Intel Xe graphics: Everything you need to know about Intel’s dedicated GPUs

Intel's discrete GPUs will make a big splash in 2020. Here's what we know so far

Intel is back into the graphics game, with the blue-team suggesting that it will debut its first Xe graphics solutions in 2020 across a broad selection of platforms, ecosystems, and prices. This will be Intel’s first new add-in graphics card since the Intel740 released back in 1998.

The technology behind this GPU and its potential performance remain shrouded in mystery, but as time goes on details are coming to light. If it proves a viable alternative to Nvidia and AMD, this will be one of the most important events in the graphics card industry this century.

Here’s what we know so far.

Pricing and availability

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Intel has stated that we can expect a summer 2020 debut and that it was targeting a broad selection of graphics options, some targeting the public, and others for datacenter uses. It revealed the first of its business-centric GPUs in November 2019. Intel has said that the Ponte Vecchio GPU won’t be launched until 2021, however, since it will be built on a second-generation of Xe graphics. WCCFTech reported that it will first be used in the Aurora Supercomputer.

In mid-2019, Intel executive Raja Koduri also tweeted a picture of his Tesla, with the “ThinkXE” name on the license plate and paired with a tag showing the month of June and the year 2020. This could be teasing a June 2020 release for Xe graphics card, perhaps in time for Computex.

In December 2019, however, rumors began to circulate that the Xe graphics development was not progressing fast enough. A user from the Chiphell forums (via WCCFTech) claimed that Xe graphics development was not going well and that we may not see any Intel GPUs before the end of 2020. They also claimed that this would push Ponte Vecchio back to 2022 at the earliest.

If true, this would be problematic for a number of reasons, most immediately because Xe graphics are slated to feature on Intel’s upcoming Tiger Lake CPUs, currently slated for a 2020 release. This will likely be a priority for Intel, so it could result in dedicated GPU shortages if they launch at a similar time.

There is also a rumor that Intel will be the only company selling its GPUs at launch, as it has struggled to define new relationships with add-in-board partners to create custom and overclocked variants.

As for the types of cards we can expect when they do launch, an Intel driver leak in summer 2019 referenced four different discrete graphics cards. That suggests that for gamers and hardware fans, there will be a relatively broad selection of graphics cards to pick from.

Architecture and performance

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When Intel made its official announcement about the new graphics card technology it was developing, the company made clear that it was developing a dedicated graphics card. While that would suggest that it was building something distinct from its existing onboard GPU ventures, these cards will be based on the same 12th-generation architecture at the core of its onboard graphics solutions for upcoming CPU generations like Tiger Lake but scaled appropriately.

Intel previously announced that there will be three distinct micro-architectures as part of the Xe range, known as Xe-LP, Xe-HP, and Xe-HPC. These will cover entry-level graphics chips, enthusiast-grade graphics cards, and datacenter-centric GPUs for rendering and supercomputing. In each case, though, Intel will leverage the “Xe” branding for all future graphics endeavors, whether onboard or discrete, though there will be severe performance differences between them.

The driver leak in late July 2019 gave us a better look at what is potentially the higher-powered GPUs aimed at enthusiasts. Each will have varying numbers of “execution units,” as per Toms Hardware. The more modest high-power model would sport 128 EUs, with two more impressive cards sporting 256 and 512.

As for the actual performance of these GPUs, we don’t have any raw numbers to go by. What we can do, though, is speculate. Xe graphics will be built upon similarly evolved technologies like Intel’s existing 11th-generation graphics in its 10th-generation Ice Lake CPUs. Since those are capable of 30-60 FPS at 720p and 1080p in Esports games with (at most) 64 execution units and the new cards could have up to 512, there’s some serious potential for much more impressive performance — if clock speeds can be maintained. We would expect Intel’s new GPUs to be relatively competitive with entry-level GPUs from AMD and Nvidia. The higher-end versions may even offer decent performance in the midrange. We’d be surprised to see anything approaching top-tier performance like a 2080 Ti, though.

The latest rumors suggest that Intel still has a lot of work to do when it comes to power and efficiency as well. Early samples are said to struggle to match the efficiency of existing AMD or Nvidia GPUs. That could suggest that the Xe GPUs are based on Intel’s aged 14nm process node, rather than its more contemporary 10nm.

A rumored move to HBM

In a (since removed) interview with the head of Intel’s graphic developments, and longtime Radeon Technology Group lead, Raja Koduri, he suggested that this new graphics cards might not use the more typical GDDR6 for memory. Instead, it was suggested that these GPUs could use higher-spec, high-bandwidth memory (HBM), which is far more expensive.

That was since downplayed and mostly debunked by Intel, but the Ponte Vecchio GPU announcement did show HBM memory used in the design. That doesn’t mean we’ll see such expensive memory used in consumer graphics, but it’s an interesting note that whatever Intel is working on, it must be able to leverage HBM. AMD’s next-generation “big Navi” GPU is rumored to have an option of HBM memory alongside GDDR6, so it may be that Intel offers something similar with its GPUs, giving the higher-end options HBM, and the lower-end options GDDR6.

Most consumer graphics cards stick with GDDR6, including everything as high-end as Nvidia’s RTX 2080 Ti. The only recent exception has been AMD’s Fury-X, Vega 56, 64, and Radeon VII. Its more recent RX 5700 graphics cards ditched HBM2 in favor of GDDR6.

Ray tracing?

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Nvidia has gone all-in on real-time ray tracing, making it a key feature of its current RTX graphics cards. Despite its slow start, the technology has the potential to become the most important new feature in computer graphics over the coming years. The problem is that the increase in lifelike lighting and shadows can be costly in terms of performance. AMD has been more hesitant about diving into the world of ray tracing for that exact reason, though it has plans to support it in the future, especially on consoles like the Playstation 5.

Well before the launch of Xe, Intel has already come out of the gate touting support for ray tracing in its future GPUs. Jim Jeffers, Intel’s senior principal engineer (and senior director of advanced rendering and visualization), made the following statement on the matter: “Intel Xe architecture roadmap for data center optimized rendering includes ray-tracing hardware acceleration support for the Intel Rendering Framework family of APIs and libraries.” We don’t yet know what that statement means for ray tracing in games, but if the hardware acceleration has been implemented, we’d be surprised if Intel didn’t also bring that to gamers.

Drivers and software

Both Nvidia and AMD have their respective driver software suites which do more than just help the GPU communicate properly with the system at a large. Features like image sharpening, Reshade filters, game recording, lower latency inputs, and dynamic resolution adjustment, have all improved the offerings of the major GPU manufacturers. Intel will want to do something similar when it launches its Xe graphics cards and has already begun to lay the groundwork for that.

In March 2019, Intel debuted its Graphics Command Center. It only works with Intel’s onboard graphics solutions at this time, but includes options for launching games, game optimization, and the chance to tweak global GPU options across all applications. It’s pretty barebones for now and offers basic functionality for onboard Intel GPU users, but the foundations have been laid for a more comprehensive Intel GPU software suite when Xe does debut in the future.

Alongside hardware development, Intel is reportedly putting a lot of time and energy into its driver development, with WCCFTech reporting that they need heavy optimization before they see the light of day.

AMD alumni are helping to make it

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Intel hasn’t released a dedicated graphics card in 20 years. It did develop what became a co-processor, in Larabee, in the late 2000s, but that proved to be far from competitive with modern graphics cards, even if it found some intriguing use cases in its own right. To develop its graphics architecture into something worthy of a dedicated graphics card, Intel hired on some industry experts, most notably Raja Koduri. He was hired straight from AMD where he had spent several years as a chief architect of the Radeon Technology Group, heading up development on AMD’s Vega and Navi architectures.

He’s been there for over a year, and he was even joined in mid-2018 by Jim Keller, the lead architect on AMD’s Zen architecture. He is heading up Intel’s silicon development and will, according to Intel itself, help “change the way [Intel] builds silicon.” That could be considered additional evidence of Intel’s push towards viable 10nm production.

Other ex-AMD employees that Intel has picked up over the past year include the former director of global product marketing at AMD, Chris Hook, who spent 17 years working at the company, and Darren McPhee, who now heads up Intel’s product marketing for discrete graphics.

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