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Introduction

If desktop graphics hardware can be more than a little confusing, deciphering performance of mobile graphics parts can be (and has historically been) an absolute nightmare. Way back in the day it was at least fairly easy to figure out which desktop chip was hiding in which mobile kit, but both AMD and NVIDIA largely severed ties between mobile and desktop branding. They may not want to readily admit that, and in the case of certain models they still pretty heavily rely on the cachet associated with their desktop hardware, but it's by and large true. So to help you make sense of mobile graphics, we present to you the first in what will hopefully be a regular series of guides.

I started putting guides like this one together back at my alma mater NotebookReview, and they've always been pretty well-received. It's really not hard to understand why: while NVIDIA and AMD are usually pretty forthcoming with the specs of their desktop kit, they've historically been pretty cagey about their notebook graphics hardware. As a result, sites like this one have had to sift through information about different laptops, compare notes with other sites and readers, and eventually compile the data. Forums will light up with questions like "can this laptop play xyz?"

Thankfully, the advent of DirectX 11 drastically simplified my job. Whenever shader models or even entire DirectX versions were bifurcated, complication followed suit, but with DirectX 11 pretty much everybody is on board with the same fundamental feature sets, and AMD and NVIDIA both support their respective technologies across the board. Intel remains the odd man out, as you'll see.

We'll break things down into three categories. The first is integrated graphics, which interestingly has gone entirely on-package and even on-die over the past year. It's surprising how fast that change really occurred. Coupled with NVIDIA's exit from the chipset business, we're strictly looking at Intel and AMD here. The second and third are dedicated to AMD and NVIDIA's mobile lines. Wherever possible we'll also link you to a review that demonstrates the performance of the graphics hardware in question. And note that when we talk about the number of shaders, CUDA cores, or EUs on a given part, that these numbers are ONLY comparable to other parts from the same vendor; 92 of NVIDIA's CUDA cores are not comparable to, say, 160 shaders from an AMD Radeon.

Integrated Graphics

"Too Slow to Play" Class: Intel HD Graphics (Arrandale), Intel Atom IGP, AMD Radeon HD 4250
Specs aren't provided because in this case they aren't really needed: none of these integrated graphics parts are going to be good for much more than the odd game of Unreal Tournament 2004. Intel has had a devil of a time getting their IGP act together prior to the advent of Sandy Bridge, while AMD's Radeon HD 3000/3100/3200/4200/4225/4250 core (yes, it's all basically the same core) is really showing its age. Thankfully, outside of Atom's IGP, all of these are on their way out. As for gaming on Atom, there's always the original StarCraft.

Intel HD 3000 (Sandy Bridge)
12 EUs, Core Clock: Varies
With Sandy Bridge, Intel was able to produce an integrated graphics part able to rival AMD and NVIDIA's budget entries. In fact, in our own testing we found the HD 3000 able to largely keep up with AMD's dedicated Radeon HD 6450 and to a lesser extent the 6470, and NVIDIA's current mobile lineup generally doesn't extend that low (likely excepting the GT 520M and GT 520MX). That said, there are still some caveats to the HD 3000: while Intel's questionable driver quality is largely behind it, you may still experience the odd compatibility issue from time to time (when Sandy Bridge dropped, Fallout 3 had an issue), and more punishing games like Mafia II and Metro 2033 will be largely out of its reach. The clocks on the HD 3000 also vary greatly, with a starting clock of 650MHz for mainstream parts, 500MHz for low voltage parts, and just 350MHz for ultra low voltage parts. Turbo clocks get even weirder, ranging anywhere from 900MHz to 1.3GHz depending on the processor model. Still, it's nice to not have to roll your eyes anymore at the suggestion of doing some casual gaming on Intel's integrated hardware. (Sandy Bridge Review)

AMD Radeon HD 6250/6310 (Brazos)
80 Shaders, 8 TMUs, 4 ROPs, Core Clock: 280MHz (6250), 500MHz (6310)
In Brazos, AMD produced a workable netbook-level processor core and grafted last generation's Radeon HD 5450/5470 core onto it. The result is an integrated graphics processor with a decent amount of horsepower for low-end casual gaming, but in some cases it's going to be hamstrung by the comparatively slow Bobcat processor cores. That's perfectly fine, though, as Brazos is generally a more desirable alternative to Atom + NG-ION netbooks, offering more processor performance and vastly superior battery life. Just don't expect to do any but the most casual gaming on a Brazos-powered netbook. (HP dm1z Review)

AMD Radeon HD 6380G/6480G/6520G/6620G (Llano)
160/240/320/400 (6380G/6480G/6520G/6620G) Shaders, 20/16/12 (6480G/6520G/6620G) TMUs, 8/4 (6620G and 6520G/6480G) ROPs, Core Clock: 400-444MHz
Llano isn't out anywhere near in force yet, but we have a good idea of how the 6620G performs and expect the IGP performance to essentially scale down in such a way that the model numbers are fairly appropriate. The long and short of Llano is that the processor half pales in comparison to Sandy Bridge, but the graphics hardware is monstrous. Gamers on an extreme budget are likely to be well-served by picking up a notebook with one of AMD's A6 or A8 processors in it, with Llano promising near-midrange mobile graphics performance. (Llano Mobile Review)

AMD Radeon HD 6000M Graphics
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  • anotherfakeaccount - Wednesday, July 06, 2011 - link

    If anyone is buying a laptop, the best deal you can get is the HP Dv6t or dv7t. 6770m, 2630qm processor, matte 1080p screen, you can't beat it and it's under 1000 or barely over. Yes there is a graphics switching problem but it should not affect a typical gamer.

    The Dell XPS 17 is comparable but costs more. Other good choices are ASUS G53/G73, and MSI Force 16F2 for those with bigger budgets who do not care if your laptop looks ugly and is bulky.
    Reply
  • anotherfakeaccount - Wednesday, July 06, 2011 - link

    "This, or AMD's Radeon HD 6800M, will be the bare minimum for gaming comfortably at 1080p, but honestly the GTX 560M is liable to be the sweet spot in offering the very best balance in form factor favoring performance before you start getting into the huge, heavy desktop replacement notebooks."

    The GTX 560m can hardly be called portable. A 6850m can be put in a laptop with comparable size. And neither laptop is truly portable.
    Reply
  • Stuka87 - Wednesday, July 06, 2011 - link

    I don't see any mention of the Quadro series of chips? I realize they are somewhat a duplicate of consumer series chips, but they are probably worth a mention. Reply
  • DanNeely - Wednesday, July 06, 2011 - link

    Adding another level of WTF to what's already in the article would cause the servers to explode. Reply
  • Drizzt321 - Wednesday, July 06, 2011 - link

    Heh, yea, I was just asking about that. I have a Lenovo w520 on the way with the 1000m. Reply
  • Arbie - Wednesday, July 06, 2011 - link

    I think you hit the target - pulling together a lot of hard-to-find info and boiling down the choices. This is exactly what I need to even get started on choosing a game-capable laptop / netbook. Thanks. Reply
  • MrTeal - Wednesday, July 06, 2011 - link

    I know that you can't buy these chips yourself, and that OEMs might be able to work out better deals than the list price, but it would be interesting to know what each GPU is listed at in 1000 unit quantities, just to get an idea of the relative cost between them. Reply
  • scook9 - Wednesday, July 06, 2011 - link

    Price is EXTREMELY relevant here. Something that cannot be ignored. Reason being that nvidia prices are out of this world high compared to ATI and that pushes my hand rather often

    I am painfully knowledgeable on notebook hardware (over 10k posts on notebookreview forums under the same username) so I like to think I have some credibility

    When wondering why price matters....just look at the pricing on graphics options for the Alienware M18x (bare in mind these are pricing for 2 cards not 1 but shows the differences)
    -Upgrade from stock to CF 6970m $400
    -Upgrade from stock to SLI GTX 580m $1200

    That is WAY to big of a difference for the spread in performance (5-10% real world?). I know that I have the CF 6970m's (GTX 580m's were not available when I ordered mine so was a very easy choice) with a 2920xm and that laptop screams. And for the gaming laptop haters out there....I get 4.5 hours battery life on the HD 3000 :D
    Reply
  • randomusername3242 - Wednesday, July 06, 2011 - link

    So you're complaining about prices for upgrades when you bought a 2920xm which you probably paid an exorbitantly high price for? I wouldn't be surprised if you paid over 400 to upgrade from a 2630qm for that.

    I think it's idiotic to buy any high end mobile part, GTX 580m or 2920xm.

    There's a sweet spot in price/performance. It's with the 2630qm + GTX 460m (maybe the 2720qm + 560m). Go any higher and you're throwing money, go any lower and you don't get enough performance.

    And I'll bite. I think it's also dumb to buy a gaming laptop because even if you get 4.5 hours battery life, with the specs thay you say you have your laptop is not portable at all. Sure, you might not have a tower and many wires, but you're overpaying for a big and often ugly piece of metal that will not move around. (You really think you can move around 10 lbs?)

    And how much did you pay? You don't get 2920xm + crossifre 6970ms for less than 2000.

    I'll make a distinction between a gaming laptop and a desktop replacement. Gaming laptops are feasible, sometimes affordable, and moderately portable. Desktop replacements are not portable, not affordable, and considerably inferior to a desktop.
    Reply
  • seapeople - Wednesday, July 06, 2011 - link

    Wow, you sound somewhat disillusioned. There are millions of people out there spending significantly more money on things they don't need that don't even give them performance benefits (such as a city-slicker buying an F150 or Cadillac SUV, or Joe Smoe spending $3000/yr just so he can get his daily Starbucks coffee).

    In fact, if you are the type of person who can afford such luxury items, spending an extra $500 so your processor can turbo 20% higher and not slow you down wouldn't even register on your radar as being excessive, and rightfully so.

    Finally, you and so many others are completely wrong on the portability of big laptops. I like to watch movies or tv shows while, say, cooking dinner. Picking up a 10 pound laptop and bringing it to the kitchen with me is not even difficult in the slightest, whereas even the smallest portable desktop would require a 10 minute shutdown, transfer, and setup time.
    Reply

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