Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Right GPU Solution for Mobile Users

In the last few articles, we've talked about mostly smartphones and the changing climate in which the different players like RIM and Nokia battle to stay competitive and elbow for supremacy.  

Let's not forget about other mobile devices, you know, laptops.  Also known in some quarters as Thinkpads.  Inspirons.  Presarios.

It just so happened that the company that brought us unforgiving "Intel Inside" stickers has released the next generation of mobile chips, creatively called Centrino 2 (comes after Centrino) last week.  In the other corner, AMD has their PUMA mobile platform ready to pounce.  With such powerful chips, is this enough power for most mobile users graphically?

The component common to both competing platforms is the graphic processor that powers the display.  The graphic processor unit, GPU, comes in two flavors:  dedicated and integrated.  I've left a couple of wiki links so that you can sort it out.  Short story is that dedicated GPU are much more powerful than integrated graphic solutions, also known as integrated graphic processor, IGP.

If you're a gamer, getting a laptop with a dedicated GPU is a must.  For the rest of us, even casual gamers, is a laptop with IGP solution good enough?  Well, that's exactly what most IGP solutions are, just "good enough".  If running Microsoft Office and Photoshop, an IGP may be perfect.  For e-mail and surfing the Internet and watching Youtube, an IGP  can handle all you throw at it.  DVD?  A dedicated GPU is an overkill.  

Traditionally, IGP solutions from AMD and Nvidia are better than Intel's own solutions. Intel's new X4500 is promising but I'm not holding my breath until I see it in action.  

Just as important is the RAM the laptop has.  I won't go more into this other than to say "max out" on the RAM.  You'll thank me for it later.  And Vista will thank you for it (who are we kidding?  Vista will dominate.  Not saying it's the best OS out there though).  Mostly, it simple future-proof your laptop somewhat.  

Essentially, a mobile warrior do not always need to have the power that comes with a dedicated GPU.  If cost is an issue, an IGP-based laptop can cost hundreds less.  It can also draw less power than laptops with a dedicated GPU.  It'll be less painful having to ration your battery power and looking for an outlet.

Consider the following:

  • Intel has a few IGP, the X4500, that more more capable than the X3100.
  • AMD and Nvidia has multiple IGP solutions and they typical are more flexibile than Intel's solutions.
  • AMD and Nvidia provide the bulk of dedicated GPU processors for laptops.
  • Laptops with GPU costs more laptops with IGP.  
  • Tyically, Laptops with GPU draw more power than laptops with IGP.
  • The new platforms from Intel and AMD are capable of support both types of graphic solutions to provide mobile users.  If the power of a GPU isn't needed, the laptop will use the IGP.  When required, the dedicated GPU will then take over.
  • If you want to relive the battles of WWII or save the world from alien invaders, get the best laptop with the fastest CPU and GPU you can afford.
I normally hold onto my laptop longer than the two or three years that some mobile warriors do, so I want to future-proof my purchases.  My needs vary and I have a desktop that provides me with more power, such as for video processing, when I need.  I love to have a Macbook Air or the Thinkpad X3000.  3Lbs simply trumps the 7 lbs of a tyical 15" laptop.  I have to play with the laptops first before I made that decision.  

As I write more and hope to turn it into a part time career (let's call it a hobby for now), battery life is something that could be more important to me.  I potentially see a 3-4 lb laptop with a IGP solution for me in the near future.

Note:  I'm in the market for a new laptop and given my familiarity with Apple computers and the iLife software, it is a no brainer for me to get a Macbook.  However, I've got time and I will definitely be picking up one after Apple refreshes its current lineup.  I'm going to be following my own reason here and get the Macbook Air.  

Keep in mind:  A potential impact on mobile warriors with respect to the two graphic solutions is the potential of softwares that support parallel processing via a dedicated graphic processor.  If you wait a bit, I'm get into that for you.  You won't want to miss the impact Nvidia's CUDA and Apple's next OS, Snow Leopard,will have on mobile computing.  (Update:  Microsoft's next version of DirectX will also support GPU processing.)

I love to hear from mobile warriors on the selection of laptop and the reasons why.

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