How Ice Lake’s Gen11 graphics will boost PCs
While Intel works to bring its Xe GPU architecture to market, the Gen11 graphics at the heart of Ice Lake represent a “major leap forward in the journey to a full-scale built-out architecture,” according to Lisa Pearce, vice president of Intel Architecture, Graphics and Software. The overall design goal, Pearce said, was power efficiency.
The most distinctive features of the Gen11 graphics architecture are the increased number of execution units, plus Intel’s new support for adaptive sync displays. (EUs are Intel’s programmable shader units, with 3D rendering, compute, programmable and fixed-function media capabilities.) Notebook vendors (and you) will also be able to choose from either UHD or Iris Plus graphics options. That’s a change, as the prior Gen9.5 GPU generation attached to Intel’s 8th-gen Core chips skipped the Iris Plus designation altogether.
(Intel’s branding can be confusing. Intel’s Gen9 graphics debuted with Skylake; Gen9.5 was part of the Kaby Lake and Coffee Lake chips. Intel designed Gen10 graphics with Cannon Lake in mind, but since the only 10nm Cannon Lake chip that shipped was a Core i3, there was no need for high-end graphics.)
Intel’s Gen9.5 graphics used anywhere from 12 to 48 execution units, with the most EUs reserved for the Iris Plus Graphics. Ice Lake’s Gen11 graphics, on the other hand, now include up to 64 EUs running at up to 1.1 GHz, Pearce said, for a total of 1.12 teraflops of 32-bit compute performance. From a display standpoint, Gen11 graphics have the ability to support three simultaneous 4K displays at 120Hz, a pair of 5K displays at 60Hz, or a single 8K30 display. The graphics engine includes three display pipes that support DisplayPort 1.4 HBR3 and HDMI 2.08, plus HDR10 and Dolby Vision. There’s also a pair of fixed-function HEVC/VP9 video encoders.
While the integrated GPU will include a 3MB L3 cache, Intel’s next-gen graphics will once again share local memory with the CPU (specifically 0.5MB). Sharing the memory allowed for more performance efficiency, Pearce said. The Gen11 GPU also boasts an enhanced rasterizer with 16 pixels per clock, and 32 bilinear filtered texels per clock, versus 12 in the prior generation.
Ice Lake also marks the first time Intel has supported the VESA-standard Adaptive Sync implementation that AMD’s FreeSync technology is based upon and Nvidia recently embraced, kind of. Adaptive Sync technology synchronizes the refresh rate of compatible monitors and compatible graphics chips, providing a far smoother gameplay experience. Pearce also said that applying Adaptive Sync would yield 1.8 times faster frame rates than without it.
So how will this all play out in the real world? Intel published an early look at the frame rates you can expect from its new Iris Plus graphics GPUs, seen below. Intel’s Command Center software now performs one-click optimizations for 44 games. Otherwise, you can visit gameplay.intel.com and Intel’s cloud service will auto-detect your hardware and recommend playable settings for over 400 games. Intel’s new Gen11 graphics will be fully supported in Linux by the third quarter, too.
Wi-Fi 6 Gig+, integrated Thunderbolt 3
Like other Intel processors, there’s more than just the CPU inside Ice Lake. Though the Sunny Cove CPU core is fabricated on a 10nm package, what’s known as the Platform Controller Hub (PCH) is fabricated from an older 14nm process, and sits within Ice Lake’s multi-chip package. It’s here, on the PCH, that you’ll find Ice Lake’s power and connectivity features: the new integrated Wi-Fi 6 Gig+, I/O, and the new integrated power delivery system.
Ice Lake will support LPDDR4-3733 memory options up to 32GB, or DDR4-3200 up to 64GB. Intel’s Loop also said that I/O options will include up to six USB 3.1 ports, ten USB 2 ports, x16 PCI Express Gen 3 lanes, three SATA 6Gbps connections, and an eMMC 5.1 slot.
Wi-Fi 6 Gig+
Intel included support for Wi-Fi 6 (also known as 802.11ax) beginning in Whiskey Lake, and connectivity has become a watchword for Intel’s recent chips. (Intel integrates the 802.11ax MAC, leaving the RF separate for easier certification.) Wi-Fi 6’s chief benefit is what’s known as “Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access,” or OFDM—essentially, instead of forcing wireless devices to wait their turn to talk to one another, it divvies up the bandwidth to let devices communicate without waiting, decreasing network latency by about 75 percent compared to Wi-Fi 5, or 802.11ac.
Ice Lake, however, includes two Intel-specific twists: Intel’s supplying what it calls “Wi-Fi 6 Gig+,” an optional feature which increases the size of the available channels to 160MHz, allowing a total bandwidth of 1.68 gigabits per second. That’s substantially faster than even the Gigabit ethernet wired connections now found in home routers, even in a 2+2 configuration. Over time, however, Intel expects home routers to adopt the wired 2.4 Gigabit ethernet that some commercial routers are adopting, according to Kris Fleming, an Intel senior principal engineer.
Intel’s Wi-Fi implementation also includes Overlapping Basic Service Set (OBSS) support, a useful feature for someone like an apartment dweller. OBSS essentially allows a set of connected devices to communicate within the group even while another set in a neighboring space is also communicating. Normally, devices in separate sets would politely stop broadcasting if they detected any wireless device nearby.
Intel will even be supplying its own access points for consumers, though you won’t be able to buy them direct—they’ll actually be manufactured by third-party router manufacturers. However, the 4 stream (2+2) Wi-Fi 6 Gig+ routers and gateways (based on what Intel’s calling the WAV600 chipset) should be shown off at Computex, Intel executives said.
In 2017, Intel announced it would integrate Thunderbolt 3 into all of its future CPUs. With Ice Lake, there’s one small change: Thunderbolt will now be available on both sides of notebooks.
You’re forgiven if you haven’t noticed this before, but it’s true: given the physical limitations of the controller and the layout, Thunderbolt ports were only available on one side of a laptop, Intel executives said. With the redesigned Ice Lake chip, Thunderbolt 3 has now been integrated, and the new design allows for four Thunderbolt 3 ports, two each on either side of the laptop.
Ice Lake versus Ryzen 3000: Fight!
That’s a lot, and it boils down to this: Intel’s Ice Lake offers core counts that are flat with the prior 9th-generation Core chips, and with slower turbo boost speeds, too. But we don’t know how fast the base core clocks will be, and Intel’s intelligently managed boost speeds could elevate overall performance. Meanwhile, Ice Lake’s next-gen graphics and Wi-Fi connectivity should push the overall computing experience ahead.
So how will all this play out? As AMD announced earlier this week, the company is driving Ryzen hard on desktops, while trying to recoup some of its market share in notebooks as well. Intel still holds a dominant market share in terms of CPUs and graphics, thanks to its integrated GPUs, and Pearce said the company’s using Ice Lake to shift its grip toward discrete GPUs as well. Savvy buyers will also cautiously eye Intel’s production: can it supply enough of its newly-redesigned 10nm chips after a year of 14nm chip shortages? We’ll find out this fall.
This story was updated at 11:35 PM local time to add the “Ice Lake” model numbers that Dell revealed. This update was accidentally deleted in an earlier revision.