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Hard Choices Update: Mobile Gaming On The Cheap

Dashing Hardware News

We've dabbled with mobile gaming machines in Hard Choices passim. Gaming lappies are great, but they're also punitively pricey. What if laptops with tolerable gaming chops were on the verge of an epic price drop? That might just be the case courtesy of Intel's upcoming Haswell processors and a funky little software layer from a little known third party. For clarity, the context here is relatively low-end gaming portables, not full-on desktop replacement sorts. But if you're strapped for cash or just looking for something casual for away days, read on.

This story starts at the tech jamboree that is Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco back in September. It was the first I'd missed in the better part of a decade I've been a hardware hack. But even from my dislocated vantage point in Blighty it was obvious that IDF 2012 was a dud. Intel doesn't do exciting CPUs any longer. It's struggling to get its chips into phones, which is its number one priority right now. Not a lot going on.

But Intel did dish some deets on the upcoming Haswell architecture which is basically its next CPU design for boring old PCs. They're due out early next year and likely to be known as the Intel Core i-something 4000 series. The CPU side of Haswell looks super boring. No more than four cores, a few tweaks to release a little IPC, maybe 10 to 15 per cent more performance. Yadda yadda.

Intel's big idea: Chips with everything. Except for phones. Damn those phones

Now, as we all know Intel's mainstream CPUs include an integrated graphics processor on-die. Haswell will be no different. Intel hasn't completely unloaded regards the full details of Haswell's updated 3D engine. But it's divulged enough dirt to provide some insight.

Combine that with the work a certain boutique graphics outfit known as Lucid Logix has been doing to improve frame rates on low end GPUs and you have the prospect of properly playable integrated graphics.

And integrated graphics are cheap. In fact, they're more or less free. So let's look at the details, starting with the hardware part of the equation. Haswell carries over pretty much the same graphics execution units as the current Ivy Bridge gen of Core i-somethng 3000 chips. That includes the Intel Core i5-3570K which is the RPS gaming chip of choice on the CPU side.

So it's mostly clocks and unit counts that will separate Haswell from earlier Intel graphics. For the record, there will be three hardware options, GT1, GT2 and GT3. They're thought to offer 10, 20 and 40 graphics execution units each. For context, the fastest current Intel Core processor has 16 graphics units. Sorry, I know this stuff is a bit dull, but it's worth understanding.

Intel's claiming Haswell graphics will be twice as fast as Ivy bridge, so the assumption here is that the 40-unit version will be a little down clocked in the quest for better power and thermal management. Whatever, it's a big step up in terms of hardware.

The other part of the package is Lucid's new Dynamix software. Lucid is the graphics upstart that has enabled, among other things, Intel to fix its broken integrated graphics so that you can use the QuickSync hardware video encode engine with a proper discrete graphics card installed. Lucid's party trick is basically getting GPUs to run in parallel, even when they're made by different companies.

Its latest ruse involves a software layer that sits in front of a PC game and has a sniff of everything being asked of and sent to the graphics card. Every frame in the graphics pipeline is analysed and optimised for performance.

Not exactly the obvious choice for a gaming portable

And yes, this does mean reducing image quality. According to Lucid we're talking a few digits of image quality in percentage terms in return for – wait for it – a doubling of performance. Lucid was showing the technology off to IDF attendees and according to a chum of mine, it really works.

Whether you'll be happy to stomach – or even notice – the drop off in quality is, of course, the key question. I haven't seen it in action, so can't comment. But if it is acceptable, then you have the prospect of integrated Intel graphics four times faster than today's. And I would guestimate that will put you in playable territory for a majority of games.

The implication is that all manner of laptop form factors will suddenly become viable for pukka PC gaming, including Ultrabooks and maybe even tablet convertibles, though we may have to wait one more processor generation for the latter to come.

There's an obvious one snag, of course.  Intel's record for producing good, reliable graphics drivers with broad game game compatibility. It doesn't have one. Things have undoubtedly been getting better and this is one area where the carry-over execution unit architecture will help. It's not a new design needing all new drivers. So, you never know.

Anyway, colour me tantalised. A gaming-capable tablet-convertible Windows 8 machine for £500 in the foreseeable future? Or portable gaming chops for a cheap 'n cheerful £350? Sign. Me. Up.

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About the Author

Jeremy Laird