Once upon a time Intel made graphics cores that were integrated into its chipsets. Sitting inside the now redundant ‘Northbridge’ chip, these cores were enough to throw up a 2D display on a monitor and run Windows competently. Even though it was the largest manufacturer of graphics in the world, Intel was splashing about in the shallow end of the graphics pool, delivering enough grunt for Windows XP and Microsoft Office, but little, if any 3D power.
In many ways it took Microsoft’s shift to 3D desktop acceleration with Window’s Vista and its Aero interface to push Intel to get serious about 3D graphics. Even then, all but the latest versions of integrated graphics in Intel’s chipsets couldn’t run Aero at full detail. Since then we have seen slow, steady improvements in the performance of Intel’s graphics chipsets.
The other big driving factor behind the improvement in 3D performance has been the shift towards mobile computing. When desktops were dominant, one could easily buy a discreet graphics card if they wanted to get into gaming. However this has only ever been a viable option on a handful of somewhat esoteric laptop models.
For the rest of us, we are largely stuck with the graphics performance that our laptop ships with. The tightly integrated nature of laptop design means that upgrading isn’t viable, and the only real way to improve a laptops graphics performance is to trade it in for a better model.
Because of this we have historically been quite critical of Intel’s integrated graphics design. If someone buys a general purpose laptop, they may do so with no intention to game. But if they change their mind down the track and want to give anything more intensive than Farmville a try they would be stuck with crappy framerates and low quality graphics.
Intel used to be quite conscious of this attitude, and we have been invited to their offices in the past to watch laptops running Call of Duty: Modern Warfare at juddery framerates and excitedly told ‘see! It runs games’ to try and prove us wrong. The reality is that until last year’s launch of the second generation Core I processors (aka Sandy Bridge) these games were incapable of being run at framerates that we would consider an acceptable minimum.
Even then we do mean minimum. The high end Core i7-3720QM that launched this week will do 46fps in Crysis at low detail and 24fps at medium detail. This is still roughly 10fps slower than AMD’s A8 APUs from last year. This means that you can still eke out a better looking experience on AMD’s chips than you can on Intel’s, despite the fact that AMD delivers noticeably slower CPU performance.
What we do have now is a situation where both AMD and Intel offer integrated graphics that can cope with games if needed. This is the massive shift from past years, where our advice has been to get a laptop with a discreet GPU just in case.
Of course, as we discovered in our review of the 3720QM, it isn’t a laptop processor for the average user. Not only is it expensive in its own right (the launch material from Intel quotes a USD price of $378 just for the CPU), but it is likely to only appear in laptops that pack high end GPUs as standard.
In fact, if you really look at the Ivy Bridge launch, you’ll notice that the lineup is all high end. There are no dual core models, which make up the bulk of what will actually end up in mainstream laptops and Ultrabooks. From a marketing standpoint it makes sense, it defines Intel’s lead in CPU performance and shows off just what Ivy Bridge can do at the high end. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that the mainstream will see such strong performance. According to the latest information posted on Digitimes, these mainstream processors won’t appear until May or June, by which time AMD should have finally lifted the lid on its new ‘Trinity’ APUs.
Despite the fact we have seen nothing of Trinity beyond the scant information leaking out onto the web, we are confident that AMD will deliver a similarly performing product to last year’s offering -namely one with a noticeable lead over Intel in GPU performance, and lower CPU performance.
But what we are really keen to discover, and will be the true litmus test of the new graphics core in Ivy Bridge, is just how it performs in Ultrabooks. We have seen one ‘gaming’ Ultrabook with a discreet GPU so far, Acer’s M3, but it was also pushing the wrong end of the thin and light envelope.
We already know that our other main critique of current generation Ultrabooks, the lack of USB 3, has been fixed with Ivy Bridge. If Intel can deliver a processor that enables a modicum of gaming performance in slimline chassis like those seen to date, then they become the perfect solution for the vast majority of users out there.