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Graphics Cards: Integrated vs. Dedicated

When you buy a computer, more specifically a laptop, the one piece of hardware that is the most difficult to choose is the graphics card. You may have heard terms like integrated, discrete and dedicated. First off, to erase some confusion, discrete and dedicated mean the same thing, so there are only two terms you need to know to understand the difference between the two kinds of graphics cards. So what is the difference between an integrated and dedicated graphics card, and what are the benefits and disadvantages of each? The answer to the second question depends on what you need your computer to do. Before you buy a gaming laptop or a graphics card, you need to know how you will use it. To help you decide what you need, here are the differences between integrated and dedicated graphics cards.

An integrated graphics processing unit (GPU) doesn't use its own RAM; it utilizes the system's memory instead. So, if you have a computer with 4GB of RAM, the video card can use anywhere between one and five percent of the available memory for graphics processing. Of course, this percentage varies depending on the size of task, especially if you're multitasking or playing a game.

The benefit to an integrated unit is that it is cheaper, which in turn means a less expensive computer. An integrated graphics card also generates much less heat than a dedicated video card and uses drastically less power, which improves the overall battery life. Integrated graphics cards are perfect for people doing everyday graphics processing. This includes watching or editing videos, 2D gaming and general word processing. Such activities aren't graphic intensive, so a low-end video card is ideal. That doesn't mean you won't be able to play 3D games, but you will have to turn down the graphics settings or you'll experience in-game slowdowns.

A dedicated, or discrete, GPU has its own independent source of video memory, leaving the RAM your system uses untouched. If you have a GeForce GTX 680M video card with 2GB of video memory, for example, that memory is completely separate from your computer's 8GB of system memory. Dedicated cards are perfect if you are into serious gaming or are a professional graphic designer.

There are a few drawbacks to having a dedicated card, however. If you don't have the appropriate design or a good fan, these video cards will get warm. If you are a serious gamer or if you run a dual-monitor system, the GPU will have to work harder and will heat up quickly. These cards are also power hungry, so using a laptop with dedicated graphics card will decrease the battery life. You should also expect to pay more for this kind of card. Price differences can vary, up to hundreds of dollars more for a dedicated GPU than an integrated GPU.

One thing we recommend if you are going to use a dedicated card is to make sure you get a laptop with at least one or two fans and plenty of vents. You can find special cooling stands as well if you want give your system extra protection from heat.

Some video cards are switchable. This means the GPU is built as a dedicated and integrated card. When you do things such as editing a spreadsheet or browse, the card switches to the integrated unit, which will preserve the battery of your laptop. When you watch a high-definition movie or play a graphic-heavy game, the card then powers up and works as a dedicated card, improving the overall performance but lowering the battery life.

Before you make a decision regarding the kind of graphics card you want, be sure you know how you will use it. If you are a casual user, integrated graphics are great. You can browse the web, watch YouTube videos and even watch Blue-ray movies without any problems. Dedicated video cards are perfect for those of you who want the best visual experience, whether you are gaming or designing graphics. Remember, games' visual designs will continue to improve. You should plan ahead and find a card that will hold up for at least a few years before you need to upgrade.

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