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The Intel and AMD partnership: what does it mean for gamers?

Digital Foundry on one of the biggest announcements in PC gaming history.

After years of predictable roadmaps and often iterative bumps in existing technology, the last 12 months has seen some radical jumps in the capabilities of PC hardware - but few could have predicted yesterday's announcement that Intel and AMD would join forces to take on Nvidia in the laptop space. A new range of Kaby Lake G processors are set to ship in the coming months, combining an Intel Core i7 processor with a semi-custom Radeon GPU and a stack of HBM2 memory. So why has this collaboration come about and what does it mean for the gamer?

First of all, let's not underestimate the dominance of the GeForce brand in laptop graphics - from GTX 1050, across the stack to GTX 1080, the Pascal line of mobile GPUs is remarkably capable. They're either on par with their desktop equivalents or up to 10 per cent slower but the key takeaway is that the overall experience remains much the same. Frugal in terms of power consumption, Nvidia's tech opens the door to products like the Razer Blade 14 - essentially on par with a desktop PC running a quad-core i5 with a GTX 1060. This is good enough for both 1080p and 1440p gaming, all in a 14-inch gaming laptop form factor. The Blade is probably the most miniature utilisation of a mid-range Pascal chip, but regardless, across the range, Intel and AMD can't compete.

For Intel, the collaboration with AMD essentially sees the new Kaby Lake G line replace their top-end Iris/Iris Pro graphics solutions. These featured top-end integrated graphics combined with a fast 128MB cache of memory - it elevated performance, but to nothing like Nvidia's standards, while driver support has historically been an issue. For AMD, the Intel collaboration essentially offers another semi-custom design win - nothing like the scale of PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, but valuable revenue nonetheless and the chance to scale up with future projects should this one prove successful.

Intel's announcement video for the new processors.

The Kaby Lake G processors themselves are fascinating, mounting what we suspect is a standard seventh-gen Core i7 CPU to the Radeon GPU using a new, custom interconnect, allowing for close collaboration between both chips. Memory bandwidth has always been the problem with integrated graphics, but the use of HBM2 solves this at a stroke: the renders Intel has released suggest a single stack of modules, which would offer a theoretical limit of 256GB/s of bandwidth - we should expect lower on the actual design, but that's ballpark Radeon RX 580 spec. Bearing in mind the specs and price of HBM2 right now, four gigs of memory seems likely.

Leaked specs elsewhere give us some idea of the technical make-up of the Radeon GPU. The all-important shader count and clock speeds out there suggest a processor with 1536 stream processors integrated within 24 compute units. Frequencies - which may be subject to change - bring us into 1GHz to 1.1GHz territory. It's all rather speculative at the moment, but this gives us a GPU offering up to 3.3 teraflops of compute power. In terms of power level, we're looking at some kind of midway point between PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Pro.

However, the extent to which this specification can challenge Nvidia's mobile GeForce solutions is up for debate. The GTX 1060 offers excellent 1080p performance on modern games running at ultra settings, and its slightly faster desktop counterpart dukes it out with the Radeon RX 570 and RX 580 - 5.1TF and 6.17TF respectively. Assuming the leaks are correct, the Intel/AMD product would skew more towards Nvidia's GTX 1050 Ti level of performance, or a small cut above. Our gut feeling is that Nvidia won't be unduly worried for now - its most lucrative revenue streams in the mobile space will probably remain unaffected.

So, if it can't win out on performance, what is the advantage of the Intel/AMD offering? It comes down to form factor. In its PR materials, Intel makes a big deal of the space saving offered by Kaby Lake G compared to the standard set-up of CPU, GPU and the cluster of GDDR5 memory. It also discusses the Z dimension - the height of the processor - which the firm says is very low. We can safely assume that this is the unique selling point of Kaby Lake G, the aspect that sets it apart from current offerings: the ability to run the latest games at 1080p resolution, at decent enough settings in a machine with a very slim and light form factor.

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There are still plenty of unknowns here: specifically, the extent to which the Radeon GPU has been customised in collaboration with Intel, or even the base architecture on which it is based. One would expect the latest Vega line to be a given, considering that the same technology is used in AMD's next-gen APU, codenamed Raven Ridge. But on the other hand, Vega required a big transistor count to ramp up clock-speeds, which may make the older Polaris a better fit for a GPU running in 1GHz territory. Time will tell here, but as AMD is working on contract for Intel here, it will be the latter who releases further details in the coming weeks.

Right now, it seems that the spec itself is not quite as exciting as the concept, the sheer idea that arch rivals like Intel and AMD are collaborating on a new project together. But our feeling is that it's the form factors that the design allows for that could be the real game-changer here. Right now, gaming laptops like the Razer Blade 14 are the exception, not the norm. Intel's solution certainly won't be cheap, but more games-capable machines on the market in a smaller, MacBook-style shell can only be a good thing.

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