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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  • samspqr - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    "First, Intel has the best dedicated video encoding hardware on the market"

    no, it doesn't; it has the fastest one, but quality is very poor, so nobody should use it except for delivering content to a smartphone for watching while commuting

    until they solve those quality issues, it is a worthless feature

    (or maybe they already solved them and I didn't get the news: please report if that is so)
  • Dustin Sklavos - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    In every comparison I've read, Quick Sync produces the best encoded quality short of raw CPU-only encoding. It's my understanding that in order of quality, Intel's encoder is best, followed by AMD's and then NVIDIA's in dead last. Intel's just also happens to be the fastest.

    That said, I work in video on the weekends and as a matter of principle won't do anything but CPU-based encodes, so I could really care either way. ;)
  • mino - Thursday, July 7, 2011 - link

    1) CPU-based encodes are _indifferent_ to CPU used even to CPU ARCHITECtuRE used.

    2) That intel has the best _accelerated_ encode _for_specific_use_cases_ is FAR from "has the best encode".

    Please do some research on terminology next time.
  • Darkstone - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    There is yet another revision of the GT550m. It is identical tot GT 555m "B" except it has an 128-bit memory bus. Confused yet?
    It is only found in the xps 17 3D.
  • Darkstone - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    Remove that "3D" part
  • Darkstone - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    There is more: GT555m with 144 shaders, GDDR3, and 128bit-bus:
    Higher clocked version of above GT 550m... Screenshot from clevo 15" notebook (BTO 15CL35)
  • Dustin Sklavos - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    Ugh, seriously?

    This is insane. I'm impressed. AMD rebadges an entire generation yet NVIDIA somehow still manages to win the "Idiotic Branding" award.
  • silverblue - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    If at first you don't succeed... attempt to confuse your consumers as much as humanly possible. ;)
  • kasakka - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    Whoever is making up these brand names needs to be shot. They're unnecessarily confusing and the whole rebranding old crap thing really needs to stop.

    It would be nice to see some sort of comparison of the current mobile chips to the older ones like the 9400M. I haven't bought a new laptop for several years and have no idea how fast the current chips truly are compared to the older stuff. Probably hard to do because you can't just get the same configuration with different GPUs.
  • Wieland - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    Have you seen this?

    And, for good measure, this:

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