It feels like Intel's Arc Alchemist GPUs have been "coming soon" for some time now, but today we got a bit more clarity on the release schedule. At its Investor Meeting 2022, Intel said the mobile Arc GPUs would arrive this quarter, meaning in the next month and a half. Desktop GPUs meanwhile won't arrive until Q2, with workstation solutions coming in Q3. But there's plenty of more news beyond the initial Arc GPUs.
Perhaps the biggest news is that Intel plans to ship 4 million discrete GPUs this year. That's a relatively large number, but it's quite small compared to the entire market. Data from Jon Peddie Research indicates that there were around 95 million (give or take) discrete GPUs shipped in 2021, with nearly half of that total coming from laptops. Given Intel's laptop-first approach with Arc, we would expect the majority of GPUs shipped this year to come from that segment, with far fewer desktop GPUs sold.
Beyond the mobile / desktop split, there's also the question of what sort of graphics hardware Intel expects to sell. We know there are several Arc Alchemist GPUs planned, ranging from lower-tier solutions with only 128 Vector Engines (formerly called EUs) up to top-tier models with up to 512 VEs. Each VE contains 8 shader ALUs, which means Intel will cover the gamut from 1,024 "GPU cores" up to 4096 cores. That's a substantially lower number at the top of the spectrum than either AMD or Nvidia offer, with AMD's Radeon RX 6900 XT topping out at 5,120 cores, and Nvidia's GeForce RTX 3090 offering 10,496 cores.
Differences between the various architectures are of course a factor, but various leaks and rumors suggest the base level Arc solutions should be in line with the GTX 1650 Super and RX 6500 XT, while the fastest solutions might reach the level of the RTX 3070 and RX 6800 — give or take. We won't know for certain until we have hardware in hand, which could mean Intel will release desktop Alchemist somewhere around the Computex 2022 time.
Taken together, our expectation is Intel will ship far more laptop Arc GPUs than desktop solutions, and those will also likely be lower spec 128 VE models. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but if you're hoping for Intel to be our savior from the currently obscene GPU prices, prepare to be disappointed. But Alchemist is only the beginning.
After Alchemist comes Battlemage, with a launch window of 2023–2024, followed by Celestial sometime in the range of 2024 or beyond range. Battlemage will belong with the future Meteor Lake and "Next Gen" CPUs, which means a new CPU socket and motherboards, where Alchemist is for the current Alder Lake and upcoming Raptor Lake solutions. One interesting piece of information with Battlemage is that Intel is looking at adding a GPU tile to its CPUs for the mainstream market.
Intel's Raja Koduri, who heads up graphics at Intel, states in his presentation that Intel expects Meteor Lake to offer discrete graphics class performance with an integrated graphics solution. There will also be discrete GPUs for the enthusiast segment, which will have to compete against the future Ada Lovelace (Nvidia RTX 40-series) and RDNA 3 (AMD RX 7000-series) graphics cards. Of course, while AMD could potentially integrate RDNA 3 GPUs into its processors with 3D chip stacking, similar to what Koduri talked about with a GPU tile, Nvidia for the time being doesn't have a direct competing solution, at least for x86 processors.
One of the big opportunities Intel sees in the GPU space is video processing. With video consuming over 80% of internet bandwidth, there's a huge need for improved processing of video. Arctic Sound-M will provide support for up to eight simultaneous 4K video stream transcodes, 30+ 1080p streams, and will be the first GPU with AV1 hardware encoding. This appears to be a datacenter part designed for companies like YouTube, though there are other use cases as well, including the potential for game streaming services.
We asked Intel about the hardware foundation of Arctic Sound, wondering if it might be custom silicon specifically designed for video. Intel responded, "Both products [Ed: Alchemist and Arctic Sound] are based on the Xe HPG microarchitecture and are productized uniquely to meet specific market needs across client and data center. Arctic Sound-M is a discrete GPU for the data center that is targeted for both android and PC cloud gaming, as well as virtual desktop (VDI), media delivery, visual inference, and media analytics, with features (HW SRIOV, ECC, long-life support, server OSs) necessary for a server solution. Alchemist discrete graphics is also based on Xe HPG microarchitecture and is targeted at high performance gaming and creation for consumer markets."
That doesn't specifically answer our question, but it does seem as though Arctic Sound-M may use the same chips, just with some tuning and drivers for a different market, similar to what Nvidia does with GeForce vs. professional (formerly Quadro) solutions. It's also possible that Arctic Sound-M uses different silicon with extra video processing units for the intended market. We'll find out more in the coming months.
Intel Has Big GPU Plans
There's a lot of potential in Intel's entry into the discrete graphics card market, in all segments ranging from consumer to workstation to supercomputing. Koduri also talked about Ponte Vecchio, which will power some of the first exascale supercomputers, and beyond that the Falcon Shores XPU, which is a separate class of processor.
Will Intel finally be able to join the ranks of the best graphics cards later this year, when Arc arrives? Probably not at the top of the GPU benchmarks hierarchy, but if it can deliver the right performance and features at a competitive price, and then continue to execute on its roadmap, the coming years will become more than the two-horse race we're accustomed to seeing.
At the same time, Intel's biggest graphics segment by far remains integrated solutions, where it ships around 200 million per year. Many of those iGPUs may end up going unused, for people who have a dedicated graphics card, but the future Arc architectures should also bring substantial improvements to what we can expected from integrated graphics — Koduri even goes so far as calling it a new category of graphics, which might not even be hyperbole. We're looking forward to putting both the mobile and desktop Arc variants through their paces in the coming months.
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Jarred Walton is a senior editor at Tom's Hardware focusing on everything GPU. He has been working as a tech journalist since 2004, writing for AnandTech, Maximum PC, and PC Gamer. From the first S3 Virge '3D decelerators' to today's GPUs, Jarred keeps up with all the latest graphics trends and is the one to ask about game performance.