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This is Intel’s first discrete graphics card in 20 years, but you can’t buy one

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Intel explains how far its graphics have actually come

Image: Intel

Intel is trying once again to build its own graphics cards, after years and years of letting rivals like Nvidia and AMD decide the future of this key component of our PCs. Today at CES 2020, the company gave us our first pictures of the Intel DG1, the company’s first discrete graphics card in two decades — and gave some very loose hints as to where you’ll see its new Xe graphics architecture first.

You should know that the PC industry had basically given up on Intel ever producing its own powerful desktop graphics cards after the company unceremoniously killed its Larrabee project 10 years ago last month. (It did offer the Intel i740 series back in 1998, so the DG1 isn’t technically the company’s first discrete GPU.)

But you may be surprised to learn that the DG1 isn’t a powerful desktop graphics card either. This is not a card you’ll be able to buy at all, in fact. It’s effectively a next-gen integrated GPU that’s been separated from its CPU into its own discrete part, with the trappings of a desktop card on top. It’s a very early stab at something that will be more powerful, and more discrete, later on.

There’s been some conflicting information on the topic, so let’s break down what we just learned.

  • In general, Intel is embarking on a graphics “odyssey” with a single architecture it calls “Xe” that it promises to scale across all of your graphical needs, from lightweight laptops all the way up to high-performance computing.
  • But it’s split into Xe LP, Xe HP, and Xe HPC, three different microarchitectures for low-, medium-, and high-performance workloads. There might be some crossover, but you can basically think of this similarly to the performance and thermal differences between “laptop,” “desktop,” and “workstation / server” components.
  • This DG1 GPU, as well as the upcoming Tiger Lake laptops, both have the weakest Xe LP laptop grade variant inside. With Xe LP, we’re talking about a 20-ish watt GPU that scales up to 40 or 50 watts, which is not a lot of power. And the DG1 has the exact same amount of graphics that’ll be inside a 15W Tiger Lake laptop chip, only carved out into its own chip, with more room to run faster without overheating. But not by much: if it’s 20-50 watts, the dual-slot cooler and fan on this card are probably just for show.
  • The Destiny 2 gaming demo Intel that showed during its keynote was neither this DG1 card nor Tiger Lake integrated Xe graphics. Rather, it was a discrete DG1 chip inside a laptop because that is also a direction Intel wants this to go. Could a laptop with Xe graphics inside of its processor work together with the Xe graphics of a DG1 chip that sits right next to it? Intel’s not talking about that right now.
  • Xe graphics will support dynamic tuning, meaning that PC makers can create laptops and tablets that automatically let the graphics run faster if the CPU isn’t too taxed (based on heat and workload) and vice versa. That’s something AMD’s new Ryzen and Radeon chips are doing as well with a tech called SmartShift.
  • Intel is not talking about performance or specs at all, beyond that the DG1 should run games well at 1080p. Linus Tech Tips tracked down Intel’s demo unit, a Compal prototype laptop with the discrete DG1 inside... but it found that Intel’s demo was running Destiny 2 at a locked 60 fps at 1080p resolution. I suppose that’s a good minimum bar, but it doesn’t tell us much.
  • DG1 stands for Discrete Graphics 1, by the way. That’s one of the reasons it’s inappropriate to say DG1 is inside Tiger Lake laptop chips. The other is that if even if DG1 winds up having around 50W of thermal headroom, the Xe LP graphics inside Tiger Lake may have to share a 15W thermal envelope with the whole rest of the CPU.
  • Yes, the DG1 has its own lighting. See the pics above. It’s more blue than purple, though.
  • Even if you wanted this laptop GPU that looks like a desktop GPU, you can’t buy one. Intel will be solely shipping these to software vendors so they can make sure their apps are ready for this next generation of Intel graphics, so there’ll hopefully be no weird glitches in, say, Photoshop when you fire it up.
  • Intel claims it’s managed a four-fold improvement in graphics in just one year, but think about this: with Ice Lake, Intel claimed it had managed up to 2x graphical performance over the previous generation, and another “up to 2x” now with Tiger Lake, thanks to Xe LP. But as I pointed out last May, the Ice Lake jump was only useful compared to earlier thin-and-light laptop processors, and hadn’t moved the needle for Intel graphics overall, with beefier Intel chips already having better graphical performance than the new Ice Lake.

Regardless of all these caveats, this is a huge move for Intel and definitely just the start: as Wccftech notes, it appears there is already a set of three DG2 cards on the way with up to 512 execution units, and the company says that Xe is the future: it will effectively be the company’s Gen 12 graphics across its lineup, though Intel says it hasn’t yet decided if it’ll replace the Intel UHD Graphics and Intel Iris brands.

Intel also says it’s working hard to convince the PC community it’s serious about gaming as well, launching its own sophisticated new control center for its drivers (a move that historically helped AMD back into gamers’ good graces), opening up a Discord channel and hosting public Q&As. We’ll see how it works out.

Correction, 5:02 PM ET: It’s the Xe LP microarchitecture, not the DG1 specifically, that’s aimed at a thermal envelope of between 20 and 50 watts. It’s also come to our attention that it’s not technically the first Intel discrete graphics card: the company had a line of early dGPUs from 1998 to 2000.