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Intel Corporation's Iris Pro Is History

By Ashraf Eassa – Sep 20, 2016 at 11:35AM

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This chip giant has seemingly halted development of future processors with very high-performance graphics.

Image source: Intel.

In a Sept. 5 column, I argued that microprocessor giant Intel (INTC -4.49%) may have been planning to stop building processors incorporating its high-performance Iris Pro graphics. 

The argument was based on two key pieces of information. The first was the fact that in Intel's own public messaging around its seventh-generation Core processor family, the company explicitly mentioned that products with its lower-performance Iris graphics were coming but made no mention of Iris Pro. The second was a leak from NotebookCheck.net illustrating that Intel had no plans to release a seventh-generation Core processor with Iris Pro graphics. 

Although the lack of a seventh-generation Core processor with Iris Pro may have been a good indication that the chip giant was no longer investing to build such products, a recent leak about Intel's eighth-generation Core processors for high-performance notebooks and desktops, code-named Coffee Lake, seems to show that Iris Pro will be absent for yet another generation.

When a technology that's been around for several product generations appears to be going away for two subsequent product generations, it's reasonable to expect that it won't be coming back. 

Iris Pro's final appearance

Recently, a slide illustrating Intel's laptop processor plans through the second quarter of 2018 began circulating on the internet:

Image source: AnandTech Forums.

For high-performance notebooks, Intel offers its "H Processor" family. Notice that with the Skylake processor family, Intel offered two tiers of quad-core chips. The lower tier included "just" GT2 graphics, but the higher tier included much higher-performance GT4e graphics, branded Iris Pro.

From a product performance perspective, the Skylake processors with GT4e graphics offered significantly better performance in 3D applications -- think video games. From an economic perspective, the GT4e chips featured much larger die sizes, meaning they were significantly more expensive to produce, and also included an Intel-designed cache memory embedded alongside to the main processor on the same package, which adds even more cost.

However, beginning with Kaby Lake and continuing with Coffee Lake, it would appear that only GT2 graphics, which Intel brands "Intel HD Graphics," will be an option.

Vanilla Iris graphics lives on

Although Intel appears to be done with Iris Pro graphics, the road map still indicates that the chipmaker's Iris graphics (non-Pro) will still come to market. In particular, for notebooks that use chips rated at either 15 or 28 watts, Intel is still apparently planning products with GT3e graphics.

GT3e indicates a lower graphics core count than a hypothetical GT4e would have, but it should still offer significantly more graphical horsepower than a GT2 chip does. The "e" in GT3e also indicates that these chips will use the Intel-designed on-package memory, which is useful in trying to keep the graphics processor fed with data.

Why keep Iris but nix Iris Pro?

At the end of the day, Intel seems to view higher tiers of graphics performance as a way to try to drive upsell. In very power- and space-limited systems -- the kinds of systems that are likely to use 15- and 28-watt processors -- it can often be impractical to include a standalone graphics processor.

For the vast majority of personal-computer buyers, standard Intel HD graphics are likely to be enough. However, system vendors are likely to want to advertise a more "premium" graphics solution for their higher-end systems, particularly ones with extremely high-display resolutions. 

With Iris Pro, the value proposition becomes less clear. Iris Pro should enable better graphics performance, but given that the types of systems that can support 45-watt processors are also likely able to support standalone graphics processors, system vendors may believe that simply going with standalone graphics processors in this case is an option that delivers a better experience and, frankly, allows them to charge more, since standalone graphics processors are often perceived to be superior to any form of integrated solution. 

Indeed, my guess is that Intel saw very low interest from the key personal-computer manufacturers for future processors with Iris Pro graphics. I still can't find any laptops with Iris Pro based on the company's Skylake architecture, for example. And the lack of interest probably drove the company to halt development efforts on such chips going forward. 

After all, it simply doesn't make sense to build products for which there is little to no demand. 

Ashraf Eassa owns shares of Intel. The Motley Fool recommends Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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