Articles: Graphics

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A few years ago it didn’t really make sense to discuss the performance of the integrated graphics cores. The only reason why you would rely on a solution like that would be the case when no 3D graphics is in the picture, because compared with the discrete graphics accelerators, integrated graphics cores offered minimalistic functionality in 3D modes. However, things have changed dramatically by now. Starting with 2007, the trendsetter for all major changes in the computer market, Intel Corporation, considers increasing the performance and functionality of the integrated graphics to be one of the primary objectives. And their accomplishments in this aspect have been truly impressive: integrated graphics core shave not only becomes substantially faster, but have also turned into an inalienable part of contemporary processors. Moreover, the company is not going to stop just yet and is working on a very ambitious plan of making integrated graphics another 10 times faster by 2015.

Developers’ sudden interest to improving their graphics cores was encouraged by the users’ desire to have at their disposal compact systems with high performance. It may seem that up until recently the term “mobile computer” stood for a system that could be easily moved from one place to another,  size and weight being secondary. Today, even pretty small 4-lbs notebooks will hardly make many users happy. Tablets and ultra-compact systems, which Intel calls “ultrabooks”, have become the today’s trend. It is this hunt for miniature size and ultra-light weight has become the ultimate force pushing integrated graphics into contemporary processors and improving its performance. A single chip that represents a combination of a CPU and GPU and at the same time boasts low heat dissipation is the necessary basis for appealing contemporary mobile solutions. That is why we see a lot of activity in the hybrid processor segment, which offers numerous benefits not only to the users of mobile devices but also to the users of desktop systems.

Ivy Bridge processors are a second incarnation of Intel’s microarchitecture featuring hybrid design, which implies the coexistence of computational and graphics cores within a single semiconductor die. The previous microarchitecture version, Sandy Bridge, has undergone some radical changes, which has primarily touched upon the graphics core. Intel even had to make special clarifications regarding their “tick-tock” concept: Ivy Bridge was supposed to become the result of the previous design’s transition to new 22 nm process, but in reality they have also made a significant step forward in terms of graphics capabilities. Therefore, we decided to dedicate a whole separate article to the new graphics core in order to cover all the numerous improvements and investigate the remarkable performance boost.

You can get an excellent idea of how significant the changes are from comparing side by side Ivy Bridge and Sandy Bridge semiconductor dies.

The images aren’t scaled: Sandy Bridge die size – 216 mm2, Ivy Bridge – 160 mm2.

Both of them are manufactured using different technologies and have different size. But there is one important observation: while the graphics core in Sandy Bridge occupied about 19% of the die, the graphics core in Ivy Bridge increased in size to 28%. And it means that the complexity of the graphics inside the processor has more than doubled: it increased from 189 to 392 mln transistors. Of course, such dramatic increase in the transistor count couldn’t have been wasted for nothing.

I have to stress that Intel’s approach towards marrying the computational and graphics cores and increasing the potential of the latter is somewhat different from AMD’s APU concept. Intel’s competition considers integrated graphics core inside the processor an extension of computational cores believing that flexible programmable shader processors will help increase the overall performance of the unit. As for Intel, they do not expect graphics to be widely used for computational tasks: the traditional computational potential of the Ivy Bridge processors is more than sufficient. In this case, the integrated graphics core has a pretty traditional primary function, and the developers’ intention to even further grow its potential is determined by the desire to reduce to minimum the situations when discrete graphics card becomes a necessary component, especially in mobile computer systems.

However, both approaches from Intel and AMD produce the same outcome. The market share of discrete graphics continues to drop giving way to new generation integrated graphics, which now supports DirectX 11 and works faster than an entire lineup of entry-level discrete graphics accelerators. Today we are going to talk about Intel HD Graphics 4000 and Intel HD Graphics 2500 cores integrated into Ivy Bridge processors. We will also try to figure out which discrete graphics cards have lost their market value with the launch of the new generation Intel graphics.

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