Intel graphics discontent justified?

There's a long history of hard feelings about the graphics capabilities of Intel silicon. Some of the criticism is valid--but some of it surely misses the point.

Discontent with Intel graphics goes back a few years. But the unsealing of 3-year-old e-mail exchanges between Intel and Microsoft reveals something about the present, too.

Intel 915 chipset
Intel 915 chipset Intel

First some background. Intel makes integrated graphics silicon--that is, graphics functionality that is built into its chipsets. Performance is not the name of the game for Intel. Delivering power-efficient, adequate graphics that can handle everyday tasks and do basic gaming is the goal. Anything beyond this is left to the high-octane discrete chips from ATI and Nvidia.

"We've always been consistent that high-end gamers should use discrete graphics," said Intel spokesman George Alfs. Intel graphics is also inexpensive and comes virtually free on some PCs.

But Intel graphics silicon is everywhere. It ships in tens of millions of PCs every year. And herein lies the issue. The silicon becomes the lowest common denominator that Microsoft and game developers must write to because it's so ubiquitous.

This is the root of the Intel 915 integrated graphics and the "Vista Capable" controversy. As widely reported, Intel's 915 (which shipped as standard in many PCs) was not up to running Vista's Aero Glass interface (among other features). So, Microsoft dropped this as a requirement.

Reams of material have been released according to this Seattle Times blog documenting the infighting that took place trying to resolve the 915 issue. The documents stem from a lawsuit that alleges Microsoft misled consumers by lowering the requirements so a 915-based PC could be designated as "Vista Capable."

According to an unsealed motion citing e-mail and internal Intel and Microsoft documentation released by U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman, Microsoft objected to an internal Intel link "positioning the 915 GM as optimum for Windows Vista on mobile PCs." The motion states that Microsoft viewed this as "misleading" and "egregious" and that Microsoft asserted that the 915 chipset "should not even be in the list of recommended hardware for Windows Vista" and further opined that the "higher end of the chipset choices" from Nvidia and ATI were more suitable.

But that may not be the whole story. According to an article on Channel Web, Microsoft did not "cave" to Intel and the 915, but rather "it was Microsoft, led by Poole, that initiated that change all on its own." Will Poole at that time was a Microsoft senior vice president.

"We are seriously confused. We believed that 915 is NOT vista ready as it will never have WDDM drivers," according to an e-mail from Intel Vice President Renee James, cited in the Channel Web article. (WDDM stands for Windows Display Driver Model.)

Whatever the case, Intel integrated graphics was so commonplace that it was a big issue.

(For the record, Nvidia had issues with its drivers and Windows Vista too.)

Intel targets graphics
Fast-forward to September of 2006 and the Intel X3000 and X3100 (G965/GM965) graphics. With this silicon, Intel decided it was going to provide a better graphics experience for gaming in particular. The 965 started shipping in September of 2006, but it took Intel nearly a year to write the drivers needed to unlock better performance .

"New drivers for the company's 965GM chipset, found in many notebooks and midrange desktops, still don't deliver the uniform performance increases promised earlier this year, according to testing by CNET Labs," CNET News' Tom Krazit wrote in October 2007 .

Intel documentation (here) says that "Intel recently introduced the 15.6 and 14.31 Windows Vista and Windows XP graphics drivers that enables Shader Model 3.0 including support for hardware vertex shader and HW TnL on the Intel G965, GM965, and G35 Express Chipsets."

The document continues: "This capability has shown enhancements in game compatibility as well as game play" and concludes the "Introduction" by saying: "The end result is that Intel is able to deliver the highest possible frame rates by leveraging Intel's world class processors."

Now fast-forward to the present and the MacBook Air. The first version of the MacBook Air was rolled out in a show of great camaraderie with Intel CEO Paul Otellini. Intel silicon all around: not only a special version of the Intel mobile Core 2 Duo was used, but Intel X3100 graphics, too. At that time, Apple CEO Steve Jobs heaped praise on the Core 2 Duo processor.

Then came the MacBook Air update. Intel graphics out, Nvidia 9400M graphics in.

This time Apple stressed the graphics capability of the Air .

Gains and compromises
To reiterate, the issue is not that Intel graphics are horrendous. It's simply that Intel's graphics silicon is so widespread that it becomes an issue for people, for example, who buy a laptop and later decide they want to play games at a certain level or do more high-level graphics.

What do analysts think about the X3100? Jon Peddie says Intel graphics has improved, but he is cautious. (Note that the X3100 has recently been superseded in laptops by the Intel GMA 4500MHD.)

"Whereas it would never be used by a real gamer (of which I like to consider myself) it will allow someone with a tighter budget to have some experience (with gaming on a PC)," Peddie said in response to an e-mail query. Peddie does research and testing of graphics products from Intel, Nvidia, and ATI.

Peddie: "Based on early tests we have run on the X3100, we found it ran all the games we tried, i.e., Spore, Stalker Clear Sky, Crysis, and Far Cry Warhammer, but "mind you we had to use lower resolution than we would normally, and if the game didn't automatically turn off some of the special features, we had to in order to get a descent frame rate."

He continues: "But the fact that it ran at all is I think a major slap on the back for Intel. Turning features off and reducing resolution is a reasonable compromise considering the costs."

But Intel (to state the obvious) is not Nvidia. "Now having said that I also have to say that the Nvidia mGPU 9400 (now used in the MacBook Air) is much more capable and you can run at higher resolutions with more features turned on," Peddie said.

The conclusion. Intel graphics is adequate and probably does more than enough for most users. But the issue will never go away because integrated graphics set itself up as a low-watermark benchmark for competitors (that offer higher-end discrete cards) to surpass. Meanwhile, it forces multimedia and game developers to make their games and applications run in a less-than-stellar way on millions of PC worldwide.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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