It’s finally happening. After years of teases, promises, and hype, a third heavy-hitting player enters the graphics card game today, aiming to shake up the Nvidia/AMD duopoly. Intel’s hotly anticipated Arc GPUs hit the streets today—though not in the way you might expect. Rather than debuting in desktop form, Arc’s grand reveal comes via laptops, which can drive home some of the enticingly delicious advantages Intel can provide in tuned systems revolving around its Core CPUs and Arc GPUs.
Meet Intel Arc laptops
Today, Intel took the wraps off its Arc A-series mobile GPUs, launching only the most humble variants—the affordable Arc 3 series. The A350M and A370M will appear in laptops available for preorder today, with prices starting at $899. More powerful Arc 5 and Arc 7 notebooks are scheduled to hit the streets over the next few months. All Arc GPUs will be powered by Intel’s new Xe HPG graphics architecture. We’ve split off the nitty-gritty Xe HPG architecture details into a separate article, but you can see a high-level look at the mobile GPUs below.
By focusing on affordable laptops rather than leaping straight into a battle for high-end desktop supremacy, Intel is playing to its strengths. Yes, Arc was designed for gaming first and foremost—Intel says the Arc 3 laptops surpass 60 frames per second in triple-A games at 1080p resolution at high and medium settings, and 90fps in esports games, doubling the speeds available with its integrated graphics—but the company focused more heavily on the unique value and features Arc can provide.
It starts with the media and display engines, which remain consistent across all Arc GPUs. Every Arc GPU can support up to four total HDMI 2.0b and DisplayPort 1.4a outputs (though configuration will vary by laptop). They’re capable of outputting up to 360Hz at 1080p and 1440p resolution or powering a pair of 4K/120 or 8K/60 panels. That’s impressive, especially in lower-cost Arc 3 laptops, but it’s the media engine where the magic starts.
Arc GPUs sling all the high-end video you’d expect, from 8K 10-bit HDR encodes and HEVC, AVC, and VP9. But Arc also offers something no other GPU maker provides: hardware-based AV1 encoding acceleration. The highly efficient next-generation video standard was created by a consortium of industry giants and is rapidly moving towards becoming the norm. Modern desktop GPUs support AV1 decoding that can help you watch 8K videos without your system catching fire, but until now you needed to use software alone to actually create AV1 videos.
Intel says that the hardware-accelerated AV1 creation unlocked by Arc is 50 times faster than software encodes. In a short video showing off a stream of Elden Ring in X-Split, locked to 5Mbps, an AV1 stream provided much better visual clarity than the standard H.264 encoder, displaying much clearer grass, bushes, walls, and other fine elements.
Being first to AV1 encoding is a major, major win for Intel. But it’s far from the only one. Let’s dig into the content creator enhancements Intel is highlighting with this release before circling back to gaming chores.
Deep Link: Intel’s special sauce
Arc presses its advantage in all-Intel systems with Deep Link, a series of features that can significantly improve performance when the GPU is paired with Intel’s popular Core processor. Deep Link existed before, while the company used its Xe Max laptop GPUs to hone the technology, but it’s been supercharged with the Arc launch. It revolves around three key features.
Dynamic Power Share intelligently shifts energy back and forth between the Intel CPU and GPU, giving more oomph to each when it’s needed, similar to AMD’s rival SmartShift technology or Nvidia’s Dynamic Boost. It polls the system every 100 microseconds (or 10 times every second), checking to see how hard the Arc GPU is being stressed. (There’s also a Low Activity mode that places less strain on battery life.) If things are running optimally, everything stays put. But if the Arc GPU is under heavy load, the laptop will shift more power its way. And when the GPU isn’t being used much, Dynamic Power Share tosses more juice towards the Intel Core processor to provide snappier desktop performance.
The remaining Deep Link features require software that supports it, though work on that is already underway. Hyper Encode lets software tap into all of the available Intel media engines in your laptop, rather than relying on just your CPU or GPU alone, as is typical when you’re encoding video. Intel’s OneVPL API splits media transcodes into batches of frames and dispatches them to the Arc GPU and the Core processor and its integrated graphics to process, round-robin style. That keeps all your available hardware churning at encoding as briskly as possible.
If the results we saw while batch processing videos in Hyper Encode’s early days are any indication, this could be a game-changing feature for content creators, especially now that its power can be brought to bear on single video encodes. That goes doubly so in encoding software that supports Intel’s sublime QuickSync technology. Hyper Encode, QuickSync, and AV1 encoding could be one hell of a power trio that Nvidia and AMD could struggle to match—assuming broad software support comes through.
Intel says Hyper Encode can offer up to 60 percent better performance than Alder Lake’s integrated Iris Xe graphics alone.
Finally, there’s Hyper Compute, a new Deep Link feature. Hyper Compute leverages all the “XMX” cores Intel crammed into Arc GPUs to accelerate AI tasks, using a new “Machine Learning Service” API for OpenVINO. There is a wild world of possible uses for this, but Intel showcased it with Topaz Labs’ Video Enhance AI, upscaling and visually enhancing a 1080p video to 4K. Hyper Compute let the software split the input frames into several different tiles, dispatched those to both the Intel CPU’s integrated graphics as well as the Arc GPU, then reassembled them to create final, enhanced frames at a much faster clip.
Intel claims Hyper Compute offers up to 24 percent extra performance in the task—a good thing, as Topaz Labs’ AI upscaling offers truly tangible visual differences when you’re enhancing older pics and video, but boy can it take a while.
Intel XeSS and AI in games
Content creators aren’t the only ones who can put those AI-infused XMX cores to work. At the initial reveal of its Arc GPUs last August, Intel also took the wraps off XeSS, which behaves an awful lot like Nvidia’s vaunted DLSS. It taps into the XMX cores to use AI to upscale an internal render running at a lower resolution, then clean up the resulting image, giving you drastically more performance with little to no visual impact (presumably depending on the settings used). Better yet, it uses a fallback technology on graphics cards that lack XMX cores, meaning XeSS will also work on Nvidia and AMD GPUs.
Like DLSS and AMD’s upcoming FidelityFX Super Resolution 2.0, XeSS requires game makers to integrate support into their games. For the Arc launch, Intel revealed a handful of games that will support XeSS by early summer, including Death Stranding, Ghostwire Tokyo, Hitman III, and Chivalry II.
But XeSS isn’t the only way Arc GPUs will tap into AI. Like Nvidia, Intel is rolling out AI-infused tools to supplement your gaming experience, via an all-new Arc Control interface that uses a modern overlay design.
Arc Control includes all the basics you’d expect from graphics software in 2022. You’ll be able to monitor and tune your GPU performance, automatically update your drivers, manage global settings, keep tabs on your installed game library, and more. Better yet, Intel Fellow Tom Peterson told us that Intel will offer a new Control API that lets third-party software hook into Arc Control’s capabilities, so programs like RivaTuner and MSI’s Afterburner could offer all the same features if they chose to implement them.
The AI features are interesting though. Like AMD and Nvidia’s graphics panels, Intel will offer a Creator Studio that makes it easy to broadcast to Twitch, YouTube, and other platforms (don’t forget that AV1 encoding!). Intel will tap into the XMX cores to power AI camera features like background blurring, replacement, and removal, as well as automatically framing you. It sounds similar to Nvidia’s popular Broadcast suite.
But more intriguingly, Intel is also teasing Auto Game Highlights that save clips of your most dramatic gaming moments. Nvidia’s ShadowPlay offers a similar tool but it’s only available in a small handful of games. Intel says Arc Control’s Auto Game Highlights don’t require developer integration, and it’s already working in 10 of the top esports games. The proof will be in the pudding but it could be a rad feature for the blue team.
Onward and upward
Again, Intel’s Arc 3 laptops launch today, spearheaded by the thin and light Samsung Galaxy Book2 Pro. And once again, launching Arc in its most humble mobile iteration helps Intel drive home strategic wins. Intel’s Devon Nekechuk told press that select Arc 3 laptops will be part of Intel’s Evo program. Evo dictates a wide array of technical details to ensure you have a portable, responsive, fast-charging laptop with all-day battery life, powered (of course) by various Intel technologies. Arc-enabled Evo laptops must abide by the same guidelines, but they’ll offer twice the gaming performance of integrated graphics, AV1 encode, and support for Intel’s compelling-on-paper XeSS and Deep Link features, with prices starting at $899.
It’s a very Intel way of launching the Xe HPG architecture and its debut discrete consumer graphics cards, and one laser-focused on highlighting the features and benefits possible with an all-Intel system now that Arc GPUs are here. Rather than getting into a frame rate war with Nvidia and AMD in their desktop strongholds, Intel is playing to its strengths: Its overwhelming ownership of the laptop space and deep software support. We’ll have to see how Arc GPUs hold up once reviewers have them in hand, but the capabilities Intel revealed today look very nifty indeed.
And make no mistake: That brawl is coming. More powerful Arc 5 and Arc 7 laptops are due by early summer, and Intel says Arc desktop graphics cards will make their debut sometime in the second quarter. Expect to see a fight from all sides (witness the launch of Nvidia’s monster GeForce RTX 3090 Ti just yesterday). None of these companies enjoy losing, and when multibillion dollar megacorps are duking it out for your attention, PC gamers and content creators could wind up being the big winners.
You know, if graphics card prices chill the heck out. Launching in laptop form helps Intel circumvent that headache, too.
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