The choice of integrated vs dedicated graphics cards is chief among decisions when buying one of the best laptops, and it’s one of the most difficult to make. In fact, you might not even be aware of the differences between the two so we’ll begin with a quick explanation before moving on to the advantages and disadvantages associated with both.
Very basically, integrated graphics cards don’t have their own CPU (or ‘processor’) instead using system RAM and system CPU. Dedicated graphics cards have their own CPU that’s known as a GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) and RAM of their own. You might hear another term, “discrete graphics card”, but “discrete” and “dedicated” mean the same thing in this instance, so there’s only really two types to choose between. There’s a more detailed description of each below to help you make the decision. Most of the best home computers have integrated graphics cards, but that isn't the case for laptops.
Integrated graphics cards
As touched upon above, an integrated graphics processing unit doesn’t utilise it’s own RAM, instead drawing upon the system’s memory. Integrated graphics will use anything between one and five percent of the available memory for graphics which means your system may slow down if you’re performing a resource-intensive task such as rendering video or playing a game.
There are some benefits to an integrated unit, they’re a lot cheaper and make the laptop more affordable. This might even free up budget for other features like a bigger screen, faster processor etc. Integrated graphics cards use drastically less power than their dedicated counterparts which increases battery life while also decreasing the amount of heat generated.
If you’re only going to use your computer for run-of-the-mill, vanilla-type graphics processing, then an integrated unit will more than meet your needs. Such activity would include 2D gaming, general office work, web browsing and watching videos. You can still play 3D games so long as you turn the graphics settings down to avoid in-game slowdowns. Integrated cards are better for things like video editing software too.
Dedicated graphics cards
A dedicated graphics card has its own source of memory, independent from your system’s RAM. For instance if your desktop computer has an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 video card with 6GB of video memory, that memory is entirely separate from your computer’s 16GB of system memory. If you do a lot of resource intensive work like high-end gaming or professional graphic designing, then a dedicated card is definitely the way to go.
There are a few downsides to dedicated cards though, they can put out a lot of heat if you don’t have a good fan or the right design, and the GPU will heat up quicker the harder you make it work. This can be countered to some extent by ensuring you get a laptop with single or dual fans and plenty of vents. There are also special cooling stands available if you want to keep temperatures down even more.
Switchable cards are also available, which offer the GPU as both an integrated and dedicated card. When you’re editing an office document or browsing the web the card switches to the integrated unit, load up a high-end game or watch a high-def movie and it’ll power up and work as a dedicated card. Performance will increase and battery life will decrease accordingly.
Is this your card?
Picking the right card will very much depend on how you want to use it. If you just want to work, browse the internet and watch movies then integrated graphics will do the job perfectly.
If a greater visual experience is needed; 3D design or serious gaming for instance, then include a dedicated video card on your “must have” specs list. Be sure to plan ahead and buy a card that will do the job and hold up, as games and design software are constantly improving and becoming more resource intensive.