Apr 062012

Laptops traditionally have not been required to have good 3D graphics performance because they used to be predominantly in the realm of business where it was all dull spreadsheets, e-mail, word processing, and power-point presentations. Other factors were the power requirements, heat output, and physical size of a decent 3D graphics card.

Fear not! Things are much better now. Laptops are replacing desktops for everything these days and it’s not uncommon to find laptops with great 3D gaming performance.

It is important to have an idea of what you’re buying so you don’t end up spending an extra $150 to $400 premium for a good laptop video card if you don’t need it, likewise, if you’re a gamer it’s also important to not get something below your expectations.

Much like laptop processors, the 3D graphics performance of laptop video cards range from “pitiful” to “OMG this is a laptop?!” but unlike main CPU’s you can run into compatibility issues in games depending on the hardware features of the graphics chip.

The categories of a laptop graphics cards:

  • High End – 3D gaming enthusiast and everything else!
  • Mainstream – 3D Gaming in general and everything else, inconsistent FPS in high action scenes but otherwise… not bad.
  • Low End and Integrated Graphics – This one is a mixed bag but an improving mixed bag! Grainy textures, lousy lighting, weird texture flashing, and slow performance are some of the things you can expect from many of the low-end and integrated graphics offerings BUT some of the newest graphics cores are built right onto the same chip as the CPU rather than the motherboard chipset giving a huge boost from unbearable to bearable/decent 3D graphics performance. (eg: Intel HD 3000 found in most Ultrabooks)

Why would anyone want an integrated graphics solution if the performance is so poor? It really only applies to the 3D performance while everything else would most likely be unnoticeable. Some of the benefits of integrated graphics include:

  • Increased battery life
  • Slimmer laptop designs
  • Accelerated HD decoding and encoding
  • Cheaper

Laptop 3D Graphics Hardware

Graphics hardware performance relies on several components of its design to deliver speedy visuals. The main components to look out for are:

  1. Core Clock Speed
  2. Memory Bus Width and Clock Speed
  3. Number of Stream Processors (which is not directly comparable between different architectures such as Nvidia and AMD)

Depending on the target market and price range the manufacturer may offer up a higher clocked core and memory speed but at half the memory bus width which would likely negate the increase in clock speed. Some include its own discrete memory while others may share the system RAM which is much slower.

The general idea is if you are comparing video cards or graphics hardware of the same brand and architecture you can estimate the expected performance based on the above three criteria. One component can’t be considered the most important factor but clock speeds are usually within the ballpark of each other while the biggest differences can be found in the memory bus width (64 bit, 128 bit, 256 bit) and number of stream processors.

You will notice the more expensive and fastest options have higher memory bus and more stream processors.