Intel gets serious about graphics for gaming

Last week at GDC, Intel held a press event to showcase the latest developments related to its integrated HD Graphics solutions. That fact alone may not be remarkable, but what followed was a break with the past in many ways.

Intel has often sought to lower expectations for PC gaming in order to carve out space for its graphics solutions, usually taking time to remind all involved of the vast popularity of titles like Farmville. This time, had we not known Intel was doing the talking, we might well have guessed that the host was Nvidia or AMD. 3D graphics was the focus, and truly compelling visuals were on display, with a pre-release game—GRID 2—running on pre-release laptops sporting "fourth-generation Core" hardware. (The word "Haswell" was evidently verboten, though we all knew the score.)

Intel kicked off the event by announcing the impending release of a new graphics driver, revision 15.31, due this week. (I don't see the driver available for download as I write, but it should be online in the next few days.) The firm counts this driver as the seventh update since the release of its second-gen Core processors and part of a program of continuous improvements in power efficiency and performance. The 15.31 driver promises graphics performance gains of "up to 10%," especially in specific games, and it adds support for OpenCL version 1.2. The driver will be available for Ivy Bridge-based IGPs, although it was built primarily with Haswell—oops, fourth-gen Core—in mind.

Next, former AMD developer relations guru Richard Huddy took the stage. Huddy now works at Intel in a similar dev-rel capacity, one more sign that Intel is getting serious about playing in the PC gaming market.

Huddy said Intel's fourth-gen Core processors will support the very latest incarnation of the DirectX standard, version 11.1, and then he took things a step further by introducing a couple of new "extensions" to DirectX pioneered by Intel. I put "extensions" in quotation marks because DirectX doesn't work like OpenGL, where the API can be extended by graphics vendors pretty freely. True extensions to DirectX require the blessing of Microsoft and generally aren't added to the spec until a new revision is made official. What Intel has done is, taking a page from the well-established graphics chipmaker's playbook, created proprietary hooks in its drivers to support new hardware features in the Haswell IGP. The firm is encouraging game developers to use them, and it will attempt to persuade Microsoft to incorporate the changes into DirectX when the time is right.

The first of these additions, dubbed InstantAccess, allows the CPU to read and write memory locations controlled by the IGP. This sort of cross-pollination between CPU and IGP is something AMD has explored in its APU development, as well, and it makes sense for chips with both CPUs and GPUs onboard. Huddy cited a couple of uses for InstantAccess: the CPU could hand off assets for the GPU to use, or it could read from GPU memory to assist with post-process effects.

The other new feature, PixelSync, gives the programmer control over the ordering of operations across pixel pipelines. Among other things, PixelSync should enable much more capable implementations of adaptive order-independent transparency, which Huddy cited as one of the more difficult challenges in real-time graphics today. He claimed PixelSync will allow correct lighting and shadowing for transparent objects with solid and predictable performance.

Intel has released code samples and documentation for these new features on its website, but it has also taken things a step further by working with the racing game mavens at CodeMasters to integrate some snazzy new visuals, enabled by PixelSync, into its upcoming title, GRID 2.

One of those effects is, well, better pollution rendering. The smoke that occasionally pours out of the back of the cars in GRID 2 is, by default, white and puffy and looks like cotton. With the help of PixelSync, though, CodeMasters has added semi-transparent smoke that is self-shadowing and looks, well, kind of sooty.

Also enhanced is the game's foliage, which can be semi-transparent and correctly lit with the assistance of PixelSync. Although the picture above looks a little like trees coated with magma, the purpose of the reddish pixels is to demonstrate where transparency and blending are being applied.

In a somewhat too enthusiastic expression of support, the CodeMasters rep on hand ended his brief talk with the declaration that GRID 2 "runs best on Intel." That statement raises all sorts of questions about how Haswell compares to, say, the GeForce Titan. We must admit, we did not lose sleep wondering about the answer.

With that said, we're just happy to see Intel acting like a graphics company, even if that means a little cheesy marketing here and there.

The next item on the agenda was Intel's QuickSync video acceleration tech, which has been around for a while but hasn't seen widespread integration into open-source video editing tools. Intel realized its initial QuickSync licensing terms were not open-source friendly, so it announced at this year's CES that it would be altering them for fourth-gen Core processors.

Those efforts are already bearing fruit with the most notable open-source video processing software package, Handbrake, which was the surprise winner of our PC transcoding hardware roundup last summer. Two of the program's key developers, John Stebbins and Tim Walker, were on hand to demo an early build of Handbrake using QuickSync video encoding.

In the demo, the encoding process was distributed across multiple Haswell units. The CPU showed about 35-40% utilization. The graphic execution units were about 40% occupied, and the hardware codec engine was about 35% occupied. We didn't get exact encoding speeds, but the conversion was said to be happening at rates "much better" than real-time playback—and this was on an Ultrabook. Stebbins and Walker were cautious in their assessments of the quality of the encoded video. One of them called it "very good" but then noted that he hadn't tried low-bitrate encoding yet.

Handbrake's QuickSync support is still in the early stages, and we don't have a precise time frame for its release. We expect lots of PC users to be clamoring for this one as soon as it's available, provided the image quality lives up to Handbrake's usual standards.

Intel ended the event by talking about a new revision of one of its developer tools for graphics and about its perceptual computing challenge, an attempt to find new applications for natural human interfaces like gestures and facial tracking.

Curiously, Farmville was not mentioned once.

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