You can choose from two types of graphics cards for PCs: dedicated and integrated.
The first uses its own hardware and is regarded as the serious choice. The second borrows resources from the rest of the PC and has a reputation for being the compromise solution.
But is that fair? Each system has its pros and cons, and it’s important to know them before you can decide which is right for you. Let’s take a look.
1. What Is Integrated Graphics?
Integrated graphics refers to a computer where the graphics processing unit (GPU) is built onto the same die as the CPU.
This comes with several benefits. It’s small, energy efficient, and is less expensive than a dedicated graphics card.
Integrated graphics used to have a bad reputation, but this has improved a lot in recent years.
It’s now more than good enough for general computing, including some casual gaming and 4K video watching, but it still struggles in some areas. It isn’t suitable for playing the latest high-end games or for working with graphic-intensive programs.
Another important note is that integrated graphics shares memory with the main system memory. You’ll sometimes see it described as shared graphics for this reason. If your computer has 4GB of RAM and 1GB of shared graphics memory, you’d only have 3GB of memory available for general computing tasks.
Most modern processors have an integrated GPU. In computers that also have a dedicated graphics card, software will switch between the two automatically. It tries to balance performance and efficiency.
Shared graphics are most often used as the sole option on devices where a compact size is the priority, like laptops, tablets, and smartphones. You also get it on budget desktop computers.
2. What Is a Dedicated Graphics Card?
A dedicated graphics card is a piece of hardware used to manage the graphics performance of a computer. They’re sometimes also called video cards or discrete graphics.
There are lots of different types of graphics cards, but they all feature a GPU, some RAM, and a fan to keep it cool.
The benefits to graphics cards is that you can find one powerful enough for any task. They don’t share system memory, and—in most systems—are easy to upgrade. On the negative side, they’re expensive, larger, and generate a lot of heat.
You’ll usually see dedicated graphics cards in mid-range or better desktop computers. Some higher-end laptops also have them.
3. Dedicated Graphics Means Better Graphics
Most recent dedicated graphics cards will deliver better graphics performance than an integrated system. But that’s only part of the story. Which you should go for depends on what your priorities are.
It’s no surprise that dedicated hardware is better than an integrated system, but by how much?
The 8th generation Intel Core i7 processors have the best dedicated graphics performance. These feature Radeon RX Vega M graphics from AMD.
A check on the benchmarking site videobenchmark.net shows that the Vega M offers similar performance to the dedicated RX 570, a mid-range graphics card that sells for around $199.
Other i7, i5, and lower processors offer integrated Intel graphics under the mid-range Iris Pro and entry-level Intel HD brands. The best Iris Pro graphics system benchmarks at less than a third of the level of the Vega M.
By contrast, the best dedicated graphics cards, like the Nvidia Titan Xp range, provide more than double the performance. They cost more than a thousand dollars, too.
4. Dedicated Graphics Also Use More Power
There’s a reason why dedicated graphics cards have built-in fans: they get very hot.
Tests show that under a heavy load, the Titan Xp can hit 185 degrees Fahrenheit or more. That’s in addition to the similar levels of heat generated by the CPU and other components inside the computer. It’s essential to stop your PC from overheating.
By comparison, an Intel Core M processor with integrated graphics might top out at around 160 degrees in total while gaming. There’s no fan at all and it uses a lot less energy.
Benchmarks show that the graphics performance on this setup compares to a dedicated card several years old. But if you aren’t a gamer and value energy efficiency, then it’s likely a better choice.
5. Dedicated Graphics Laptops Exist
You can get laptops with dedicated graphics cards, but your options are more limited. The trade-offs are a larger size and a higher price.
Integrated graphics laptops like the Dell XPS 13 or Acer Swift 7 are less than half an inch thick. A comparable Dell model adds around a quarter of an inch to the depth. At 0.55 inches, the Asus ZenBook 13 makes a claim as the thinnest laptop with dedicated graphics.
Most laptops with discrete graphics are either gaming laptops or high-end machines aimed at pro users. The larger footprint also tends to mean that 13-inch models are rare, with 15 inches or above more common.
Don’t want to compromise on size but want the best performance possible? There is a third, lesser-known choice: an external GPU.
6. Integrated Graphics Is Cheaper
Computers with integrated graphics are cheaper than comparably specced machines with dedicated graphics cards. That doesn’t mean they’re the cheap option, though. Apple uses integrated graphics in all but the 15″ versions of the MacBook Pro. These are the most expensive laptops in their range.
The iMac range of desktops also has integrated graphics in what you might describe as the “entry-level” model. It’s still over a thousand dollars.
In desktop computers from other manufacturers, where you have much more freedom to configure and upgrade the machine, shared graphics is definitely the budget option. Adding a solid mid-range card like the Radeon RX 580 will add an extra few hundred dollars to the price.
But this isn’t to say that discrete graphics is expensive. There are some excellent budget graphics cards worth buying.
7. Dedicated Graphics Is Better for Gaming
If shared graphics is less powerful, does that mean you can’t use it for gaming? Not necessarily.
The online gaming platform Steam releases a monthly survey showing the hardware used by its 125 million customers. Dedicated graphics cards dominate the August 2018 list. But more than 10 percent of users are gaming with Intel’s integrated graphics.
If you choose to go this route, you will need to make some compromises. Not every game will be available to you, and you’ll have to tone down the detail settings. 4K gaming is off-limits in most cases.
To help, Intel offers a guide on its website to choosing the right settings for various games.
Choosing the Right Graphics Card
In a straight integrated vs. dedicated graphics card comparison, it’s easy to see which solution is right for you.
You need a dedicated graphics card for serious gaming and VR. You also need one for professional work with graphics software, including animation, CAD, and video editing. Programs like Photoshop and Lightroom have support for modern graphics cards. These are essential for tasks like 3D work, and will help speed up RAW photo editing.
Interestingly, a powerful dedicated GPU is also used for mining bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
For everyone else, integrated graphics is just fine. It can work for casual gaming. It’s more than good enough for most Adobe programs. And as long as you’ve got a fairly modern processor, it will be able to handle 4K video.
In fact, unless you have specific needs, the benefits of integrated graphics—like device size and better battery life—are likely to outweigh the benefits of discrete graphics.
If you do need the extra power, check out our guide to the best graphics cards for all budgets to help you decide which is right for you.