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There are two kinds of graphics cards for PCs: dedicated and shared.

The former brings its own hardware to the party, and has always been regarded as the serious choice. The latter borrows resources from the rest of the PC, and is often seen as the compromise solution.

But does that still hold true? Or have advanced in shared graphics made a viable option for anyone? Let’s take a look.

Shared Versus Dedicated Graphics

As its name suggests, a dedicated graphics card — often also called discrete graphics — is a piece of specialist hardware dedicated solely to managing the graphics performance in a computer.

It consists of a graphics processing unit Will NVIDIA's New Maxwell GPUs Revolutionize PC Gaming? Will NVIDIA's New Maxwell GPUs Revolutionize PC Gaming? Read More (GPU), which functions similarly to the main processor (CPU) in the computer, and its own dedicated RAM.

shared graphics

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In shared — or integrated — graphics systems, these components are built into the same chip as the CPU. The memory assigned to graphics is shared with the main system memory. This means if your PC has 4GB of RAM and 1GB shared graphics memory, only 3GB of that memory will be available to general computing tasks.

geforce-gtx-760-3qtr

A dedicated graphics card is generally more powerful than a shared graphics system. It’s also larger, uses more power and generates more heat.

Some computers offer both shared and dedicated graphics, providing the choice between the best graphical performance or longer battery life Get More Runtime From A Single Laptop Battery Charge Get More Runtime From A Single Laptop Battery Charge Does your laptop battery charge not last long? This guide will offer tips on how to get more runtime from a single charge, using simple Windows settings. Read More . In these systems, you can either make the choice yourself, of the computer will decide what’s best on the fly.

The Rise of Shared Graphics

The picture with regard to shared graphics has changed quite a bit over the last few years. It always used to be the case that shared graphics were the cheap option that provided no better than base level performance. It enabled PC manufacturers to leave out one of the more expensive components in a system so that they were able to meet budget price points.

They would also meet budget expectations — fine for displaying a spreadsheet or basic web page, but no use for gaming, and even playing an HD video 8 Eye-Popping Ultra HD Videos To Watch On Your New 4K TV [Stuff to Watch] 8 Eye-Popping Ultra HD Videos To Watch On Your New 4K TV [Stuff to Watch] We've trawled high and low and found some eye-popping 4K videos that take full advantage of the ridiculous number of pixels at your disposal, for free. Read More might be a struggle.

Now, PCs and laptops are smaller than ever, and shared graphics is now a desirable feature in helping systems become smaller still.

macbook-gold-2

The 12-inch MacBook Should the New MacBook's Single Port Scare You Away? Should the New MacBook's Single Port Scare You Away? Apple recently revealed the new MacBook, and it's a jaw-dropper — but it also has only a single port. Was this a blunder, or a sign of the future? Read More uses the Intel Core M processor with Intel HD 5300 Graphics. It is just 13.1mm thin, is fanless and runs on low power; in return, you’ll get battery life that lasts through the working day. None of these points would be possible if a dedicated graphics chip was in use.

But with prices starting at $1,299 it’s also far from a budget system.

In fact, almost all of Apple’s MacBook range has dedicated graphics, as do half of its iMac desktop machines, plus Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 The Laptop And Tablet Killer: Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Announced The Laptop And Tablet Killer: Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Announced Available for pre-order on May 21 and hitting store shelves on June 20 is Microsoft's brand new Surface Pro 3. The device features a 12-inch 2160x1440 display, significantly larger than the previous Surface Pro 2's. Read More and a whole host of high-end Windows Ultrabooks What Is An Ultrabook & Can It Succeed? [Technology Explained] What Is An Ultrabook & Can It Succeed? [Technology Explained] Remember when the word laptop described virtually every mobile computer on the market? The choices were certainly easier back then (because there was simply less choice available), but today there’s a far wider variety including... Read More .

Shared graphics are no longer the cheap option.

Performance Improvements

Benchmarks from the test site VideoCardBenchmark.net put Intel’s HD 5200 and 6000 graphics from its fourth generation processors firmly in line with dedicated mid-range cards that are priced around the $100 mark.

intel hd benchmarks

Intel’s own data says that this amounts to a 35 percent increase in graphics performance over the previous generation, and 75 percent compared to systems from 2006.

intel graphics stats

A decent high-end card, by comparison, would cost maybe four to five times this, with NVIDIA GeForce GTX Titan X priced at around $1000.

The upshot is that a modern processor offering shared graphics is now capable for more than displaying static images on screen, with the added benefits of the lower power usage.

Shared Graphics for Gaming

So, while you’ll still want a dedicated graphics card for serious 3D gaming, a growing number of gamers are finding that shared graphics are good enough.

Steam, the leading online game platform 10 Incredible Steam Games You Can Buy For Under $10 10 Incredible Steam Games You Can Buy For Under $10 Read More , releases monthly surveys showing the hardware and software that its 125 million customers are using.

steam survey

The March 2015 survey showed that the single most popular graphics card was the shared Intel HD Graphics 4000, while Intel’s shared graphics systems in total are used by almost 20 percent of players on Steam.

This could improve further, too. Intel has teamed up with Raptr, a utility that can optimise games for each graphics card. It is able to balance detail and frame rate to produce better performance than you would achieve through the standard settings.

NVIDIA and ATI’s dedicated cards still lead the way on Steam, with around 51 and 28 percent respectively. The NVIDIA GeForce GTX 760 is the leading dedicated card. That’s priced in the region of $400.

Which Should You Choose?

Some of the long held opinions about the merits of shared and dedicated graphics cards still hold true, and some don’t.

It’s absolutely true that you need a dedicated card for serious graphics use, whether it’s 3D gaming at the highest resolution and frame rate, video editing or graphic design. It’s less important for other graphics-based work such as photo editing: Lightroom 5 doesn’t support GPU acceleration, for example.

And it’s also true that a dedicated graphics card will show you an improvement in other areas, such as complex 2D games.

But shared graphics no longer deliver the bare minimum of performance. For day to day uses, like web, office apps, video watching and even some 3D games (at lower resolutions), it is now more than good enough.

For laptops especially, the smaller size and lower power consumption give shared graphics benefits that far outweigh those offered by a dedicated card.

Does your computer have shared or dedicated graphics? Can you play games on a computer with shared graphics — and, if so, which ones? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Image credits: ATI via tangi bertin, Intel performance chart via intel.com

  1. Marikovski
    July 28, 2016 at 5:17 pm

    I'm using a HP Pavilion 500-111ea with Intel HD Graphics 4400. My shared syetem memory is 4048mb while total available graphics memory is 4176mb with the dedicated 128mb in there. This is plenty for me as I can play games on steam such as Garry's Mod, dead Island Riptide and CoD Ghosts. I use origin as well for FIFA 16 and it works fine but my battlefield hardline struggles on origin with this setup.

  2. Binit Acharya
    April 7, 2016 at 6:54 am

    My Computer Shows It Has dedicated memory 128 mb and shared memory 701 mb what does it mean?how can i choose between both of them. and total memory is 829 mb.

  3. Serkan Dogan
    March 21, 2016 at 3:00 am

    I've just bought a Zoostorm PC with Intel i7 16GB RAM however it has a 1GB Intel 4600 shared graphics. I'm not sure if it will be up to scratch with my work and games. I use heavy art, design and video editing as well as play blockbuster games but I'm not sure if I should get a new dedicated graphics card. I am definitely looking at improving in the future (especially when heavy-load SSDs are much cheaper). Can you recommend which one I should go for? It would be great if it could support 4K video processing as video editing is going to require the best output. P.S. I've got a couple of broken old laptops with good quality RAMs. If I add them all up I think I'd get another 16GB. But apparently laptop RAMs don't work with PCs unless I buy an adapter. I think they're around $10 a piece but I'm not sure if it will work.

    Thanks.

  4. kingudbhav
    March 19, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    I have Intel HD graphics 966 mb memory, 32 MB dedicated memory and 0 MB shared memory .I have Intel Pentium p2 G640 T processor and I play GTA v ,prototype 2 ,medal of honour warfighter ,cod black ops 3 etc. They work without lagging
    I am to happy about this.....

  5. Dony
    January 31, 2016 at 10:12 pm

    What about both integrated and dedicated gpus working on the same laptop. I have an ASUS ROG GL752VW with both an intel HD Graphics 530 integrated GPU and a dedicated Invidia GeForce GTX 960M GPU on board. How can this work? Seems the Intel GPU is for everyday use and the Invidia cuts in when there is a game or other hard processing involved. The Intel unit CANNOT be shut down, as far as I can tell because all graphics go through this card and shutting it down in control panel simply defaults to very poor graphics. Cannot shut this down in BIOS. The reason for both is apparently to provide better battery life. Anyone have any opinions on this? I would prefer to run the Invidia constantly.

  6. James
    January 4, 2016 at 12:17 pm

    There is an issue with shared tho, that I am finding a lot on computing forums. Many laptop owners are finding their games are not running well, or not loading AT ALL because they dont have enough shared video memory. Even though they have 8gb of RAM, the shared portion of that for graphics is set to 64mb or 128mb. For some games this isn't enough to even load it. BIOS doen't always allow for you to increase this in laptops. Does anyone know what this is the case on lower end laptops?? It is weird that in 2015/16 laptops are still setting shared RAM as low as 64mb!!!

  7. Michael Weldon
    October 11, 2015 at 11:35 pm

    I use an elderly lady for day-to-day computing. A 10-yr old Compaq Presario desktop, produced just prior to the HP buyout that saw the Presario name relegated to nothing more than a name for a line of cheapo laptops! She runs Puppy Linux.

    She uses the old ATI Radeon Xpress 200G chip, built into the SB400 southbridge. I have 4 GB of RAM, and the Xpress 200G is set to use the maximum of 256 MB of system RAM. I'm not a gamer; I don't do video editing, or any intensive stuff like that.....mostly photo editing, and graphic design. Despite its age, the Xpress 200 still produces pin-sharp graphics, more than adequate for what I use her for. As I'm operating on a fairly tight budget, a dedicated GPU is out of the question.....and for my needs, would be a complete waste of money anyway.

    I'm happy with my system the way it is. How many of us can honestly say that?

  8. Mike
    May 1, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    VR is going to put a kink in the relevance here, as rendering two scenes is necessarily more resource intensive than rendering just one. But there can be no doubt that on-board graphics are not nearly as bad as they used to be. The statement that on-board graphics is no good for gaming hasn't been true for 10 years or more.

  9. Matthew
    April 30, 2015 at 3:14 pm

    Both capability and speed of shared graphics have increased immensely since some of the early atrocities that gave shared graphics a bad name.

    In the old days, they ate a not insignificant chunk of the meagre system RAM ... I remember seeing one machine with 256MB and some idiot had set the graphics to use 64MB. They also ate a significant amount of the available memory speed as the memory access was split between CPU, graphics processing and display.

    What happened?
    Memory got bigger and faster, and we now have shared graphics solutions that have full hardware capability.

    GMA950/3150 represents an interesting turning point, having DX9 pixel shader but relying on software for vertex shader and T&L - though with some registry tweaks, it appears it can be switch to driver emulated "hardware".

    On my ATOM Netbook, the GMA3150 provides enough DXVA assistance to allow a DVB-T adapter and software to work without excessive CPU load.

    After that, the trend was toward full hardware capability.

  10. kt
    April 30, 2015 at 2:57 am

    I have an AMD APU in one pc (16 gigs of ram) and Nvidia pci in another and there's not much difference. It comes down to need.

  11. Mike Conlin
    April 30, 2015 at 1:59 am

    I have been building machines since the earth cooled... I have a monster like most PC enthusiast and i will say this... if you dont have a requirement of water cooled extreme graphics and just have to be the best in your friends circles... dont waste money on the hype... buy the best APU you can find and spend your money of fast ram... the most your motherboard can handle and walk away happy. seriously what you will spend to be elite for that gain just the graphics adapter is the same cost as build a decent gaming rig... take a look at AMD's APUs - the a10 line please... and buy 32 gigs of 1600 ram and a 79 dollar motherboard and a 750 watt PSU and walk away... I already know 50 people are going to argue and there are much better solutions out there.. but im telling you dont waste your hard earned money... if you are on a tight buget...go this way you wont be sorry. aaannddd i would wait until the middle of this year when the new stuff is released because its going to be a giant leap in technology... even if you cant afford the new tech ( and most wont ) the older stuff will plummet in price... treat yourself and spend your money on the games not the rig.....

    • Robert
      April 30, 2015 at 3:12 pm

      I agree mike, the APU's are the best bang for your buck. the performance you gain from them is staggering. I run dual 290 oc's with an i5 with a 1.2 ghz oc, so when i say an apu is good, its cause ive run the tests myself and it is worthy of my praise. look at it this way, spend money on good apu and ram, save the rest for down the road and buy dedicated when the apu starts to struggle to keep up.

  12. IronManMark20
    April 30, 2015 at 1:34 am

    "None of these points would be possible if a dedicated graphics chip was in use."

    Uhhh, NO. Most dedicated cards switch themselves off when they aren't being used, so they don't really use power.

    • Doc
      April 30, 2015 at 1:40 pm

      Actually, if the dedicated GPU was the *only* one in the machine (or you have turned off the onboard graphics), how would it shut itself off?
      My main computer has built-in GeForce 8300 and a GeForce 620 card, but I don't have "hybrid SLI" turned on - the 620 is the *only* GPU my computer can use, and there's *nothing* attached to the motherboard video ports.
      Until the last couple of years, notebook computers didn't have GPU switching, so whatever GPU your computer boots up using is the one it will *always* use. Intel made its Switchable Graphics feature a big selling point when they and nVidia debuted the feature. It's still not universal.

  13. Doc
    April 29, 2015 at 5:38 pm

    There are THREE kinds of graphics cards: Dedicated (a card in a slot), shared (a GPU built into a motherboard), and an APU (a CPU and GPU in the CPU socket, either integrated into one chip, or into two modules). The APU type is the one becoming more and more common, especially in laptops. Most phone and tablet SOCs use integrated graphics.

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