We are just days away from a proper, official unveiling of Intel‘s Arc GPUs where we finally get to know when these darn things are coming out. At this point, it seems like every single piece of news about Arc either stems from leaks or comes from a complicated official channel.
Intel has been talking about Arc more openly as of late, giving interviews to major publications and even sending review samples to renowned testers in the industry. All of this points towards a major announcement coming very soon, and Intel’s latest collaboration with YouTube sensation Linus Tech Tips reveals a lot about that.
In an early impressions video posted to LTT’s YouTube channel, Intel demoed the performance capabilities of its flagship SKU, the Arc A770 and talked about their vision with Arc in general. The biggest takeaway from the video was Intel’s “three-tier” approach to game compatibility and how that directly affects pricing. In order to understand that, we first have to look at why Intel is even taking this step.
DirectX12 vs. DirectX 11
Intel’s Arc GPUs are designed to maximize their potential with only two graphics APIs—DirectX 12 and Vulkan. The reason for that being future-proofing; the team at Intel wants to make sure the card is ready for modern and upcoming titles, more so than already-established ones.
The Arc team targeted new standards hard. We have AV1 decode and encode, and our lightweight driver is very good at speaking directly to the GPU hardware in DX12 and Vulkan, making full use of its capabilities. – Ryan Shrout, Intel representative.
So, games that are currently dominating the charts like CS:GO and Apex Legends, are not exactly well-optimized to run on Arc. Let me explain.
Both CS:GO and Apex Legends use DirectX 11 as their choice of graphics API (the former is also compatible with DX9). Neither of these games support DirectX 12 as of now, which means when ran on an Arc GPU, they run on DirectX 11, which is Arc’s shining weakness.
Arc GPUs will lose up to HALF of their performance when the game is using anything other than DirectX 12. Linus demonstrated this best with Shadow of the Tomb Raider running side-by-side on the exact same test bench using an Arc A770 GPU. The only difference was that one PC was running the game in DX12 mode, while the other in DX11 mode.
As you can see, Arc A770 delivers solid performance for being the Blue Team’s maiden flagship outing… only in DirectX 12. While the numbers are more than respectable on the right, the same hardware and game severely underperforms when the APIs are switched.
Now, the issue is that most games out there are not DirectX 12 compatible, only current-gen blockbuster titles come with native DX12 support, and even then most gamers chose to run in DX11 mode, simply to avoid any unnecessary bugs and glitches that might arise with a newer, less widely-adopted technology.
The three-tier approach to pricing
This is where Intel’s unique perspective on the matter comes into play. The team behind Arc is well-aware of the contemporary stage of their GPUs. They fully realize that, while Arc GPUs (supposedly) deliver very competitive performance when it comes to ultra-modern titles, the customer should be able to download and play any game on their Arc GPU without having to worry about all these technicalities.
Therefore, Intel has created the three-tier system of evaluating games. As the name suggests, the company will be placing games into three different tiers based on how well they perform on Arc GPUs, against the industry average.
The first tier represents the games that run the best—ones that “kill everyone in price-to-performance“—and are specifically tuned to fly on Arc hardware. Intel has already revealed some of these titles, namely Cyberpunk 2022, Control, and Fortnite, and the company claims they will offer the best-in-class performance out of the box in these Tier 1 games.
Next up, we have Tier 2 and this includes games DirectX 12 and Vulkan-based games that will run relatively well on Arc. Competitors will still take the lead here, but Intel’s hardware won’t be not competitive. You can expect driver updates over time to further improve the performance for these games.
Last, and unfortunately the least, are the Tier 3 titles which struggle on Arc GPUs. In these titles, options from NVIDIA and AMD will almost always win. Here, you’ll find mostly DirectX 11 (or lower) games that Arc doesn’t communicate well with. Various Arc A380 leaks have highlighted this where the GPU performs significantly worse than similarly-classed cards from years ago.
The good news
There is a silver lining to all of this. Intel is absolutely not seeing any mirages and understands that their first GPU lineup in decades is not up to par with the big dogs. That’s why, to compensate for their lack of experience, Intel will be pricing their Arc GPUs based on how Tier 3 titles perform in their internal testing.
So, the worst-performing games that Intel can find will be deciding how much an Arc graphics card will cost. This means we can expect Arc GPUs to be priced extremely competitively, undercutting the rivals at nearly every level. Even though that’s only fair given the current stage of Arc, the Tier 1 games that do perform the best will make up for an incredibly appealing package that would be perfect for flagship enthusiasts and value-oriented gamers alike.
This notion can be seen with how Intel has priced the Arc A380, the only Arc GPU available as of now. The card costs $129 USD, while delivering performance on par with the RX 6400 and trading blows with NVIDIA’s GTX 1650, both of which cost considerably more. Such competitive pricing would’ve been a lifeline for gamers in the onslaught of the pandemic-riddled scalper mania, which makes me very hopeful for what Intel has in store for the rest of its Arc lineup.
But why DirectX 12?
Coming back to our initial discussion, to elaborate a bit more on why Intel has chosen future-proofing over performance that matters right now, let’s take a look at why DirectX 12 is better. Every version of DirectX before the latest one came with a lot of APIs and driver baggage between the GPU and the game that helped make development easier at the time.
Think of it like this, you’re standing on a road that’s filled with fog. Beyond that fog lies your destination but it’s exceedingly difficulty and time-consuming to plot your course through the cloudiness to get to the other side. That careful planning, and execution, has already been done by AMD and NVIDIA over the past decades, while Intel has just started.
That’s where Intel stands with Arc right now. It’s simply too tedious to work through the fog of multiple components that cloud the DirectX 11 (and below) API, so the company needs time to meticulously tweak their drivers. And surely, the Blue Team is hard at work to make sure it eventually catches up to its competitors.
Compared to DirectX 12, now, that road is a lot clearer and one that Intel might even have the head-start on. Unfortunately, as I stated previously, most games are not DX12 compatible, which means Arc GPUs will simply not utilize their full potential in many of these titles. Again, the hardware is there but the software suite needs a lot of work to be able to compete with NVIDIA and AMD.
The bottom line
All this brings us to the conclusion, which is that Intel is genuinely trying. They want to give the current duopoly a run for its money, and being a multi-billion dollar corporation is certainly helpful in that regard. Intel will be using all of its industry connections to optimize not only its hardware but also its software to the best of the company’s abilities.
That translates to mobile as well, where Intel has asked all participating OEMs and manufacturers to comply with every demand they lay out for Arc-equipped laptops, including having the ultimate control over drivers. Whether Intel’s efforts will materialize into overnight success or a slow and painful rise burdened with mediocrity, remains to be seen.