A Comparison and Explanation of Currently Available Graphics Cards

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With the sheer number of GPU’s (Graphics Processing Units) available in today’s notebook PC’s, and recent new releases of graphics cards, it’s difficult to keep track of where each places in the mobile 3D arena. 

The purpose of this article is to show which GPU competes with what. I have listed cards from ATI and Nvidia, the two main competing companies on the market today for notebook graphics cards.  This article has been broken up into 5 parts to address graphics card solutions currently on the market at this point in 2006

  1. Integrated Graphics Cards
  2. Low End
  3. Mainstream/Mid-end
  4. Performance
  5. High-end/Desktop Replacement

The cards are in order, from top to bottom, in the level of performance. Within each part are listed the ATI and nVidia cards that fall under the provided classification, performance equivalencies between ATI and nVidia cards are denoted with an = sign and listed in red, ATI models are on the left, Nvidia on the right (with the exception of the Integrated section.  For example:  ATI Mobility Radeon = Nvidia GeForce Go

Part #1: Integrated Graphics Processors

  • SiS Integrated
  • Intel GMA900 [Graphics Media Accelerator]
  • Intel GMA950
  • ATI Radeon Xpress 200M

Although integrated graphics cards are for basic purposes, it would be useful to include them in this guide to answer any questions vs. dedicated graphics.

Integrated Graphics cards are not what you want to have if you plan on doing 3D-related activities. However, they are of course fine for web browsing, Office applications, watching videos/DVDs, and other basic tasks.

Out of the cards I have listed, the Intel GMA900 is the most common and is frequently found in lower-end mainstream notebooks. It is currently being replaced by the Intel GMA950, which is not that much faster (still useless for 3D) in newer notebooks. The GMA900/950 is only found in Intel processor based notebooks.

Another increasingly common integrated GPU is the ATI Radeon Xpress 200M, avaliable in two versions – one with shared memory (does not have any of its own memory), and one with dedicated, which has its own memory, meaning it doesn’t have to borrow memory from your main system RAM. The ATI X200M is the best integrated graphics card in terms of performance today, much faster than the Intel GMA900/950. It is mainly found in AMD-based notebooks, although it is starting to make its way into the Intel-based notebooks as well. For comparison purposes, the dedicated X200M is about 2/3 as fast as a standard Mobility Radeon X300. The X200M is actually capable of some light 3D, but remember that it is integrated, and you will be very limited when it comes to games – do not buy it if you want to play games.

I am not going to mention much about the SiS chip – that card is by far the worst graphics card in notebooks today. It is rare anyways, which is a good thing.

Two real advantages of integrated GPU’s is that they are:

  1. Very light on power.
  2. Reduce the overall cost of the notebook signifigantly.

But, remember – these cards are not meant for 3D work, so steer clear if you plan on doing that. The only exception I can make is the X200M – it is at the bottom of the barrel for performance compared to any of the dedicated cards I have listed in this comparison, but will still beat any other integrated card handily.

Part #2: Low-end Graphics Cards

ATI X300 = nVidia 6200
ATI X1300 = nVidia 7300


These cards are fine for multimedia purposes, plus light 3D, but don’t expect to play the latest games at anything but lower settings. That is not what they are designed for anyway. If you are a gamer, these cards are not for you. These cards can be found in any number of notebook sizes.

The latter two cards, the X1300/Go7300, are the replacements for the X300/6200.

Part #3: Mainstream/Mid-end Graphics Cards

ATI X600 = nVidia 6400
ATI X1400 = nVidia 7400


A clear step up in performance from the low-end cards, these cards are good enough to play the latest games at medium settings and resolutions give or take, but do not expect blazing performance. These cards are fine for the occasional gamer, but if the prime intent of your notebook is to game, you won’t get spectacular performance out of these.

Mid-end cards do not produce a large amount of heat, and therefore, can be found in smaller notebooks around 13.3-14″ (such as the Sony VAIO SZ and ThinkPad T60). However, they would be more common in a larger 15.4″ notebooks.

The X1400/Go7400 are the replacements for the X600/6400.

Part #4: Performance Graphics Cards

ATI X700 = nVidia 6600
ATI X1600 = nVidia 7600


The Performance cards are designed for 3D gaming on a mobile level; you don’t have to get a huge desktop replacement in order to have one of these cards. They do not produce a huge amount of heat, but don’t exactly run cool. Battery life is balanced. A notebook equipped with one of these cards will see noticeably lower battery life when compared to one that has integrated graphics.

Performance-class cards are great for gamers wanting fast 3D performance in a mobile form factor. These cards are capable of playing the latest games with no problems, at close to or maximum settings and a balanced resolution. Typically, expect to see performance cards in a 15-15.4″ screen size notebook.

The new GeForce Go7600 is replacing the current generation Go6600, and ATI also has the X1600 as a replacement for the current X700.

Part #5: High-end/Desktop Replacement Graphics Cards

ATI X800 = nVidia 6800
ATI X800XT = nVidia 6800 Ultra
? = nVidia 7800
ATI X1800PRO = nVidia 7800GTX


Not found in many notebooks, the high-end cards are at the top of their game, easily playing the latest games at maximum settings. However, all that performance comes at a price. A large amount of heat and considerable power consumption all add up to a notebook that requires a large cooling solution, which in turn leads to a bigger and heavier notebook. High-end cards are most often found in a 17″ screen size form factor notebook.

NOTE: Information about the Mobility Radeon X1800 is minimal; I do not know if there will be a competitor to the Go7800, so therefore I have left that space blank. The X1800PRO has not yet been released.

Other Information

Windows Vista

Many of you out there are interested in upgrading to Microsoft’s next-generation operating system when it is released later this year (expected release date is December 2006). You are probably aware by now that it will have a 3D-based interface, which relies on your graphics card. It is recommended that you have a 64MB DirectX 9 GPU in order to run the “Aero Glass” 3D interface. The Radeon Xpress 200M is the only capable integrated card of running this interface (even the shared memory versions). It is rumored that the GMA950 can also run it, but I am not going to state that because I haven’t seen any evidence yet.  Any of the above dedicated cards [Parts 2-5] can run the Aero Glass interface. But remember, even if you don’t meet the requirements for the Aero Glass, Windows Vista will still be able to run fine, just with the 3D settings scaled lower or off completely.

Video Memory

A very common question when referring to gaming concerns the amount of video memory you need. Today’s games have been requiring 64MB video cards for quite a while.
Basic explanation: Video memory is important because the video card needs a place to store all the information about the 3D environment in a game – if it doesn’t have enough room to store it all, the card will not be able to render a scene as quickly becaues the card will have to keep swapping in and out information to the memory. This becomes especially limiting at higher resolutions.

The minimum I recommend for gaming today is 128MB. Gamers should be comfortable with 128MB cards with most games. However, if you are a hardcore gamer and plan on doing a lot of intensive gaming, especially with higher-end and more modern games, it is best to have a 256MB card. This will also help ‘future-proof’ your notebook for next-generation games, since they will be more complex and advanced, and thus need to store more information. Cards equipped with 256MB of video memory are better able to play at higher resolutions and settings. Gaming at higher resolutions uses more video memory because the 3D environment is much larger, and therefore requires a larger memory space.

There is one more factor that goes along with video memory – the GPU itself. Some GPU’s, although they have a lot of memory [example: 256MB ATI X600] cannot use it all because they are not fast enough to do so.

Cards in the performance class and above can use more than 128MB of memory effectively, but not 256MB. Very few cards can. If you can get a 256MB version of those cards [X700/Go6600 and up], then go for it. It helps for reasons I stated above about video memory. They will be great for gaming.

However, cards in the Mainstream range aren’t even fast enough to use 128MB of memory effectively, so if you are getting one of those cards, it doesn’t matter if they are 128MB or 256MB.

Conclusion:

You probably noticed that I have not included any performance benchmarks with this chart. An article comparing every one of these cards would be pages in length, and locating sufficient benchmarks would be very difficult. Keep in mind that that is not the true purpose of this article, to show how each competing card compares with one another. True, I did list the cards in order of performance from top to bottom, but the prime objective is to provide information on which cards compete with what, and where they place in today’s mobile segment. Expect similar performance with the competing cards.

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