Laptop Integrated Graphics Are Still Marginal for Modern Gaming
(Photo: Molly Flores)Laptops have fewer upgrade opportunities than desktops, so the question of whether your laptop’s built-in GPU can handle gaming makes a big difference as to how useful the system is.
Our colleagues at PCMag have tested multiple laptops representing several generations of Intel and AMD iGPUs, including Intel’s Skylake-era Intel UHD Graphics 620, Intel Xe, and two different AMD APUs, the 5700U and the 5800U in a number of games, including AAA titles, esports, and simulation and strategy games.
What they found, in aggregate, is that Tiger Lake and Intel Xe-equipped systems are generally the fastest for gaming, with AMD’s Ryzen 7 5800U and 5700U not far behind. The two solutions trade blows in several games, but the TGL-equipped Xe is faster than the integrated Radeon solutions more often than not. There’s some interesting data in their findings, including the impact of your system chassis and thermal dissipation on system performance.
In this case, the HP Envy x360 15, with the Ryzen 7 5700U, is often faster than the Asus Zenbook 13, which is equipped with a Ryzen 5800U. In Borderlands 3, the 5700U is 1.21x faster than the Zenbook 13. It’s 1.17x faster in 1080p Medium detail in Strange Brigade. There are multiple tests where the two chips tie, but the 5800U only wins a single test: Civilization VI.
Buyers who are considering 13-inch laptops versus 15-inch laptops should be aware that a smaller chassis can effectively cancel out the point of buying a high-end chip. It is not unusual for the midrange version of a laptop to offer better sustained performance than the high-end model.
1080p Isn’t a Realistic Resolution for AAA Gaming
Right now, none of the laptops with integrated graphics currently in-market can handle 1080p AAA titles very well. Games such as Far Cry 5, Borderlands 3, Strange Brigade, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, and Red Dead Redemption 2 range from completely unplayable on all tested systems to squeaking out a playable frame rate in 1080p Low. Strange Brigade was the single exception. Both Ryzen systems and the Xe-powered Tiger Lake turned in 39fps average frame rates or higher.
AMD has talked up 1080p as a target resolution for integrated gaming, but that’s not happening with AAA titles at the moment. We think of 720p and 1080p as similar standards because they debuted at the same time, but 1920 by 1080 is 2.073MP. 1280 by 720 is just 0.922MP. 1080p gaming requires the GPU to process 2.2x more pixels per frame to maintain a playable frame rate.
PCMag doesn’t make this recommendation in its own article, but I’m going to: If you are questioning whether you can game on any laptop without a discrete GPU, don’t be afraid to target 720p instead of 1080p as your baseline resolution. Gaming on an integrated GPU means sacrificing detail for performance, and dropping from 1080p to 720p is a meaningful step downwards for your GPU. There’s a reason both the Switch and the Steam Deck target this resolution. The old Intel Skylake solutions may still not offer enough horsepower to run games, but Xe and Radeon would both benefit.
This problem will improve somewhat once DDR5 arrives. If AMD and Intel support DDR5-6400 when they launch iGPUs for the standard, AMD and Intel would deliver 102.4GB/s of (shared) memory bandwidth. That’s not much by GPU standards–the Radeon HD 4870 was the last top-end GPU to offer this kind of performance, and even it was a bit faster, at 115GB/s of GDDR5 bandwidth. Modern GPUs are vastly more efficient than the old Radeon HD 4000 family, however, which is part of how they’ve been able to keep improving despite relatively low bandwidth.
The situation outside of AAA gaming looks better. The Skylake-era Intel integrated systems are still outclassed–anyone attempting to game on a Skylake-era system might need to try targeting a resolution like 960×540–but the Xe and Ryzen APUs put on a good show. The Elitebook PCMag tested based on the Intel Core i7-10810U is playable in Civilization VI at low detail, but nowhere else. Warcraft Classic would probably run, though it’s not included here.
The big takeaway from these results is that 1080p is a marginal resolution for integrated laptop gaming. If you play older games and non-demanding games, 1080p is realistic. If you want to play anything modern or more than mildly demanding, it isn’t. This will improve somewhat when AMD deploys RDNA2 on-silicon (especially if it comes with a new integrated L3), or if either Intel or AMD starts integrating a feature like HBM2 on-die. For now, anyone who wants to do any integrated gaming should pick up something in the Ryzen 4000, 5000, or Intel Tiger Lake family. Older chips are at a disadvantage compared with these.