Intel’s ARC Graphics Cards Are a Big Deal, But Don’t Buy One Yet

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In July of 2022, Intel finally brought a discrete graphics card to retail stores after decades of trying and failing to become a GPU competitor. This has massive implications for the GPU market, but should you rush out and buy one?

Say Hello to Intel ARC

If you haven’t been keeping tabs on GPU news, you may be surprised to hear that Intel is joining NVIDIA and AMD as a graphics card vendor with Intel ARC. Intel has been working on improving its integrated GPU technology for years and almost brought a radical GPU product with the code name “Larrabee ” to market years ago. But, in general, the company isn’t synonymous with GPU technology—unless you count integrated, or “onboard,” graphics.

As of the time of writing in July 2022, you can buy an Intel ARC A380 graphics card—but only if you live in China and also buy an entire prebuilt computer along with it. Exact US release dates are absent, but sometime in the second half of 2022 is almost assured.

This is the entry-level card meant to compete with GPUs such as the NVIDIA GTX 1650 or AMD RX6400. However, unlike AMD, ARC cards have dedicated ray-tracing and machine learning acceleration. This enables its AI-based XeSS upscaling technology, set to compete with NVIDIA’s DLSS.

There are three tiers of ARC cards, with 3-series, 5-series. and 7-series cards representing different performance tiers. Similar to i3, i5, and i7 Intel CPUs. The “A” in the card’s name refers to the generation, short for the code name “Alchemist”. The next generation of cards will have “B” for “Battlemage” and presumably the cards will go down the alphabet with each new generation.

The last part of the GPU model name indicated where it falls within it’s tier, so an A730 would be below an A750. Mobile versions of these GPUs and with an “M”.

Early Benchmarks Are OK

The A380 is the only Intel card that’s made it to independent testers as of the time of writing, with the high-end A750 just around the corner, and the rest of the range to follow soon after that. The first benchmarks put the A380 in the same performance range as the cards it’s competing against. It does better in some titles and worse in others, but it’s broadly competitive. It’s also notable that, unlike AMD and NVIDIA GPUs, Intel Arc cards seem to require resizable BAR to be active to get their full promised performance. Resizable BAR is a technology that allows the CPU to access the GPU’s memory in blocks larger than 256MB, which means it can do its part of the rendering process more quickly, with few if any bottlenecks. So many older systems, which would otherwise be ripe for a GPU upgrade, may not benefit as they should.

It’s easy to dismiss this as a bit of a flop, but the truth is that having a first-generation GPU product that can serve as a viable alternative to products that have decades of development behind them is a major achievement.

Intel doesn’t have to beat AMD and NVIDIA outright in performance but simply offer good cards at better prices. Anything that puts price pressure on the two major companies is good for consumers. AMD is also a relatively small company compared to Intel, so it’s always had problems simply facing up to NVIDIA’s sheer production capacity. In that sense, Intel has the potential to offer true competition to NVIDIA in the low- and medium-end GPU segments where the most actual products are sold.

There’s More to a GPU Than Hardware

So if the early performance numbers for ARC GPUs seem decent, if not spectacular, why not buy one for your next build if the price is right? The simple answer is that the software side of GPU technology will take some time to get there for Intel.

Both NVIDIA and AMD have built close connections with game and API developers. Each new version of their drivers is tightly-optimized for the latest games while maintaining compatibility with decades of legacy PC games that use older APIs such as DirectX 9, 10, and 11.

In an interview with Gamer’s Nexus, Intel Graphics Engineer Tom Petersen admits that Intel is focusing on software support for games that are most likely to be played by their customers. This is based on sources such as Steam data or games that are commonly used to benchmark modern GPUs. This doesn’t mean that ARC cards won’t work with these older titles, just that there’s no guarantee of consistent or glitch-free performance.

When Should You Buy an ARC Card?

For individual consumers, a promising new product with the potential to disrupt an entrenched market presents a chicken-and-egg dilemma. If no one buys the product, then it will inevitably fail. However, being an early adopter usually means being a beta tester.

If you’re excited about ARC cards, what they represent, and their potential, then there’s nothing wrong with buying the card of your choice with the acceptance that things might be a little rough at first.

If you’re just interested in getting the best GPU for our money, then keep an eye on benchmarks for the video games you want to play, or the applications you need to run, using ARC cards. With each driver revision, the number of optimized titles and their performance should increase. Although most customers with current NVIDIA or AMD hardware will likely only be swayed no earlier than Arc “B” for “Battlemage.”

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