Graphics Cards for Laptops: Better Shared or Dedicated?

Laptop Graphics CardsGraphics cards for laptops are the most difficult piece of hardware to choose. Terms like dedicated, discrete, integrated, on-board, graphics cards. And acronyms like GPU get twisted up in confusion.

Workloads like gaming, watching HD content, video editing, 3D modeling and working with heavy-duty graphics related programs require a different solution from simply browsing the web, streaming videos, and even light gaming.

What are the benefits and disadvantages of one option over the other? Why spend money you don’t have to?

As with everything that comes to deciding on the right laptop for you. Your final decision on graphics cards for laptops depends on what you need your laptop to do, and how you’ll use it.

Graphics Cards for Laptops


Graphics Card

A printed circuit board that looks like a card. Also called a Video Card, it generates a feed of output images to a laptop display screen. You’ll often see them marketed as discrete, or dedicated graphics cards, emphasizing their distinction from integrated graphics cards, which have the GPU built into the motherboard.

The images on a laptop screen are made up of millions of tiny dots called Pixels. To turn binary data into an image. The laptop’s Central Processing Unit (CPU) works with software applications to send information about the image through the motherboard-which is a connection for data and power-to the graphics card.

Moreover, the graphics card uses complex calculations to first create a wire frame. Then fill in the remaining area (Rasterizes). And finally, it adds lighting, texture, and color to create the image. Finally, all this information passes through the motherboard to the CPU. The CPU decides what to do with each pixel. The system memory holds information about each pixel, and temporarily stores completed pictures.

The laptop goes through this process several times per second to deliver images to the display. For graphically intense work like fast-paced gaming. The workload would overwhelm the laptop’s system without a graphics card.

 

GPU

GPU

A Graphics Processing Unit uses microprocessors designed to perform the calculations necessary to produce images, animation and video for the laptop screen.

This includes performing 2D, and 3D calculations (a GPU is especially good at rendering 3D graphics). The GPU minimizes burden on the CPU. Freeing up processing cycles for other computational tasks.

FUN FACT: A dedicated GPU is so powerful that it influences overall system performance. Many operating systems and software programs support using the GPU for general-purpose computing. OpenCL and CUDA allow developers to use the GPU to assist the CPU in computations that are not graphics related.

 

Integrated Graphics Card

Integrated GPU

Two things stand out about integrated graphics cards for laptops (or laptops with “on-board graphics”):

  1. the motherboard has the GPU built on it,
  2. and they don’t have their own RAM.

A major advantage for integrated graphics cards for laptops is that they are not as expensive as laptops with dedicated graphics cards. Secondly, laptops with integrated GPUs generate less heat. And have a much longer battery life.

You get sufficient power for using office productivity applications. Manipulating images. Surfing the web. Watching videos and movies (even Blue Ray and 1080p). And 2D gaming on low settings.

The disadvantage of a laptop with an integrated GPU, however, is that it’s not that powerful. And it shares the RAM with the CPU, which diverts memory power away from other functions.

Integrated graphics can use anywhere between one and five percent of the laptop’s available memory to process graphics. This percentage varies depending on the size of the task it’s performing.

Usually, the integrated graphics cards has a percentage of RAM fixed for it. For example, if your laptop has 4GB of RAM. 1GB is reserved for the integrated GPU. But this means that at any given time, you’re only working with 3GB of RAM.

Shared graphics technology is getting better, however. The introduction of the Intel HD Graphics GPU has stepped-up the GPU on integrated graphics cards for laptops.

NOTE: Playing 3D games is not impossible. But you’ll only be working with 9 to 15 frames per second (FPS), which as any gamer knows is pretty much unplayable. You want at least 30 FPS or more for 3D games to avoid a great deal of stuttering and slowdowns.

 

Dedicated Graphics Card

Dedicated GPU

Dedicated and discrete mean the same thing when talking about graphics cards. The name “dedicated” is a reference to the fact that these cards have their own resources for delivering a high quality visual experience.

One of those resources is Memory, called VRAM (Video Memory), which eliminates dependence on the system’s Memory.

The dedicated GPU of these cards function similarly to a CPU. The GPU only uses RAM for processing graphics. Making a discrete GPU much faster than an integrated one. With increased performance and power.

The big advantage of discrete graphics cards for laptops is that if your work involves 3D. Video editing. Visual designing. Serious gaming. Or you run heavy-duty, graphics-related programs. The performance delivers excellent quality of images, and speed with which videos are displayed.

On the other hand, laptops with discrete graphics cards are power hungry. They will quickly eat up your battery life. And, you’ll pay more for laptops with dedicated graphics cards. We’re talking the difference of hundreds of dollars compared to one with an integrated GPU.

Several factors affect the performance of a discrete graphics card: the core clock speed determines the speed at which basic operations are performed. And memory clock speed, which determines how quickly the GPU distributes information.

It’s worth paying attention to how much VRAM the mobile graphics card has when buying a laptop. Although VRAM is not an indication of performance increase. At really-high resolutions, more VRAM will help your laptop produce smoother visual textures. 2GB of GDDR5 VRAM is decent for 1080p display. Consider 4GB and above for high res panels.

 

Hybrid Graphics

This concept involves using two graphics cards on the same laptop. The technology is awesome because it gives the graphics cards for laptops to deliver high performance when you need it. And low-power consumption.

The GPU  is both a dedicated and integrated graphics card. The software switches between both cards depending on how much processing power the running application requires.

For instance, if your just editing spreadsheets. The built-in software switches to the integrated GPU, which will improve the endurance of your laptop’s battery. When you decide to take a break from work and play a graphics-heavy PC game. The GPU powers up and works as a dedicated card for more performance.

Different manufacturers approach this in their own unique way. But the underlying technology is similar, and well supported on Windows. Not so much on other operating systems.

Conclusion

Next up in the series, since most laptops are powered by Intel. We’ll show you how to pick the right one to get the performance you want from your laptop.

We’d love to hear from you. Was there anything you feel we didn’t include when it comes to graphics cards for laptops? Please be sure to let us know in the comment section.

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