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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  • Kaboose - Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - link

    Cant wait for a 2630QM and a GT 555M in a 15.6 inch 1080p notebook. Now lets see who is first to market with that gem, and see what price we are looking at.
  • Willhouse - Thursday, January 6, 2011 - link

    I too would like to see this laptop. Been waiting for months. 14" with similar hardware would be nice too.
  • Pneumothorax - Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - link

    "Of course, while notebook manufacturers are doing the above, please quit with the lousy LCDs. Tablets are now shipping with IPS displays; can the laptops and notebooks get some luvin' as well? Also, stop with the glossy plastics, give us decent keyboards, and stop using 48Wh batteries in 15.6" and larger laptops!"

    Please do this so I can stop paying an extra $1000 of Apple tax to get decent screens and batteries in a laptop?!
  • Dug - Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - link

    I 2nd that!!!
  • Wizzdo - Thursday, January 6, 2011 - link

    Remember that with the so called "Apple Tax" you also get a wonderful modern "Ultimate" version OS and a slew of really excellent useful applications in iLife minus the pile of crippled cpu-hogging crapware installed.

    If you want to do the real math ( including the seemingly infinite headaches and hours of productivity lost by all my Windows clients who are constantly paying me to fix their machines ), Apple Macbooks are a steal!

    There's a lot more to a laptop than the upfront cost.

    Ironically, my macBook Pro is the best Windows laptop (using BootCamp) that I've ever owned and believe me I've owned many!
  • inaphasia - Friday, January 7, 2011 - link

    3rd! (Except for the Apple part)

    And I'll say again again what has already been said many times before:
    16x9? Only good for for video! And video on almost all sub $1000 notebooks... Can you say 0% viewing angle? Because effectively it's exactly that on my 1215n.
  • Karammazov - Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - link

    jarred I like very much your take on reviewing notebooks, you provide an angle that most of us who are interested in buying the laptop are wanting.

    However Im still left aloof when it comes to optimus. I cant see why all the hype about it, the switchable gpus is a reality even on the AMD field. granted that you need a board to coordinate the stuff, but it doesnt suffer the same driver issues that the optimus offer, the switch is not as seamless as it looks, and the drivers are plagued with bugs.

    Not only that but its visible that optimus was designed to provide high performance when needed, thus improving the battery life, but is there any laptop out there that use optimus that also have a mid upper range GPU? Im not even going into the territory of the high end stuff.

    I also like the idea, but the way optimus is now, I dont consider it a good thing, unless you are seeing the AMD side of things.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - link

    The big benefit of Optimus is that driver updates are available. If you get something with switchable graphics, you end up only getting new drivers when the laptop manufacturer puts together a package that includes your GPU and IGP drivers. In practice, that usually means you're stuck with whatever the laptop initially shipped with.

    Mid-range GPUs like the 335M have done Optimus before, which I'd call midrange for the 300M series. I don't think anyone did higher than 435M Optimus up until now, but with Sandy Bridge you can now get quad-core as well as high-end Optimus. That's what I want to see, but we'll have to wait for someone to actually make it.

    Optimus does have a few glitches on occasion with compatibility, but if you're stuck with drivers that are months old and you're trying to run a new game, it can be even worse. So the combination of driver updates and better battery life is a win for me.
  • LtGoonRush - Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - link

    While I am excited about the possibility of a GTX 560M using an uncut GF106 die, the fact that the GF108 only has 4 ROPs basically makes it worthless at gaming. A 96 shader card could have made a decent low-end gaming option, but the ROP count limits performance in ways that are simply insurmountable. It's true that we're probably looking at laptops with <1080p displays where the ROP count matters less, but still, I can't see the card being competitive enough to justify the cost. On the other hand, nVidia did make the right choice with the GTX 485M, that's the card the original GTX 480M should have been (much like the GTX 580 vs the GTX 480).
  • rjc - Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - link

    On page 2 you have listed the GT520m as a cut down GF108. The part is up on the nvidia site and it really does not look like GF108, more like a new chip the GF119.
    See here:
    The chip is physically much smaller and a different shape than the GF108 from the pictures.

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