Recommendations and Conclusion

So now that we have the nitty-gritty out of the way, how do we break things down? If you're looking strictly at pure performance, parts from either AMD or NVIDIA are going to be suitable for you (budget notwithstanding.) In the interests of fairness we'll include Intel in the pro and con conversation.

First, Intel has the best dedicated video encoding hardware on the market. AMD and NVIDIA both offer solutions that allow you to harness their shaders to substantially accelerate video encoding, but Intel's Quick Sync is best of breed (behind pure CPU-based encoding), offering a healthy improvement in encoding speed while producing the best output short of doing encoding on the CPU itself. It's worth noting, though, that NVIDIA solutions and AMD ones supporting switchable graphics can take advantage of Quick Sync, so you don't necessarily have to tie yourself down to Intel to benefit from it.

If you take video encoding out of the equation, unfortunately AMD isn't quite as strong in terms of feature offerings, boiling down to arguably slightly better image quality and support for Eyefinity (provided the notebook has a DisplayPort.) They do have a hybrid graphics solution similar to Optimus, but availability is spotty and you'll have to research the notebook model you're looking at to see if their switchable graphics are supported. NVIDIA's Optimus on the other hand is pervasive and mature, and their mobile graphics drivers are more widely supported than AMD's. 3D Vision, CUDA, and PhysX are much more niche, with AMD also offering 3D support and materializing in 3D-ready notebooks. If you have a need for CUDA or a desire for PhysX, your graphics vendor has been decided for you.

Knowing what each vendor offers, now we just have to know what to look for.

The netbook or ultraportable gamer is pretty much stuck with either buying a netbook with AMD's E-350 processor or paying through the nose for an Alienware M11x (spoiler alert: heavier than most "netbooks.") That's not a horrible thing as the E-350 has a capable graphics core, but even though the CPU side is faster than dual-core Atom it's still not quite enough to pick up the slack.

Gamers on an extreme budget used to be more or less screwed, but thankfully that's changed. Notebooks with AMD's A6 or A8 processors are going to be your one-stop shop, offering a tantalizing mix of middle-of-the-road CPU performance with remarkably fast integrated graphics hardware. There's a reason AMD refers to the A6 and A8 graphics hardware as "discrete-class" and for once it's not just marketing jargon. If you want to game for under $600, this is the way to go. In fact, 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. If gaming while on the battery is important to you, then you need to be looking for Llano.

Users looking for a more well-rounded notebook would probably be well served by the aforementioned GeForce GT 540M or Radeon HD 6500M/6600M. These will hang out between about $700 and a grand and notebooks using these chips are going to be fairly mainstream in form factor, so you won't be lugging a land monster around. Be forewarned, though, these GPUs are going to be inadequate for driving games at 1080p and may still struggle at 1600x900.

The serious gamer looking for an affordable machine should be gunning straight for notebooks with NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 560M. 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.

Finally, for those who money is no object to, just about anything from the Radeon HD 6900M series or the GTX 570M or 580M is going to do the trick, and for the truly excessive users, an SLI or Crossfire notebook will yield dividends.

Update: Intel's engineers took umbrage with our suggestion that Intel's integrated graphics driver quality is still poor, and they were right to do so. While older graphics architectures may still be a bit fraught, Sandy Bridge is an overwhelming improvement. This guide has been updated to reflect that fact.

NVIDIA GeForce 500M Graphics
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  • Iketh - Tuesday, July 5, 2011 - link

    GT555M "B" is an option in the Dell XPS line Reply
  • anotherfakeaccount - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    This is true ^^ Reply
  • anotherfakeaccount - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    The Dell XPS 17 ONLY btw Reply
  • zackyy - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    Only on the 17inch brick Reply
  • barmalej - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    there is GT 555M "B" with 128bit bus (Clevo Clevo W150HR), and also GTX 570M uses 192bit memory bus Reply
  • Dustin Sklavos - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    Ack, thank you, fixed it. Reply
  • marc1000 - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    ack?

    network terminology now? lol
    Reply
  • Meaker10 - Thursday, July 7, 2011 - link

    I don't see it fixed. Also the 144 shader part with a 128bit mem bus has 16 Rops rather than 24 and is far more common than the GDDR5 part and have been around in clevo and (more importantly) Acer machines (who are the largest notebook maker after all) for far longer. Reply
  • Althernai - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    Just a word of warning about AMD GPUs in the latest Sandy Bridge laptops: AMD has moved from their manual GPU switching to a muxless, automatic switchable graphics scheme similar to Optimus, except that it doesn't work nearly as well. In particular, OpenGL applications (MineCraft, much of Adobe's content creation suite, etc.) will always run on the integrated GPU, regardless of what the user tries to force them to do.

    They tried to pull this trick without telling anyone and now there is a lot of angry people who got a laptop with a graphics card that refuses to work for their purposes:
    http://h30434.www3.hp.com/t5/Notebook-Display-and-...
    http://en.community.dell.com/support-forums/laptop...
    http://forum.lenovo.com/t5/ThinkPad-Edge/ATI-GPU-d...

    It's really a pity too because the combination of the 6770M and Sandy Bridge with switchable graphics is the best out there if you need a decent CPU, good battery life and a powerful GPU, but the latter only works for DirectX.
    Reply
  • Wolfpup - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - link

    Besides that, they can't use normal drivers on Intel CPUs either.

    I *HATE* all this switchable graphics stuff. As though it weren't a minor miracle this stuff worked at all, we're going to add all sorts of complexity to it?!?
    Reply

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