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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  • ppeterka - Thursday, July 7, 2011 - link

    For most of the people portability is more than the distance from your couch to your kitchen. Try lugging that 10 pound beast with yourself on the underground, and try to fix up some slides in a PowerPoint, or try to fit it into the hand luggage when flying to a meeting.

    It might be new to you, and I risk ruining your optimistic world, but laptops are work equipment too. For quite some people... And as gaming notebooks are over-over-overpriced and then some, I find them useless unless someone is a traveling game hero... But there is a price in that case, and not only the pricetag, but several other crippling compromises must be made when going that route.

    For the price, you could get a decent Brazos based netbook to lug around, AND a fully fledged SLI/CF desktop. You're much better off with this, as I assume
    * you don't play interactive, 3d intensive games while cooking (which however Brazos would even support to a degree)
    * you won't plan on getting your gaming fix while underway

    Do you disagree with this?
  • rubbahbandman - Friday, July 8, 2011 - link

    I think you'd be surprised how affordable a good "gaming" laptop/desktop replacement is. I picked up the HP dv7-6143cl from Costco for only $875 along with a 2 yr warranty and it has some solid specs.

    2630qm, 8gb ram, 6770m, and you'd think with a 17.3" screen it would be heavy, but it weighs only 7lbs, less than a gallon of milk and that's in spite of the ridiculous 9 cell battery it has. (supposedly it can manage a 9.5 hr battery life).

    The native res is 1600x900 which isn't that special, but it works great for demanding games like Crysis 2. With the dx11 patch and high-res textures pack I can manage a solid 45-60fps, which is perfectly playable, and that pretty much sets the bar for challenging my system, so other than Crysis 2, I can crank up the res to my heart's content.
  • Mediamon - Sunday, July 10, 2011 - link

    Almost had me sold. Costco's HP configurator shows $1200 current price for rig with those same specs. A $325 difference. You must know someone at costco or playing a joke.
  • chinedooo - Monday, July 11, 2011 - link

    i would suggest hp's dv6t6100 straight from their website. $1025 with tax for a i7 2630, 15.6 in 1080p screen, 9 cell battery and hd 6770. this is after getting $450 off with a coupon which is pretty much always available. the thing weighs like 5.5 lbs. It really is a great laptop.
  • scook9 - Thursday, July 7, 2011 - link

    I got the 2920xm because it can overclock (at all) and has considerably better turbo options.

    We know you think it is idiotic, most people do. Because they either a) cant appreciate mobility AND power or b) cant afford it

    I never tried to argue that my M18x was a top value proposition ;) simply that bang for the buck is not there for the GTX 580m's vs the 6970m's

    A 12 pound laptop is about as powerful as a 50 pound desktop. Additionally, it already has the UPS, screen, mouse, keyboard built in (adding to value mind you). If you cannot handle moving a 12 pound laptop, you are just pathetic. End of story. The thing does not have to be a damned frisbee, but it is plenty portable. I have traveled all over the country with high end (large) laptops, it is perfectly doable.

    And as for your remark about being inferior to a desktop, I can share some benches if you still feel that way.

    Here is one, it can play Crysis MAXED out with all settings very high and max AA at 60 FPS on the native resolution. Don't spout off shit you have zero experience with, makes you look like the child you are.

    SO, at the end of your rant the only real complain I can come up with is price - yes I could have spent that $4000 on a desktop but I did not want to. Because I like being able to take my entire system with me wherever I go without having to think twice about it. My desktop is about 65 pounds by itself - THAT is not portable, a laptop (even if it weighs 20 pounds) is always portable.
  • jensend - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    You say "it's even a little difficult to recommend spending up for a notebook with anything less than a GeForce GT 540M or Radeon HD 6500M/6600M/6700M unless you really need the faster CPU on top of it." - but considering the pricing, the power consumption disadvantage, and Llano's strong performance I don't see why you'd go with a discrete AMD chip less powerful than Turks+gddr5. Why would you go for a (equal shader count) 6500M? Sure, there's more memory bandwidth, but you're sacrificing a good bit of wattage for not a heck of a lot of performance.
  • khimera2000 - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    My issue with this artticle is the touting of optimus, but the programe isint even supported that well. My notebook hasent seen a driver upgrade in the last 6 months. AMD might not have the dual graphics out all over, but you can bet that it will be better supported once all the bugs are nocked out.

    as it stands having intel and Nvidia play nice is really starting to chap my ass, and is becoming a fast reason to dump the intel Nvidia headach, and go for a pure amd build (once the drivers are mature enough of course).

    intel based optimus is broken, I wouldent outline the feature so much its missleading.

    agree with the rest though :)
  • RussianSensation - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    It would have been even more helpful if you guys included some benchmarks with the GPUs segregated into Mainstream and Performance category. I have a feeling the 6970M is the "best bang for the buck" on the high-end for mobile GPUs. The fact that 6970M also lives in the slim iMac chassis likely suggest that it also runs a lot cooler and is more energy efficient/has better power consumption than the 570M/580M chips.

    I feel that current stagnation at 40nm process has pretty much leveled GPU progress in both the mobile and desktop space. I foresee a major performance increase, especially on the mobile side in 12 months from now when we begin to see 28nm GPUs enter the marketplace.
  • Imnotrichey - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    I have never owned a laptop, but I have always wondered how will these things do if you have a home base set up at home (external monitor, external keyboard, mouse, etc.) for hardcore gaming but still want the portability of a laptop for work/school use.

    If plugged in, will these things be able to handle playing games on a 24 inch at 1900x1200? I am guessing not the latest graphically intense games (Crysis 2 for example) but what about like TF2, WOW, L4D and slightly older games like those?

    How much would you need to spend to handle gaming on an external monitor of that size? Sorry if this is a noob question, but thats always been my goal with a laptop but have never pulled the trigger. Might have to with grad school coming up soon.
  • randomusername3242 - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    For games such as WoW, TF2, L4D it is definitely possible. 1920 x 1080 at max settings is something a mid-tier mobile card could realistically do.

    For Crysis etc. you *can* make it work but it makes no sense. Like I posted above, you will overpay by $500-$1000 at least and the laptop will not even be portable in the end. It will be as portable as a concrete brick that weighs 10 lbs.

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