Graphics Cards: The first real gaming graphics card for laptops was the GeForce 2 which debuted in April 2000. While laptops could display decent graphics before that, the graphics chips were not very powerful.
Laptop graphics cards have come a long way over the last 20 years. There are several brands and types of cards to choose from now, depending on how you use your computer.
Let’s look at some of the options available and how to choose the best laptop graphics card.
What is a Graphics Card?
The graphics card is a component in your computer that creates the text and graphics you see on screen and sends the signal out to your monitor. They’re also known as a GPU or Graphics Processing Unit.
The term graphics “card” comes from the world of desktop computers where the GPU is often on a removable expansion card. This isn’t the case with laptops though. The graphics chips are usually soldered onto the mainboard, not on a removable card.
How the Graphics Card Impacts Your Laptop’s Performance
Some graphics cards share the processing power of the computer’s CPU (central processing unit) while others have their own processor. We’ll get into the difference in more detail shortly but the speed of the graphics processor will impact the overall performance of your laptop.
If you mostly run business apps like Microsoft Office or Google Docs, browse the web, manage email, and other text-based work, the speed of your graphics card isn’t as critical. Any modern laptop will be able to keep up with that type of work.
Where the graphics card plays a bigger part is things like gaming or video editing where you’re working with more graphics-heavy information. In those cases, a faster graphics card will make a big difference to the overall performance of your laptop.
Integrated vs. Discrete Laptop Graphics
There are two types of graphics cards for laptop computers – integrated and discrete.
An integrated graphics card shares processing and memory resources with the computer’s CPU and RAM. This helps reduce the cost as well as the amount of space needed since the graphics can be integrated into the main processor.
Discrete graphics cards have their own processor (the GPU) and memory. They don’t share any resources with the rest of the computer and can run much faster.
While discrete graphics are usually built onto the laptop’s mainboard, they still need more space since the chips and circuits are separate devices. They can also run warmer since they do a lot of processing so they need better cooling systems as well.
Integrated Graphics Options
There are two brands of integrated graphics cards for laptops — Intel and AMD. They’re the same two companies that make CPUs for laptops, which makes sense given that the graphics card is integrated into the CPU.
Intel’s integrated graphics cards are called HD Graphics or Iris Graphics. Iris is the faster of the two, with the Iris Pro Graphics being the fastest.
When Intel releases a new version of its CPU chips like the Core “i” series, it typically boosts the performance of the graphics chipset as well. Their integrated graphics cards have come a long way over the last few years but they still can’t come close to the performance of a discrete GPU.
AMD’s Ryzen processors also include integrated graphics cards that are known as Radeon Graphics.
If you’ve been around the computer industry for a while, you might recognize the Radeon name. Those cards were originally made by a company called ATI but moved under the AMD brand when they bought the company.
AMD follows a similar path to Intel, creating faster versions of their integrated graphics with each new version of the Ryzen CPU.
In benchmark tests, the AMD integrated graphics cards generally beat Intel’s but neither of them comes close to the speed offered by discrete graphics.
Discrete Graphics Card Choices
Like integrated graphics cards, there are two brands of discrete graphics cards used in laptops. In this case, the brands are Nvidia and AMD — Intel doesn’t make discrete graphics cards.
Both Nvidia and AMD make high-end cards for desktop PCs and they transition those GPUs into smaller versions for laptops. They generally don’t offer their latest graphics chips on laptops until the technology improves enough that they can shrink them down to fit.
Nvidia’s RTX series of mobile GPU chipsets are the fastest graphics chips available for laptop computers. They’re ideal for gaming or other applications that need a lot of graphics processing power.
The RTX 3080 is the fastest GPU from Nvidia. The desktop version launched in early 2020 but wasn’t available in a laptop version at the time. In early 2021, Nvidia announced the mobile version along with the RTX 3060 and RTX 3070 for mobile.
These graphics cards use a technology called Max-Q that helps Nvidia manage the GPUs temperature more effectively. This lets them work in thin, light laptops.
Nvidia claims these graphics cards are almost 1.5 times faster than a Playstation 5, making them ideal for gamers who want to play on the go.
The Radeon RX 5000 series are AMD’s latest version of its laptop graphics cards. They offer four versions:
- RX 5300M
- RX 5500M
- RX 5600M
- RX 5700M
As you move up the ladder, the GPU gets faster and the frame rates improve if you’re playing games.
AMD is in an interesting position by making both CPUs and graphics cards. If a laptop uses a discrete graphics card, it could run an AMD CPU alongside an Nvidia graphics card.
This gives you more choices when looking at laptops with discrete graphics. You can choose the CPU you prefer (Intel or AMD) as well as the graphics you prefer (Nvidia or AMD).
How to Choose the Best Graphics Card for a Laptop?
When you’re shopping for a new laptop, the first thing you need to do is figure out how you’re going to use it.
- What type of applications do you need to run?
- Will you be doing much graphics work?
- Do you want to play games?
If you’re going to use it for business purposes where most of your work is creating documents or candidate tracker spreadsheets, dealing with email, and that sort of thing then you don’t need a powerful graphics card to get good performance.
If you’re doing video editing, playing games, or working with some other kind of graphics-intensive data then getting a good graphics card is important. If you choose a laptop with integrated graphics, you’ll likely find it’s pretty slow for a lot of what you do.
Think about what you might want to do down the road as well. A good laptop should last you for three or four years so your needs could change. Don’t buy something if it’s a deal but might not meet your needs in a year or two.
Can You Upgrade a Laptop Graphics Card?
What if your needs do change? Can you upgrade the graphics card on a laptop?
In most cases, you cannot. As we mentioned earlier, the term “card” is a holdover from desktop computers where it is an actual expansion card that can be replaced.
In most laptops, the graphics chipset is built into the mainboard so you can’t swap it out for a newer card.
External Graphics Card Options
While you can’t usually upgrade the graphics card in a laptop, you can connect an external GPU, or eGPU, to many of them. These devices put the graphics card in an external case that connects to your laptop through a high-speed cable like USB 4 or Thunderbolt.
Not all laptops support eGPUs so if this is something you might consider upgrading to, make sure you get a laptop with the right types of ports.
Most laptops that come with the more powerful discrete graphics cards have the ports you need to connect an eGPU. They can be an effective way to upgrade those models to a newer, faster card after a couple of years without having to replace the entire laptop with a new one.
Choose a Laptop With a Good Graphics Card for How You Use Your Computer
When deciding what laptop to buy, look at how you plan to use your computer and whether your applications are very graphics-heavy.
If not, any graphics card will work fine. But if you’re playing games or other graphics-intensive work, make sure you choose a laptop with a GPU that’s up to the task.
Remember to check out the Technology section of our site for more helpful articles about using your tech gear.
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