NVIDIA GeForce 500M: Refreshing the 400Mby Jarred Walton on January 5, 2011 4:00 PM EST
Examining the 2011 Mobile Graphics World
With the launch of Sandy Bridge, we said there was an upheaval in the mobile landscape, and we stand by that. Sandy Bridge is a bigger deal for notebooks and laptops than it is for desktops, for several reasons. First, CPU performance improved substantially more than on the desktop. Second, Intel put a decent amount of work into HD Graphics 3000, and all mobile CPUs are getting the full complement of hardware. Finally, all of the mobile chipsets support integrated graphics, so there's no PM67 getting in the way of Quick Sync. That's the good news.
As impressed as we were by the Sandy Bridge IGP, we do have to take a step back and examine what it is Intel has created. In terms of hardware, HD 3000 looks to match up rather nicely against the GeForce 320M, making it the fastest IGP currently available (at least until we see AMD's next IGP). Compatibility is also far better than with previous Intel graphics solutions...but that's not saying much. We managed to run 24 games through benchmarks in our launch articles, and we still came out with at least six games that had some sort of error. This ranged from flickering polygons to missing textures to downright horrible performance--the last coming in the only OpenGL game we happened to test. The same suite of games ran on AMD and NVIDIA hardware without a single glitch that we noticed.
Intel has also been pretty good about patching their drivers to get games running once they're notified of a problem, at least if it's the press doing the notification. (Mafia II would have joined the "does not run" list if it hadn't been for a late driver update.) However, there should be a whole suite of testers at Intel that are doing nothing other than running every single title released in the past ten years to make sure their drivers work. I suspect that as much as Intel's graphics division has improved since Arrandale, there's still plenty of work yet to be done. NVIDIA has mentioned in the past that they now have more software developers than hardware people, and we know they also have employees who work at game/application developers--as in, NVIDIA pays people who end up working at some other company most of the time. I've seen quite a few "The Way It's Meant to Be Played" titles over the past few years, and plenty of "Get in the Game" offerings from AMD/ATI as well; I have yet to see a single game touting Intel graphics.
So, what I'm getting at is there's a question of compatibility that's still largely unanswered. Are there other titles that we didn't test yet where Intel's IGP still fails? Undoubtedly. What about brand new games launching post-SNB, when all the excitement has died down--will they get updated Intel drivers to make them work properly? I can't answer that question definitively, but I can tell you that the first retail Sandy Bridge laptop I review is going to end up running a selection of games that we don't normally benchmark, purely to see how far the compatibility testing has gone. AMD and NVIDIA have pretty much figured out how much work graphics hardware and drivers requires; Intel's Larrabee 1.0 project may have been canceled more for software/driver issues than anything wrong with the hardware. And there's still the whole topic of DirectX 11, OpenGL, and OpenCL support--one Intel hasn't even touched yet, the second appears iffy, and the third is apparently being internally evaluated.
So today NVIDIA announced their new GeForce 500M parts. Yesterday (with a lot less information coming our way), AMD launched the Radeon 6000M lineup. Both offer plenty of options and good performance, but so far we haven't seen anything from AMD to match Optimus. Their switchable graphics is fine if you have a pure AMD ecosystem (IGP and dGPU), but pair an AMD dGPU with an Intel CPU+IGP and you now have drivers from two different vendors, and they don't generally play well together. You can read the following in every AMD mobile driver update: "The following notebooks are not compatible with this release.... Switchable Graphics enabled notebooks using Intel chipsets." Yes, that's a concern for anyone that wants to play games released during the coming year or two! That means we'd stick with discrete-only AMD GPUs on Intel laptops for the time being.
There are several areas that are important when you're looking at mobile graphics: performance, battery life impact, cost, and drivers. Intel does very well on the battery life and cost areas, but they lag behind on performance and are definitely our last choice when it comes to drivers. AMD's mobile graphics get the performance and drivers aspects right, cost is obviously higher than IGP (at least for their discrete GPUs), but battery life takes a hit. Yes, the hit is smaller now than in the past, but you're still losing mobility. Finally, there's NVIDIA that gets the drivers, performance, and battery life elements, but again cost is higher (similar to AMD's GPUs). If you're in the market for a mainstream laptop or notebook that can last a while, right now NVIDIA has the edge.