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When are integrated graphics good enough on a PC?

A person playing Rocket League on a PC laptop.
Pryimak Anastasiia / Shutterstock.com

Anyone looking for serious graphics power needs a graphics card from AMD, NVIDIA, or (soon) Intel. However, not everyone wants that kind of asset, especially when it comes to a $ 1

50 to over $ 1,000 price tag.

How Good Are Integrated Graphics?

So what do you do if you’re not interested in attacking a graphics card, but still want to play a session every now and then Civilization VI or The Witcher 3?

Everything is not lost. You can get useful or sometimes even excellent performance from your CPU’s built-in or integrated graphics card. It all depends on what games you want to play, what graphics settings you can accept, and how old your CPU is.

Gaming is the main thing to worry about here. Integrated graphics work fine for most other typical PC applications.

There are also professional tasks that depend on a system’s GPU. These include video editing, graphics and GPU-accelerated computing with standards such as NVIDIA CUDA and OpenCL. If your workflow needs a powerful GPU, you probably know it.

Still, integrated graphics should be fine for basic computing, including web browsing, media playback, video conferencing, document writing, and photo editing.

However, gaming is quite another.

Many games are playable, but there are trade-offs

A computer rendering of Intel's Tiger Lake processors with ice blue and silver colors.
A computer rendering of Intel’s Tiger Lake platform. Intel

Understand that with integrated graphics you will never get a perfect or even near perfect gaming experience – unless you are playing a very old or very simple game! The goal is to get the best frame rates possible by compromising graphics settings and resolution.

First of all, you’ll want to start with 1080p as your default resolution and be willing to go back to 720p if necessary. The former is the default resolution for most gamers these days, and going higher than this to 1440p or 4K would require more graphics horsepower than integrated graphics can deliver.

The next compromise is the graphics settings. Depending on how up-to-date your CPU is, there are games that will surprise you by running on high or even ultra settings. These will largely be older games that are no longer a challenge for modern graphics cards, but there are many classics that are worth playing.

Most games will automatically pick the right graphics settings for you, and you can start tweaking from there. For example, you can try turning off extra effects, lowering the resolution, or lowering the graphics settings one step further. The latter two decisions can often change places. For example, it may be worthwhile in some games to play at 1080p with low graphics, while others offer a better experience at 720p with medium graphics. This depends entirely on how the game performs on your system and what you can accept as playable.

Finally, the last trade-off to consider is frame rate performance. Ideally, you want a game to run at 60 frames per second or close to it. This is largely unrealistic for integrated graphics, although newer built-in GPUs can sometimes surprise you. The bare minimum is 30fps, and this is about the best you can expect from most games with integrated graphics. Anything below 30 fps quickly becomes unplayable, with far too much stuttering and screen tearing, although 27 fps is often doable.

Which games run on integrated graphics cards?

Does a particular game work with integrated graphics? It’s hard to figure out what kind of performance you’re getting for a specific game. When you consider the minimum graphics settings for popular games, they always recommend a discrete graphics card, while integrated graphics are largely ignored.

That means you either need to figure out which graphics card your built-in GPU comes close to, or get an idea of ​​the performance per game. The latter is the method we would recommend as the information is more readily available and generally more reliable.

For example, let’s say your laptop has a “Tiger Lake” Core i7-1185G7 CPU with Intel Xe graphics and you want to play The Witcher 3. Just plug something like “Intel Xe graphics Witcher 3” into Google to see what comes up. You should get some videos with examples of gameplay and results from sites like User Benchmark.

Check out some of the videos to see how the performance of the game you are interested in is, bearing in mind that while the graphics are the same, the CPU may be stronger or weaker than yours. What you want to know from these videos is what resolution the gamer was playing at, what their graphics settings were, and what kind of frame rate they had. Typically, graphics and resolution information are in the video or video description, and frame rates are usually displayed during the video.

Once you have an idea of ​​the performance your installation is likely to achieve in a particular game, you can make an informed decision as to whether it is really worth your time and money.

Fortunately, many modern game stores, such as Steam, offer refunds.

A word about CPUs

A computer rendering of a Ryzen 4000 laptop in purple with a Borderlands 3 background.
Ryzen 4000 laptops can provide good integrated graphics performance.

The graphics on board have come a long way, but the best performance has only come in recent years. The best results are achieved with a Ryzen 3000 APU on desktops or a Ryzen 4000 processor on laptops. For Intel, the newer, the better. Intel Xe offers good performance on laptops at the time of writing in December 2020. On desktops, a CPU with UHD 620 graphics or higher is sufficient, depending on the game.

Mac users have it a little easier, as only a relatively handful of games are available to run natively on the platform, and system requirements dictate which generation of Mac you need. In general, however, Mac games on Steam will work with most Intel-based Macs built in the past three years.

However, those with an M1 ARM-based Mac will have more of a trial and error experience. Since so little software is currently built for these computers, you have to play games through the Rosetta 2 compatibility layer, which may or may not work depending on the title.

Sticking to built-in graphics instead of a graphics card isn’t always easy, but it’s doable for those looking to compromise. You won’t be able to play all the latest and greatest games, nor will you see the high-level performance you would have with even a mid-range card at 1080p. Nonetheless, there is still a wide library of choices for you without spending the extra cash on a graphics card.

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