Inside Intel’s Arc graphics plans: “We’re taking a completely different approach”
After Arc’s initial hype, led by the hire of AMD Radeon graphics head Raja Koduri in 2017, Intel embarked on the long grind towards releasing its debut discrete graphics chips. The competition has only strengthened since. Nvidia is riding high on wins in both the enthusiast and enterprise world. AMD, meanwhile, is placing pressure on Intel with an intensity not felt since the early days of Athlon.
In short, it’s a tough time to be the fresh face in discrete graphics. But Roger Chandler, vice president and general manager of Intel’s Graphics and Gaming team, thinks that’s exactly why Intel can succeed. He believes Arc can build on Intel’s history of strong partnerships with hardware OEMs and software developers to offer a unique alternative for both creators and gamers.
Whether Intel can deliver remains to be seen, but my time at Intel’s Jones Farm campus—where I benchmarked the company’s first Arc laptop GPU—made it clear the team doesn’t lack passion.
Where’s the hardware?
Intel’s Arc A370M can deliver performance competitive with AMD and Nvidia, but this isn’t worth much if the hardware isn’t available. This reality continues to loom over Intel, which just announced yet another delay of desktop availability.
I asked Chandler if 2022 is still the year Arc goes mainstream, or if that will be further delayed. “This is the year,” said Chandler boldly, before adding a catch. “This is the year our first generation of products hit the market.”
He stressed that Arc is taking a slow-and-steady approach where laptop, rather than desktop, takes the lead. (Nvidia and AMD usually launch desktop GPUs first, then their mobile variants months later.) The reason? Intel feels Arc is best positioned to deliver an immediate advantage in the laptop space.
“It really fits our strategy,” said Chandler. “We’re building on this basis of integrated graphics, which we’ve been steadily improving. That’s our foundation.” He also mentioned Intel’s long history of working with OEM laptop manufacturers.
Yet even mobile Arc continues to struggle with delays. Samsung’s Galaxy Book2 has a configuration with Intel Arc A350M, but this configuration is not yet available in North America. Lenovo Yoga 2-in-1s with Intel Arc are announced but won’t hit stores until June.
“I think we’re all eager to get the rest of the designs from our customers into the market,” said Chandler. “When you’re working on partners with notebooks, you’re really working on their schedule, and their calendar.” Chandler said supply chain issues remain a persistent obstacle for laptops.
Intel also wants to get the user experience right, especially for enthusiasts—whether they’re on mobile or desktop. The team doesn’t want to ship an underbaked experience just to get it on shelves.
“Desktop systems are really important. Just to be honest, about 80 percent of the people in the overall graphics world are hardcore gamers,” said Chandler. “The gaming experience has to be rock solid. Those are the products most heavily reviewed, and scrutinized. By staging it, this gives us a chance to really deliver on our software work.”
Intel wants to get gaming right the first time
Of course, delivering on the user experience is easier said than done, and Intel has to make up for lost time. AMD and Nvidia have decades of experience working with game developers to optimize for their discrete graphics.
Chandler said Arc’s software team is growing aggressively and that Intel has expanded its developer relation organization to include roughly twice the number of deep partnerships it had a few years ago.
“If I were to say this were to work flawlessly, and 100 percent of every game is going to be fantastic, that would be disingenuous,” said Chandler. “But I can say based on the testing we’re doing, it looks really good.”
A large portion of this workload falls on a team of roughly 50 led by Dave Astle, director of game enabling engineering. Astle, now going on seven years at Intel, has guided his team to a more consistent release schedule of game-specific driver optimizations – and Intel’s move into discrete graphics opens new possibilities.
“With integrated graphics, there’s always going to be super high-end games that are beyond what we can support,” said Astle. “With discrete graphics, that’s no longer the case. So we’re now engaging with pretty much every high-end game developer.” Astle highlighted Intel’s Xe Super Sampling (XESS), a feature similar to Nvidia DLSS that uses AI upscaling to render at a lower resolution and then upscale the result.
I pressed Astle on whether Intel would change its driver update cadence alongside Arc. He seemed confident the current cadence of releases for Intel integrated graphics can keep up with what gamers expect. He pointed out the current pace is about one driver optimization release per month and, given the work required for validation, increasing that wouldn’t necessarily improve game support or performance.
“The goal is to release at the cadence we need to to ensure a good experience,” said Astle.
Pitching Arc to modern creators
Delays aside, Intel Arc is likely to reach a wide swath of users, from content creators to hardcore gamers, through late 2022. Chandler spoke passionately about his belief these groups are not separate.
“We’re trying to build for this new generation of gamers and creators,” he said. “People are using games to connect with each other, and more people are building careers as streamers and creators.”
Chandler referenced Arc’s support for the AV1 video codec as a tangible benefit. Intel Arc provides both hardware decode and encode for AV1, a feature that could be useful for a variety of livestreamers and video creators.
Intel is also working with software vendors to make use of both integrated Iris Xe and Arc discrete graphics simultaneously for content creation tasks. This effectively turns a 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 pretty much gets ignored,” said Chandler. “With our system engineering capabilities, we’ve discovered all these ways the discrete and integrated can work together.”
Gamers shouldn’t get too excited—this is not as simple as flipping a switch, and Intel does not expect games can use this feature. Still, it could let streamers use Arc discrete graphics to play a game while the Iris Xe graphics is used to accelerate streaming software.
Priya Pulluru, a software enabling and optimization engineer, is working with partners like Topaz and BlackMagic to enable 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.
A laptop with Arc A370M graphics may not work for all content creators, and especially for those doing extensive work in Topaz’s AI software or DaVinci Resolve. Still, Pulluru believes Arc can expand the definition of a laptop suited for content creation. This could 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,” said Pulluru. “And any laptop, mid-range laptop, can now run Resolve. My daughter did it for a school project.”
Arc has sets its sights on the horizon
That theme—“content creation is everywhere”—feels like a guiding light for the Arc team. It will, of course, compete for the attention of hardcore gamers, but it’s clearly positioned to do far more than accelerate 3D games. Instead, Arc seems uniquely positioned as the final step in a broad, system-level strategy.
I left Jones Farm feeling Intel is not interested in discrete GPUs to sell Arc graphics specifically, but rather in selling Intel hardware as a complete platform for modern PC users—many of which game, create content, and browse YouTube on the same machine. Intel might be new to mainstream discrete graphics, but Chandler seems to think this fresh-faced 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.”