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Laptop Graphics Chips - Component Guide

Do you need discrete or integrated graphics on your next laptop?


by Todd Haselton on August 27, 2009

pp-graphicscardsGraphics chips (aka graphics cards) are responsible for rendering and delivering all image data to your computer’s display. Though integrated graphics chips, which are built onto the system motherboard and share resources with the processor, are most common, some systems have discrete graphics solutions that promise more power.

Discrete vs. Integrated Graphics

Integrated graphics are typically cheaper than discrete graphics, and they also help save on battery life. Historically, integrated graphics processors haven’t been as powerful as discrete standalone GPUs. That’s because the chipset shares the power and memory needed to render graphics with other board-level processes, such as audio and communications. Today, that’s changing a bit, as integrated graphics are becoming more powerful than ever before.

Should you splurge on a notebook with discrete graphics? For most people, the quick answer is probably no. That’s because integrated graphics offer more than enough power to surf the Web, watch movies, and even edit videos. However, if you want extra power for faster video editing and rendering, if you’re a professional photo editor with large TIF files that you need to edit, or if you’re a gamer who wants to play the latest 3D titles, you’ll want to invest in a system with discrete graphics.

For most consumers and business customers, Intel’s top-of-the-line Mobile Graphics Media Accelerator (GMA) 4500MHD integrated graphics chip provides enough juice for rendering high-def videos, playing light games, and even outputting your video to a big screen TV (in some cases).

Choosing a Discrete Graphics Chip

Today, discrete graphics come in a variety of flavors and price points; typically, the more you spend, the more power you’ll get in return (and less battery life). ATI and Nvidia are the top providers of discrete graphics solutions. At the high end of Nvidia’s notebook video card stable is the GeForce GTX 280M, and if you want more power, you can get a notebook that runs two of them at once. ATI’s enthusiast chip is the Mobility Radeon HD 4870, and you can run two of these also.

At the mainstream end, you’ll find the Radeon X1300 and the Nvidia GeForce G210M, which offer a little more video power than integrated graphics for light gaming while using less battery power than high-end chips.

Should I Get Switchable Graphics?

Some notebooks are available with switchable graphics solutions. This means that there are technically two (or more) chips that can be used for graphics processing—one discrete chip and one integrated chip. ATI calls its hybrid technology Hybrid CrossFireX, and Nvidia’s solution is called HybridPower. Both allow a computer to run at a low power setting using only the integrated graphics most of the time, and then it automatically switches to run in conjunction with a high-power GPU when needed (like gaming, or rendering graphics, for example). Nvidia calls this increase in power GeForce Boost.

But do you need switchable graphics? The quick answer is probably not. That’s because if you’re doing high-power tasks like playing games or encoding video, you’re probably around a power socket. Unless you find yourself frequently on public transportation without a place to plug in, you’ll be better off with a single graphics solution.

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