A new challenger is set to enter the cutthroat world of discrete graphics cards in 2020. Announced at the end of 2018, the Intel Xe GPU is coming later this year. That's pronounced X-E, for reference, not Zee and in an ideal world Intel will give PC gamers another viable option on the gaming GPU front, but it looks like we're only going to get discrete mobile Xe graphics silicon this year. Mix that in with the upcoming Nvidia Ampere cards, AMD's Big Navi / RDNA 2 GPUs, and even potentially Huawei's rumored entry into the GPU market, and we're still in for an exciting end to this year.
Intel's current line of integrated GPUs doesn't even rank on our GPU hierarchy so it'll be interesting to see how its future discrete cards stack up against Nvidia and AMD's offerings. If current numbers ring true... not great. But the first generation is always tough, and we're not expecting Intel to dramatically change the game with its first Xe GPUs. The Intel Xe is set to be positioned as a direct competitor with AMD and Nvidia on all fronts, by making GPUs in gaming, pro-grade, and enterprise markets. And if Intel sticks the landing this will effectively give consumers a competitive third choice in GPUs, which could be huge.
But the last time the CPU titan attempted to dive into the discrete graphics pond was with the ill-fated Larrabee, later Xeon Phi, way back in 2009. It went away, licked its wounds, and started recruiting industry veterans, such as Raja Koduri from AMD, to lead the charge its future graphics architecture late in 2017.
While not much official information is available, aside from a limited CES hands-on session with the not-for-public-consumption Intel DG1 discrete graphics card, internet sleuths have pulled out some potentially exciting details from several rumors and leaks. And this is what we know right now.
At a glance…
Intel Xe release rate
Intel's 2020 release of its new discrete Xe graphics cards still seems to be happening, but likely only in mobile form. An early fall release appearing to be a realistic timetable, likely alongside Tiger Lake laptops with discrete mobile GPUs sitting next to integrated Xe graphics silicon. Intel Xe graphics probably won't be coming to desktops this year.
Intel Xe specs
While there's no official release of GPU specs, a certain amount has leaked out. We know the DG1 card comes with 96EUs (roughly analogous to a GPU core-count), and the highest-spec Tiger Lake CPU will match that. We also know that there will be at least three brands of Xe graphics cards (Xe-LP, Xe-HP, and Xe-HPC) covering entry-level, enthusiast, and high-end computing.
Intel Xe performance
The Tiger Lake and DG1 performance figures that have appeared online, whether on Geekbench or 3DMark, detail a first-gen GPU that's ahead of AMD's own integrated graphics, but behind the entry-level discrete cards of either it or Nvidia. That's the low-end Xe-LP, however, Xe-HP is supposedly a potential gaming GPU, with Xe-HPC a server-side offering.
Intel Xe price
If Intel is planning on making graphics cards to compete with what's already on the market, it'll probably be safe to assume that pricing is also going to be competitive. So, if Intel is planning cards ranging from for entry-level to high-end gaming we will be looking at prices from $200-$1000 for the non-Enterprise Xe cards aimed at supercomputers. Those would likely cost thousands of dollars. Unless Intel wants to severely undercut the competition, that is.
Raja Koduri of Intel has been dropping subtle hints on Xe via Twitter, our favorite being a photo of his "ThinkXE" license plate with an expiration date of June 2020, which many online read as a release date for the Xe GPUs. Though that might be a little optimistic given the current global situation and the fact we're already hitting June right now.
The fact is 2020 is becoming a more and more volatile year for everyone, hardware manufacturers included, due to the impact of the novel Coronavirus. Intel has said that it is still targeting a release this year of Intel Xe GPUs in the late summer/ early fall window, shortly after the launch of its Comet Lake processors, with its new Tiger Lake CPUs coming later this year.
@IntelGraphics pic.twitter.com/T2symDHxJ7October 4, 2019
But it looks like you're not going to be getting a discrete Intel Xe GPU for your desktop PC this year, however. A leaked report seems to confirm that the first discrete graphics cards will be exclusively used in laptops, despite its appearance as a PCIe card at CES this year.
It's likely to be a key part of the Tiger Lake mobile CPU launch, as those laptop chips are already set to include Xe GPUs as their integrated graphics silicon, and a secondary discrete part could offer some serious gaming performance in a thin-and-light form factor.
Intel updated its Graphics Command Center software to include game recording and streaming on your desktop. While currently in beta, it shows that Intel is serious about competing with Nvidia's GPUs on both the hardware and software end of things.
Intel is splitting the Xe architecture into three different segments, Xe-LP (entry-level gaming), Xe-HP (pro-grade and enthusiast graphics), and Xe-HPC (enterprise). We would love to dive in and give you all the meaty details except that there isn't much out there, bar a few numbers gleaned from Linux driver diving, and some further speculation. Intel did announce that some Xe graphics cards will support ray-tracing in some capacity, and then kind of retracted it without really saying no.
However, it does look like the Xe GPUs will be largely based on the same architecture as the Ice Lake Gen 11 graphics. We do know, based on a confirmed dev kit listing on the EEC database, that the Intel Xe DG1 GPU contains 96 execution units (EUs).
You can think of Intel's execution units as more or less equivalent to Nvidia's CUDA cores and AMD's RDNA cores. The higher the number, the better the performance, simple. They are obviously different, with an individual execution unit capable of more operations than a single stream processor, but the makeup of an Intel graphics 'slice' sure looks a lot like the design of an Nvidia Turing graphics processing cluster.
We have seen a few basic specs details around, for example, we saw iDG2HP128, 256, and 512 models on a leaked driver list that gives an idea of what Intel is aiming for on some of its higher-end Xe GPUs. Based on the dev kit performance from our hands-on time at CES this year, the current DG1 seems to live on the lower end of Intel's suite of Xe GPUs.
During a digital GDC talk, Intel developer Allen Hux explained how game devs could use existing DirectX 12 techniques to crank out a higher framerates using both Xe discrete and integrated GPUs at the same time. Though that's a historically tough ask, with multi-GPU gaming having died a slow death over the last few years, and we're not convinced Intel will be able to give it the kiss of life.
Intel recently teased a data center Xe-HP GPU with "tens of billions of transistors," which makes it compete with the best graphics cards out currently on the market. As information trickles in, it's becoming evident that Xe is trying to show the range of these cards from high-end to low.
At CES 2020, we went hands-on with Intel's DG1 discrete graphics card and saw Waframe running at 1080p (on what looked like medium settings) on its new GPU and weren't impressed at all by the performance. A recent leak shows the Geekbench performance of the mobile entry-level chip being slightly faster than Nvidia's low-powered MX250 dGPU but slower than the GTX 1650 Mobile dGPU which isn't lighting the world on fire.
That's born out by recent 3DMark results too. But it looks like the integrated Xe graphics in Tiger Lake chips will deliver performance on par with current Ryzen 4000 APUs, which is no mean feat, and in some cases push well past it. Using more power, the discrete mobile GPU version of Xe should deliver even higher performance, and maybe more so if it's paired with the integrated GPU.
If the leaked driver list is correct, and the numbers mentioned in the driver for each Xe GPU model are in fact the number of EUs, here's a rather optimistic guesstimate where each GPU compares with Nvidia's current offerings:
- Xe 128 / GTX 1650
- Xe 256 / RTX 2060 Super
- Xe 512 / RTX 2080 Ti
At the moment it's tough to nail down a price for the Xe GPUs. Intel has said that the goal for the Xe is to cover the gamut of the graphics card market by providing GPUs from gaming to AI. The assumption is that Intel will have to be competitive in terms of pricing with the performance not necessarily being able to match AMD and Nvidia.
This means Intel would have to price its Xe GPUs in the $150-$200 range to be on par with a GTX 1650 for its lower-end cards, and the mid-range cards need to be around $350-$450 and around $1,000 for high-end. If Intel can't match Nvidia and AMD on feature-set it will have to beat them in price in order to truly compete.
There has been some speculation that Intel will attempt to squeeze more of its super low-end mobile cards into the market by almost giving them away to manufacturers, but those are seriously unsubstantiated rumors right now.