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Low-End Laptop Graphics Solution Comparison: Five Options Go Head-To-Head

Author: Matt Smith
Subject: Mobile

Performance - Dawn Of War 2: Retribution, Civilization 5


Now it’s time to get into the meat of our comparison. How well do these different components handle gaming, and how do they compare to each other? Is upgrading from Intel HD 4000 to an NVIDIA GT 630M really worth the price? Can a Trinity laptop compare to something equipped with the NVIDIA GT 640M? 

To find out we’re using five games: Dawn of War 2: Retribution, Civilization 5, Diablo 3, Skyrim and Battlefield 3. It is worth noting that this comparison is not going to be as perfect as is possible with desktop parts because we don’t have the choice to use the same processor and components in each test rig. 

However, to compensate for this we’ve used settings that are fairly demanding on low-end hardware. We also tested each game at both 1366x768 and 1080p. The 1080p results will really tease out the difference between CPU and GPU bound performance.

The test laptops used include the Intel Ivy Bridge Ultrabook platform, the ASUS N56VM (which was also the standard Ivy Bridge mobile platform), the AMD Trinity platform and the Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3. The ASUS N56VM has Intel HD 4000 and an NVIDIA GT 630M with Optimus. Because the GT 630M can be turned off completely in this laptop we were able to use it for both Intel HD 4000 and GT 630M results.

Speaking of Intel HD 4000, it’s represented twice because there is a meaningful difference in clock speeds between the version found in Core i7 quads and the version found in ultrabooks. There is also going to be various in-between renditions with clock speeds somewhere in the middle. While the IGP is given 16 execution units on both processors, the Core i7-3720QM has a base/max clock of 650 MHz / 1250 MHz while the Core i5-3427U has a base/max clock of 350 MHz / 1150 MHz. 

Let’s start with Dawn Of War 2: Retribution

Performance - Dawn of War 2: Retribution 

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This is an older game now, but still rather popular in real-time strategy circles. It remains reasonably challenging because it puts significant strain on both the CPU and GPU during large battles. Many units are on-screen and special effects run rampant. The flip side of this is that, in my experience, most real-time strategy games will run on whatever can successfully run Dawn of War 2: Retribution.

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At 1366x768 every graphics solution was able to provide acceptable performance in this game, and CPU performance – rather than GPU performance – is the limiting factor. This is obvious because the GT 630M outperforms the GT 640M (the Acer Aspire M3 has a low-voltage Sandy Bridge processor). There is a noticeable difference in gameplay smoothness between the quickest solutions and the slowest, but even the ultrabook provides a tolerable experience. And the benchmark is really a worst-case scenario. If you limit yourself to two-player games (or the campaign) you will likely receive better framerates. 

When we boost the resolution to 1080p, the GPUs partially re-assert their dominance. The GT 640M claims its rightful crown, but Trinity’s HD 7660G still falls behind the Core i7-3720QM’s version of HD 4000, which goes to show that CPU performance continues to impact the results. Only the IGP-equipped ultrabook is unable to offer an acceptable gaming experience at this resolution.

Performance - Civilization 5

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This game has a reputation for being CPU bound, but I’m not sure that’s the case – at least not in real-world gameplay. The CPU is strained when turns are being processed, but in the late game – which is when turns actually place serious load on a computer – the player spends far more time moving units and deciding on construction than hitting the Next Turn button.

My Civilization 5 benchmark is real-world gameplay recorded via FRAPS. It’s a saved game that is 375 turns in on a normal map with 8 opponents. I think it’s important to test under these conditions because Civ 5 is a game that becomes far more graphically demanding in the late-game as more terrain is unveiled, more units are on the map and there’s simply more going on – everywhere.

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Intel HD 4000 really falls flat in this game. Even at 1366x768 the experience is not enjoyable on either of the HD 4000 laptops. It’s only Civilization 5’s turn-based nature that makes the game barely playable. However, once you jump to Trinity’s Radeon HD 7660G the picture changes – the game runs just fine with a few moments of low framerates. And then from there we jump to the GT 630M and GT 640M, which provided an excellent experience. 

Bumping the resolution to 1080p doesn’t change the order of the results but puts the Trinity system in danger of losing its playable status. Again, the turn-based nature of this game excuses low framerates, but there’s a lot of noticeable pauses on the Trinity system at this resolution and the experience is merely tolerable. But it’s still way better than Intel HD 4000.

June 18, 2012 | 04:29 PM - Posted by Annoyingmouse (not verified)

Nice work, I was glad to see you go with higher LODs than we've been seeing in reviews. I hope this is something that you'll update with more games and chips (like lesser Trinity models) when time\availability permits.

June 18, 2012 | 08:14 PM - Posted by Rick (not verified)

how much slower is a sb hd3000 compared to ib hd4000?

June 18, 2012 | 11:41 PM - Posted by Matt Smith

Well, I didn't do testing that would provide a truly accurate figure, but I'd say 30 to 50% slower depending on the game. That's compared to the Intel HD 4000 in the Core i7-3720QM, not the ultrabook version.

June 19, 2012 | 12:21 PM - Posted by madhatter256 (not verified)

not that much.

I have a core i5 laptop with HD3000 and it plays Diablo 3 at 24+fps at low settings and resolution at 1200x720. Makes it very playable.

Have yet to try BF3 and Skyrim as I have those but they should perform similar (but slightly less) to the HD4000.

June 19, 2012 | 11:55 AM - Posted by klatch

Interesting article. I'm in the market for a new laptop and want it to be able to handle SC2 reasonably well, but still lean to the thin and portable side, though not necessarily an ultrabook. Glad to hear that Optimus is doing well and seamless as I hadn't really stayed on top of it. Will any laptop that has an ivy/sandybridge CPU and a nvidia gpu have optimus or only if it specifically indicates so? That is, are there other components that need to be in place that might not be in place if not indicated?

June 19, 2012 | 12:36 PM - Posted by Matt Smith

I believe all of the 600-series GPUs and most of the 500-series GPUs have Optimus. You should still check the laptop description to be sure, as it will almost always be listed as a feature.

3D Vision enabled laptops are the exception (there is apparently a difficulty with offering 3D Vision and Optimus together) but you're probably not looking for that anyway.

June 19, 2012 | 09:22 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Why test these budget oriented notebooks on high/medium settings? They should've been tested on Low settings, so that we'd at least know if they can handle the games.

As it is, all I learned is that HD4000 can't handle medium, ever.

June 20, 2012 | 02:12 AM - Posted by Matt Smith

I don't find it interesting to discover if a laptop can run a game at settings that make the game look like ass.

I am not unsympathetic if you disagree. After all, money is not unlimited and maybe you want to know if a laptop can just barely play that game you have your eye on.

But that's not the perspective I decided on for this article.

June 21, 2012 | 10:51 AM - Posted by Annoyingmouse (not verified)

I applaud your decision to try gaming at higher settings. For benchmarks at the lowest settings, try every other review on the web.

June 21, 2012 | 06:59 PM - Posted by klatch

Now seeing the ASUS ultrabook with the GT 620M in it, I wished this also had that chip in it's comparison - as I'm wondering if it is worth getting the model that has it. Oh well.

June 22, 2012 | 02:44 PM - Posted by Matt Smith

We have not reviewed a GT 620M equipped laptop but we did review the Dell XPS 15z, which had the similar GT 525M. It could play a lot of games at 1366x768 and low/medium settings but that's the limit for new titles. For example, it achieved about 25 FPS in BF3 at 1366x768, but went down to an unplayable 15 FPS at 1080p.

June 24, 2012 | 04:31 PM - Posted by klatch

Thanks Matt.

September 4, 2012 | 06:04 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I was looking at getting an Acer laptop with a 630m. Can anyone confirm if it can play Diablo 3 on Infero with at least LOW settings no lag?

October 5, 2012 | 11:37 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I have a default Acer Aspire x3990 with windows 7, people sau that the Intel® HD Graphics wont run Dawn of War 2 even on low, other say I can. Do you believe it will run even if it has the lowest quality settings.

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