Should you splurge on better graphics?

Should you splurge on better graphics?

Summary: AMD and Nvidia have spent years trying to convince users to upgrade to better graphics. Yet most still choose laptops with basic integrated graphics. Is it worth spending a little extra for a better GPU?

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The companies that design and sell more powerful graphics processors--namely, AMD and Nvidia--have spent years trying to convince users to upgrade to better graphics. Yet the majority of consumers still choose laptops and desktops with Intel's more basic integrated graphics.

There are several reasons for this. Intel's graphics have slowly improved and meet the basic needs of many users. PCs with discrete graphics cost more, and in the case of laptops, they have shorter battery life. Because of the additional power and heat dissipated by GPUs, they also tend to be available mostly in larger laptops, though there are plenty of exceptions such as Apple's 13-inch MacBook Pro (which just got an update), the Asus U30Jc and Dell's Alienware M11x.

But GPUs are useful for more than 3D gaming, and a growing number of consumer applications from Adobe's Flash Player 10.1 to Cyberlink's PowerDirector 8 are leveraging the GPU to boost performance. There's no doubt that discrete GPUs offer better performance. It's just a question of how much, and whether that outweighs the drawbacks in terms of cost and battery life.

For the past few weeks, I've been testing two mainstream laptops--one with Intel graphics and the other using AMD's latest mobile graphics. These aren't identical systems, but they're pretty close, and they do compete directly with one another. Both have 15.6-inch displays (1366x768), 4GB of memory, a 500GB hard drive and the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium. The difference is the graphics, and to a lesser degree the processor.

The HP Pavilion dv6-2155dx, which is available at Best Buy for $700, has the 2.13GHz Core i3 330M and Intel's graphics (now included in the processor package). The Acer Aspire 5740G, which costs about $50 more, has a faster CPU (2.26GHz Core i5 430M) and AMD's ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5650 graphics with 1GB of graphics memory. Note that the Pavilion dv6 is also available with discrete graphics--either the ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4000 series with AMD processors or the Nvidia GeForce GT 320M with Intel processors.

The Radeon 5650 is part of the 5000 series mobile GPUs announced earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show. These are high-end graphics processors that support features such as DirectX 11 games, dual 1080p decoding of Blu-ray video and HD streams, and ATI Eyefinity multi-display technology. Asus, Dell and HP also offer some laptops with Mobility Radeon 5000 series GPUs. Nvidia recently released its first DirectX 11 desktop GPUs, the GeForce GTX 470 and GTX 480, but it won't have mobile versions until later in 2010. The company's top-of-the-line GeForce 300M series and GeForce 200M series--both DirectX 10.1 GPUs with the same basic design--are available on laptops from Alienware, Apple, Asus, MSI and Sony.

Obviously a laptop with a discrete GPU will deliver a far better gaming experience. There are many enthusiast sites that publish results of 3D benchmarks and frame rates on popular games. If you're interested in mobile gaming performance, check out some of the reviews of the Asus G73Jh, one of the first laptops to use AMD's top-of-the-line ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5870.

I'm more interested in whether it's worth having a discrete GPU in a laptop for broader consumer applications. My tests included tasks such as manipulating large Excel spreadsheets, converting lengthy Word documents to PDFs, batch-editing images in Adobe Photoshop and saving them for the Web, creating panoramic images, transcoding audio files in iTunes, and editing and encoding HD video with Cyberlink's PowerDirector 8, and transcoding video for mobile devices using Roxio Creator 2010. I also ran FutureMark's PCMark Vantage benchmark on both laptops.

The Aspire 5740G was faster across the board. On Excel tests, such as Monte Carlo simulations and large Pivot Tables, it was 9 to 15 percent faster than the Pavilion dv6. On Photoshop CS4 tests, the Aspire 5740G was 12 to 14 percent faster. The Pavilion dv6 took 5 minutes 25 seconds to convert 37 high-quality WMAs to iTunes' AAC format; the Aspire 5740G completed the same task in 4 minutes 45 seconds. The Acer was 11 percent faster on the Power Director 8 video editing test, and using Roxio Creator 2010 it converted an episode of 30 Rock to an iPhone-friendly format in 9 minutes 24 seconds compared to nearly 11 minutes for the Pavilion dv6. It's PCMark Vantage score was 13 percent better as well.

Of course, the Aspire 5740G also has a faster processor and this no doubt contributed to the better results. Both the Core i3 and the Core i5 are dual-core chips (with two processing threads per core) and the frequencies aren't that different, but the Core i5 also supports Turbo Boost, which gives it a leg up on single-threaded applications. Most of my tests involved multi-threaded applications, though, and some used apps that specifically leverage the GPU's processing power, so the Radeon 5650 graphics also help out here.

Interestingly there wasn't much difference in battery life between the two laptops--at least not on my test playing a DVD movie at full brightness with the WiFi enabled. The Pavilion dv6 only lasted 7 minutes longer than the Aspire 5740G, which gave up after 1 hour 53 minutes. The Aspire 5740G uses AMD's ATI Switchable Graphics--it switches between the discrete GPU when plugged-in and the integrated graphics on battery--but when I set it to maximum performance in both modes, or even disabled switchable graphics altogether, the results were exactly the same. A test that really pushed the discrete graphics (3D gaming, for example) would probably produce a different result, but a laptop with integrated graphics such as the Pavilion dv6-2155dx isn't really suitable for 3D gaming anyway, so it's a moot point. The bottom line: neither score is very good, but these 15.6-inch laptops aren't really made for the road anyway.

Even if you are not into games, it's worth spending a little extra for a laptop that has discrete graphics, in particular if you want a notebook with a 15-inch or larger display (which is a big slice of the market). If you want something more portable with longer battery life, look for a system with switchable graphics. AMD's solution has been around for a while, but Nvidia recently introduced a more sophisticated version, which it calls Optimus, that automatically shifts between integrated and discrete graphics based on the application in use. AMD says it is working on something similar. And Apple has its own implementation in the new 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros, which it claims deliver 8-9 hours of battery life. Clearly most laptop buyers feel they can get by just fine with integrated graphics, but with a growing list of consumer applications tapping into the power of the GPU, I think it's worthwhile upgrade.

Topics: Laptops, Hardware, Processors

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46 comments
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  • thoughts

    "Intel?s graphics have slowly improved and meet
    the basic needs of many users."

    If, by "improve" you mean "move at a glacial
    pace" and by "meet the basic needs of many
    users" you mean "you don't need a GPU to use a
    word processor or access the internet."

    I suppose more apps are using hardware
    acceleration - Vista and 7 have use it for
    rendering windows, and IE9 (and Firefox)
    announced hardware accelerated support. Many
    video codecs use hardware acceleration as well.

    But - if you really want to push a GPU to its
    limits, you're basically talking about games.
    Intel basically flops there. They still pretend
    that hardware T&L is an optional feature, even
    though it has been standard on other video
    cards for years. Even the lowest end nVidia and
    ATI cards support it - I don't really see why
    Intel can't do it on their lineup.

    Even if it doesn't support the high end games,
    hardware T&L would open up the door to a lot of
    games that a lot of people play, like World of
    Warcraft.

    World of Warcraft isn't really a game that
    pushes systems to their limits - it's an old
    game using old graphics. Yet it barely runs on
    my netbook, even in the "old world" parts of
    the game that were designed when the game first
    came out, which should be pretty easy on any
    GPU.

    But it still has issues there - it's barely
    playable at all. I dare say that if there was
    some basic hardware T&L support, it could be a
    playable game on a netbook.

    So - yeah, splurge a little to get basic
    discrete graphics. Even if you're not pushing
    for a full gaming platform, you're probably
    gonna be a lot better off.
    CobraA1
    • I agree

      It's one of the reasons I gave up my netbook. Integrated Intel couldn't render anything to save its life.

      Stuffing a NVIDIA ION or Tegra chip into everything now wouldn't hurt.
      The one and only, Cylon Centurion
  • RE: Should you splurge on better graphics?

    Good article.
    It mirrors what I recently changed too.

    I have a Dell XPS with the 1g video and sorely missed some of the nicer graphic features on my travel notebook with intergrated graphics only (Lenovo).

    I went and purchased an ASUS UL30vt with the switchable graphics.

    It works extremely well and does not measurably subtract from the notebooks long battery life (10+ hours).

    I agree - if you can opt for the better graphics, even if it is the switchable graphics, do so.

    .
    rhonin
  • The answer is, no.

    Yes, under extreme loads (as the author suggested) there may be a slight performance difference but in day to day use, put the money somewhere else.
    No_Ax_to_Grind
    • The answer is YES!!!

      Ax, gees guy, you usually don't miss too bad on hardware issues. You really are asleep at the wheel on this one.

      Discreet graphics will lead to a 100% better computing experience in each and every little thing you do on a computer. Period.

      And in this case, it showed that no extra money was spent either. The $50 difference was easily caught up in the processor upgrade.

      Spending money on Discreet graphics is some of the best money you'll ever spend.
      Narg
      • The answer, like so many things, is MAYBE

        You, the author and most of the commenters here basically have it right, that there are generally more upsides than downsides when it comes to discreet graphics for most PCs. Especially considering lower end cards don't cost a great deal, and mid range value models allow for most gaming (high end exceptions applying).

        Still, there's no denying that many people use their pooters for little more than surfing the net, email and word processing. Ditto for many office workers who aren't polyphasic with their tasks. For that rather sizable crowd, discreet graphics is generally overkill. Onboard video, along with networking + sound, will often suffice. Packaging it as an AIO allows for an attractive deal for the budget minded.

        However for multi-tasking, video crunching, and processor intensive apps, and gaming, overclocking, and power users in general - fouggettaboutit. The small pittance spent to scale things upwards will reap tangible rewards.
        klumper
    • RAM should come first! (nt)

      .
      M Wagner
  • RE: Should you splurge on better graphics?

    I think that some of the aspects that a lot of people ignore is the UI. How long does it take me to switch from one app to another? How long does it take for the Start menu to pop up? I know that I was noticing significant differences all the way back to Win95 and the old Number9 video cards (back when 4MB was all you'd get on video cards and there was no such thing as a wide screen monitor). For a while it became irrelevant, but with Windows Vista and Win7, it's very relevant again. There's a huge difference between built-in video and since most people are multi-tasking and have dozens of apps open at a time and better video can provide a 2-5% boost in employee productivity. When you consider that most people are getting ~50k/year (median income), that's a savings of $1-2k per year, you give someone a laptop for 3 years at a time, even a 1% boost in productivity would save you money on all but the most expensive laptops.
    solinear
  • RE: Should you splurge on better graphics?

    Laptops have always been something of a pointless
    purchase to me and I see no reason in the world to
    spend even more money on a dedicated GPU in one. The
    entire thing is more or less guaranteed to be showing
    it's age in 3 years and obsolete in just a few more if
    you're lucky. That is not a long enough lifespan for a
    unit, particularly not one that you invest the money
    for a dedicated GPU in.

    By and large most laptop users aren't going to need 3D
    rendering or multiple pipes for playing Flash games,
    surfing the web, or watching media. If you're gaming
    on a laptop then you bought the wrong machine, even if
    it is Alienware, because it is a static machine and
    graphics and specs are constantly upgrading. If you
    can't pop the side panel and swap out the GPU then you
    shouldn't be playing games on it.
    Str0b0
  • Second use principle - GPU as extra core(s)

    Given that nVidia in particular has pushed API's for re-using the GPU for computation-intensive purposes (i.e. not for graphics), I would think the rather modest investment in a GPU could have multiple benefits down the road, as more and more software gets better at multi-core operation.
    paul_wagner
  • Yes, but .....

    It's possible to buy decent video cards very cheaply. I have bought a number of ATI Radeon 36xx and 43xx cards, 512MB and 1GB, with triple outputs (DVI, HDMI, VGA) and HDCP, for under $20 from Newegg (that price is after $5 to $20 rebates).

    At those prices (even at the before rebate prices), it's a good investment to add a discreet video card, even though the actual video card may not be much more powerful than the chipset integrated video. Mind you, I'm not talking about gamers .... these cards are not good enough for them; I'm talking about your typical Web/Office application user.

    Why?

    Because while these cards are only somewhat better than chipset integrated video, they have onboard dedicated video memory. With chipset video, the bus and memory bandwidth get "eaten alive" by the integrated (SHARED MEMORY) video system. This KILLS performance. Not video performance, but overall computing performance. Adding a relatively inexpensive (under $50) dedicated video card with dedicated video memory resolves this and makes a tremendous improvement in the overall speed of the system. Not the graphics speed, necessarily, but the general, overall responsiveness of the entire system for everything.
    Watzman9
    • This assumes that the $50 you've spent ...

      ... on "video memory" could not be spent on more main memory. For $50, I could by 2 more GB of RAM of a 2GB system or I could buy a 512MB video card. Until I am up over 3GB of RAM (4GB for an x64 system), the main memory is a better buy.
      M Wagner
      • Not that simple

        Integrated graphics solutions are less costly to implement than dedicated ones, but are also less capable. In the end it's mostly a cost versus performance requirement issue. Since video memory needs to be accessed by the GPU and the display circuitry, discreet cards utilize special high-speed multi-port memory. Their bandwidth can run at better and more effective clock speeds, and this difference will scale further upwards depending on the model.

        Specifically, ordinary system memory is not as fast as the specialized memory used on stand-alone cards dedicated for the frame buffer, a memory cache between the processor and the display monitor, which impacts stored textures and features like anti-aliasing, post-processing, and normal mapping.

        The GPU being extremely memory intensive, integrated solutions also compete for the already relatively slow system RAM with the CPU. Having to share memory with the system, they also have to share the same memory controller as the processor. The end result is is slower overall system performance. Cycles and bandwidth matter, which becomes more evident the harder the rig is pushed.

        Another downside of integrated solutions is that, being built into a main circuitry board of the computer, there is no way to change it or upgrade it. Therefore what you see is what you get. If either that chip or the mainboard fail, both components must be replaced, even if only one has failed. A somewhat peripheral issue, nonetheless it does impact some.
        klumper
    • Also matters how much you push things

      But that being a given, if you can afford it, do it! Basic bottom line.

      The same time honored principle holds true for RAM, CPU, HDD and PSU to boot. You scrimp and you may lose. A single bottleneck can end up being the weak link and achilles heel of an entire system when it comes to potential versus realized performance.

      Shades of an overclocking novice who buys all the right mix and match components, then inexplicably skimps on some economy line mobo as a money saving corner-cut. Big mistake commonly made.
      klumper
  • High Performance Laptop Video Is Essential!

    Years ago, I had both a desktop and a laptop. I soon realized that maintaining multiple systems was a waste of time and switched to a "Desktop Replacement" class laptop and docking station. Since then, I've bought laptops with dedicated NVIDIA video cards.

    Video has become an increasingly important business tool. 3D Graphics and Virtual Environments like Second Life, Blue Mars, etc. which are being used for collaboration, training & prototyping, require a dedicated video card with plenty of RAM.

    My current HP laptop has 4G or RAM and a 1G NVIDIA graphics card. I wouldn't recommend anything less than a 512M video card for serious business use.
    John Westra
    • Debatable ...

      In 2000, I had to decide whether to buy a $3000 laptop (as a desktop replacement) or a $1500 desktop and a desk to put it on. That was an easy choice to make. Today, a fast Core i7 desktop w.monitor can be had for under $900 and a low-end laptop for $500. A Core i7 laptop would cost upwards of $3000.

      The worst thing about a laptop is there is usually not a second hard drive for scheduled backups. If you don't scehdule your backups, they never get made.

      For me, the best reason for a sepaprte video cost is for dual-screen use.
      M Wagner
  • not on a laptop, no

    I build my own PC with discrete video and usually buy a high-end (for that month)card. I don't hesistate to swap out the video card if it becomes obsolete.
    Laptops are for convenience - not performance.
    pikeman666
  • RE: Should you splurge on better graphics?

    Agreed. I just bought a new laptop for my daughter, and the upgraded graphics was a requirement. I wouldn't buy a laptop without it.

    T4300
    DVD Super Multi
    4GB RAM
    NVIDIA GeForce GT 220M w/1GB DDR2 VRAM

    Otherwise, the graphics are limited, and also sluggish.
    bb_apptix
  • higher resolution

    I really want higher resolution. The better graphics card gets me that. So I would spend more on a card that offers both better performance and higher resolution.
    Al_nyc
  • Why dont they make upgradable laptop graphics cards

    Why dont the laptop makes make an upgradable graphics card that inserts like ram on laptops. then like a home computer as your needs change you can go out by a nice new faster card pop it in and go? Really all laptp cards or GPUs are integrated to the motherboard you cant remove, swap or upgrade them. Your stuck with what is avaliable. I bought my first Sony Vaio and its the worse laptop I have ever owned Ill go back to HP. My graphics suck on it and battery liofe at best is about 30 minutes in power saver mode for this 17 inch VGN-AR350E
    Fletchguy