Intel Xe DG1 Benchmarked: Battle of the Weakling GPUs

We first heard about Intel’s Xe Graphics ages ago, and even got a preview of the Xe DG1 “Test Vehicle” at CES 2020. As time continues ticking by, what once might have looked like something with the potential to show up as a budget option on our list of the best graphics cards feels increasingly like a part with no real market. Intel looks to be using this as more of a proof of concept than a full-fledged release — a chance to work out the kinks, as it were, before the real deal DG2 launch sometime, presumably later this year or in early 2022. Technically, the DG1 is available, but it can only be purchased with select pre-built PCs. That’s because it lacks certain features and requires special BIOS and firmware support from the motherboard to function. But if you could buy it, or if you think one of these pre-built systems might be worthwhile, how does it perform? That’s what we set out to determine.

Best Buy currently sells precisely one PC that has an Xe DG1 card. The system comes from CyberPowerPC with a passively cooled DG1 model from Asus, and it might be the only pre-built and DG1 model considering what you get. Besides the graphics card, the PC otherwise has reasonable-looking specs, including a Core i5-11400F, a 512GB M.2 SSD, 8GB DDR4-3000 memory, and even a keyboard and mouse. One problem, however, is the use of a single 8GB DIMM from XPG. Another concern is the limited storage space — 512GB is enough for typical SOHO use, perhaps, but it can only hold a few of the larger games in our test suite. We fixed both problems by upgrading the memory and adding a secondary storage device.

The system costs $750, and given the specs, we’d normally be able to build our own similar system for around $575, not including the graphics card. Unfortunately, that means we have about $175 to work with on the GPU. If these were normal times, we’d be looking at GTX 1650 or even GTX 1650 Super cards for that price. Sadly, these are still not normal times, as seen in our GPU price index, which means you’d be lucky to find even a GTX 1050 for that price. And that’s part of what makes the Xe DG1 potentially interesting: Can it compete with some of the modest AMD and Nvidia GPUs, like the RX 560 and GTX 1050? Spoiler: Not at all, at least not in gaming performance. We also encountered quite a few issues along the way, too.

Intel Xe DG1 Specifications and Peculiarities 

The Xe DG1 straddles the line between dedicated graphics and integrated graphics. Take Intel’s mobile Tiger Lake CPU, rip off the Xe Graphics, turn that into a standalone product, and you sort of end up with the DG1. Of course, Intel had to add dedicated VRAM for the card, since it no longer relies on shared system memory. As noted above, it also requires a special motherboard BIOS that supports Intel Iris Xe, which generally limits it to certain B560, B460, H410, B365, or H310C chipset-based motherboards.

The reasons for the motherboard requirement are a bit convoluted. In short, Xe LP, the GPU at the heart of the DG1, was designed first as an integrated graphics solution for Tiger Lake. As such, the VBIOS and firmware get stored in the laptop’s BIOS. The DG1 cards don’t have an EEPROM to store the VBIOS, which necessitates putting that into the motherboard BIOS. Which of course raises the question of why Intel didn’t just put an EEPROM on the DG1, since that should have been possible. Regardless, you can’t buy a standalone DG1 card, and even if you buy a system with the card like we did, you can’t put the card into a different PC and have it work.

Here’s the full rundown of the Xe DG1 specs, with the Nvidia GT 1030 and AMD Vega 8 (AMD’s top integrated graphics) that we’ll be using as our main points of comparison.

GPU Specifications
Graphics Card Xe DG1 GT 1030 GDDR5 GT 1030 DDR4 Ryzen 7 5700G Ryzen 7 4800U
Architecture Xe LP GP108 GP108 Vega 8 Vega 8
Process Technology Intel 10nm Samsung 14N Samsung 14N TSMC N7 TSMC N7
EUs / SMs / CUs 80 3 3 8 8
GPU Cores 640 384 384 512 512
Base Clock (MHz) 900 1227 1152 ? ?
Boost Clock (MHz) 1550 1468 1379 2000 1750
VRAM Speed (Gbps) 4.267 6 2.1 Up to 3.2 Up to 3.2
VRAM (GB) 4 2 2 Shared Shared
VRAM Bus Width 128 64 64 128 128
ROPs 20 16 16 8 8
TMUs 40 24 24 32 32
TFLOPS FP32 (Boost) 1.98 1.13 1.06 2.05 1.79
Bandwidth (GBps) 68.3 48 16.8 51.2 51.2
TDP (watts) 30 30 30 65 (CPU+GPU) 15 (CPU+GPU)

So, there are two different GT 1030 models, and let’s be clear that you don’t want the DDR4 version. It’s terrible, as we’ll see shortly. The GDDR5 model has more than twice the memory bandwidth and shouldn’t cost too much more, but some people might be thinking, “Yeah, we can save $20 and forego the GDDR5.” They’re wrong. Less than half the bandwidth makes a slow card even slower, and Intel can easily surpass at least that level of performance, though it will be a closer match between DG1 and the GT 1030 GDDR5.

At the other end of the Nvidia spectrum, we’ll also include a GTX 1050 to show what a faster card can do. That was nominally a $110 card at launch, though the current GPU shortages mean it now goes for around $175 on eBay (that’s the average price of sold listings for the past couple of months). But that card has 2GB VRAM while the Intel DG1 has 4GB, so we also tossed in the GTX 1050 Ti (originally $139) and GTX 1650 ($149 MSRP) for comparison in our charts. Those have average eBay pricing of $208 and $295, respectively, even though the MSRPs are much lower — and neither one can effectively mine Ethereum these days. It might feel like we’re maybe going too far, as those cards end up in an entirely different league of performance compared to Intel’s DG1, but that was the market when the DG1 was in development.

We don’t just want to look at Nvidia and Intel, though, so we’ve also got AMD’s Vega 8 integrated GPU via two different processors as another comparison point. One comes thanks to the Asus MiniPC with a 15W TDP AMD Ryzen 7 4800U, to which we’ve also added 2x16GB HyperX DDR4-3200 memory and a Kingston KC2500 2TB SSD. The other Vega 8 comes via the desktop Ryzen 7 5700G with a much higher 65W TDP, and we’ve also equipped that system with 32GB of DDR4-3200 memory (CL14, though). The 5700G uses a Zen 3 CPU with eight cores and 16 threads while the mobile chip is a Zen 2 architecture, still with eight cores and 16 threads. We’ve also included an RX 560 4GB card, which has as much VRAM as the DG1 and GTX 1050 Ti.

In the current market where even slow GPUs are sold at premium prices — the GT 1030 is supposed to be a $70 card, but currently sells for $110–$200 — the DG1’s price to performance ratio could be its main selling point. Actually, Intel put some effort into the video encoding and decoding capabilities of the DG1 and seems to be pitching that as another potential use case, but we’re mostly interested in the graphics performance right now. On a related note, the DG1 felt quite laggy at 4K just running the Windows desktop at times (when resizing windows, for example), which isn’t perhaps the primary intended use, but the 4K decoding and encoding prowess might be overshadowed by other factors.

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

In raw specs, of the GPUs we’ve listed above, the DG1 theoretically comes out on top. It has a wider memory bus and more memory bandwidth than the other options, though the Ryzen 7 5700G could spoil the party. It also has more shader cores, coming in with a theoretical 2.0 TFLOPS. But the Intel GPU architectures are less of a known quantity, and drivers are also a concern. Will the DG1 be able to run every game we wanted to test? (Spoiler: Almost.) More importantly, how does it perform while running those games at 720p low and 1080p medium?

Where AMD and Nvidia have Compute Units (CUs) and Streaming Multiprocessors (SMs) that are roughly analogous, Intel’s Xe layout continues to use Execution Units (EU). Each EU has eight ALUs (arithmetic logic units), which is basically what AMD and Nvidia refer to as a GPU “core.” It’s more like a processing pipeline than a core, but regardless, 80 EUs (out of a theoretical 96) and 640 ‘cores’ should do okay, especially with a 30W TDP.

If Intel were to simply scale this up by a factor of 10X, it could potentially create a 300W TDP chip that could do 20 TFLOPS. Rumored plans call for multiple different models of the DG2 GPU, with potentially anywhere from 128 to 512 EUs. Intel has said the architecture for DG2 will also change to include some form of ray tracing support, along with switching to GDDR6 memory, which should provide substantially better performance and features than the DG1. But let’s see where Intel’s DG1 lands before looking to the future DG2 products.

Intel Xe DG1: Asus’s Passively Cooled Card 

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Intel Xe DG1 Benchmarked

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)
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Intel Xe DG1 Benchmarked

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)
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Intel Xe DG1 Benchmarked

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)
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Intel Xe DG1 Benchmarked

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)
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Intel Xe DG1 Benchmarked

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

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