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Laptop graphics cards

Andrzej Pająk

Graphics cards are next to the processor and computer memory the most important element of every notebook. Their job is to render the picture which means presenting the information given by a program in a visual form on a built-in or external display (screen.) For a few years now graphics cards' processors have also been used to calculate large sets of data, or, for example, quickly change the format or resolution of our holiday clips. It is possible thanks to technologies such as NVIDIA CUDA, AMD APP/Stream and Quick Sync Video.

Historically a graphics card was responsible for displaying alphanumeric signs. Later it gained the ability to draw flat geometrical figures (2D), and finally solid figures (3D). We're talking about hardware acceleration of those processes, meaning they are calculated by the graphics processor (GPU) and not the main computer processor (CPU). Today the best graphics cards when paired with appropriate software are able to generate highly detailed, realistic sceneries with things like reflections, shadows, fog, and transparency, all in accordance with the laws of physics, just like in real life.

Unlike desktop computers, modern notebooks have their graphics cards integrated into the motherboard, and we can't change them later. That's why when choosing a laptop we should always consider its graphics card, as it dictates not only how good the games will look, but also how fast video editors and graphics programs like Adobe Photoshop will run on our computer.

Integrated and dedicated graphics cards

We can find two types of graphics cards in laptops: integrated and dedicated.

Integrated cards are the ones that have been placed inside the same die as the CPU. Examples of such cards are the Intel HD Graphics 510 (and higher models introduced after 2015) , Iris Plus GraphicsP555 (and higher), and UHD Graphics 610 (and higher) which we can find in Intel's latest laptop processors. AMD and its Radeon have the R iVega and RX Vega series.

Cards of this type offer relatively good performance with the longest possible battery life. They can easily display two 4K screens, or run less graphics-heavy games.

All laptops come equipped with an integrated graphics cards, but more advanced, hi-end models have a second, more powerful, and completely independent graphics processing unit (see below.) The former are getting better and better each year, but their main purpose is to assure good performance while not draining the battery too quickly. They will do a fine job with displaying movies in 4K, or running older/less graphically demanding games, but that's that. The latest integrated Intel cards - UHD 630, or UHD Graphics G1 - score very low on performance tests.

Dedicated cards offer much better results than integrated ones and serve as their supplements. Users can choose which card is to be used with each app, or let the computer choose the most powerful option for them (at the cost of shorter battery life.)

Most dedicated graphics cards used in notebooks, no matter the brand, come from NVIDIA. We can choose from some simple GeForce GFs (or sometimes GT), or typical for gaming computers models from the GTX and RTX (as of 2019) series. The third option are cards from the NVIDIA Quadro lineup, designed for professional use, like Computer-Aided Design (CAD), CAM, GIS or training deep learning neural networks. AMD also manufactures dedicated graphics cards. Their Radeon RX5xxx series rival NVIDIA's gaming cards.

Hybrid GPUs. In 2018, Radeon RX Vega M GH and GL dedicated graphics cards were introduced. Unlike the previously described dedicated cards, they aren't soldered directly into the motherboard, but sit comfortably integrated with an Intel processor. Looking back, they haven't garnered much attention.

Parameters

There's a whole bunch of parameters that could be used to describe a graphics card, but talking about all of them wouldn't make much sense in the context of laptops, as we're basically limited to what the manufacturers are willing to give us.

But still there are a few parameters worth knowing, so we're able to read the card's specs and understand them. The first one is VRAM. Of course, the more of it we have, the better. Just like with RAM, the important things are its clock speed and which generation it is.

The easiest way of looking at it is to remember the bigger the number in the name, the better and more advanced the card. If we are to choose between cards equipped with GDDR4, GDDR5, 5X, or 6 (Graphics Double Data Rate) VRAM chips, we should always go with the higher number. Same with clock speed. Faster equals better.

Another important thing is the size of the bus - for example 128 bits is way better than 64 bits, as it means more bandwidth. Also, the more computing units we have, the better the performance in games, or GPU software.

Nomenclature and card generations

The naming patterns of dedicated GPUs are not simple to understand. So is determining which generation a given card represents. This is why it may be a good idea to get yourself accustomed with how AMD and NVIDIA name their cards.

NVIDIA cards in a nutshell

  • GF – standard graphics cards.
  • GTX, RTX – gaming cards.
  • GTX 10xx, 16xx, RTX 2xxx – the numbers tell us which generation of the GPU we're getting (from the oldest to the newest.)

Additional terms:

  • Max-Q – a family of cards characterized by their slightly worse performance (around 10%), which can be used to build thinner and quieter gaming computers. For example a GTS 1060 Max-Q card ranks somewhere between the 1050 Ti, and the GTX 1060.
  • SLI – Scalable Link Interface - two cards linked together to form one super-card.
  • Ti – slightly more powerful than without the "Ti" in the name.

AMD cards in a nutshell:

Radeon RX500 series:

  • 2017 – RX 520, RX 530, RX 530X, RX 540, RX 550, RX 560, RX 580
  • 2018 – RX 540X, RX 550X, RX 580X
  • 2019 – RX 560X

Radeon RX600 series:

  • 2019 – RX 610, RX 620, RX 625, RX 630, RX 640

Radeon RX 5000M series:

  • 2019 – RX 5300M, RX 5500M
  • 2020 – RX 5600M, RX 5700M

Note: Even though it's safe to say that the RX5000 perform better than the older cards, the RX640, for example, is slower than the RX580X.