Integrated versus discrete graphics, which one?!
It’s a bit confusing which choice to make if you’re buying a new Mac or PC to get high quality and fast processing graphics needed for 3D design. Do you go with an integrated graphics card - meaning that it’s built directly into the motherboard (or logic-board for macs) circuitry - or with a “discrete” one, which is a separate dedicated Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) usually hooked up directly to the board ?
Over at The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW) they’ve got a great article about which is best for 3D gamers, but it’s pretty much the same story for 3D visualisers and designers who need fast and efficient machines to produce high quality work on a small timescale.
Essentially what the article describes is that integrated GPUs are fine for everyday graphics processing, 2D design and video playback, but when you get to 3D design, 3D games and video production and editing you need a seperate “monster” in the machine - if you don’t want suboptimal performance. A discrete GPU has its own dedicated RAM, completely separate from the computer’s RAM, making the GPU process graphics at a much faster rate and leading to increased overall performance.
My 15” Macbook Pro has an integrated and a discrete GPU (NVIDIA GeForce 9400M + NVIDIA GeForce 9400M GT) so when I want better performance I need to switch between them in the System Preferences and log out - a bit of a pain, but worth it as it can really handle the graphics load and make Archicad and especially Artlantis rendering fly! The drawback though is that it’s very power-hungry, leading to the battery level reducing quite quickly, and it gets very hot - the highest recorded temperature has been 95 degrees C inside when I was rendering for a few hours. Nonetheless, in relation to my Macbook from three years ago, I would most certainly not swap it for an integrated-only graphics Mac, the experience would not be as smooth and the job would simply not get done. An advantage for new buyers is that the new Macbook Pro line features Automatic Graphics Switching, that switches graphics processors on the fly to give you performance when you need it and better battery efficiency when you don’t.
Bottom line, whether a Mac or PC if you’re interested in 3D design + rendering, or a video production workflow like I am for my screencasting, discrete GPUs seem to be the way to go. Checkout the TUAW article for further details.