Haswell is a graphics monster

Don’t believe the rumors of mediocrity

Intel - logoThere has been a lot of talk about Haswell and its lack of graphics prowess. Let’s set the record straight, those reports are dead wrong.

Before diving in to the chip itself, you need a bit of history to understand the magnitude of what Haswell brings to the table. Current Sandy Bridge GPUs, when their drivers work, are put to shame by AMD’s Llano GPU. AMD routinely posts double the frame rates of Intel chips even though the Intel CPU is much more powerful. The take home message is that AMD has a massive GPU advantage, Intel a massive CPU advantage on chips aimed at the same place in the market.

Technically, the Sandy Bridge based Core iSomethingmeaningless has two types of GPUs, the 6 shader HD 2000 variant and the HD 3000 with 12 shaders. Don’t look for any more information on Intel’s once worthwhile site though, they are scrubbing any useful GPU information from it because knowledge gets in the way of marketing games. In any case, the fastest Intel GPU is roughly equivalent to half of what AMD brings to the table. That is, it brings half of AMD’s power if the Intel drivers work, and that is not a good bet.

The next generation part called Ivy Bridge is due out in late March or early April, and brings HD 4000 labelled graphics to the table. For raw numbers, the top HD 4000 only has 16 shaders, but the underlying architecture is completely new. Between architectural changes, clock speed increases, and other changes, Intel is claiming about 2x the graphics performance from 33% more units. We don’t think these claims are out of line for the general case.

About the time Intel catches up with AMD, AMD has new generation called Trinity coming out. At a recent analyst day, AMD was claiming that the performance of Trinity will be the same as Llano in half the wattage. While performance doesn’t scale linearly with wattage, you would not be out of line to think the gap between AMD and Intel graphics performance won’t change significantly on the next generation of chips.

That brings us to Haswell, the follow on generation to Ivy Bridge. Haswell uses a tweaked version of the Ivy Bridge shaders. It is not a new GPU architecture by any means, but it is enhanced, so one Haswell shader is worth a bit more than an Ivy shader. How much isn’t known yet, the only sure thing about Intel graphics is what the hardware engineers giveth, the software guys taketh, mangle, botch, and hand to PR to twist logic around.

Why did we say that the reports on Haswell are wrong? Most claim a modest increase in graphics performance, and it is anything but. There are three variants of Haswell graphics, GT1, GT2, and GT3. The top end part, GT3, has 40 of the enhanced Ivy shaders. If the chip does not increase GPU clocks at all, has zero performance enhancements, nor anything else, it will be 2.5x as fast as Ivy Bridge. That in turn is 2x as fast as Sandy Bridge, so 5x what you can buy from Intel today. AMD’s Kaveri had better be damn quick to stay in the game.

There is a lot more to the story than the sheer shader counts, but suffice it to say, the performance floor for Haswell GT3 graphics is 5x what you have today. We have faith in the Intel hardware side, the chip has been back from the fab for months, and looks good. Sadly, we have a stronger faith that the software side won’t be cleaned up. Look for Haswell GT3 to be the fastest integrated GPU hardware ever, just don’t look for it to work well.S|A

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and SemiAccurate.com. SemiAccurate.com is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of SemiAccurate.com, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also available through Guidepoint and Mosaic. FullyAccurate