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Intel Arc May Miss Q1 2022 Launch Window

Intel
(Image credit: Intel)

Just days after reaffirming its plan to launch Arc Alchemist discrete graphics processors in the first quarter of this year, Intel quietly removed any mention of Q1 from its website, leaving only 2022. Could this mean a delay for Intel's standalone GPU? We asked Intel for clarification, and it told us, "We are targeting the first Alchemist products to be in market in Q1 2022" (emphasis ours). That leads us to some speculation about the pending release.

Intel recently removed all mentions of Q1 2022 for the Arc Alchemist launch from its website, as noticed by VideoCardz. Right now, Intel's Arc graphics solutions — hardware, software, and services — are said to be "coming 2022." Just days ago, they were set to arrive in Q1 2022. It sounds like some of them will indeed be available in the first quarter, but it looks like Intel wants to focus on delivering mobile GPUs, so we expect GPUs with 128 execution units (EUs, now also called Vector Engines) to arrive first, with higher performance parts coming later.

Before (left) and after (right) the changes to the text on the Intel Arc website were made. (Image credit: TomsHardware/Intel)

Right now, it seems possible that Intel's highest-end discrete GPUs with 512 EUs and maybe even 256 EUs for desktops will not be released in the first quarter. Meanwhile, launches of notebooks based on the same hardware are not really aligned, so promising to release all Arc Alchemist solutions in Q1 does not make a lot of sense, as Intel cannot talk for its partners.

Let's dive a little bit deeper into the history of Intel's Arc Alchemist (aka Intel DG2) family and see how the company's rhetoric has changed in the last 1.5 years in a bid to explain why we think that the blue company intends to start rolling out its new lineup with mobile GPUs first and why promising Arc in Q1 is not something that Intel wants to do.

From Gamers First...

Intel confirmed development of its Xe-HPG architecture for GPUs aimed at gamers in August 2020, and a month after that rumors surfaced that the company was looking at Q4 2021 as a possible launch timeframe for graphics cards based on the Xe-HPG. Back in 2020, Intel's official rhetoric about Xe-HPG-based products was that they were going to compete against the best graphics cards based on GPUs from AMD and Nvidia.

"We know at Intel that gamers are the hardest bunch to impress," said Raja Koduri (via EE Times), Intel's graphics chief. "They want products that have the best performance, best performance per watt, best performance per dollar, and the latest and greatest features. All at the same time. We had to leverage the best aspects of the three designs we had in progress to build a gaming optimized GPU."

The rumor mill changed its tune early in 2021 and started to point at very early 2022 as a potential release timeframe for Intel's DG2 desktop family. Eventually, Intel confirmed that its Arc Alchemist GPUs would be available in Q1 2022, but rumors indicated that the company delayed actual desktop product launch from CES 2022 to March 2022.

...To Notebooks and Creators

Earlier this week the CPU giant reaffirmed this timeframe, but with a different context. Instead of showing how good its Arc Alchemist discrete graphics cards for desktops would be in games, the company demonstrated the advantages that a standalone GPU can bring to an Alder Lake-based laptop in video encoding. The company further said that there were "more than 50 new mobile and desktop customer designs announced with Intel Arc graphics" and that it was "an exciting time for gamers and creators around the world."

Winning 50 designs with DG2 after maybe half of a dozen designs with DG1 is certainly quite an achievement, but it is important to note that mass market PC OEMs do not use high-performance standalone GPUs, so we have no idea how successful those expensive discrete GPUs are with PC makers (especially suppliers of desktops). Meanwhile, Intel did not mention anything regarding discrete desktop graphics cards. Furthermore, content creators these days hardly need a high-end discrete GPU, but rather proper video encoding/decoding performance. There is of course still mention of gamers, but hardware designers quite often attribute entry-level standalone graphics solutions to gamers as well.

Different Goals

Now that Intel emphasizes laptops with standalone Arc GPUs and does not talk about graphics boards for gamers, it is necessary to point out that while discrete graphics processors for notebooks and desktops may share the same silicon, they are actually different products with different usage models and development goals. To that end, what works well for desktops does not necessarily apply to laptops and vice versa, and this concerns both hardware tuning and software optimizations.

When GPU IHVs design a standalone graphics board for enthusiast-grade desktops, they focus on stability, performance, and features. This essentially translates into developing fine drivers and creating a feasible GPU configuration with high clocks to win reviews. Features like ray tracing and upscaling/antialiasing methods are good ways to attract attention, but gamers never forgive glitchy drivers and low performance. Power consumption and bill-of-materials (BOM) costs are not as important as performance in games and lack of glitches in drivers.

With notebook GPUs, things are different. Power consumption as well as heat dissipation get the utmost importance, which is why in some cases GPU developers have to send engineers to assist their partners with integrating their chips into laptops to ensure maximum reliability. To make it easier for PC makers to integrate these mobile GPUs, vendors typically offer these parts in rather modest configurations and with lowered clocks.

Since laptops nowadays are used by far more people than desktops, it is reasonable to assume that they are used to dealing with a wider range of software as well. IHVs need to ensure compatibility with more apps, sometimes even at the cost of performance. Performance and lack of issues with games are still important, but not as important as in the case of desktops GPUs. In fact, desktop discrete graphics cards used by OEMs are developed with similar goals as mobile GPUs, which is why we can encounter some odd configurations.

Arc Not Coming in Q1?

While Intel is a big company, it doesn't have infinite resources, so if it wants to address laptops for creators and OEM desktops first, it needs to prioritize the launch of smaller/energy-efficient parts and make appropriate preparations. Meanwhile, having just introduced the Alder Lake-based laptops (many with AMD or Nvidia discrete GPUs), PC makers may not be interested in refreshing their lineups in just a couple of months with Intel Arc-powered offerings.

Assuming that Intel's bigger discrete GPU hardware for desktops works fine, reallocating resources from desktop graphics cards for enthusiasts to other products will have an impact on the launch schedule of the former, but do not expect the impact to be dramatic as software optimizations benefit all graphics processors based on the same architecture. Still, even a month delay for high-end standalone graphics cards for desktops could upset potential buyers of Intel's Arc Alchemist graphics cards.