After Arc’s initial hype, led by the hiring of AMD Radeon graphics head Raja Koduri in 2017, Intel embarked on the long rut to releasing its debut discrete graphics chips† Since then, the competition has only gotten stronger. Nvidia is riding high on wins in both the enthusiast and corporate worlds. AMD, meanwhile, is putting 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 provide a unique alternative for creators and gamers alike.
I asked Chandler if 2022 is still the year Arc goes mainstream, or if it will be delayed further. “This is the year,” Chandler said boldly, before adding a catch. “This is the year that our first generation of products will hit the market.”
He emphasized that Arc is taking a slow and steady approach with laptop, rather than desktop, taking the lead. (Nvidia and AMD usually launch desktop GPUs first, then their mobile variants months later.) The reason? Intel believes Arc is best positioned to provide an immediate advantage in the laptop space.
“It really fits our strategy,” Chandler said. “We are building on this foundation of integrated graphics, which we have steadily improved. That is our foundation.” He also mentioned Intel’s long history of working with OEM laptop manufacturers.
But even mobile Arc continues to struggle with delays. Samsung 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 our customers’ designs to market,” Chandler said. “When you work on partners with notebooks, you really work on their schedule and their agenda.” 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 use mobile or desktop. The team doesn’t want to ship undercooked experience to get it on the shelves.
“Desktop systems are very important. To be fair, about 80 percent of the people in the graphics world are hardcore gamers,” Chandler said. “The gaming experience has to be rock solid. Those are the most heavily rated and researched products. By staging it, it gives us the opportunity to really make our software work come true.”
Intel wants to get gaming right the first time
Of course, delivering 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 Intel has expanded its developer relations organization to include about twice as many deep partnerships as it had a few years ago.
“If I were to say that this would work flawlessly and 100 percent of every game will be fantastic, that would be unfair,” Chandler said. “But based on the tests we’re doing, I can say it looks really good.”
Much of this workload falls on a team of about 50 people led by Dave Astle, director of game technology. Astle, now seven years at Intel, has led his team towards a more consistent release schedule of game-specific driver optimizations – and Intel’s move to discrete graphics opens up new possibilities.
“With integrated graphics, there will always be super high-end games beyond what we can support,” said Astle. “With discrete graphics, that’s no longer the case. So we’re in talks with pretty much every high-end game developer right now.” 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 urged Astle to see if Intel would change the driver update cadence alongside Arc. He seemed confident that the current cadence of Intel integrated graphics releases can keep up with what gamers expect. He pointed out that the current rate is about one driver optimization release per month and, given the work required for validation, that doesn’t necessarily increase game support or performance.
“The goal is to let go with the cadence we need to ensure a good experience,” Astle said.
Pitching Arc for Modern Creators
Delays aside, Intel Arc is likely to reach a wide range of users, from content creators to hardcore gamers, until the end of 2022. Chandler spoke passionately about his belief that 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 referred to 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 to a variety of live streamers and creators.
Intel is also working with software vendors to simultaneously use both integrated Iris Xe and Arc discrete graphics for content creation. This basically turns a laptop into a dual graphics platform, a set of features Intel calls Deep Link.
“Having a discrete graphics card largely ignores the integrated graphics in a laptop system,” Chandler says. “With our systems engineering capabilities, we’ve discovered all these ways for the discrete and integrated to work together.”
Gamers shouldn’t get too excited – this isn’t as easy as flipping a switch, and Intel doesn’t expect games to be able to use this feature. Still, streamers can use Arc discrete graphics to play a game, while the Iris Xe graphics are used to speed up streaming software.
A laptop with Arc A370M graphics may not work for all content creators, especially those who do a lot of work in Topaz or DaVinci Resolve AI software. Still, Pulluru believes Arc can expand the definition of a laptop suitable for content creation. This can help experienced creators work on the go, or enable the creation of quality content at a moderate price.
“Now content creation is everywhere,” Pulluru said. “And any laptop, mid-range laptop, can now run Resolve. My daughter did it for a school project.”
Arc has set his 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 a lot more than speed up 3D games. Instead, Arc appears to be uniquely positioned as the latest step in a broad system-level strategy.
I left Jones Farm feeling that 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 are gaming, content creation and on the same machine browsing YouTube. Intel may be new to the mainstream discrete graphics, but Chandler seems to think this fresh approach is exactly why Intel can do well with Arc. “We can approach it very differently,” he says. “The world is different from twenty years ago.”