Should you splurge on better graphics?

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?
Written by John Morris, Contributor

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.

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