In my last blog, I explained how the new 32nm Intel® Core™ processors integrate graphics onto the CPU. The obvious benefit of this integration is that it reduces the chipset from three devices to two devices, saving considerable board size. There is more to the story, though. The Intel® HD Graphics in the Intel Core processors is a major upgrade from past Intel graphics engines. This blog looks at the benchmarks for the newly-upgraded Intel graphics engine and compare its performance against other graphics solutions. It provides some guidelines to help developers decide which solution is best for their applications.
Before we do that, however, let’s define some terms. Graphics solutions come in two main flavors, dedicated graphics cards and integrated graphics processors (IGPs) that are incorporated into the motherboard. Dedicated graphics cards have their own private memory, while IGPs share the main system memory with the CPU. In this blog we’ll focus on IGPs for two reasons: The Intel HD Graphics engine is an IGP, and the vast majority of embedded applications rely on IGPs.
Let’s also take a moment to look at the new features in the Intel HD Graphics engine. As shown in Figure 1, the upgrades primarily impact video performance. The new Intel Core processors incorporate accelerators that allow the processors to dual-stream 1080p video playback with essentially zero CPU loading. They also add decoders for the full range of advanced audio codecs.
Figure 1. Intel HD Graphics media feature comparison vs. previous generation.
As shown in Figure 2, the 3D side of the engine also gets a boost. The architecture has been upgraded to support Z-Buffer and Fast Z clear for more efficient operation. The graphics pipeline also gets two more engines, for a total of 12. (For more details on what’s new in the 3D pipeline, I recommend the writeup at Tom’s Hardware.)
Figure 2. Intel HD Graphics architecture and 3D media feature comparison vs. previous generation.
With that background, let’s see how the new features translate to benchmark results. As we noted earlier, 1080 HD video playback is effortless on the new Intel Core processors. The chips also retain the Intel® Clear Video Technology that one reviewer says “clearly exceeded the competition in terms of picture quality.” Bottom line: If HD video performance is your main care-about, the Intel HD Graphics engine is as good as it gets. The only reason you might need to look at alternatives is if you need to play back more than two video streams simultaneously.
The 3D graphics story is a bit more complex. Compared to other IGP solutions on the market, the Intel HD Graphics engine is highly competitive. For example, Tom’s Hardware tested the Intel HD Graphics engine using World of Warcraft as a benchmark. With the “Ultra” quality setting turned on, the Intel HD Graphics beat the leading IGP competitor by a solid margin. In my view, this makes the Intel HD Graphics more than good enough for the vast majority of embedded applications.
Having said that, the Intel HD Graphics engine is nowhere near as fast as discrete graphics cards. (See these 3DMark Vantage scores, for example—the integrated graphics are labeled “GMA HD”.) If you need cutting-edge 3D graphics, you’ll need to buy a discrete card. The trick is finding a suitable card—most cards are built for consumer markets and have short lifetimes, sometimes as little as 6 months. Discrete graphics cards can also be real power hogs, sucking up as much as 200 W. For more on the challenges of using discrete graphics solutions, I highly recommend Kontron’s paper High-end graphics for embedded computing (PDF). (Note that this paper is dated, as it was written before the introduction of the latest Intel Core processors—but it is still does a good job of laying out the challenges associated with discrete graphics boards. Kontron does offer a number of Intel Core-based embedded boards and modules today, and so do many other vendors.)
In terms of general 2D and GUI performance, the new Intel Core processors will please the vast majority of developers. The integrated graphics has performance in the same ballpark as high-end competing IGPs. For example, the Intel HD Graphics engine earns a 4.6 on the GUI portion of the Windows Experience Index. That’s better performance than I get from my laptop, which is only a few months old! That means you’ll be happy with the 2D and GUI performance unless you have a rather extreme application. (We’ll look at a few examples at the end of this blog).
Of course, the graphics engine isn’t the only thing that matters—the CPU itself also plays an important role in graphics-intensive applications. The CPU is responsible for rendering things like Flash animation and Web pages, and it may also be involved in things like image processing, video analytics, or video encoding. CPU performance is an area where the Intel Core really shines. It greatly outperforms the competition on arithmetic on media-encoding benchmarks. In fact, a dual-core Intel Core can sometimes outperform quad-core alternatives.
To put the capabilities of the new core family in perspective, Intel used the process as part of Intel® Intelligent Digital Signage Proof of Concept. This nearly 8-foot tall concept features two touch-enabled 1080p displays simultaneously rendering video streaming across HDMI. The concept features advanced interactivity features including multi-touch and multi-user capabilities, facial-recognition software, and more. This interactivity demonstrates the processing power of the Intel Core processors, both in terms of video playback and in terms of CPU arithmetic performance.
Of course, performance isn’t everything. Size, power, and availability also matter. The new Intel Core family gets good marks in these areas. As a two-device chipset, the Intel Core chipset is significantly smaller than other solutions. As far as power is concerned, Intel® Turbo Boost Technology helps the chipset achieve remarkably low power—see my last blog for details. The last point, availability can be the most critical of all. As noted earlier, graphics solutions designed for the consumer market have lifecycles as short as six months. In contrast, the Intel Core chipset has seven-year availability.
So why wouldn’t you want to use the integrated graphics in the Intel Core processors? I put this question to Jim Renehan of Trenton Technology, a company that focuses exclusively on high-end applications. Jim told me discrete graphics boards are needed if:
- You need to support more than two displays or more than one video input. For example, multi-camera surveillance systems typically need discrete cards to support all of the camera feeds.
- You have extreme GUI requirements. For example, Trenton technologies have customers who build high-end CAT machines. The user interface for these machines must be able to display 20-30 windows at once, with a high-resolution image in each window. Keeping all these windows open requires a massive amount of memory—something you can only get on a discrete graphics board.
- You have extreme 3D rendering requirements. For example, you might want to build a gaming machine with advanced 3D graphics.
Unless you have an application with extreme requirements like these, it’s likely that you will be more than satisfied with the integrated graphics in the new Intel Core processors. The question for developers is: What will you do with all of this new graphics power? I advise you to think big—as I’ve noted elsewhere, many of today’s embedded systems offer strong graphics features. To stand out from the crowd, you need to do something truly innovative—and the new Intel Core processors gives you the performance you need to do just that.
Kontron is a Premier member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance. Trenton Technology, Inc. is an Affiliate member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance.
Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)
Intel® Embedded Alliance
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