Intel Core Ultra launch heralds new era of AI-enabled laptops

Intel Core Ultra laptop processor
100% human

There’s now even more competition in the AI computing stakes, with the launch of the Intel Core Ultra laptop processors. Armed with a dedicated AI processing unit and revamped graphics, more powerful and battery-efficient Intel laptops are on the horizon.

Announced at Intel’s ‘AI Everywhere‘ event, the next-generation chips are said to deliver better computing and graphical performance while using less power. The Intel Core Ultra range is also the company’s first consumer system on a chip (SoC) with a dedicated neural processing unit (NPU) aimed at tackling AI workloads. This NPU is labelled by the new “Intel AI Boost” branding.

First revealed in September, Intel previously detailed the architectural details of the processors known by the Meteor Lake codename. Not much was known about the actual performance or specifications.

Today lifted the lid on what to expect, with the first Intel Core Ultra chips segmented into two groups: the mid-range U series, and the more powerful H series. Gone is the ‘i’ branding, as announced earlier in the year. In its place is the name of the specific processor followed by a number. Across both the U and H series, the Intel Core Ultra 5 and 7 chips will arrive first, followed by the flagship 9 in early 2024.

In terms of actual specs, the new laptop chips come with up to 16 cores and 22 threads, powering up to 5.1GHz CPU clock speeds, and up to 2.35GHz GPU clock speeds. Intel went as far as claiming that its processors outperform the Apple M3 and AMD Ryzen chips. Although it’s worth noting the AMD 7840U was used as a comparison point, not the new 8040 series.

What does Intel mean by AI PC?

During the AI Everywhere event, Intel’s Michelle Johnston Holthaus claimed that “by 2028, AI PCs will comprise 80% of the PC market”. Many current AI use cases heavily rely on cloud servers to handle workloads. This is expensive, uses lots of energy, and opens up privacy concerns in the event of a data breach. Intel appears keen to shift some of this workload to local machines to partially offset these issues.

While generative AI featured prominently at Intel’s processor launch, it only represents a portion of how the technology is used in the real world. Tasks as innocuous as background blur during video meetings use AI, or machine learning, which all add load to a computer.

In theory, a dedicated NPU reduces the load on a system’s CPU and GPU, freeing them up for other uses. Intel claims that its Core Ultra processors spread AI workloads across the CPU, GPU, and NPU, leading to better performance at lower power levels, which should mean better laptop battery life.

It also increases the feasibility of running AI tasks locally without sending data to cloud servers. One example shown was an app called “Superpower” from the same developer behind “Rewind”. It’s an app that functions as an offline AI assistant of sorts, running a large language model you can interact with based on everything you’ve accessed on your computer. If it relied on cloud servers, it’d be a privacy nightmare. Conversely, a purely offline program that acts as a second brain has the potential to be a handy productivity tool.

Intel Core Ultra delivers major graphics improvements

Although AI is the word of the day, it’s arguably graphics that benefit the most from the new chips. Like Apple touted with its latest M3 processors, Intel claims that its new range delivers better graphical performance than ever. Its H series processors come with built-in Arc GPUs said to be up to two times better at handling graphics than the previous-gen chips.

On the Intel Arc-equipped Core Ultra chips, the new graphics architecture also supports more video codecs and DirectX 12 Ultimate support, meaning you can handle ray tracing and mesh shading workloads on a laptop. Gaming also sees a big boost, with the likes of Baldur’s Gate 3 and Resident Evil Village running up to two times better than a Raptor Lake chip. That’s without a discrete GPU, too.

AI upscaling is a big beneficiary of the new chips with Arc integration. Intel’s Xe Super Sampling (XeSS) boosts the frame rate of many major games substantially. Notably, Cyberpunk 2077 averages a playable 36 frames with XeSS enabled, a remarkable feat for a laptop not using a dedicated graphics card.

Major computing brands have already started using the Intel Core Ultra lineup, including the likes of Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Microsoft, and MSI. Laptops with the new processors are already out in the US, with some available here in Australia before the end of the year.

Read more laptop news on GadgetGuy