We recently spent time talking with Intel about the Integrated Graphics built into its Core i3 and i5 processor. Historically Intel's graphics performance has been a puzzlingly obvious hole in a strong lineup of products, a situation made worse by woefully inappropriate naming schemes like 'Intel Extreme Graphics'.
One of the things that Intel stressed was that oftentimes laptops are sold with discreet graphics chips that provide little benefit for those who use only basic computing tasks. In that case Intel naturally feels it is better to spend a bit more on a better CPU than to sacrifice battery life on a graphics chip that may be slower than the one built into the CPU.
Intel cites studies that show most people use PCs for media playback, web surfing and related activities such as social networking. For these applications the graphics processor works almost exclusively in 2D, where integrated graphics perform fine
However, when people pick up a game that uses 3D rendering, they realise that the 2D performance of Intel's integrated graphics does not translate to 3D.
Five years ago, 3D engines and their associated high graphics demands were confined to genres such as first person shooters or driving games. The rise of 3D capable hardware has meant that virtually every big name PC game is now built upon a 3D graphics engine. 3D is also a requirement to run Microsoft's Aero interface in Windows Vista and 7.
This has meant 3D engines are now used by strategy games. Starcraft 2 - the biggest PC release of the year - requires 3D hardware, as does Civilization V, released today in Australia.
Unlike its predecessors over the past nineteen years, Civilization V is built in 3D. It's one of the more advanced titles to be released this year, with optional support for DirectX 11 and technologies such as tessellation. So while Civ is a game with very wide appeal, it now requires at least some kind of 3D graphics. That's probably not what you'd expect, if you've played previous versions.
We decided that Civ V would be a very suitable title to examine the performance of Intel HD graphics. It is a franchise that has never really taxed graphics hardware and appeals to many people. Civ V includes a built-in benchmark function, although it reports results using a generated number rather than raw framerate. For these tests we have used the inbuilt 'Late Game View' benchmark that fills the screen with occupied land and used fraps - a framerate measuring tool - to record the framerates.
In our testing it quickly became clear that while the Intel HD graphics could run the game, it was very slow: averaging 4 frames per second (with all the details set to low and the resolution at 1366 x 768).
Consider that the rule of thumb for 'playable' frame rate is 30 frames per second, and this doesn't bode well.
Of course, this is a turn-based strategy game so you can improve framerates slightly by turning off unit animations, but this needs to be done on a game by game basis and will only have a minor positive effect.
We did a few other tests to see just what kind of 3D hardware was needed for smooth gameplay.
Our first point of call was the NVIDIA GeForce 9600GT, a mid range card that was launched early in 2008 and can be found for around $80. This card, running on the same system as the Core i3 HD graphics, managed an average framerate of 28fps.
We also ran the GeForce GTX 450, NVIDIA’s recently launched mainstream graphics card. These cards cost around $185 and support DirectX 11. This card averaged 40 frames per second using the same settings as both previous tests.
Of course, those who have laptops with Intel HD graphics won’t have many options beyond buying a new one if they want to play Civilization V. But for those with desktops even a cheap graphics card upgrade will deliver significantly higher framerates and a much more enjoyable game.