Intel’s new chip rivals Apple in the AI and graphics stakes

Intel Core Ultra chip announcement

Local AI, increased graphical power, and greater efficiency: that’s what you can expect from the upcoming Intel Core Ultra laptop processor, long known by its codename “Meteor Lake”.

Coming off the back of the 13th generation Raptor Lake processors, Intel Core Ultra represents the biggest architectural change to a consumer laptop chip in the company’s history. Housed entirely on one chip are four discrete tiles: compute, system on a chip (SoC), graphics, and an IO tile.

Notably, the SoC tile contains Intel’s first integrated neural processing unit (NPU), aimed at running AI and machine learning tasks local to your machine. While NPUs aren’t necessarily a new technology, with both iPhone and Android devices employing their own versions over the years, it’ll open up more AI solutions for Windows laptop users – a big market.

Intel Core Ultra is reminiscent of Apple’s transition to its own silicon, seen recently in the M2 chips, housing significant processing power on a portable platform. It also opens up the potential of handling more graphical-intensive tasks – like video editing and gaming – without a separate graphics card.

Meteor Lake architecture
Formerly known as Meteor Lake, Intel Core Ultra promises a lot of big improvements to laptop performance. Source: Intel.

Intel Core Ultra ushering in AI-powered Windows laptops

Although AI has been around for years in various forms, it’s the recent advent of generative AI that’s seen a lot of public attention. Intel recognises that generative AI is only a small part of the overall landscape, but one that many people care about. To that end, the dedicated NPU on the Intel Core Ultra processors yields various possibilities.

“AI will fundamentally transform, reshape and restructure the PC experience – unleashing personal productivity and creativity through the power of the cloud and PC working together,” Pat Gelsinger, Intel CEO, said at the company’s Intel Innovation event. “We are ushering in a new age of the AI PC.”

Some of the examples Intel showcased demonstrating the NPU’s capabilities included powering a local AI desktop assistant, image generation, and smoothing video editing. One of the benefits of having local AI capacity not connected to the cloud is being able to use the technology without fear of leaking sensitive information. Many workplaces have justifiably restricted the use of generative AI technologies such as ChatGPT, because the information submitted further trains the model, meaning there’s a risk of data breaches.

In Intel’s proposed use case, you could tap into the Core Ultra’s dedicated NPU to access local AI features for a more private experience. Whether it be for transcriptions, developing code, or summarising dense workplace documents, it’s potentially a more secure method of using AI technology.

Better integrated graphics and gaming performance

Another big step forward with the upcoming Intel Core Ultra processors is seen in improved graphical performance. Compared to previous-generation chips, the new platform is said to have twice the performance at both a graphical and power consumption level. This could potentially mean future laptops without discrete graphics cards capable of tasks like video editing and gaming that also have long battery lives.

One of the common points of praise regarding Apple’s M-series MacBooks is the all-day battery life, even when working on graphically intensive tasks. With Intel Core Ultra, there are glimpses of similar performance on the horizon for millions of Windows laptops in the future.

From a gaming perspective, Intel Core Ultra leans heavily on the Intel Arc ecosystem, the company’s series of discrete graphics cards and corresponding software. Ultra will use the integrated Xe LPG graphics, capable of ray tracing, and twice the performance-per-watt of the previous-gen Xe LP technology. In other words, it’s said to run at higher clock speeds while using less power.

Arguably the standout update for gamers is that XeSS, Intel’s upscaling technology, works with the Core Ultra, making it a first for the company’s integrated graphics. Like similar AI technologies used by Nvidia and AMD graphics cards, XeSS renders frames at a lower resolution before upscaling them. This enables a boost in overall frame rate while using the same – or reduced – amount of power than without the technology.

In an on-stage demo briefing the Meteor Lake architecture, Intel demonstrated Forza Horizon 5 running smoothly using just the integrated graphics. Another demo showed a side-by-side comparison of Dying Light running at more than 1.6x using XeSS without expending any more power. Also beneficial for 3D modelling in software like Blender, the enhanced graphics tile of Intel Core Ultra ran a 3D Mark ray tracing demo at a stable 60 frames per second.

Meteor Lake features
Source: Intel.

Intel revealed plenty about the architecture of its upcoming processor hardware, but not much beyond that. Intel Core Ultra is scheduled to begin shipping on 14 December, with more details about specific models and specifications to come. This makes it tricky to compare with the likes of AMD’s latest chips, and details will ultimately inform future use cases. Still, there’s plenty of potential, and it’s likely we’ll see Intel Core Ultra laptops on display at tech shows like CES early next year.

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Chris attended the Intel Tech Tour 2023 in Malaysia as a guest of Intel.