Arc mobile graphics offering, takes advantage of the tight coupling between CPU and GPU resources that Intel can bring to bear, since it now engineers the majority of the laptop platform (versus historically having to rely on a 3rd party discrete GPU). Intel calls its conjoining and balancing of CPU and GPU resources Deep Link technology. Deep Link consists of three primary features: Dynamic Power Share, which dynamically balances power delivery between the CPU and GPU, depending on workload requirements in real-time, Hyper Compute, which utilizes both discrete Arc GPU resources as well as the integrated Iris Xe Graphics engine on board Intel 12th Gen CPUs, for accelerating compute workloads like AI-driven algorithms in various applications, and Hyper Encode, which also leverages the CPU and GPUs for multimedia transcoding. Let’s look at a couple examples of Hyper Encode and Hyper Compute in action, as well as just standard media encoding acceleration on the Arc GPU alone…

All of the above benchmarks represent some form of video encoding, image quality enhancement, or post-production and special effects processing. In the case of Topaz, this tool is able to harness Intel XMX (matrix extensions) on board the Arc GPU, and also other GPU processing resources on board the CPU’s Iris Xe integrated graphics engine, to accelerate an AI denoise and upscaling algorithm with a short, low quality video clip I captured on my phone. Here, Intel’s Arc A370M, in conjunction with the CPU’s iGPU, is able to best a GeForce RTX 3050 (on board Dell’s XPS 15) by about 30 seconds or so, and far outpace the fastest integrated graphics GPU on the market currently with the Radeon 680M on-board AMD’s Ryzen 7 6800U CPU in the ASUS Zenbook laptop.

Shifting gears to the cross-platform Blackmagic RAW Speed Test that measures encoding performance with the Blackmagic RAW lossless video codec, we see a virtual dead-heat between the Arc A370M reference laptop and an Apple M1-powered MacBook Pro 13. Here again, both the Arc GPU and its companion Iris Xe Graphics are at play for the Intel reference laptop, and the Dell XPS machine, with just its RTX 3050 GPU, trails by about 8 percent.

Finally, a custom render out test with Adobe Premier Pro applies effects to a video clip and then renders it for final production. Here, only the Arc A370M is in the action for the Intel reference laptop as this app is not currently able to take advantage of Intel Hyper Encode. Conversely, this is a strong suit app for the GeForce RTX 3050-powered Dell XPS 15 laptop, as NVIDIA has worked with Adobe on GPU acceleration for Premiere. In this test, though the Arc A370M-powered Intel reference laptop is significantly faster than the MacBook Pro 13, it trails the RTX 3050 by a significant margin as well. That said, as you’ll see in my gaming benchmarks next, Intel’s Arc A370M isn’t targeting GeForce RTX 3050-class performance.

Regardless, in terms of media and content creation, Intel’s Arc Graphics platform has a few tricks up its sleeve that can enable it to punch a notch above its weight class in certain apps for very respectable results. I’d expect software adoption for Intel Hyper Encode and Hyper Compute to continue to expand as well, as Intel’s Arc rollout continues.

Intel Arc Gaming Performance – The Early Innings

Gaming performance is a straightforward metric that some enthusiasts and gamers are keyed on exclusively, as Intel’s Arc Graphics offerings finally become viable new options in the market versus NVIDIA and AMD. However, there’s nuance here for a couple of reasons — first, with respect to both newer and legacy game engine performance, and secondly with respect to ray tracing. In addition, I should reiterate that again, the Intel Arc A370M is an entry-level GPU, targeted at offering a base level of gaming horsepower, rather than mid-range or high-end desktop replacement laptop performance. With that covered, let’s have a look at some Intel Arc A Series frame rates…

The graph images here speak a thousand words, so I won’t dive into the weeds too much. However, in summary, Intel’s Arc A370M offers competent 1080p gaming performance at Medium to High image quality settings. Further, more modern game engines, as we see here with the Final Fantasy and F1 2021 frame rates, tend to scale better in terms of performance on Arc Graphics currently. This is perhaps to be expected, as Intel’s Arc drivers continue to mature and the company circles back on older game titles for further performance optimization.

Finally, we can see an early look here at Intel’s Arc ray tracing performance in F1 2021 as well, which surprised me, to be honest. The Intel Arc A370M reference laptop was able to maintain playable frame rates, not dropping below 33 FPS in this benchmark and actually losing less ground in minimum frame rate versus the GeForce RTX 3050. This appears to be a good sign that Intel’s ray tracing engines and software support are fairly robust.

Top Take-Aways And The Road Ahead For Intel Graphics

All things considered, though I personally expected Intel to be a little bit further along at this point with its Arc mobile graphics rollout, it looks as though Arc Graphics is shaping up to indeed be a viable competitive offering versus NVIDIA and AMD discrete mobile graphics for laptops. In addition, from what I’ve been able to kick the tires on so far, it’s a good early indicator of what’s to come from the Intel Graphics team in higher-end mobile configs, and on the desktop as well. If we consider Arc 5 and 7 Series graphics should offer up to four times the GPU resources of Intel’s Arc 3 Series, we can loosely extrapolate expected performance in the upper product tiers of Intel Arc that will be arriving in the months ahead.

Tempering expectations, I would be very surprised to see Intel catch NVIDIA’s or AMD’s top tier GeForce RTX 30 series or AMD’s Radeon RX 6000 series GPUs, but the rumor and leak mill has been swirling for months now, if you’d like to speculate for yourself further.

The other aspect we need to take into consideration is software, as PC graphics engines are only as performant and stable as the software that drives them. Here above you can see a quick screen shot of Intel’s Arc Control software, which though is coming along nicely, is still in an early state of bring-up, with some features not yet enabled. You can see my mug in the Studio feature tab of the Arc Control tools suite, which is design to enable things like background replacement or blur for camera feeds in applications like game streaming or those all important video conferences we’ve all adapted to in our new hybrid work-from-home reality. Things are looking good for Arc Control thus far but there’s still work to be done. I expect Intel will continue to vigorously optimize performance in gaming and content creation workloads as well moving forward in the roll-up to its various Summer 2022 launch points.

However, all in, I do think we’re looking at a bonafide credible threat and a true third offering in the PC graphics market now with Intel Arc Graphics. If the company can stay on pace with software and keep driving for its next gen as well, that competitive credible threat could continue to build.

Disclosures: Dave Altavilla co-founded and serves as Principal Analyst at HotTech Vision And Analysis, a Tech industry research and analyst firm that specializes in consulting, test validation and go-to-market strategies for major OEMs. Like all technology analyst firms, HTVA provides paid services, research and consulting to many semiconductor manufacturers and system OEMs. Some of the companies covered in his articles may be clients of the firm.

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