Could Intel, purveyor of low performance integrated GPUs—”the most popular GPUs in the world”—possibly hope to compete? Yes, actually, it can. Plenty of questions remain, but after Intel revealed additional details of its Arc Alchemist GPU architecture at Intel Architecture Day 2021, we’re cautiously hopeful that the final result will be better than previous attempts. Intel has also been gearing up its driver team for the launch, fixing compatibility and performance issues on existing graphics solutions. Frankly, there’s nowhere to go from here but up.
So yes, Intel has a steep mountain to ascend if it wants to be taken seriously in the dedicated GPU space. Here’s the breakdown of the Arc Alchemist architecture, which gives us a glimpse into how Intel hopes to reach the summit. Actually, we’re just hoping Intel can make it to the base camp, leaving the actual summiting for the future Battlemage, Celestial, and Druid architectures. But we’ll leave those for a future discussion.
Not that Intel hasn’t tried this before. Besides the i740 in 1998, Larrabee and the Xeon Phi had similar goals back in 2009, though the GPU aspect never really panned out. Plus, Intel has steadily improved the performance and features in its integrated graphics solutions over the past couple of decades (albeit at a slow and steady snail’s pace). So, third time’s the charm, right?
Intel’s Xe Graphics aspirations hit center stage in early 2018, starting with the hiring of Raja Koduri from AMD, followed by chip architect Jim Keller and graphics marketer Chris Hook, to name just a few. Raja was the driving force behind AMD’s Radeon Technologies Group, created in November 2015, along with the Vega and Navi architectures. Clearly, the hope is that he can help lead Intel’s GPU division into new frontiers. Obviously, Arc Alchemist represents the results of several years worth of labor.
Intel has been hyping up Xe Graphics for about two years, but the Intel Arc Alchemist GPU will finally bring some needed performance and competition for Team Blue in the discrete GPU space. This is the first ‘real’ dedicated Intel GPU since the i740 back in 1998 — or technically, a proper discrete GPU after the Intel Xe DG1 paved the way earlier this year. The competition among the best graphics cards is fierce, and Intel’s current integrated graphics solutions basically don’t even rank on our GPU hierarchy (UHD Graphics 630 sits at 1.8% of the RTX 3090 based on just 1080p medium performance).
The difficulty Intel faces in cracking the dedicated GPU market can’t be underestimated. AMD’s Big Navi / RDNA 2 architecture has competed with Nvidia’s Ampere architecture since late 2020. While the first Xe GPUs arrived in 2020, in the form of Tiger Lake mobile processors, and Xe DG1 showed up by the middle of 2021, neither one can hope to compete with even GPUs from several generations back. Overall, Xe DG1 performed about the same as Nvidia’s GT 1030 GDDR5, a weak-sauce GPU hailing from May 2017. It was also a bit better than half the performance of 2016’s GTX 1050 2GB, despite having twice as much memory.
Of course, there’s much more to building a good GPU than just saying you want to make one, and Intel has a lot to prove. Here’s everything we know about the upcoming Intel Arc Alchemist, including specifications, performance expectations, release date, and more.