Getting around and out of the office or house with your laptop is great, but even better is getting outside and enjoying some of the great PC games out there. If you want to do that on a notebook, you'll need a machine with appropriately powerful graphics card inside. Here are a couple of tips for working out what hardware you should choose in your next laptop.
If you just want to browse the Web and look at cat videos on YouTube and do your online tax return, any old machine will do. A laptop with a low-powered integrated graphics chipset will serve your needs just fine. It's only if you intend to be doing some serious computing on the go that you should begin to consider a laptop with a more powerful standalone graphics card. More and more non-gaming applications these days, like Adobe's Photoshop and Photoshop Lightroom, are switching on GPU acceleration, too, so if you intend to be running video editing or image manipulation on your new laptop then you'll see a genuine improvement from high-power graphics.
A couple of techy things to note in this laptop graphics buying guide: CPU is an abbreviation for Central Processing Unit, GPU is an abbreviation for Graphics Processing Unit, and APU is an abbreviation for Accelerated Processing Unit.
A CPU handles the computational heavy lifting and raw number crunching that a computer has to do in its everyday tasks, while a GPU is for more specialised tasks like processing geometric cacluations and rendering polygons that enable 3D graphics to be drawn in real time. An APU combines those two elements -- a CPU and a GPU -- on the same piece of silicon.
Integrated Graphics: Low To Moderate Performance, Enough For Everyday Computing
The majority of laptops out there, especially thin and light ultraportables and cheaper mainstream notebooks, don't have standalone graphics cards in the way that desktop PCs usually do. Their graphics chipsets are integrated into the CPU, operating at lower power and with much lower performance levels for 3D gaming. You might see them tagged as HD Graphics by Intel, while AMD uses the same Radeon name but usually sticks to the R4 or R5 product tag where its standalone graphics chips are usually R7 or higher.
Integrated graphics don't quite have the outright computational power of their standalone alternatives. The upside of this, though, is that integrated graphics are able to operate at a significantly lower energy demand than a standalone -- you should expect a laptop with integrated graphics to perform with an extra 25 to 50 per cent better battery life. This is a huge improvement if you're going to be using your laptop away from a charger, so there is a real case for buying a less powerful laptop when it means you'll be able to use it longer. Some laptops with discrete graphics will also let you switch back to integrated via software, which will get you a partial improvement in battery life.
One special case is AMD's APUs, a class of laptop-grade CPU that includes an integrated GPU that is much more powerful than Intel's HD Graphics series. AMD APUs can have integrated Radeon R6 or R7 graphics performance that is more than enough for mainstream games like League of Legends, DOTA 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, making a laptop a perfectly reasonable choice for this kind of casual gaming -- while not consuming much more power than lesser integrated graphics chips.
Discrete Laptop Graphics: High Performance, Made For Gaming And Demanding Computing
If you're intending to do any kind of gaming, you'll want a laptop with a discrete graphics card. Discrete or standalone graphics chips in laptops, although they're not user-removable or replaceable, are much more powerful than their integrated variants because they're much larger, consume a lot more power, and have the physical separation from a CPU that means they're able to get hot -- and hot means speedy. Made by either AMD or Nvidia, you'll see them called either Radeon or GeForce respectively, with additional model numbers to denote the relative level of performance within that range -- a GeForce GTX 980M is more powerful than a 970M, a Radeon R9 M380 is more powerful than an R7 M360, and so on.
Just like laptop CPUs, laptop GPUs arrive in generations. The most recent generation from Nvidia is its GeForce GTX 900M-series chips, while AMD has just launched the Radeon R9 and R7 M300-series. It's pretty simple, too -- the series before were called GTX 800M and R9 M200, the series before that was the GTX 700M, and so on. As a general rule, you want the newest graphics chipset you can get your hands on -- it'll be more energy efficient while also being more powerful than an older chip. If you're dead-set on having a discrete, high-powered graphics chip then buying the newest and best should definitely be high on your agenda.
You can buy gaming laptops which combine high-powered GPUs with equally powerful CPUs and custom-made cooling systems, essentially creating a (relatively) portable system that has enough power to run any modern, brand new, graphically demanding video game. They're never especially skinny or light, except in really special (and especially expensive) cases like the Aorus X7 Pro. These machines are some of the most powerful laptops you'll be able to buy for any kind of computing, but without exception you'll be sacrificing battery life for that privilege -- nothing comes free in the world of computing.
SLI, G-Sync, Optimus And Other Nvidia Graphics Tricks
If you're buying a laptop with high-performance graphics, there are a few things to look out for that might improve your experience in some way. If you're buying a laptop with Nvidia discrete graphics, make sure it includes Nvidia's Optimus tech that lets you switch manually or automatically between the high-power GPU and Intel's low-power integrated graphics chip -- that way you'll get the best of both worlds in having plenty of power on tap with an energy-efficient alternative as your default.
If you want the absolute top of the line in terms of graphics tech, you'll want a laptop with Nvidia SLI graphics. That's two graphics cards, working together in tandem both in hardware and in software to supercharge 3D graphics calculations and speed up vision-intensive applications. The GeForce SLI software is still working out its kinks, but for the most part you'll find yourself with a laptop that is actually more powerful than most desktop PCs when it comes to gaming. The downside? Lots of heat and lots of battery drain -- definitely something you'll want to keep the power adapter handy for.
And if smooth gaming is something that sounds good to you, then take a look for a brand new breed of gaming laptops that integrate Nvidia's G-Sync variable refresh rate tech. G-Sync will keep a screen displaying 3D graphics at a consistent -- and therefore stutter-free -- frame rate even when a game's displayed frame rate is changing rapidly. The result is games that look smooth -- almost eerily smooth and clean, especially if you're used to gaming on a lower-powered machine and seeing the occasional laggy slowdown. It's a great piece of technology and we can't wait until it makes its way -- whether just from Nvidia or from every other graphics tech company too -- into every laptop on the market.