Notebook Video Graphics Card Guide

by Reads (747,312)

(See the updated Notebook Video Graphics Card Guide 2006 by clicking here)

INTRODUCTION

I can say with absolute certainty that if there’s one subject that’s resulted in an obscene amount of confusion for notebook buyers, graphics are it. I remember the halcyon days of the desktop market where your options were ATI’s Radeon 9200, 9600, 9800 or nVidia’s GeForce FX 5200, 5600, or 5900. Unfortunately, those days are long gone, and worse, the confusion has spread alarmingly to the notebook sector.

ATI kicked off the true battle for notebook graphics when it released the revolutionary Mobility Radeon 9600, a chip which was able to provide desktop quality gaming performance in a notebook.

The fundamental problem with notebook graphics, though, is that it’s virtually impossible to compare mobile GPUs against each other like you can with desktop cards. While a Radeon X800XL from five different distributors will produce roughly the same performance, notebook GPUs operate within a range of clock speeds, and the Mobility Radeon 9600 in one notebook will be running at different speeds than the Mobility Radeon 9600 in the other.

If that isn’t bad enough, you have to take into account memory size, bus speed, and all kinds of other factores that quite frankly is going to make your head spin.

Because it’s hard to produce genuinely comparable benchmarks for notebook GPUs (though we seem to keep trying), I’m not going to give you 3DMark scores or anything comparable. What I will tell you is the approximate level of performance you can expect from a given GPU (Graphics Processing Unit). While desktop users are interested in exactly what they’re going to get, most notebook users seem to just want to make sure their favorite games will run well. That’s what I’m after here.

I’ll also give you a general assessment of each chip’s performance, availability, and whatever other details may be of merit.

Later in the article, when I get to dissecting the individual GPUs, I’ll divide them into four categories: Integrated, Low End, Mainstream, and High End. I suspect many of you will find some of my choices questionable, but it’s important to understand that the current desktop mainstream offers an ungodly amount of performance, and those mobile chips produce nearly equally stellar performance uncommon in a notebook. For that reason, some chips that you may think should be in the mainstream section are going to be in the high end.

INTEGRATED VS. DEDICATED GRAPHICS CARDS

There’s a very important primary distinction to make between GPUs: integrated and dedicated.

An integrated GPU is built into the motherboard. As a result, it will not have its own memory (excepting the Radeon Xpress 200M) and its performance is generally severely crippled. The chip itself will be short several features in order to properly fit into the northbridge of the motherboard, and it will have to borrow memory from the system RAM. This leeches some memory bandwidth from the system itself and can be a very minor detriment to overall system performance.

The flipside is that integrated GPUs run very cool and can substantially improve battery life. If you’re not going to really be gaming on your notebook, these are usually preferable.

A dedicated GPU is separate from the motherboard and generally has its own memory (excepting odd variants that can share system memory – see the HyperMemory and TurboCache section below for details). These frequently offer superior gaming performance but at the cost of battery life.

HYPERMEMORY AND TURBOCACHE

With the advent of PCI Express, ATI and nVidia have developed technologies that allow the use of system memory as a buffer for graphics data, basically extending the memory of the dedicated GPU itself into system memory. The nice thing is that this can offer a healthy and very inexpensive performance boost for chips that would otherwise be painfully crippled.

The problem is that system memory is almost always slower than dedicated GPU memory, so it’s no substitute for having dedicated memory.

Worse still, low-end parts that use this technology are frequently marketed in a misleading fashion. For example, newer Sony S-series notebooks use GeForce Go 6200s that list as having 128MB of video memory when in fact they only have 32; that 96 is shared. Likewise, there’s been a lot of confusion regarding the amount of actual memory on the ATI X300s used in Dell notebooks.

It’s my understanding that the major culprits of this are the GeForce Go 6200, 6400, and the X300. But while the X300 may be marketed as having HyperMemory, the GeForce Go parts tend to gloss over their use of TurboCache.

One great thing about HyperMemory over TurboCache is that it’s almost entirely software, so most ATI cards, with some tweaking, can use it, though the performance improvement is largely minor.

CAPSULE INFORMATION

For most of the GPUs in this review, I’m going to list three key statistics. I’ll explain those now.

DirectX Level:

This basically represents the level of graphical features the chip can render in hardware. The lowest level represented in notebooks is DirectX 7, while the highest is 9c. Most games being produced right now will run on a 7-class or greater card, but have features designed specifically for 9-class cards.

Pipelines:

The number of pixel pipelines (shaders) a given GPU has. What these do is generally esoteric; they essentially refer to the number of pixels that can be shaded per cycle in the chip. More is generally better, but the bare minimum is considered to be 4.

Memory Configurations (size / bus width):

GPUs don’t come with a set amount of memory; some vendors will choose to use versions with more memory, some use versions with less. Essentially the GPU has its own RAM to work with and as always, the more the better. Bus width refers to how wide the bandwidth between the RAM and the GPU is. A bigger bus width allows more data from the RAM to be transferred at once. Bus width comes in 64-bit, 128-bit, and 256-bit, and generally 128-bit is the minimum you want. RAM usually comes in 32MB, 64MB, 128MB, and 256MB, and 64MB is the minimum for decent graphics performance.

NEED VS. WANT

The big question for me when I was notebook shopping was – how much performance did I actually need? If money is no object, then by all means, go for the nVidia GeForce Go 6800. But if it IS an issue – and for most of us it is – you’re going to want to look more at the bare minimum. The GPU that won’t run your games with antialiasing and anisotropic filtering turned on, but will run them comfortably.

Because notebook GPUs are by and large not upgradeable, once you pick a notebook, you’re pretty much stuck with the GPU in it. Looking towards the future, my bare minimum was that my GPU had to run Doom 3. It didn’t matter if it ran it at the lowest settings possible so long as it ran. I use Doom 3 as a measuring stick because it is currently one of the most demanding games on the market and is absolutely unforgiving to graphics hardware.

Some games like Half-Life 2 tend to be very flexible with your hardware, but Doom 3 is just punishing (and even more punishing on ATI hardware). Because of this, my yardstick for the bare minimum for the future is going to be the Mobility Radeon 9600 or GeForce FX Go 5700. Certain low end chips like the Go 6200/6400 or the X300 might do the job, but don’t count on it.

Bottom line, if your GPU can run Doom 3 playably and semi-comfortably, you’re going to be at least semi future-proof.

If you ARE a semi-serious gamer, remove the integrated parts from your consideration immediately. As of yet, none of them can play Doom 3 properly, which means their performance will be unimpressive in modern, more graphics-intensive games.

GRAPHICS CARD CLASSES AND INDIVIDUAL CARD BREAKDOWN

Integrated

Integrated cards include Intel Extreme Graphics, Intel Extreme Graphics 2, ATI 320M/340M IGP, S3 or SiS chips –  If you’re not planning on doing any gaming, or not doing any gaming beyond Quake 3, these types of cards will be satisfactory. However, if you do plan on gaming, avoid integrated cards at all costs. For what it’s worth, I had a dedicated S3 chip with 16MB of video RAM in an old notebook that struggled with Unreal Tournament. 1999.

Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 900/950:

  • DirectX Level: DirectX 9
  • Pipelines: 4 Pipelines
  • Memory Configurations: 128-bit bus, uses memory shared with system

These get about as far as Unreal Tournament 2004, but the performance is still miserable and worse, while ATI’s integrated parts will actually run pretty much any game out there (playability is another story entirely), Intel actually needs a compatibility list, as the GMA 900/950 won’t properly run some games. Even though the GMA 900/950 also has more pipelines than the other IGP parts, it lacks some crucial modern features that chips like the X200M have, which explains its inferior performance to that part.

ATI Mobility Radeon 9000/9100 IGP:

  • DirectX Level: DirectX 8.1
  • Pipelines: 2 Pipelines
  • Memory Configurations: 128-bits, shared with system

Not completely miserable but not stellar, either. These usually are only found on Pentium 4 notebooks, and if they’re only found on Pentium 4 notebooks, chances are you won’t ever be using them anyhow. ;) For the curious, though, Unreal Tournament 2004 and Half-Life 2 on low settings will be about as far as you’ll go.

ATI Radeon Xpress 200M:

  • DirectX Level: DirectX 9
  • Pipelines: 2 Pipelines
  • Memory Configurations: Width varies; 16MB, 32MB, and 128MB

Now we’re talking. This is alternately the good stuff and the most confusing stuff. As far as IGPs go this is the best you can get. Some versions of this actually come with 128MB of dedicated memory, which is weird, because it’s an IGP. The smaller versions of these actually use HyperMemory coupled with a small dedicated buffer (the 16MB and 32MB parts), while the large one (128MB) uses HyperMemory to boost its addressable RAM to a very impressive 256MB, even though the core itself can’t really use more than 128MB. Compatibility of this part is flawless and it’ll play most games available barring the super intense ones, even if at very low resolutions. The 128MB version is, of course, the most desirable one.

Low End Dedicated Cards

Low end dedicated cards include the ATI Mobility Radeon, ATI Mobility Radeon 7500, ATI Mobility Radeon 9000, ATI Mobility Radeon 9200, nVidia GeForce 4 Go Series, nVidia GeForce FX Go 5200 –  These parts have actually been virtually eclipsed performance-wise by modern IGP parts. The GMA 900/950 and the Radeon Xpress 200M can offer comparable performance to these older dedicated parts.

ATI Mobility Radeon X300:

  • DirectX Level: DirectX 9
  • Pipelines: 4 Pipelines
  • Memory Configurations: 64-bit/128-bit; 32MB (w/ HyperMemory), 64MB, 128MB

Dell has this nasty habit of demanding Dell-specific GPUs from ATI, and this is no exception. Dell’s will have different X300s than the norm. The X300 is a curiosity in that the Radeon Xpress 200M is a stripped down version of it, while the X300 is itself a stripped down version of the X600. These generally provide the best performance in the low-end (barring the GeForce Go 6400), and the 128MB versions achieve performance comparable to a Mobility Radeon 9600. The HyperMemory version won’t hit Doom 3, but will be acceptable performance-wise for most older games.

nVidia GeForce Go 6200 and 6400:

  • DirectX Level: DirectX 9c
  • Pipelines: 4 Pipelines
  • Memory Configurations: 64-bit width; 32MB (128MB after TurboCache) / 64MB (256MB after TurboCache)

These almost exclusively use TurboCache; I lumped them together because the 6400 is basically an overclocked 6200. These are passable in so much that they “play games,” but their performance is less than stellar due to the lack of dedicated memory. Worse still, as I mentioned before, these are frequently mismarketed as having more video memory than they actually possess. While the Go 6400′s performance is probably on par with an X300 with dedicated memory, the 6200 should generally be avoided.

Mainstream Cards

ATI Mobility Radeon 9600 (9550) (Pro) (Turbo):

  • DirectX Level: DirectX 9
  • Pipelines: 4 Pipelines
  • Memory Configurations: 32MB (64-bit), 64MB (128-bit), 128MB (128-bit)

This was a revolutionary graphics chip in its day and ushered in an era of notebook gaming. The Pro and Pro Turbo simply noted differences in memory and core speeds (different, faster memory was used). The 9550, which appeared in some Gateway 74xx series notebooks, was just an underclocked 9600. The performance of the chip is still somewhat impressive, and it will run all modern games, albeit some on low settings. Antialiasing and anisotropic filtering can be enabled on older games while keeping playable framerates. A 64MB Mobility Radeon 9600 should be considered the bare minimum for the casual gamer.

ATI Mobility Radeon 9700:

  • DirectX Level: DirectX 9
  • Pipelines: 4 Pipelines
  • Memory Configurations: 128-bit; 64MB, 128MB

At the time of its release, this was the fastest notebook GPU available. In actuality, it’s merely an incremental increase in speed from the 9600. The best way to describe it is “it’s a little faster than the 9600.” It’ll give you better framerates than the 9600 did, and possibly a bump in detail for some newer games, but antialiasing and anisotropic filtering still remain essentially confined to older games.

ATI Mobility Radeon X600:

  • DirectX Level: DirectX 9
  • Pipelines: 4 Pipelines
  • Memory Configurations: 128-bit; 64MB, 128MB

The PCI Express version of the Mobility Radeon 9700, for modern notebooks. It is in some cases slower, in some cases faster, than the 9700, but is essentially comparable. For what it’s worth, I’ve used a 64MB 9600 and a 128MB X600, and found the performance jump to be slight. Notable, but slight.

nVidia GeForce FX Go 5700:

  • DirectX Level: DirectX 9
  • Pipelines: 4 Pipelines
  • Memory Configurations: 128-bit; 64MB, 128MB

The slowest of the mainstream parts, the Go 5700 can provide performance comparable to a Mobility Radeon 9600, but generally falters on newer games that make extensive use of DirectX 9 features. As a general rule, the FX series of chips should be avoided, as they usually provide inferior performance to their ATI counterparts.

High End Cards

ATI Mobility Radeon 9800:

  • DirectX Level: DirectX 9
  • Pipelines: 8 Pipelines
  • Memory Configurations: 256-bit; 128MB, 256MB

Sitting right around the middle of the pack in the high end game, the 9800 appears only in older Dell notebooks and offers performance comparable to a desktop 9800 Pro. The Mobility Radeon 9800 offers excellent performance and allows the use of antialiasing and anisotropic filtering on some recent games, and still performs well even on newer titles like FarCry, Doom 3, and F.E.A.R.

ATI Mobility Radeon X700:

  • DirectX Level: DirectX 9b
  • Pipelines: 8 Pipelines
  • Memory Configurations: 128-bit; 64MB, 128MB

The X700 is mainstream on desktops, but its performance is nearly comparable to the Mobility Radeon 9800. It is only marginally slower, but is still a very impressive performer and is one of the most ideal GPUs on 15.4″ notebooks. Its performance is comparable to a desktop Radeon X700 Pro.

ATI Mobility Radeon X800 (XT):

  • DirectX Level: DirectX 9b
  • Pipelines: 12 Pipelines (16 Pipelines for the XT)
  • Memory Configurations: 256-bit 256MB

At about the same level of performance as the GeForce Go 6800, the Mobility Radeon X800 is substantially harder to find and generally only appears in certain boutique notebooks. It offers performance comparable to a desktop Radeon X800 Pro, and will allow antialiasing and anisotropic filtering even in modern games with very playable performance. The XT version has been announced but, like the desktop XT PE editions, is virtually impossible to find.

nVidia GeForce Go 6600:

  • DirectX Level: DirectX 9c
  • Pipelines: 8 Pipelines
  • Memory Configurations: 128-bit; 64MB, 128MB

The Go 6600′s performance is comparable to a Mobility Radeon X700; the primary difference is the 6600 is more futureproof than the X700, supporting 9c as opposed to just 9b. As a result, some games, like Far Cry, will be able to turn on additional details as compared to the X700. For that reason, the 6600 is generally preferable. You can expect the 6600 to perform beautifully in all modern games, though you won’t be able to run the extremely taxing games with antialiasing or anisotropic filtering at high resolutions. This is likely the most preferable GPU in the 15.4″ range of notebooks.

nVidia GeForce Go 6800 (Ultra):

  • DirectX Level: DirectX 9c
  • Pipelines: 12 Pipelines
  • Memory Configurations: 256-bit 256MB

Generally regarded as the best GPU you can buy in a notebook, barring the MIA Mobility Radeon X800XT. The Ultra version is simply a higher-clocked version of this GPU, which offers incredible performance. It allows for antialiasing and anisotropic filtering even in modern games and will run any game you throw at it extremely well.

POPULAR GAMES – WHAT GRAPHICS CARDS WILL RUN THEM

I’ll list a few of the more popular titles here and about the level of GPU from the four classes here that you’ll need to at least run the game.

HALF-LIFE 2:  Should run even on the high-performance integrated parts (GMA 900, Radeon Xpress 200M), but really needs one of the mainstream DirectX 9 parts to show its true colors.

DOOM 3: Absolutely needs a mainstream GPU, bare minimum, and will usually run at around 800×600 Low Quality.

WORLD OF WARCRAFT: For what it’s worth, this game even runs on my friend’s desktop Radeon 7200. That in mind, will run on high-performance integrated parts onward. Again, to run the game beautifully, you’ll want at least mainstream.

FAR CRY: Really needs a mainstream GPU. Will probably run at the low end, but won’t look good.

F.E.A.R.: Like Doom 3, absolutely needs a mainstream GPU to run at all.

UNREAL TOURNAMENT 2004: Will run on anything faster than the Intel Extreme Graphics 2 GPUs, but ideally wants at least a low-end GPU to run well.

QUAKE 3 ARENA: Quake 3′s engine is still used for many games, and I would be remiss not to include it. Quake 3 itself will run even on Intel Extreme Graphics 2, but newer Quake 3 based games (Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Star Trek: Elite Force II) will need the high-end integrated parts at least.

THE SIMS 2: Should run on the low-end GPUs.

CONCLUSION

This guide must seem terribly vague at times; that’s unfortunately part of the game. What’s helpful, however, is that it’s fairly easy to group these parts and get a general idea of about the level of performance you’ll have with your games. For me, when I was shopping for a notebook, I was mainly concerned with “what games will run on this hardware?” As a notebook shopper, you’re going to have to make some similar decisions. Hopefully this guide will have helped you in that direction.

Remember to focus not on “how pretty will this GPU render my favorite game” but “will this GPU render my favorite game.” The GMA 900, while miserable, is actually pretty sufficient for older games and even a couple of newer titles. The Radeon Xpress 200M eclipses it. But if you’re going to do any kind of serious gaming on your machine, again I stress that you’ll want a GPU that is at least from the mainstream section. For what it’s worth, the Mobility Radeon X600 that I run will play anything out there, usually at about medium settings.

I personally recommend avoiding notebooks with the low-end GPUs in them, as the performance is generally improved over integrated GPUs, but still not really suitable for any kind of serious gaming.

Note that the high-end GPUs outside of the Mobility Radeon X700 and GeForce Go 6600 almost never appear in notebooks under 17″, so in the 15.4″ class, these are your best choices, and I personally would recommend the Go 6600 over the X700.

One last point to make is about video RAM. One of the number one questions that shows up on the forums on this site is “is a 128MB X600 faster than a 64MB 6600.” No, it’s not. While system RAM is the easiest way to boost the performance of a computer, video RAM doesn’t work quite the same way. With GPUs, you’re going to want a more powerful GPU instead of more video RAM in virtually all cases, with almost no exceptions. On the desktop, a Radeon 9600 with 64MB of video RAM will invariably slaughter a Radeon 9200 with 256MB of video RAM, and that’s because the 9600 itself is a more powerful chip.

I hope this guide has been helpful to you, and you should check the forums for corrections or discussions about the information presented here.



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