Examining the 2011 Mobile Graphics World

With the launch of Sandy Bridge, we said there was an upheaval in the mobile landscape, and we stand by that. Sandy Bridge is a bigger deal for notebooks and laptops than it is for desktops, for several reasons. First, CPU performance improved substantially more than on the desktop. Second, Intel put a decent amount of work into HD Graphics 3000, and all mobile CPUs are getting the full complement of hardware. Finally, all of the mobile chipsets support integrated graphics, so there's no PM67 getting in the way of Quick Sync. That's the good news.

As impressed as we were by the Sandy Bridge IGP, we do have to take a step back and examine what it is Intel has created. In terms of hardware, HD 3000 looks to match up rather nicely against the GeForce 320M, making it the fastest IGP currently available (at least until we see AMD's next IGP). Compatibility is also far better than with previous Intel graphics solutions...but that's not saying much. We managed to run 24 games through benchmarks in our launch articles, and we still came out with at least six games that had some sort of error. This ranged from flickering polygons to missing textures to downright horrible performance--the last coming in the only OpenGL game we happened to test. The same suite of games ran on AMD and NVIDIA hardware without a single glitch that we noticed.

Intel has also been pretty good about patching their drivers to get games running once they're notified of a problem, at least if it's the press doing the notification. (Mafia II would have joined the "does not run" list if it hadn't been for a late driver update.) However, there should be a whole suite of testers at Intel that are doing nothing other than running every single title released in the past ten years to make sure their drivers work. I suspect that as much as Intel's graphics division has improved since Arrandale, there's still plenty of work yet to be done. NVIDIA has mentioned in the past that they now have more software developers than hardware people, and we know they also have employees who work at game/application developers--as in, NVIDIA pays people who end up working at some other company most of the time. I've seen quite a few "The Way It's Meant to Be Played" titles over the past few years, and plenty of "Get in the Game" offerings from AMD/ATI as well; I have yet to see a single game touting Intel graphics.

So, what I'm getting at is there's a question of compatibility that's still largely unanswered. Are there other titles that we didn't test yet where Intel's IGP still fails? Undoubtedly. What about brand new games launching post-SNB, when all the excitement has died down--will they get updated Intel drivers to make them work properly? I can't answer that question definitively, but I can tell you that the first retail Sandy Bridge laptop I review is going to end up running a selection of games that we don't normally benchmark, purely to see how far the compatibility testing has gone. AMD and NVIDIA have pretty much figured out how much work graphics hardware and drivers requires; Intel's Larrabee 1.0 project may have been canceled more for software/driver issues than anything wrong with the hardware. And there's still the whole topic of DirectX 11, OpenGL, and OpenCL support--one Intel hasn't even touched yet, the second appears iffy, and the third is apparently being internally evaluated.

So today NVIDIA announced their new GeForce 500M parts. Yesterday (with a lot less information coming our way), AMD launched the Radeon 6000M lineup. Both offer plenty of options and good performance, but so far we haven't seen anything from AMD to match Optimus. Their switchable graphics is fine if you have a pure AMD ecosystem (IGP and dGPU), but pair an AMD dGPU with an Intel CPU+IGP and you now have drivers from two different vendors, and they don't generally play well together. You can read the following in every AMD mobile driver update: "The following notebooks are not compatible with this release.... Switchable Graphics enabled notebooks using Intel chipsets." Yes, that's a concern for anyone that wants to play games released during the coming year or two! That means we'd stick with discrete-only AMD GPUs on Intel laptops for the time being.

There are several areas that are important when you're looking at mobile graphics: performance, battery life impact, cost, and drivers.  Intel does very well on the battery life and cost areas, but they lag behind on performance and are definitely our last choice when it comes to drivers. AMD's mobile graphics get the performance and drivers aspects right, cost is obviously higher than IGP (at least for their discrete GPUs), but battery life takes a hit. Yes, the hit is smaller now than in the past, but you're still losing mobility. Finally, there's NVIDIA that gets the drivers, performance, and battery life elements, but again cost is higher (similar to AMD's GPUs). If you're in the market for a mainstream laptop or notebook that can last a while, right now NVIDIA has the edge.

It’s Not Just About Games Wrap-Up
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  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - link

    It looks like the 520M has four fewer pins, but the top of the chips is quite different. NVIDIA didn't disclose any chip names to me when I asked, unfortunately, I have intermittent Internet access, so I can't really do much other than respond to posts right now, but I'll try to look into it later.
  • rjc - Thursday, January 6, 2011 - link

    Thanks Jarred for updating the article.

    One small thing though - the pin outs on the GF108 and GF119 i think are identical. The website for some reason though shows the GF119 pads rotated by 90degrees, notice the triangle is in a different position to the equivalent shot for the GF108. The pin outs are very similar and same size to the older GF215 and GF216 chips, with 4 additional pins for the 2 new parts.

    With regard to the GF119 performance, be a bit careful estimating it. As the codename indicates, it is rumored to have quite some advances over the other Fermi chips. For instance the increase from 420m to 520m performance level apparently only consumes 2W more according to the nvidia figures.
  • Dug - Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - link

    Thanks for taking the time to go through the new chips and explain the differences. Even then nVidia has made it confusing again. I really wish they would just stick with increasing the model number with increased performance.
  • bennyg - Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - link

    At this rate Fermi will be in the 600s, maybe the 700Ms; and their next chip design will take them well beyond the 900s.

    G80 and derivatives were the 8000s, 9000s, 100Ms, 200Ms, 300Ms.

    Nvidia's whole point of new model numbers is to HIDE that there is no/minimal increase in performance.

    I won't even begin to consider shedding a fraction of a tear that all the "1Gb Dedicated Graphics" cards will have no reason for existence. They are only ever targeted and marketed to the uninformed and it's clear a company has reached the pinnacle of un-ethics when it deliberately seeks to confuse the marketplace in order to market its products.
  • MrSpadge - Thursday, January 6, 2011 - link

    I find it really funny how the same chip with lower clocks suddenly gets a higher subnumer once it "improved" one generation :p

  • RyanVM - Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - link

    Firefox 4 doesn't support hardware acceleration with Optimus configurations. It was causing lots of instability.

    Can't speak for Chrome or IE9.
  • Ed051042 - Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - link

    Amen to the closing statement on laptop LCD quality. 1366x768 is NOT an acceptable resolution on a 14/15/17" notebook. My 10" netbook as that resolution! The currently lack of ability to deliver quality displays is troubling. Dell has "supply issues" with their 1080p panel for the XPS 15, while HP pulled their 1600x panel for the Envy 14. Only the Sony Vaio Z is delivering the goods, with 1080p on a 13" panel.
  • Hrel - Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - link

    "Clock speeds are also up, in this case it’s a 14% increase for the 550M vs. 435M, 20% for 540M vs. 425M, and 20% for the 525M over the 520M—not too shabby" I think you meant "525M over the 420M (not 520M).

    The GT425M at 560core/1120processor/800RAM clocks. That's only 7%, 7% and 12.5% increases. I'm glad for the extra memory bandwidth and would love to see if giving this GPU GDDR5 would let it handle 1080p at least on the lowest settings in games like Crysis or Stalker. I just hope the "new" GT525M costs less than the GT425M cause realistically it won't be much faster if at all so the price should drop. I just really want a 15.6" laptop with a decent quality (Compal/Clevo) quality 1080p screen. i5 2520M, GT525M, 4GB DDR3 1333 for a thousand bucks or less. I REALLY don't care if it includes a blue ray drive, or even a dvd drive. And I REALLY REALLY want it to come with Seagate's Momentus XT Hybrid drive 500GB.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, January 6, 2011 - link

    Finally got enough internet speed to be able to update a few bits in the text. The 525M replaces the 420M, which had 500/1000 clocks. The 535M replaces 425M, which is the 560/1120 clocks you mention. But you're right if you compare 525M to 425M. The overlapping names is more than a little confusing!

    I also updated the information in regards to 520M/410M, which use the GF119 core.
  • EliteRetard - Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - link

    If we can currently buy a 1GB GTX460 for 150$ any chance well get the GTX485 at a reasonable price? Sure its fully unlocked (why dont we have an unlocked desktop GTX460?), so make it 200$. I want to see laptops with that chip for under $1,000.

    If Nvidia wants $500 for a card like that, whats stopping companies like Asus from just making their own mobile varients? Couldnt they just take the mobile PCI card blank and drop in an actual GTX460 chip and downclock it? Ive been saying all this time, if they can do GTX480 SLI in a laptop with an i7-980x, why the heck cant they just use a GTX460 and go with a much cheaper and more reasonable mobile CPU to make a low cost but effective gaming laptop?

    Thats what I want, a midrange sandy bridge CPU and a switching GTX460 level GPU. Call it an all in one PC if you have to and stick it to a decent 17" LCD. Keep it at 6lbs or less. Id buy that for around a grand. Oh and let us use those larger mobile HDDs...I do need 1TB storage in a laptop and dont want to use 2 drive bays to do it. Keep the second for SSD.

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