Why Intel’s New Integer Scaling Feature Matters

quake-integer-scale

With Intel’s discrete graphics cards still around a year out and even those being a freshman entry into the market, it feels like nobody is looking at the company as a serious competitor to AMD and Nvidia yet. But this week they announced something shockingly smart coming to the integrated graphics in their upcoming Gen11 CPUs — integer scaling. It probably isn’t gonna be the most widely-used feature, but it’s kind of a big deal for anyone running low-resolution PC games.

I myself didn’t realize how many people had been asking Nvidia and AMD to provide integer scaling or some kind of advanced upscaling solution at the driver level. I don’t know about AMD because I haven’t used an AMD GPU in a while, but Nvidia just has downscaling options. How hard could it be to let players go in the other direction?

If you don’t know what all this is, the news article above goes over how some people might want to run games at 1080p on 4K displays. 4K TVs are getting more common these days and more computers are coming with 4K monitors, but 4K gaming is still a heavy burden for today’s graphics hardware. But when you run most games at resolutions below your display’s native the result is blurry. Smarter scaling solutions can mitigate this. On the console end, devices like the Framemeister or OSSC (and probably this N64 HDMI adapter EON just announced) are dedicated to delivering the cleanest standard definition image on modern HDTVs. What Intel is promising here, and what a surprising number of people have asked AMD and Nvidia to offer, is sort of the same thing but for PC games.

A lot of PC games these days have similar resolution scale settings in their graphics menus for both upscaling and downscaling (the latter means rendering at a higher resolution than your display’s native if your GPU can handle it). The Resident Evil 2 remake, Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare RemasteredGears of War 4, and Overwatch are a few that let you go both ways. Dishonored 2 and the 2016 Doom are a couple that only offer upscaling. But we only have this because of the foresightedness of individual developers — we can’t depend on all of them to start doing it on a game-to-game basis. This is why players want the graphics hardware manufacturers to offer clean upscaling at the hardware and driver level. There’s actually a utility someone sells on Steam specifically to do this.

Playing modern games below 4K on 4K monitors might turn out to be the most popular use of integer scaling, but this also really benefits games with pixel graphics. Pixel art has to be designed for a particular resolution, and a lot of newer games might go for 480p (Hyper Light Drifter) or somewhere close to 240p (Freedom Planet). Shovel Knight uses some retro resolution that doesn’t directly scale up to 1080p, so playing it at 1080p distorts the image a bit.

Another good use of integer scaling though — what I’ve been really concerned about, is running old school games at their original resolutions without changing my display’s output resolution. The textures and other art assets of games from prior to maybe the mid 00’s simply weren’t meant to be seen in crisp 4K or 1080p. When I play classics these days I try to get as close as I can to how they looked in the 90’s or whenever they came out, and that includes resolution.

DOSBOX pretty much already knows how to upscale pretty well, and I’ve used it to get a nice retro image in games like Ultima Underworld and Star Wars Dark Forces. A few source ports of old games like Quake (Quakespasm) and Doom (ZDoom) have their own internal upscaling methods. But it’s the same problem the newer games have — developers currently have to implement upscaling on a game-to-game basis.

I really hope Intel’s initiative for system-wide is at least successful enough to push AMD and Nvidia to follow suit, making integer scaling another priority optimization feature.

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