First Tests: Intel Iris Xe Max Is No Gaming Powerhouse
Intel’s first discrete GPU for laptops could speed up future artificial intelligence processing, but gamers shouldn’t get too excited.
By Tom Brant
Preliminary performance tests suggest that Intel’s first discrete graphics processor for laptops, the Iris Xe Max, provides only a modest improvement over the performance of the graphics silicon that is already built into the chip giant’s latest “Tiger Lake” CPUs.
We tested a handful of popular games, including Counter Strike: Global Offensive, on an Xe Max-equipped Dell Inspiron 15 7000 2-in-1 laptop, and found slightly worse performance than gamers can expect from an equivalent laptop that uses the Iris Xe silicon that is built into Intel’s higher-end 11th Generation Core CPUs.
For casual gamers, these results suggest that the new Iris Xe Max GPU isn’t a huge leap forward in gaming-graphics processing for thin-and-light laptops. That contrasts with the remarkable achievements of the integrated Iris Xe graphics, which have shown some real gains that, in some cases, make it possible to run graphics-intensive titles on laptops that aren’t otherwise designed for gaming.
For people who use GPUs for other demanding tasks, including video rendering and accelerating artificial intelligence processing, the Iris Xe Max could still provide a significant benefit in the future. Intel’s proof-of-concept testing suggests that the combination of an 11th Generation Core i7 and an Iris Xe Max dedicated chip could provide performance, under certain conditions, that’s twice as fast as what you’d see from an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 gaming GPU on these types of tasks. (More about that claim in a bit.)
What Is Intel Iris Xe Max?
The Iris Xe Max GPU-also known as the DG1, for Intel’s first discrete graphics effort in decades-marks Intel’s early foray into the market for dedicated graphics processors, which AMD and Nvidia currently dominate. However, the company’s first product isn’t targeting PC gamers. Nor is it meant for heavy-duty 3D rendering.
Instead, the Iris Xe Max is akin to an entry-level laptop GPU, along the lines of Nvidia’s GeForce MX series. The company designed the Iris Xe Max to focus on content-creation tasks such as video encoding, live streaming, and photo editing. On these types of tasks, the Iris Xe Max can also tap some special abilities when paired with Intel’s Tiger Lake Core processors. The company has created a feature set under the umbrella name “Deep Link,” which can simultaneously tap both the GPU in the Iris Xe Max and the integrated graphics on a Tiger Lake chip to speed up certain workloads, such as video encoding.
Iris Xe Max will launch in just three laptops to start: the Acer Swift 3X, the Asus VivoBook Flip 14 TP470, and the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 2-in-1 that we used for our gaming tests. These are all slim, portable laptops outside the traditional realm of gaming. While many gamers might have assumed that the Iris Xe Max was meant for them, by dint of the fact that it is discrete, Intel has made it clear that the new GPU isn’t designed to boost frame rates far beyond what the integrated Iris Xe is already capable of.
As we discussed in some of our early testing of Intel’s Iris Xe integrated graphics, the graphics performance of that solution built into the upper-end Tiger Lake chips is already quite decent. So layering Xe Max on top of a CPU that already has Iris Xe integrated silicon, from a raw graphics perspective, is likely to amount to replacing “good” with “pretty good.” This isn’t necessarily a negative, but it’s also slightly duplicative when you consider the often-minuscule differences between the two components when it comes to gaming performance.
Intel Iris Xe Max Gaming Performance
On some games, the Iris Xe Max is actually on the losing side of these small differences. Intel has identified more than a dozen popular titles that, in fact, run better on Iris Xe integrated GPUs than on the Iris Xe Max. Among them are DOTA 2, Far Cry 5, World of Tanks, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and BioShock Infinite. When played on an Xe Max-equipped laptop with the latest graphics drivers installed, Intel says these titles will run on the Iris Xe integrated silicon instead. (Since all current Xe Max laptops come with 11th Generation Core processors, they all also have Xe integrated graphics by default.)
This situation bears itself out in our game tests, whose results you can see in the chart below. On Far Cry 5, which runs on the Iris Xe discrete GPU, performance is roughly equal to that of a Tiger Lake “whitebook” laptop that we tested earlier this year. (A whitebook is an unbranded demonstration machine.) That whitebook has a slightly more powerful CPU than the Inspiron 15 7000 does, and it shows the integrated Iris Xe to its best advantage, which could account for the slight performance differences on the Far Cry 5 benchmark running at a 720p resolution.
On our other game tests, which include Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Total War: Warhammer II, and Rise of the Tomb Raider, the Tiger Lake whitebook slightly outperforms the Xe Max-equipped Inspiron 15 7000. Across all three of these titles, the Iris Xe Max showed a 10% to 30% deficiency compared with the Iris Xe system. This suggests that there are more games that should be run on the Iris Xe integrated graphics than the ones that Intel has already identified.
Some games could offer slightly better performance on Iris Xe Max, however. Intel has identified at least one (Metro Exodus). And based on the results of the 3DMark Fire Strike gaming benchmark (in the chart below), there will likely be others. Fire Strike is a demanding test that renders a gaming-style scene with particles and lighting to see how a system copes. The Xe Max outperformed the Xe integrated whitebook on this test. On other, less-demanding 3DMark scenes, including Time Spy and Night Raid, the whitebook performed better, however.
The charts above also let you compare the Xe Max performance as we measured it against some competing graphics solutions from Nvidia and AMD. Across all of the tests, the Xe Max-equipped Inspiron 15 7000 is faster than laptops equipped with AMD’s integrated Radeon graphics, as well as Nvidia’s older GeForce MX250. Intel’s testing also shows the Xe Max has a slight performance advantage over the newer GeForce MX350, though we have not confirmed this; we didn’t have an MX350-based system on hand for comparisons.
In all cases, however, the Iris Xe Max is significantly slower than an entry-level gaming GPU like the GeForce GTX 1650 Ti, whose performance results you can also see in the charts above. This is the clearest evidence yet that the Xe Max does not turn thin-and-light laptops into credible alternatives to entry-level gaming rigs.
Intel Iris Xe Max’s Key Strengths Are in the Future
So if Iris Xe Max isn’t better at gaming than the Iris Xe, and it can’t touch an entry-level gaming GPU, why bother with it at all? The answer lies in how it may be able to speed up future content-creation and artificial-intelligence workflows using unique features like Deep Link. Deep Link can simultaneously tap both the GPU in the Iris Xe Max and the integrated graphics on a Tiger Lake chip to speed up certain workloads, such as video encoding. According to Intel, applications including OBS Studio, Topaz Labs’ Gigapixel AI, and XSplit Gamecaster will be able to tap Deep Link, and support for more third-party software is arriving in the future.
Intel’s benchmarks show that an Xe Max-equipped laptop can convert a 4K video to 1080p about 1.8 times faster than using the GPU acceleration afforded by Nvidia’s high-end GeForce RTX 2080 “Turing” GPU. But these capabilities are still theoretical at this point. The current drivers and software from Intel don’t fully support these features, though Intel promises an update soon to enable some of them. (Otherwise, we’d have given it a shot ourselves.)
Intel does have separate plans to take on the entry-level PC gaming market, though. The company’s DG2 is expected to arrive next year in some desktops, and that could be a credible alternative to Nvidia’s GeForce GTX series.
For now, the Xe Max is essentially a proof of concept of how GPU acceleration can improve specialized workflows in the future. Gamers need not rush out to buy one of the three laptops that currently features Intel’s new GPU, and until more software supports Deep Link, neither should anyone else.
Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com.