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At long last, a credible 3D gaming chip from Intel

After years of false promises, Intel finally has a viable CPU for low-end PC gaming.

Intel's new Ivy Bridge chip finally slays the 3D gaming beast.
Intel's new Ivy Bridge chip finally slays the 3D gaming beast. Rich Brown

A truism of Intel chip announcements: Intel releases a new CPU, and with it a new graphics chip or, since Sandy Bridge, a new graphics core embedded in the CPU silicon. Intel then claims said chip/core will provide at least a baseline PC gaming experience. This claim is never true.

Only now it is.

With its new Ivy Bridge CPUs, Intel has introduced two new graphics cores, the Intel HD 4000 and a lower-end HD 2500 core. You will still have a better gaming experience with a budget graphics card, but for at least the HD 4000, Intel finally has an onboard graphics processor with some 3D processing muscle.

Ivy Bridge gaming on laptops
Last year, Sandy Bridge's leap in integrated graphics was a story in itself, and resulted in your average mainstream laptop finally being able to run some off-the-shelf PC games, albeit at lower graphics settings.

The gains in Ivy Bridge's new graphics are clear, at least across our range of gaming benchmarks. Unreal Tournament III, our oldest gaming benchmark, has been discontinued in favor of Street Fighter IV and Metro 2033. We ran UT3 on the two Ivy Bridge laptops we've gotten so far (the Origin EON17-S and Asus N56V) and saw clear, significant improvements over last year's Sandy Bridge white box. (Read a deeper discussion of Ivy Bridge laptop performance in general here.)

Metro 2033 (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,366x768, High, DX11, AAA, 4X AF  
1,920x1,080, High, DX11, 4X AA, 16X AF  

Unreal Tournament 3 (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,600x900, 4X AA, 8X AF*  
Asus N56V (Ivy Bridge -- Intel Core i7-3720QM) -- Intel HD 4000
Intel (Sandy Bridge) whitebox -- Intel HD 3000

Street Fighter IV (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,366x768, 2X AA, V Sync Off  

Street Fighter IV at 1,366x768 ran at 33.9 frames per second on the N56V's Intel HD 4000 versus 18.2fps on the N53S' HD 3000 graphics. That's a huge leap. The integrated graphics still fall short of the performance of a GeForce GT 540M GPU (around 44 frames per second on our two quad-core i7 Sandy Bridge laptops), but the result is much closer than it's ever been before.

Metro 2033 ran surprisingly close: at 1,366x768, it was about a frame per second off our Nvidia GT 540M laptops. That's not a playable frame rate, of course, but it shows how far integrated graphics have come to even approach such a test in the first place.

For more mainstream gaming matching what you'd probably try to experience, we ran Far Cry 2 on the Asus N56V using its Intel HD 4000 graphics. It performed the benchmark at 24.1 fps at 1,366x768 resolution, versus 14.4 fps using the Asus N53S' last-gen Intel HD 3000 graphics. Here, the difference amounts to a much more playable game.

But here's the real question: can it play Skyrim? We installed and ran Skyrim at 1,920x1,080 and the Asus N56V was able to play it quite well with graphics settings at Low. Character motion was fluid, and the landscape scrolled by without a hitch. Once set to Medium, frame rate dropped down to a choppy status I'd call unplayable. Keep those settings at Low, however, and Skyrim at 1,920x1,080 is truly playable, and shockingly so. We also tested Skyrim on the Origin EON17-S, with found similar results.

Rich Brown

Battlefield 3, a graphically demanding game, was an even greater success story. Running at 1,920x1,080 at Medium settings, the game wasn't exactly smooth, but could certainly handle an online match. Dialing down to 1,600x900 or lower graphics settings at 1080p both produced results that many players would consider more than acceptable.

My impressions are that Ivy Bridge could be a great step for gaming on everyday laptops without discrete graphics, but we still don't know how Intel HD 4000 graphics will fare on laptops with lower-end CPUs. For results in that regard, you'll have to stay tuned until June.

Ivy Bridge desktop 3D performance
Intel has a similar success story on the desktop side of Ivy Bridge. We tested an Asus Essentio CM6870 with a high-end, 3.4GHz Core i7-3770 chip, 8GB of memory, and a GeForce GT 545 graphics card. You are still better off playing games with even that budget-priced 3D card, but the Intel HD 4000 graphics core at least makes some games playable.

Far Cry 2
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
1,920x1,200 (DirectX 10, 4x aa, very high)  
1,440 x 900 (DirectX 10, 4x aa, very high)  

First, some expectations management. Far Cry 2 is useful test because the game is based on a midrange, DirectX 10-based graphics engine. We tested here with the same settings we use for high-end gaming desktop reviews, with the intention of giving Ivy Bridge a meaty test on a game that discrete budget 3D cards can play well.

With the Intel core driving the 3D rendering on the Asus system, it achieved a playable frame rate at 1,440x900 pixels, but ran into trouble when we bumped the resolution up to 1,920x1,080 pixels. The lesson here is that while you can play games with the Intel chip, you will still need to sacrifice image quality or resolution, even on older titles.

What's remarkable about the new chip though is that we haven't found a game yet that it can't play in some capacity. Metro 2033 with DirectX 11 is one of the most demanding games available, and we normally test using its highest settings. Here, we dialed the image quality down to "low." While the Intel-based Asus' 17fps falls short of acceptable for any real gaming computer, the game is still more or less playable.

I conducted the same Skyrim and Battlefield 3 anecdotal testing on the desktops, and found similar results to what Scott found with the laptops. The Intel chip played both games smoothly at 1,920x1,080 on low quality presets. The frame rate on Skyrim hovered around 30fps, and just under 20fps on Battlefield 3, according to the Fraps frame rate capture software. Neither game looked its best, but both were surprisingly playable.

As with the laptop testing, we don't know the extent to which our testing will apply to shipping systems. How often, for example, will you find a Core i7-3770 chip in a desktop that doesn't also have a discrete graphics card? We also can't say how the HD 4000 processor will hold up when it's paired with a slower CPU, nor have we seen performance from the lower-end HD 2500 graphics core.

If nothing else, our testing shows that we can finally take Intel seriously as a graphics chip manufacturer. It's achieved some impressive low-end performance with these Ivy Bridge graphics chips, and it demonstrated real improvement over the previous generation's graphics horsepower. It hasn't killed the low-end 3D market yet, but after years of futility Intel finally has a worthwhile chip for PC gaming.