Mobile Geeks take an in-depth look at the Intel Iris Pro platform, Intel’s strongest integrated graphics platform ever. Take a detailed look under the hood of Intel’s flagship mobile platform, examining the company’s s positioning in relation to the notebook market as a whole.
We reviewed the GIGABYTE Brix Pro compact PC kit a few months ago, a very small PC that runs an Intel i7 Core processor that integrates Intel’s latest and greatest graphics solution with Intel Iris Pro HD5200 Graphics. The overall performance was in the same bracket as a true desktop PC despite being a device small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. In tandem to the Intel i7 4770R that we find in the Brix Pro, Intel also offers a selection of Iris Pro loaded processors that are geared specifically at high-end notebooks, forming the heart of Apple’s latest iMac line up and a hand full of other high-end devices.
From ‘Intel Extreme’ to ‘Iris Pro’
Intels’ first foray into the realm of integrated graphics solutions goes back well over a decade. It’s Extreme Graphics solution arrived in 2002, and as with successive generations the GPU was a major component in the North Bridge chipset that accompanied the CPU on the motherboard. To say that gaming performance lacked punch would be an understatement, despite the marketing that backed it at the time. Competing chipset solutions from Nvidia and even VIA and SIS proved to be worthy alternatives, but we all knew that you could only play proper 3D games with discrete graphics card – the term integrated graphics, or IGP was a byword for mediocrity at best. Today that is no longer the case.
With successive architectural improvements with each generation, Intel have successfully improved graphics performance to the point where we can now actually play Crysis. I would mark the Sandy Bridge platform that brought HD2000/3000 in late 2011 as a major break though. It showed a significant leap forward in graphics performance over the previous generations. This was improved further with Ivy Bridge and the HD4000 series IGP (integrated graphics processor) the following year. In the Intel slide below, Sandy Bridge is the 2nd generation, Ivy Bridge the third.
When Haswell was launched in June last year, Intel again talked up graphics and gaming, initially with the new HD5000 series which was later supplemented with their newly branded Iris Pro in the form of the HD5200 and HD5100 platforms. The HD5000 series is generally based on the same technology as previous generations, but beefed up in a few important areas. Intel HD5200, HD5100 graphics engines have the same 40 cores as Haswell’s HD5000 (more cores than any other graphics engine from Intel), with each core are clocked a touch higher at 1300MHz compared to 11000MHz.
Give me GFLOPs
In terms of raw graphics performance, it is interesting to compare theoretical performance metrics; the HD5200 is capable of pumping out 832 GFLOPs (graphics floating point operations per second). Compare that to previous HD2000 at 97 GFLOPs, HD3000 at 194GFOPs and HD4000 294GFLOPs; the improvements I mentioned earlier are clearly evident.
For reference sake, we can compare theoretical Iris Pro performance to other platforms on the market. Qualcomm’s flagship is the Adreno 330 GPU that features in the Snapdragon 801 system-on-chip that currently dominates the smartphone space. The Ardeno 330 is capable of a theoretical 166 GLOPs while Nvidia’s top mobile SoC offering, Tegra 4, is capable of 96 GFLOPs. Those comparisons are of course a little unfair. Intel’s x86 architecture is of course very different from ARM based solutions which consume a fraction of the power. Regardless, from a purely geeky perspective, it is an interesting comparison to make, and shows how mobile processors still have a long way to go before they can offer PC-like gaming performance.
Intel Iris graphics originates from a product family group codenamed Crystal Well, a variation of the Haswell architecture identified by integrating 128MB of embedded DRAM on the package of the processor. This helps to improve performance by removing the bandwidth limitations inherent with integrated IGP solutions which are restricted to a DDR3 memory bus. This is a cunning way for Intel to alleviate potential memory bottlenecks.
3D Gaming and Productivity
The HD5000 series supports the latest gaming APIs including DirectX 11.1 and OpenGL 4.0 and Shader Model 5.0, so compatibility with the latest gaming titles is assured. But as well gaming on Ultra Books and 2 in 1 convertibles, Intel is also positioning its Iris Pro capable chips for productivity tasks like video editing which can take advantage of the company’s Quick Sync technology. Quick Sync is a dedicated decode and encode accelerator and gives you absolutely incredible video rendering performance in supported apps.
Although they are still some way off the performance of Nvidia and AMD’s discrete GPUs which can suck up to 250 watts, but offer processing power in the region of 3-4000 GFLOPs i.e. three or four times that of Intel Iris Pro. Regardless, Intel Iris Pro is Intel’s flagship graphics platform and represents the best performance we have ever seen on an IGP. The idea of doing any kind serious 3D gaming on an integrated graphics processor a few years ago would have bordered on the absurd, but when you can now play Crysis 3 (admittedly on low settings) on a convertible or notebook device, you know that times are changing.
Likewise we used the Brix Pro on the road, hooking it up to a HDTV in our hotel room to perform as a video editing machine and it performed like a beast- pumping out our edited and re-rendered video at speeds very close to what expect from a full-sized tower PC. This is pretty incredible when you consider that the Brix Pro can very easily be carried in your suitcase; a portable PC rather than a truly mobile PC.
So Where Can We Find Iris?
Intel Iris Pro is only available on Intel’s premium x86 mobile platform – aka 4th generation Core i7 mobile CPUs, which command top tier pricing. The Intel Ark website lists the i7-4950HQ as having a recommended customer price of $623. This makes it one of the most expensive options for any system integrator and probably goes some way to explaining why we have not seen too many device designs with these chips on the market of late. We have seen a few design wins shown at events this year, but so far there are relatively few options out there.
Compare the above price with the top desktop equivalent, the i74770K which is listed by Intel at under $350, and you’ll soon see why few manufacturers have bitten. The margins Intel are commanding on these Iris Pro capable processors will be the envy of competitors like AMD and Qualcomm who have few products in their portfolio that offer margins anywhere near the same scale.
System76 sell a range of laptops with Ubuntu pre-installed, and offer the Galago UltraPro, a 14.1 inch laptop which features the Intel i7-4750HQ (listed by Intel as $434). The device retails at $990 and above, depending on your preferred configuration. A Galago UltraPro with 8GB of DDR3 and a 240 Crucial SSD will set you back $1,223 USD, while an Apple 15″ Macbook Pro with Iris Pro graphics retails for around $2000. CyberPower offer the Zeus Hercules gaming notebook which also uses the i7-4750HQ processor; base configurations start at $1055 USD.
Certainly, these devices come within the realm of luxury tech, even for a geek like me. But the thousand dollar and up market for laptops is dominated by Apple, with high-end players like HP struggling for success and Sony bowing out completely. With the exception of custom or boutique gaming builds from relatively niche system integrators, I imagine that Apple is actually Intel’s biggest customer when it comes to Iris Pro processors.
In a deeply competitive mobile PC landscape, Intel once again has carved itself a position of leadership with a flagship x86 platform that right now looks pretty untouchable.