NotebookReview.com Laptop Graphics Guide 2009: Part Three

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by Dustin Sklavos

Now we come to part three of the 2009 graphics guide: ATI graphics. In Part Two I broke down the Nvidia mobile GPUs by the graphics chip that powers them in ascending order from weakest to most powerful. I’m also going to break things down for ATI here in Part Three. At the end I’ll also briefly mention the parts ATI has announced that aren’t yet available in notebooks, but will hopefully be in the near future.

VITAL STATISTICS
Before I get into the vital statistics I’ll provide for each part, I do want to point out that the gulf between mobile performance and desktop performance is presently the biggest it has ever been. Even the fastest mobile cards are still only in spitting distance of $100 desktop graphics cards, and I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty depressing and I think it makes a strong case for just building a small LAN box as opposed to getting a fat gaming notebook. Your mileage may vary.

If, however, you’re the more casual LANner, this compression will still work out fairly well for you, at least if you’re looking at only playing at 1280×800 or 720p, both common resolutions for 15” notebooks and under.

So, that said, here’s where we’re at:

GPU: The codenamed desktop GPU these parts are derived from.
Parts: The parts derived from that GPU.
Shaders: The number of unified shaders these parts have. Remember, ATI and Nvidia shader counts are not in the slightest bit directly comparable.
Memory: The bus width and memory supported by these parts.
Desktop: The desktop part or parts comparable to these parts.
Performance: About the average kind of performance you should expect.

And remember, per Part One and Part Two, Nvidia graphics bring CUDA support and in the case of higher end kit, PhysX, while ATI graphics bring support for DirectX 10.1.

INTEGRATED GRAPHICS

GPU: No codename.
Parts: Mobility Radeon X1250, Mobility Radeon X1270
Shaders: N/A
Memory: Shared with system memory.
Desktop: Radeon X1250
Performance: At this juncture, pretty poor and the worst IGP on this list.

The only reason I’ve included this DirectX 9-class part is due to it being the baseline for the HP Pavilion dv2z laptop. However, HP seldom releases those laptops into the wild without the dedicated Mobility Radeon HD 3410 attached, so this is basically here for completeness. That said, it’s woefully inadequate for anything but older games at this point, and should probably just be avoided entirely.

GPU: 780G
Parts: Mobility Radeon HD 3100, Mobility Radeon HD 3200
Shaders: 40
Memory: Shared with system memory; or DDR2/DDR3 with a 64-bit bus width.
Desktop: Radeon HD 3100 (780V) or HD 3200 (780G)
Performance: Close to best in class; gaming between 800×600 and 1024×768 with medium-low settings, some games at 720p with low settings.

The only difference between these two parts in notebooks is clock speed, with the HD 3100 running a touch slower than the HD 3200. These are still very capable gaming parts for integrated graphics, and if you’re on a budget you could do much worse. Some notebooks will actually include dedicated memory attached to the HD 3200, bringing its performance dangerously close to a dedicated HD 3400 series part. Additionally, some notebooks with Mobility Radeon HD 3400 series parts can also enable Hybrid Crossfire with the HD 3100/3200 to improve performance.

So ultimately, if you’re on an extreme budget, these are going to be parts you’ll want to look out for, but honestly dedicated parts can even be found under $700 on the market at this point, so you want to consider stretching at least a little.

BUDGET/LOW-END GRAPHICS

GPU: RV610
Parts: Mobility Radeon HD 3410, Mobility Radeon HD 3430, Mobility Radeon HD 3450, Mobility Radeon HD 3470
Shaders: 40
Memory: DDR2 or GDDR3; 64-bit memory bus
Desktop: Radeon HD 3450 for the 3470; rest are going to be slower than that and probably closer to the HD 3450’s predecessor, the Radeon HD 2400 Pro.
Performance: Decent gaming at 1024×768 at most with medium settings, the occasional 720p.

The interesting thing about this lineup is that there isn’t a HUGE difference in performance between any entrant from the 3450 on down, with the 3430 and 3410 sporting exclusively DDR2. That said, these are going to be bare minimum for playing any games, and while the Hybrid Crossfire with the HD 3100/3200 is fairly compelling it still doesn’t reach into the ranks of better hardware.

I’ve read repeatedly on the forums that the Mobility Radeon HD 3470 was the fastest entry-level GPU available in notebooks, but that’s likely changed since the HD 4000 series has become available. This should be the bare minimum for playing any games, but it’s not likely to provide the performance even a casual gamer will be hoping for, and the common DDR2 and 64-bit memory bus are heinously crippling.

GPU: RV710
Parts: Mobility Radeon HD 4330, Mobility Radeon HD 4530, Mobility Radeon HD 4570
Shaders: 80
Memory: DDR2, DDR3, or GDDR3; 64-bit memory bus
Desktop: The 4330 will be a bit slower than the Radeon HD 4350; the 4530 will be about as fast as the Radeon HD 4350; and the 4570 will be about as fast as the Radeon HD 4550.
Performance: Strong gaming at 1024×768 with medium-high settings, 720p not wholly out of reach.

ATI’s Radeon HD 4000 series and their mobility counterparts are major improvements upon the HD 3000 line and bring healthy performance boosts, including support for cheaper DDR3 that makes an excellent compromise between dismally slow DDR2 and more expensive GDDR3. These still aren’t the most desirable for gaming, but they’re a step up from the HD 3400 line and mercifully aren’t too rarefied. In fact, the 4570 is remarkably easy to find.

Of course, if you want to do any serious LANning with your laptop, these may still not cut the mustard for you, but the general improvements made to the 4000s against the 3000s make them solid budget choices.

MID-RANGE GRAPHICS

GPU: RV640
Parts: Mobility Radeon HD 3650, Mobility Radeon HD 3670
Shaders: 120
Memory: DDR2 or GDDR3; 128-bit memory bus
Desktop: The HD 3670 will be slightly slower than a Radeon HD 3650; the Mobility Radeon HD 3650 will be substantially slower.
Performance: 1280×800 or 720p at medium-high settings.

Having used a desktop HD 3650 with GDDR3 and a Mobility Radeon HD 3650 with GDDR3, I can tell you these parts are not competitive with Nvidia’s solutions in this market. The HD 3670 comes close, but the HD 3650 is terribly slow. It’s faster than the HD 3400 and 4300/4500 lines, but otherwise not terribly desireable. Mercifully, they’re not too common and Nvidia’s solutions are much easier to get.

GPU: RV730
Parts: Mobility Radeon HD 4650, Mobility Radeon HD 4670
Shaders: 320
Memory: DDR2, DDR3, or GDDR3; 128-bit memory bus
Desktop: Radeon HD 4650 with DDR3 is probably the closest to the Mobility Radeon HD 4670; Radeon HD 4650 with DDR2 is probably closest to the Mobility Radeon HD 4650.
Performance: 1280×800 or 720p with maxed settings, can probably hit higher resolutions relatively comfortably.

Compared to the HD 3600 series, the Mobility Radeon HD 4600 series are beasts and typically as fast as or faster than Nvidia solutions in their range. In addition to having a shader count on par with the previous generation’s high end, the HD 4600 line boasts improved shaders and vastly improved anti-aliasing, making them ideal for the LAN gamer. These can also be found in 15-inch laptops, and are capable of using cost-effective DDR3, which curbs the kind of performance hit DDR2 can take.

I’d happily recommend these over their counterparts in Nvidia’s lineup, especially given their reasonable prowess with anti-aliasing (provided they’re coupled with fast memory).

PERFORMANCE GRAPHICS

GPU: RV670
Parts: Mobility Radeon HD 3850, Mobility Radeon HD 3870
Shaders: 320
Memory: GDDR3; 256-bit
Desktop: Radeon HD 3850 for the 3870; 3850 will be much slower.
Performance: Up to 1080p with medium-high settings.

Unfortunately, RV670 is a decent chip but still suffers from the same problems endemic to the RV600 line. While anti-aliasing isn’t a huge deal on lower-classed chips, on flagship chips, the RV600 line’s poor anti-aliasing performance can be devastating. These didn’t make it into the marketplace in large numbers, and all told it’s probably better that way. While they’re somewhat faster than the Mobility Radeon HD 4600 series, they’re nowhere near as desirable.

Still, it’s not going to kill you. With anti-aliasing disabled these chips are capable of being real screamers and offering excellent performance. I owned a desktop Radeon HD 3850 that offered very solid performance at 1920×1200 when anti-aliasing was disabled.

HIGH-END GRAPHICS

GPU: RV770
Parts: Mobility Radeon HD 4850, Mobility Radeon HD 4870
Shaders: 800
Memory: GDDR3 (4850) or GDDR5 (4870); 256-bit
Desktop: Between a Radeon HD 4830 and Radeon HD 4850.
Performance: 1080p with details maxed, sometimes with anti-aliasing.

The RV770’s so impressive on the desktop, it’s a shame its performance is hamstrung in the mobile sector. Here, unfortunately the Nvidia solutions are generally going to be a bit more attractive due to the comparably low clocks on these chips; RV770 on the desktop relies largely on higher clock speeds for its performance and without that luxury these are going to be performance-limited by the low core speeds, topping out at just 550MHz on the Mobility Radeon HD 4870.

The massive boost of bandwidth the GDDR5 gives to the Mobility Radeon HD 4870 is also largely negligible given the core clock is too low to really take advantage of it, so you’re probably better off just hunting down a Mobility Radeon HD 4850 if you simply must have ATI. Otherwise, I’d probably look towards Nvidia’s mobile high end.

I will say, though, that the HD 4800s in general have excellent anti-aliasing performance and don’t suffer a precipitous performance drop at 8xAA provided they have enough video memory.

STILL TO COME
ATI has announced the Mobility Radeon HD 4830 and 4860, both based off the desktop Radeon HD 4770 (this actually makes some sense; the 4770 is horribly named and performs faster than a desktop 4830). Unfortunately, because the chip behind that card, the RV740, is pretty scarce, I don’t expect to see these materialize in any appreciable numbers.

And finally, Microsoft’s release of Windows 7 later this year will be bringing DirectX 11 with it, and ATI plans to be first out of the gate with DirectX 11-class parts. We’ll see how that goes.

CONCLUSION
And there you have it, fairly compacted and condensed, the mobile lineups from Nvidia and ATI. I’ve made a lot of omissions (specifically Nvidia’s 8 series and prior and ATI’s HD 2000 series and prior), but the parts omitted are exceedingly rare these days, and with ATI’s HD 2000 line, just change the 2 to a 3 and you’ll have pretty much the same performance.

Of course, never use Intel graphics for anything other than displaying your desktop.

Finally, I would like to credit the following sites for their information on these parts:

  • GPUReview (www.gpureview.com), whom I wish would get out of Nvidia’s pocket and update on ATI’s mobile parts.
  • AMD’s website (www.amd.com)
  • Nvidia’s website (www.nvidia.com)
  • And most importantly, Notebook Check (www.notebookcheck.com). Notebook Check’s graphics comparison chart, though much more thorough than what I’ve done here, is a little tough to follow. I’ve largely tried to digest that information into something more approachable in this series of guides. Nonetheless, if you crave more information, I heartily recommend checking them out.

Cheers!


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