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Onboard Graphics vs Dedicated Graphics Cards (Pros & Cons)

Wondering whether a dedicated GPU or an integrated GPU makes more sense for you? We’ve got you covered!

In general, onboard graphics cards (AKA integrated graphics cards) are a low-cost solution suitable for users who don’t frequently use GPU-demanding software or video games. Dedicated graphics cards are more expensive, powerful solutions suitable for gamers and video editors.

That’s the quickest, simplest breakdown. Realistically, there’s much more to cover in order to know exactly which option is worth your time and money.

There’s no doubt that, if there’s anything that gets a gamer excited about their new rig, it’s the GPU. After all, this is what fuels the gaming experience.

You can buy your fancy screens and upgrade and overclock until your computer is burning a hole through your floor, but at the end of the day, the visuals of your gaming experience come down to the level of graphics card your system has.

This guide will dive into the details, covering everything you need to know about the performance of an onboard graphics card versus that of a dedicated card.

Onboard Graphics Cards

Onboard Graphics Card / Shutterstock

An integrated onboard graphics card is a card that does not have its own CPU, but rather is using your systems RAM and system CPU to get the visuals out that you require. Because of this, an integrated graphics card will usually use from one to five percent of the available memory for graphics in your system.

Because this is relying on the RAM and CPU you are using to do a ton of other different processes on your computer, this can result in system slow down once you stress it by playing a graphics intensive video game or program.

It isn’t all bad with Integrated graphics cards though, as these are usually the cheapest graphics cards you can find and will make other features on your PC purchasable as well like a bigger screen, better CPU and more.

Because of their reliance on your integrated systems, integrated graphics cards don’t use up as much power as dedicated ones, so this will increase battery life on laptops as well.

For gamers who don’t demand top of the line graphics but instead will go for games that use 2D environments, emulators of older video game consoles, or games that simply light in the graphics department, an integrated graphics card will usually be enough to suit your needs.

If you are one to use video editing and audio editing software, these cards actually are better than dedicated graphics cards to use for that.

Note: If you have a laptop and are wondering about potential GPU upgrades, definitely read our guide on laptop GPU upgrades first.

Do I Need an Onboard Graphics Card?

You will never actually need an onboard graphics card to do anything really and, while some programs may run better while using an integrated graphics card, those same programs will run on a dedicated graphics card as well.

When purchasing a unit with an integrated graphics card, you have to realize what you are getting. It is not a knock to say that units like this are built for the lowest end of PC gaming possible, it is an absolute fact.

Computers that come with integrated graphics cards are ones that you generally see people use who have little to no interest in gaming. So, technically speaking, you actually do need an integrated graphics card as this is what gives you a display on screen, but when thinking about the question of is it ever a necessity to get a system with one over one with a dedicated graphics card, then the answer is always “no”.

Types of Onboard Graphics Cards

Integrated graphics cards have multiple types and, depending on the quality of the laptop or PC you buy, you will see that reflected in the quality of the integrated card.

While there are some decent integrated graphics options out there, you have to realize the limitations you’re going to have while using them.

With a really good integrated graphics card, you will be able to run some modern games on medium to low settings. For example, titles like Fortnite and Apex Legends are playable on integrated graphics cards at some reasonable frame rates, just know that bumping the graphics settings here will almost always result in an unplayable product or even worse, system crashes.

In terms of which integrated graphics card you should aim to get, the Iris graphics card line is advertised as a significantly faster version of the usual Intel HD graphics card, so while they won’t be measuring up to the titans of a dedicated graphics card, they will provide a somewhat comparable experience to a medium to low quality dedicated graphics card. This should make some of the heavy hitters in the gaming world more playable than a normal integrated graphics card would.

In regard to which card you think would suit your gaming needs if dedicated graphics cards are out of your budget, it is always a good idea to check the speed of the card. Iris Plus Graphics 650 for example runs at 1.10 GHz and previously, this would be an unheard of max frequency for an integrated graphics card of the past. These days, it is readily available and can give you a pretty decent gaming experience for your system.

Dedicated Graphics Cards

Dedicated Graphics Card
Peter Gudella / Shutterstock

When you purchase a dedicated graphics card, you are delving into the world of serious firepower for your computer. A dedicated graphics card has its own memory source which is completely separate from your system’s RAM.

Let’s say you have a 4X8 RAM memory in your system, with your dedicated graphics card, that RAM is completely unaffected when games are in motion.

If you are the type of gamer who pays everything on ultra-settings and always gets the new AAA titles, a dedicated graphics card is a must. Onboard graphics will often struggle to run such titles without major issues.

It is not all rosy with dedicated graphics cards though and there are a few issues that can arise from going this route.

First of all, dedicated graphics cards are more expensive and usually require a more expensive setup altogether. You’ll need a motherboard, CPU, tower, and cooling system that can keep up with your card.

If you are buying a laptop specifically with a dedicated graphics card, make sure you are getting one that has multiple fans and good ventilation. Otherwise, your laptop won’t run well, will risk damage, and may burn your actual lap.

Do I Need a Dedicated Graphics Card?

If you are going to be playing video games that utilize the best graphics around, exploring VR, or using advanced programs like video editors, then a dedicated graphics card is an absolute need.

We’d almost always recommend a dedicated GPU for any decent desktop built and in any laptop that will be used for gaming.

When buying a laptop with a dedicated graphics card, make sure it has the longevity and quality that will last you for a few years. Most laptops are not designed to make replacing a graphics card possible.

Upgrading from Integrated to Dedicated Graphics

Upgrading from Integrated to Dedicated Graphics

Upgrading is in the DNA of every PC gamer out there and whether it is a new screen, a new CPU or an entirely new computer, the hunt for the next big thing is always in the back of their minds. It is no different with graphics cards, but sometimes, there are few caveats.

Generally, the lower gaming-tier PCs and laptops are the ones that will come with integrated graphics cards. If you have ever had a gaming laptop, you know that upgrading the graphics card is not only not recommended, it is often an impossible task.

The reason for this is the way a laptop is built.

Because there is really not much room to put multiple pieces into a laptop, most of it is already integrated into the motherboard. That means if you want to upgrade your graphics card, you’re going to have to carefully remove the chip from the motherboard and when you do that, you instantly cancel whatever warranty you might have had on the computer, so this is all on you from this point forward.

Unless you are going to replace the entire laptop motherboard (which we do not recommend), then you will almost certainly be needing an alternate route.

Almost all modern-day desktops have a PCI-E slot, making it easy to install a dedicated graphics card. This is not a fix-all though as you need to figure out if you have a sufficient enough power supply to handle all the additional power requirements that a more intensive graphics card would require.

Make sure you know what you’re doing if you upgrade a desktop GPU. If you’re worried about adequate specs to run your card, simply involve a professional or do some solid research on what your system can and can’t handle.

What if I Can’t Upgrade My Graphics Card?

The prospect of upgrading integrated onboard GPU’s is pretty difficult, if not downright impossible to do, so you should expect to be stuck with an integrated card when you purchase one.

Here are some options if you can’t directly upgrade your GPU:

eGPU (External Graphics Processing Unit)

eGPU stands for External Graphics Processing Unit. It is a concept that has been around for many years before tech became able to accomplish it. The idea is you take a regular laptop and hook it up to a the graphics card via a cable. Doing this will take the load off your laptop’s GPU and instead put more of it on the extension.

EGPU (External Graphics Processing Unit)
Sonnet Breakaway Box 350W eGPU.

There are a few things to consider in this system though. To start, you are not going to get the same performance you would get out of a dedicated graphics card in a motherboard installation. You will also have to shell out a ton of money just to get one worth having and, at present time, that means the eGPU is more of a novelty than an actual necessity.

Graphics cards generally always sit inside your computer, whether it is a laptop or a PC, they are housed cozily inside the case at all times. The eGPU though takes that notion and throws it out the window.

This is especially helpful for laptop users who see a path to better graphics cards than their system came with as a far away pipedream in the land of yeah right buddy.

In the past, this task could only be completed by techno wizzes who don’t mind dealing with circuit boards being cauterized and enough do-it-yourself parts that the end result would look like the machines from the matrix combined with Twizzlers.

The eGPU gets rid of all that nonsense and instead provides you a simple and sensible way to get top-of-the-line graphics in your laptop or PC, even if you’re default is an integrated graphics card.

Switchable Cards

If you cannot decide on which type of card to get, there is always the compromise. Some laptops come with switchable cards and that means 2 cards in one unit.

How this works is each card is assigned to its own jobs.

For example, if you are running a Word document while browsing the internet and also have an Excel sheet up, that will all be taken care of by your integrated graphics card. If you are running video games with intensive graphics though, that will be taken care of by your dedicated graphics card and this separation of powers gives most laptops a longer lasting battery life.

Final Thoughts

To sum everything up, the dilemma between integrated graphics cards and dedicated graphics card ultimately comes down to your preference.

If you are looking to be a budget PC user, then integrated graphics cards are your best bet and if you must have gaming capabilities, spend a little more so your integrated graphics card is at least up to the task.

For the intense gamers of the world, there is no question that you need a dedicated graphics card to get the best experience possible out of your gaming machine.

If neither suit you, then the external graphics card is another option, though this is definitely going to cost you a bit more and ultimately, will not give you the experience that a true dedicated GPU will give you.

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