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Is Integrated Graphics good or bad ?

Early attempts at Integrated Graphics barely did their job and it was not until the very late 2000s that integrated graphics was no longer problematic to use. Early Issues with integrated graphics included:

  • Some Integrated graphics have trouble playing videos especially High Definition or Flash video
  • Most were incapable of running 3D intensive games and many developers refused to support or locked out support for integrated graphics. Developer support for graphics other from NVIDIA or AMD is still an issue in 2011.
  • Some solutions did not support high resolutions or widescreen displays –a problem with some vendors solutions until 2007
  • Some solutions were disabled when an add-in graphics card was installed in the PC, 'throwing way' the integrated graphics capability.
  • Integrated graphics wasted limited and previously expensive main memory and in some cases degraded system performance.
  • Poor driver, software compatibility and support from vendor.

All of these factors gave Integrated Graphics a bad name to anyone with even basic computer knowledge

The three major suppliers of PC graphics technology in the late 2000s were Intel, ATI (later AMD) and NVIDIA. The latter two had the best and complete software compatibility and support. Although NVIDIA produced a good but not stellar integrated graphics solution a few years ago in its 9400M chipset, legal and competitive issues prevented the company from evolving the product to newer Intel and AMD CPU generations. NVIDIA subsequently changed to Hybrid and mobile graphics to address competitive and market requirements.

Its technology is one or two generations behind NVIDIA and AMD depending on one's point of view. As of August 2011, Intel does not have a DirectX11 compatible graphics solution on sale but this will feature in Intel's 2012 product line-up. Although the firm is consistently adding graphics performance to each new generation of CPU it releases, the inherit lack of compatibly with older software or certain software vendors, especially games is still prevalent. Additionally with newer Intel CPUs such as 'Sandy Bridge', one of which will be included in this review. The graphics and CPU speed are managed dynamically a shared to maintains thermal state of the processor.

Although Intel has its own graphics portfolio, it still supports and encourages the use of add-in graphics cards from AMD and NVIDIA for consumer, business and gaming use. The company recognises that its integrated graphics is only intended for and suitable for light duties which coincidentally in 2011 is not as light as what was considered light in 2001. The way these technologies have been used has changed considerably in ten years thanks to HD video, high resolution displays, HD video conferencing, visually rich websites, Flash and Streaming video sites, and High resolution digital still and video cameras and billions of photos and videos being shared globally across fast and affordable wired and wireless broadband internet connections every day.

Software and hardware go hand in hand; both enable each other to open up new experiences never thought possible. Either way the software still needs hardware for the software to run and for such multimedia rich software to work we need PC graphics hardware.

AMD, formerly ATI has been offering entry level integrated Radeon graphics in its motherboard chipsets for five years now however all this time only relatively low performance graphics was possible to integrate into the system chipset. The reason behind not being able to offer better graphics are several reasons: transistor count, size, complexity, cost and Thermal budget/heat.

AMD did not offer an integrated version of its 2010 HD5000 series graphics for PC desktop motherboards and notebooks as it was working on its next generation processor with discrete class graphics dubbed the 'Fusion' architecture, something which as supposed to solve all the problems preventing faster graphics from being integrated into the system chipset of every PC. It is uncommon in this industry for a major vendor to skip a product refresh cycle but in this case, it was for a good reason.

What does all this mean then? Windows 7, Linux and Mac OSX all currently extensively and heavily use Graphics and compute acceleration to improve performance in many common everyday tasks. Compatible graphics hardware is even required for these operating systems. Consumer consumption of content is forever growing and the PC and internet is continuously increasing to be multimedia rich. The 'right stuff' is required to power the modern multimedia, internet and gaming experience.

The 'right stuff' has been available since 2006 in the form of add in graphics cards from NVIDIA and AMD which enhance system performance by accelerating computations, clear HD video decoding and encoding as well as providing blazing fast 3D for games and professional content. These cards work great but for the faster versions, they are large, consume power, generate additional heat and are an additional purchase for a modern PC. Some PC buyers will not want to pay for an additional option that they may consider for gaming or of little to no visual benefit. This results in reliance of 'free' integrated video.

Although Intel has consistently offered entry-level integrated graphics for a number of years and has majority market share, its capability has ever increasing. Not to be outdone AMD have been working on their 'fusion' technology for the past few years. This new processor architecture used the CPU experience of AMD with the graphics leadership of ATI with the combined goal to produce a true multimedia accelerator with mid-level instead of entry-level graphics capability for the mainstream. Such a processor, which could equally handle graphics just as well as it, can process data and as a result use this combined capability and power to accelerate other processing tasks such as encryption, video conversion and other compute tasks. This concept would ensure even entry level PC buyers would have a good level of graphics and compute, giving a rich multimedia and internet experience.

In response to AMD's initiative, Intel added its own video conversion functionality to its 2011 2nd generation Core processor line-up, especially a competitive video conversion feature called 'Intel Quick Sync', however OpenCL compute and DirectX 11 will not be coming until future product.

Hardware is useless without software and software is useless without hardware. AMD have publically declared that Fusion and more specifically the Mainstream Desktop and Notebook products featuring the fusion architecture are the company's most important product in its history. In February 2011, AMD introduced its energy efficient Fusion parts designed for ultra-portable notebooks and netbooks. Fast forward to July and AMD has finally released its 'vision' for mainstream computing, The A-Series for Desktops and Laptops.

Is AMD Fusion a game changer or a load of marketing hype? We put the AMD A6-3650 Desktop APU head to head against the Intel's 2nd generation Core ­­i3-2100 Desktop CPU using a battery of system, multimedia, gaming, 3d and web tests.

"The AMD A-Series APU represents an inflection point for AMD and is perhaps the industry's biggest architectural change since the invention of the microprocessor." Rick Bergman Senior Vice President and General Manager AMD Products Group

Read on to find out If AMD's VISION can see its 'Lynx' give Intel's 'Sandy Bridge' a show it will not forget.

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