NotebookReview.com Laptop Graphics Guide 2009: Part Two

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by Dustin Sklavos

Now we come to part two of the 2009 graphics guide, the “fun” part. In Part Two and Part Three of the guide I’m going to break down the 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 into Nvidia (Part Two) and ATI (Part Three) instead of consolidating them in a single list. This seems counterintuitive, but you’ll discover why I did this when you look at their numbers. A lot of parts just clump next to each other, so it’s easier to just say “these from this vendor will perform at these settings” and so on.

At the end, I’ll also briefly mention the parts Nvidia 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-inch notebooks and smaller.

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, Nvidia parts bring CUDA support and in the case of higher end kit, PhysX, while ATI parts bring support for DirectX 10.1.

INTEGRATED GRAPHICS

GPU: No codename.
Parts: GeForce 8200M G, GeForce 9100M G
Shaders: 8
Memory: Shared with system memory.
Desktop: GeForce 8200
Performance: 1024×768 with low settings, seldom 720p.

These parts are integrated into the motherboard and share RAM with the CPU; as a result, they’re going to hit memory-based bottlenecks long before their cores are over-taxed, and this usually results in a resolution wall between 800×600 and 1024×768. These IGPs also only appear in AMD-based notebooks, where they face stiffer competition from the likes of ATI’s Radeon HD 3100/3200 integrated graphics which generally offer superior performance.

GPU: No codename.
Parts: GeForce 9400M, GeForce G 102M
Shaders: 16
Memory: Shared with system memory.
Desktop: GeForce 9300
Performance: 1024×768 with low-to-medium settings, sometimes 720p at low settings.

The GeForce 9400M and G 102M are powerful parts that materialize in Intel-based notebooks as an alternative to Intel’s anemic integrated graphics. These are actually almost powerful enough for some casual gaming and will certainly do in a pinch. With the GeForce 9400M, Nvidia essentially crammed its 16-shader GeForce 8400 core into the motherboard’s northbridge, bringing with it strong performance for an integrated graphics part that threatens to cannibalize their low-end completely.

BUDGET/LOW-END GRAPHICS

GPU: G96 (8/16 shader variants), uncertain
Parts: GeForce 9200M GS, GeForce 9300M GS, GeForce 9300M G, GeForce G 105M, GeForce G 110M
Shaders: 8 (9200M GS, 9300M GS, G 105M); 16 (9300M G, G 110M)
Memory: DDR2 or GDDR3; 64-bit memory bus
Desktop: GeForce 9400 GT at most, generally close to a GeForce 8400 GS.
Performance: 1024×768 with low-to-medium settings, sometimes 720p at low settings.

These parts have actually almost been obsoleted by Nvidia’s GeForce 9400M and GeForce G 102M. The G 105M and G 110M are going to perform decently faster due to their dedicated graphics memory, and it should be noted that the 9300M and 105M/110M parts can appear with the 9400M or G 102M for Hybrid SLI, leveraging the performance of both graphics cores to improve gaming overall. Still, these really aren’t ideal for gaming, and if you’re hanging out at this low end, you might as well stick with the integrated parts.

MID-RANGE GRAPHICS

GPU: G96
Parts: GeForce 9600M GS, GeForce 9600M GT, GeForce GT 120M, GeForce 9650M GS, GeForce 9650M GT, GeForce GT 130M, GeForce 9700M GT
Shaders: 32
Memory: DDR2 or GDDR3; 128-bit memory bus
Desktop: GeForce 9500 GT at most.
Performance: 1280×800 or 720p at medium-high settings for most games, some at lower resolution depending on memory type.

If you’re planning on doing any mobile gaming, this is really what you need to be targeting at a minimum. The GT 120M and GT 130M seem to exist almost entirely to at least consolidate the overabundance of parts in this range. It bears mentioning that all of these parts are within about 200MHz on the core of each other, so they perform fairly similarly, with the only differences being the possibility of turning settings up or down, but resolution will probably remain level.

You should also note that more than 512MB of video memory on any of these is a waste as the core is just not powerful enough to use it all, and that DDR2 can have a severely negative impact on the performance of the core (potentially as much as 20%.) DDR2 will always bottleneck these parts, so you’ll want to seek out GDDR3 if at all possible.

PERFORMANCE GRAPHICS

GPU: G94
Parts: GeForce 9700M GTS, GeForce GTS 150M, GeForce 9800M GS, GeForce 9800M GTS, GeForce GTS 160M
Shaders: 48 (9700M GTS); 64 (all others)
Memory: GDDR3; 256-bit
Desktop: GeForce 9600GT at best, oftentimes closer to GeForce 9600GSO (256MB or 512MB models).
Performance: 1280×800 or 720p at maximal settings with possibly some anti-aliasing; may be able to hit 1680×1050 or 1080p with lowered settings.

This is where some of the more powerful mobile hardware begins to appear. These are all, with the exception of the weaker, 48-shader 9700M GTS, essentially desktop GeForce 9600 GT’s with reduced clocks and as a result will perform fairly close if not a bit under. This is good, as a desktop 9600 GT offers solid if unexceptional gaming performance.

These are also about the most powerful chips you’re going to find in a 15-inch laptop, and typically it’s going to be in a bulkier laptop like the ASUS G50 series.

HIGH-END GRAPHICS

GPU: G92
Parts: 9800M GT, 9800M GTX, GTX 260M, GTX 280M
Shaders: 96 (9800M GT), 112 (9800M GTX, GTX 260M), 128 (GTX 280M)
Memory: GDDR3; 256-bit
Desktop: Slightly lower than GeForce 8800 GS (9800M GT), Slightly lower than GeForce 9800 GT (9800M GTX, GTX 260M), Slightly lower than GeForce 8800 GTS 512 (GTX 280M)
Performance: Should be able to play most games at 1080p at medium or high settings, oftentimes maxed out and occasionally with anti-aliasing enabled.

So these are the fastest Nvidia has to offer, and as a result, the most expensive. These will only ever appear in massive desktop replacement units, and are most likely to be seen in SLI configurations in these gaming notebooks. This is Nvidia’s cream of the crop, but the GTX branding on the 260M and 280M is profoundly disingenuous, as these parts are nowhere near the performance of those desktop parts and aren’t even the same generation of hardware.

STILL TO COME
Nvidia has also announced an entire five part line-up, the G200 series, spanning up to just under the GTX 260M and GTX 280M that support DirectX 10.1 and in some cases GDDR5. These parts look extremely compelling but unfortunately use the same manufacturing process behind ATI’s scarce RV740, so I don’t have too much faith in these getting to market in the near future. Interestingly, these have no desktop analogues; I suspect the desktop parts will actually come later.

Stay tuned for Part Three of the laptop graphics guide where I’ll cover the latest graphics solutions from ATI.


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