Early this year, Intel disclosed plans to ship four million discrete Arc Alchemist gaming GPUs in 2022, but many observers considered the target rather conservative. Now, following multiple launch delays and limited availability, Intel said this week that it would miss its discrete GPU shipments this year. Surprisingly, the company blames its drivers for the integrated graphics built into its CPUs for the delays and lower-than-expected sales of its discrete GPU lineup.
Intel really needed all-new drivers written from scratch to roll out its discrete gaming GPUs for desktops and laptops. However, its drivers for discrete gaming GPUs were not on par with those offered by AMD and Nvidia because it chose to use the same graphics drivers as it used for the low-powered integrated graphics present in its CPUs.
"Our software release on our discrete graphics was clearly underperforming," said Gelsinger. "We thought that we would be able to leverage the integrated graphics software stack, and it was wholly inadequate for the performance levels, gaming compatibility, etc. that we needed. So we are not hitting our four million unit goal in the discrete graphics space, even as we are now catching up and getting better software releases."
Signs of this issue emerged earlier this week when Intel ended Day 0 game GPU driver support for integrated GPUs based on its 'Gen' architecture (10th-Gen and below). However, Intel will continue to provide Day 0 game GPU driver support only for its integrated and discrete GPUs based on its latest Xe architectures (ie, Tiger Lake, Rocket Lake, and newer). As a result, the Intel Graphics Driver package will now contain two drivers: one for Xe-based GPUs (11th-Gen and newer) and another for legacy Gen-based GPUs (10th-Gen and older).
The move will allow Intel to refocus its software development resources (people, time, hardware) on driver development for Xe discrete GPUs and make them more competitive. Meanwhile, with the drivers that Intel's Xe-HPG-based GPUs have today, the company can address laptops and less demanding customers in China and Southeast Asia with entry-level Arc A380-series graphics cards.
"While we will not hit our GPU unit target, we remain on track to deliver over $1 billion in revenue this year," said Pat Gelsinger, chief executive of Intel, at the company's earnings call on Thursday. "In Q2, we started to ramp Intel Arc graphics for laptops with OEMs, including Samsung, Lenovo, Acer, HP, and Asus. COVID-related supply chain issues and our own software-readiness challenges caused availability delays that we continue to work to overcome. Intel Arc A5 and A7 desktop cards will start to ship in Q3."
Nowadays, PC OEMs and end-users demand one unified GPU driver that supports all existing and several previous-generation products. This simplifies PC building for OEMs as well as maintenance for IT departments and end users, but unified drivers have several caveats when it comes to PC gaming in general, and Intel's integrated and standalone GPUs in particular:
- If you promise a consistent gaming experience for all of your GPUs launched in the last eight years, you have to ensure that new games can run properly on eight different generations of products based on different architectures (Gen and Xe).
- This requires resources for testing previous-generation integrated GPUs and then writing optimized appropriate code paths for GPUs that very few people will use for new games. As a result, resources that could be spent on tweaking the performance of shiny new discrete GPUs are wasted on outdated integrated GPUs.
- Meanwhile, since users of built-in GPUs tend to play old games, GPU makers have to ensure that their new drivers do not affect compatibility with outdated software that is not used by owners of the latest standalone GPUs.
- All programs are iterative, so some code written for Gen-based integrated GPUs years ago might end up serving Xe-powered discrete GPUs, which may be extremely inefficient.
- Certain performance optimizations that work fine with integrated GPUs might be enabled for Xe-powered discrete graphics processors for some reason as well, which might cause instability or quality loss.
- Things like GPU memory management work differently on built-in and standalone graphics processors, so this part of the stack has to be completely re-written for the latter.
Ironically, we discussed Intel's repositioning of Arc graphics from demanding gamers to content creators and laptop users when we first learned that Intel might miss its Q1 launch window in early January.
It's a bit mind boggling that Intel even thought its integrated graphics drivers would be appropriate for desktop GPUs that potentially deliver up to 20X more compute performance than even its best integrated GPUs. We've known for years that Intel's graphics drivers often had compatibility issues with new games, and a completely revamped architecture would naturally require completely new drivers. But then, Intel is new to the dedicated GPU game and apparently made some poor assumptions. Here's hoping the Arc GPUs and drivers can eventually merge into the fast lane — or at the very least get on the freeway.