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What's Better for Graphic Design—A Dedicated Graphics Card or a Shared CPU?

If you are involved with graphic design, the decision about what kind of computer to buy; one with a dedicated graphics card or one with an integrated system can be difficult. 

See our guide to tell how much graphics memory you need

How it works

Computers can have either a dedicated graphics card with on-board dedicated memory (RAM) or an integrated (shared) system where the graphics components are part of the processor (CPU). An integrated system uses a portion of the system memory for graphics, which decreases the amount of RAM available for general use.

Another option has been added to the market, computers with both a dedicated graphics card and a shared system. This is called switchable graphics or APU by some manufacturers. The computer can be configured to either choose on the fly which method works best for the current application or the user can choose manually which system to use.

Advantages and disadvantages

Dedicated graphics card

Historically, if you were going to work with graphics, a dedicated card was the only way to go. A discrete graphics card delivers crisp, clear graphics quickly, enabling video editing and complex graphic design. The drawbacks to a dedicated graphics card are that cards are expensive, physically large, use additional power, and produce heat. These attributes make it hard to fit into a laptop.

Recent advances have allowed more manufacturers to put discrete graphics cards in larger, higher-end laptops. The price often reflects this, but it can be worth it if you need full-time graphics ability in a laptop.

Video editing on a computer

Shared graphics card

Shared systems were traditionally put into lower-end computers. They enabled the computer to display spreadsheets and general web pages, but were generally not powerful enough to do graphic design or advanced photo editing. Integrated systems produce less heat and allowed longer battery life, making them better suited for laptops.

In the last ten years, however, shared graphics systems have improved greatly. As laptops have become smaller and lighter, and users have increased their graphics use though video editing and gaming, manufacturers have found ways to increase the graphics ability of integrated systems. Because most users are looking at high-resolution video, editing photos, and playing games, graphic abilities have increased. Integrated systems still aren’t quite good enough for complex 2D gaming, 3D gaming, or video editing.

Photo editing on a desktop computer

Switchable system

Switchable systems have come out in the last ten years and they’re available at most price points. The dual systems allow for longer battery life when users are not in graphic-intensive applications and advanced graphics abilities when they’re needed. They are more expensive than a single option.

Because the dedicated graphics card can be turned off, laptops can get away with a smaller cooling system and still have acceptable battery life without sacrificing graphics ability.

Conclusions

What you choose really depends on how much you use your computer for graphic design, video editing, and 3D gaming, and what your other requirements are.

If you already need to get a desktop computer and you need a high level of graphics, it’s cheaper to go with a dedicated graphics card. If you’re looking for the portability of a laptop computer, you’ll need to decide between an integrated system and a switchable system. Usually, it comes down to budget.


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