One of the two general types of graphic processing unit or GPU is integrated GPU. Compared to discrete graphics processors, which have their own memory and power source because they are separated from a chipset or a central processing unit, an integrated graphics processor is a part or component of an integrated circuitry such as a system-on-a-chip that includes a central processor and other hardware components to include memory and other accelerators.
Some users are apprehensive toward integrated graphics solutions because they require the significant performance boosts that come from discrete GPUs. However, an integrated GPU has its advantages or benefits. Some of these strengths come from advances in chipmaking or fabrication, specific manufacturing process nodes, instruction set architecture, and microarchitecture. Of course, it has general disadvantages and notable limitations or issues.
Pros: Advantages of Integrated GPU
Some of the major advantages of an integrated GPU are inherited from the advantages of a system-on-a-chip or SoC. These include suitability for mobile consumer electronic devices and promotion of advancements in consumer electronics technology.
Of course, there are more specific benefits. Take note of the following:
1. Suitable and Ideal for Portable Computers and Mobile Devices
A notable advantage of an integrated graphics solution centers on its suitability for use in portable computers. Advances in fabrication technology have enabled chipmakers to design and produce integrated chips with a small footprint, thereby allowing device manufacturers to design and produce consumer electronic devices with a smaller and thinner physical profile.
Notable examples of portable devices include ultraportable laptops and hybrid computers, smartphones, and tablet computers. These devices have enough capabilities to deliver minimum performance standards. In addition, some of these devices, especially the flagship ones, are capable of running graphics-intensive applications.
2. Has Lower Power Requirement and Ideal for Battery Operation
An integrated GPU also uses less power when compared with a discrete GPU. Note that one of the drawbacks of an integrated graphics processor is that it needs its own power source, thereby resulting in additional electricity consumption and relevant cost implication. GPUs integrated with a central processor share the same power source.
The aforesaid advantage translates to a more specific benefit: an integrated graphics solution is ideal for battery-operated devices. The entire circuitry consumes less energy. Note that Mac computers from Apple that use either the Apple M1, Apple M1 Pro, or Apple M1 Max SoCs have been acclaimed for their energy efficiency.
3. Generates Less Heat Compared With Discrete Graphics
Because these GPUs consume less power, they essentially generate less heat compared with their power-hungry counterpart. This benefit is critical in portable devices in which there are few options to install internal heat management and cooling system. Furthermore, less heat means consistent performance and less susceptibility to hardware damages.
It is important to note that a cooling system has an additional cost implication. Power-hungry and performance-grade discrete graphics processors require a dedicated heat management setup. High-performance users also typically install separate cooling systems such as heat pipes or a vapor cooling setup for effective and efficient heat management.
4. Capable Graphics and Parallel Processing Performance
The other advantages of integrated GPU come from advances in chipmaking. Companies such as Intel, Apple, Qualcomm, Samsung, HiSilicon, and MediaTek have demonstrated superiority in designing and developing chips with integrated circuits that include capable graphics processors contained within a relatively small physical footprint.
RISC-based and ARM-based architectures have also made integrated graphics solutions a workable alternative to running graphics-intensive applications without the need for discrete graphics cards. Benchmarks and real-world tests of the M1 series of chips from Apple showed that the integrated GPUs in these hardware can compete with some discrete GPUs.
5. Suitable for Designing Efficient Inter-Hardware Components
An integrated graphics processor theoretically communicates faster with a central processor and other hardware components than a discrete GPU because of proximity. It can also utilize shared hardware resources and work efficiently alongside other components such as an image signal processor or dedicated artificial intelligence and machine learning engines.
Mobile SoCs such as the Apple A Bionic and the Qualcomm Snapdragon chips have demonstrated the efficient interoperability between integrated graphics and other components, as evident from their capabilities to power consumer electronic devices that are capable of handling graphics-critical processes and system requirements.
Cons: Disadvantages of Integrated GPU
Central to the disadvantages of an integrated GPU is that it would not be able to compete completely against discrete graphics solutions. An integrated solution is ideal for all-purpose use cases that involve relatively moderate graphics processing requirements.
The following are the specific drawbacks and limitations of integrated graphics:
1. Integrated Graphics are Non-Removable and Non-Upgradeable
A noteworthy drawback of integrated graphics processors is that they cannot be removed and thereby, cannot be upgraded. Remember that they fabricated within the entirety of a particular chipset or a system-on-a-chip. Users who want to upgrade the graphics processing capabilities of their devices would need to replace the whole chip.
Upgrades are somewhat necessary to cope with the changes in the system requirements of operating systems and software applications. Within the realm of graphics processing, examples of these changes include the normalization of a more immersive graphical user interface and the standardization of high-definition photo and video content.
2. Not Suitable for Graphics-Demanding Use Cases
Some examples of uses cases that require powerful graphics processing capabilities include high-performance PC gaming with high frame rates using a high-resolution display, rendering of three-dimensional graphics, time-critical encoding of high-resolution videos, and blockchain or cryptocurrency mining using a proof-of-work algorithm.
A number of chipsets or SoCs with integrated graphics processors are capable of handling video games, photo editing, and video encoding. However, the fact remains that a discrete graphics solution is ideal for these uses cases, especially in platforms that use instruction set architectures based on complex instruction set computer or CISC.
Note on the Pros and Cons of Integrated GPU
The answer to whether you should or should not use an integrated graphics processing unit depends on the specific reason you have for using a particular computer or device. Based on the aforementioned advantages and disadvantages, an integrated solution is ideal for all-purpose uses that center on moderate to above-average day-to-day graphics processing.
It is important to note the fact that several integrated solutions have decent processing capabilities. Examples of these include the Intel Iris Xe, which is integrated with some 11th-generation Intel Core Tiger Lake processors, the Apple M1 series of SoCs to include the base M1 chip, and the Pro and Max chips.
Nevertheless, when your use cases revolve around browsing the web, watching high-definition videos offline or via streaming services, using office productivity software, and PC gaming at a moderate graphics setting, among others, having an integrated GPU will suffice. Of course, it is important to read about its specifications to have an idea of its capabilities.