The end of the world as we know it?
Intel unveils the details surrounding its new G-series processor that combines Kaby Lake and Radeon Vega!
A surprise to most in the industry that such a thing would really occur, AMD and Intel announced in November a partnership that would bring Radeon graphics to Intel processors in 2018. The details were minimal at the time, and only told us specifics of the business relationship: this was a product purchase and not a license, no IP was changing hands, this was considered a semi-custom design for the AMD group, Intel was handling all the integration and packaging. Though we knew that the product would use HBM2 memory, the same utilized on the RX Vega products released last year, it was possible that the “custom” part was a Polaris architecture that had been retrofitted. Also, details of the processor side of this technology was left a mystery.
Today we have our answers and our first hands-on with systems utilizing what was previously known as Kaby Lake-G and what is now officially titled the “8th Generation Intel Core Processors with Radeon RX Vega M Graphics.” I’m serious.
For what I still call Kaby Lake-G, as it easier to type and understand, it introduces a new product line that we have not seen addressed in a very long time – high performance processors with high performance integrated graphics. Even though the combined part is not a single piece of silicon but instead a multi-chip package, it serves the same purpose in the eyes of the consumer and the OEM. The marriage of Intel’s highest performance mobile processor cores, the 8th Generation H-series, and one of, if not THE fastest mobile graphics core in a reasonable thermal envelope, the Vega M, is incredibly intriguing for all kinds of reasons. Even the currently announced AMD APUs and those in the public roadmaps don’t offer a combined performance package as impressive as this. Ryzen Mobile is interesting in its own right, but Kaby Lake-G is on a different level.
From a business standpoint, KBL-G is a design meant to attack NVIDIA. The green giant has become one of the most important computing companies on the planet in the last couple of years, leaning into its graphics processor dominance and turning it into cash and mindshare in the world of machine learning and AI. More than any other company, Intel is worried about the growth and capability of NVIDIA. Though not as sexy as “machine learning”, NVIDIA has dominated the mobile graphics markets as well, offering discrete GPU solutions to pair with Intel processor notebooks. In turn, NVIDIA eats up much of the margin and profitability that these mainstream gaming and content creation machines can generate. Productization of things like Max-Q give the market reason to believe that NVIDIA is the true innovator in the space, regardless of the legitimate answer to that question. Intel see that as no bueno – it wants to remain the leader in the market completely.
But it can’t do that with its own graphics designs – it has tried for too long. Intel integrated graphics continues to fall behind both NVIDIA and AMD in this space and though it does just fine for media and general-purpose compute scenarios, for gaming and content creation, it needed help.
Kaby Lake-G will definitely make for interesting discussion as we head through 2018 and the roadmap for AMD mobile processors becomes clearer. If and when the company decides it also wants to make a 65- to 100-watt part for mobile and SFF configurations, the agreement with Intel will look curiouser and curiouser. Why would AMD enable its primary competitor with its biggest IP advantage, even if it means short term gains with a new semi-custom design win? That’s a question for another time.
What is a Kaby Lake-G processor?
So, what is Kaby Lake-G and the 8th Generation Intel Core Processors with Radeon RX Vega M Graphics? On some documentation we received it is called the G-series, and that seems fitting. This release is the first 8th gen H-series processor, with 4-cores and 8-threads, pasted onto a substrate with a custom Vega graphics processor and 4GB of HBM2 memory. There will be more H-series parts released later in 2018 that aren’t tied to the Vega graphics integration, but this is all Intel is pushing out today.
The Vega M GPU is a discrete die and connects to the processor through 8 lanes of PCI Express 3.0 electrically, like how you would see it in a desktop system or a notebook with discrete graphics. However, the PCIe connection is instead routed through a shared substrate. The GPU has as many as 24 CUs (compute units) and 1536 stream processors, though there will be a version with 20 CUs. This graphics chip enables the same features that you would find on a modern Radeon graphics card including FreeSync, async compute, video encode and decode, and the Radeon display engine.
Next to the Vega die is a 4GB stack of HBM2 with a 1024-bit memory bus. HBM2 was always touted as the lower power, lower footprint solution for graphics memory and this implementation demonstrates that perfectly. A GDDR5-based solution would be significantly larger and would require more power, minimizing the value of the integration in the first place. This memory is connected to the Vega GPU via an EMIB, embedded multi-die interconnect bridge, that enables the package to have a lower z-height. More on that below.
This processor will still include the integrated graphics supplied by the Intel H-series processor, along with support for QuickSync and its display engine. In total, this processor could support as many as 9 display outputs, though integration and desire for something like that is going to be complicated. Don’t be surprised if you find that as an edge case for a unique OEM design.
Let’s dive into the specifications of these new processors. It’s a complicated set of data though – there are five different processors and two different GPU options to look at.
|Vega M GH||Vega M GL|
|Architecture||Vega M||Vega M|
|Base Clock||1063 MHz||931 MHz|
|Boost Clock||1190 MHz||1011 MHz|
|Memory Bandwidth||204.8 GB/s||179.2 GB/s|
|Peak FP32 Perf||3.7 TFLOPS||2.6 TFLOPS|
|ROPs||64 pix/clock||32 pix/clock|
|High Bandwidth Cache||4GB HBM2||4GB HBM2|
|Architecture||Kaby Lake||Kaby Lake||Kaby Lake||Kaby Lake||Kaby Lake|
|Base Clock||3.1 GHz||3.1 GHz||3.1 GHz||3.1 GHz||2.8 GHz|
|Max Turbo Clock||4.2 GHz||4.1 GHz||4.1 GHz||4.1 GHz||3.8 GHz|
|Discrete Graphics||Vega M GH||Vega M GH||Vega M GL||Vega M GL||Vega M GL|
|Intel HD Graphics||630||630||630||630||630|
|TDP||100 watts||100 watts||65 watts||65 watts||65 watts|
The Vega graphics implementation is broken up into two options: GH and GL. Or “graphics high” and “graphics low” if you will. The GH integration is the higher performance, higher power draw option and includes the full 24 CUs and 1536 stream processors. It has a base clock speed of 1063 MHz, a boost clock of 1190 MHz, peak theoretical compute of 3.7 TFLOPS. Memory bandwidth is 204.8 GB/s. The GL integration runs with 1280 stream processors and clock speeds that are decreased by 130-180 MHz, respectively. Memory bandwidth also drops to 179.2 GB/s. Both have 4GB of HBM2 but the GH version has twice the ROP throughput at 64 pixels/clock.
The processors that integrate these graphics solutions use the “G” designation at the end of the model name to tip us off. Four of the five being announced today are Core i7 derivatives with just a single Core i5 option, though all five integrate a quad-core configuration with HyperThreading enabled. The Core i7-8809G is the highest performing option and has a base of 3.1 GHz, Turbo lock of 4.2 GHz, and 8MB of cache. It’s also the only unlocked version of the G-series, allowing OEMs and partners to integrate overclocking capabilities.
You can see from the table above that the 8709G, 8706G, 8705G and 8305G all have slightly decreasing clock rates from the 8809G, and the Core i5 lowers the cache size to 6MB. All have the same official memory speed support.
There were early rumors that this might be a socketed processor, but Intel does not have plans for that today, as all the Kaby Lake-G options being launched are BGA only.
Finally, the TDP of these processors is important to note. The Core i7-8809G and 8709G that integrate the Vega M GH solution will have 100-watt TDPs while the other three models that use the lower performing GPU solution will have 65-watt TDPs. Combining a traditional 35-watt H-series CPU with what is essentially a very well-integrated discrete GPU of 60+ watts means a lot of power will be needed for these systems. Ryzen Mobile, the current highest performance CPU+GPU option for the mobile space, has a TDP of around 30-40 watts under a full load, so you can see why I said earlier that this launch put KBL-G in a very unique class. Solutions based on the G-series will have more in common with notebooks that use the GTX 960M, GTX 1050, or even GTX 1060.
It is worth noting here that OEMs will have the ability to limit the TDP under what you see here. The Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 for example, will have a 45-watt TDP. Dell and Intel adjust for this with intelligent power technology, which we will touch on below.
How Intel made it all work
These are truly impressive specifications and Intel has done an amazing job to engineer the G-series to what we see today. The first trick was to get all this technology on a single package. Using a substrate for the GPU and CPU made sense but it was the invention of the EMIB (embedded multi-chip interconnect bridge) that allows for low z-height integration of a high speed interconnect for the HBM2 memory on package. Z-height is critical to being able to design a thin notebook or SFF PC and at just 1.7mm tall, the Intel G-series processors could find their way into very unique implementations.
Part of the custom design of this Vega GPU, according to Intel, was its request for hooks in the chip to enable Intel to intelligently manage power consumption across both the CPU and GPU on the same package. By using Intel Dynamic Tuning, at the hardware level, the processor can monitor the status of the graphics and primary processing systems on the G-series part to get information about power draw and load levels. With that info Intel can adjust the power being delivered to each part and thus control performance capabilities more granularly than you could do with a traditional CPU and discrete GPU solution. The result is that more power within that TDP limit can be given to the CPU when it needs it and more to the GPU when it needs it.
One of the net results of this technology is gaming efficiency, which Intel measured by frames per watt. With the ability to intelligently balance power and performance between the two components, rather than depending on more simplistic heuristics, OEMs can offer similar performance at a lower TDP. Intel gives an example of a 45-watt solution offering the same performance as a 62.5-watt solution without Dynamic Tuning (up to 18% better), resulting in more “frames per watt” gaming efficiency. This is what allows Dell to have the confidence it does in releasing a 45-watt TDP-down version of Kaby Lake-G.
By combining the smaller footprint of the EMIB and the dynamic power capability that Intel has created, we should see some very unique, slim form factors for gaming machines of this performance caliber.
Though we are still waiting to get our hands-on systems using Kaby Lake-G, Intel did provide some metrics to look at. The processor itself is well known and understood; it’s a KBL part with 4 cores at solid clock speeds. Intel has metrics in its deck that compare it to a three-year-old gaming system, which is reasonable, but I don’t think it something that our readers would find incredibly interesting. The graphics and gaming performance is what we are after.
Compared to a GeForce GTX 950M based system, the Vega M GL is 2.2-3.0x faster in graphics based workloads. Comparing the GL to the GTX 1050, Intel shows a few results that are 10-40% faster.
The Vega M GH results are more indicative of SFF PCs (like a new NUC) than the first couple of notebooks announced, but performance still looks impressive. Compared to a GTX 960M, it comes in 2.0-2.7x faster. And compared to the GTX 1060 Max-Q solution, 7-13% faster.
These are not earth-shattering numbers, but it puts an Intel-only solution on the table to compete against what previously required an NVIDIA chip to do in a notebook for gaming and content creation.
A big question mark for us was the software side of this. While we can wrap our heads around the idea of AMD selling Intel a semi-custom Radeon GPU to use for this project, who would manage the software? To be blunt, Intel has had a poor track record of keeping up with the gaming market requirements for software and drivers, even if it has seen improvements in the last couple of quarters. If Intel is asking gamers and OEMs to put their faith in this new G-series line, it would have to make a strong statement about its intentions.
And they have done so. Both the Intel and Radeon driver will exist on the system and both will be distributed by Intel directly. Intel gets the core of the Radeon driver stack from AMD as a part of the business arrangement, and Intel is responsible for re-branding and distribution. (I am sure there are some other minor tweaks occurring.) One of the selling points for this processor is support for all the current and upcoming features that Radeon Vega graphics can provide and in my talks with Intel leading up to this launch they have iterated over and over that they will release drivers day and date with AMD, supporting games on day one, etc. It is not an easy task and even with the majority of the optimization and work done by AMD on the driver side, will mean Intel needs to have the systems and processes in order to deliver.
There will be much skepticism from consumers; Intel needs to be sure there are no stumbles along the way.
Both Dell and HP have systems based on Kaby Lake-G showing at CES this week and both plan availability in the spring time. We’ll have separate news stories from those parties once their official launches occur, so check pcper.com for more on that.
The 8th Generation Core Processors with Radeon RX Vega M Graphics marks an interesting shift for Intel in many ways. It indicates that it sees the value both in the gaming market as well as the need to have a more powerful graphics architecture paired with its CPUs than it can reasonably develop. It also means that Intel is working with AMD to provide a solution that neither could do on its own today. (Interestingly, the letters “AMD” appear nowhere in the press briefing and instead this was always a “Radeon” product.) With the hiring of Raja Koduri and the commitment to build GPUs from the ground up in the future, it also means that Intel might being using the Radeon solution merely as a stopgap, to fill in this void until its own roadmap can catch up.
Either way, I’m exited to see what this partnership and this new processor can offer gamers. Bring on the reviews!!