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What are the main differences between machines using integrated graphics and dedicated video cards on laptops? When should I considering the one or the other?

I'm not sure if it's worth stating this but the primary use would be for programming (Java, Python, PHP) with several VMs (planning to use Sun VirtualBox with WinXP in it) as well. I'm only considering playing DoTA (rarely) on it and nothing else. Would also be watching movies on it.

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The core differences of integrated graphics processors (IGPs) vs dedicated video cards (GPUs) are :

  1. IGPs uses significantly less power and generate less heat than GPUs
  2. IGPs uses/shares main system memory whereas GPUs have dedicated memory
  3. IGPs are performs significantly lower compared to GPUs (especially Intel IGP solutions)
  4. On a desktop, if an IGP breaks down, you can't replace it short of replacing the whole motherboard. However, if a GPU break down, you can replace just the GPU alone.

So when you should consider one or the other? I'll try to make your decision simple.

  1. Games/Performance > If your priority is in playing 3D games or high-performance computing, get a dedicated GPU.
  2. Battery Life/Heat > If you are more concerned about having a notebook that can stay away from the mains, and won't fry your lap with heat, get an IGP.
  3. Desktop/Notebook > If you are on a desktop, get a GPU (even a cheap one, such as the Nvidia 9400 or the ATI 4350). If you are looking to purchase a notebook, consider the above 2 points.

Personally, I predominantly game on consoles and my iPhone nowadays. If you are going to get a notebook, try to see if you can get one with the Nvidia 9400M chipset (IGP, but damn fine performance for an IGP solution). However, I do have a souped-up desktop rig for gaming, which is currently turned off 90% of the time... till Diablo 3 gets released. :)

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Some IGPs do have dedicated memory (not stolen from system RAM), which is a factor to consider if you're looking for graphics performance. This is usually in high-end laptops, though sometimes you get lucky. –  AnonJr Oct 3 '09 at 19:26
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@AnonJr: methinks you are referring to what we term as "hybrid" solutions - such as solutions with ATI's HyperMemory and NVIDIA's TurboCache. +1 for pointing that out (forgot about it since it's so rare!) –  caliban Oct 3 '09 at 19:30
    
@caliban, what are the implications of #1 from the first list? Could you explain more about #3? Regarding #4, is IGP breaking down on a notebook common? I'm not expecting to replace a new notebook for the next 3 yrs. For #2 on the 2nd list, wouldn't playing DoTA on a notebook with IGP fry the notebook? Which notebooks have Nvidia 9400M chipset? –  Randell Oct 3 '09 at 20:02
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@Randell : #1 - more battery life, comfort, and longevity (theoretical) from an IGP. #3 - you can check out 3DMark scores for 3D performance between an IGP and a GPU. #4 - breaking down is not really common (but it does happen) as long as you don't constantly push the GPU to the limits, and have good airflow. –  caliban Oct 3 '09 at 20:07
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@Randell : The IGP will hit its thermal max performance, and things will get hot, but because it's at its max thermal design power (TDP)(which is quite low for an IGP), your notebook should not fry. –  caliban Oct 3 '09 at 20:09
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I'm only considering playing DoTA (rarely) on it and nothing else.

Then even cruddy Intel integrated graphics should be fine, and will suck less power/battery life.

Would also be watching movies on it.

What formats? You'll be able to watch eg. DVD fine on anything recent, but if you are thinking of full HD (eg. 1080p) you will need to make sure the graphics solution you get (whether integrated or discrete) supports accelerated decoding of the format you're planning to use (typically MPEG-4 AVC aka H.264 for Blu-Ray discs).

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