Anybody looking for serious graphics power needs to have a graphics card from AMD, NVIDIA, or (someday soon) Intel. Not everyone wants that kind of power, however, especially when it comes at a price tag of $150 to more than $1,000.
How Good Are Integrated Graphics?
So what do you do if you aren’t interested in shelling out for a graphics card, but you’d still like to play the occasional session of Civilization VI or The Witcher 3?
All is not lost. You can get usable, or sometimes even outstanding, performance from your CPU’s built-in or integrated graphics. It all depends on which games you want to play, what graphics settings you can accept, and how old your CPU is.
Gaming is the main thing you need to be concerned with here. Integrated graphics will work just fine for most other typical uses of a PC.
There are professional tasks that rely on a system’s GPU, too. These include video editing, graphics rendering, and GPU-accelerated computing with standards like NVIDIA CUDA and OpenCL. If your workflow needs a powerful GPU, you’ll probably know that.
Still, integrated graphics should be fine for standard computer usage, which includes web browsing, media playback, video conferences, document writing, and photo editing.
Gaming, however, is something else entirely.
Many Games Are Playable, but There Are Trade-offs
Understand that, with integrated graphics, you’ll never get a perfect or even near-perfect gaming experience—not unless you’re playing a very old or very simple game! The goal is to get the best possible frame rates by compromising on graphics settings and resolution.
First, you’ll want to start with 1080p as your default resolution and be willing to go down to 720p when necessary. The former is the standard resolution for most gamers these days, and going higher than this to 1440p or 4K would require more graphics horsepower than integrated graphics can muster.
The next compromise is graphics settings. Depending on how up-to-date your CPU is, there are games that will surprise you by running at high or even ultra settings. These will largely be older games that are no longer a challenge to modern graphics cards, but there are many classics well worth playing.
Most games will automatically choose the appropriate graphics settings for you, and you can start tweaking from there. For example, you can try turning off extra effects, reducing the resolution, or lowering the graphics settings another notch or two. Those last two decisions can often trade places. It may be worth it in some games, for example, to play at 1080p on low graphics, while other games may offer a better experience at 720p with medium graphics. This depends entirely on how the game performs on your system and what you can accept as playable.
Finally, the last trade-off to consider is frame rate performance. Ideally, you want a game to be running at 60 frames per second or close to it. This is largely unrealistic for integrated graphics, though newer built-in GPUs can sometimes surprise you. The bare minimum is 30 fps, and this is about the best you can expect from most games with integrated graphics. Anything below 30 fps quickly becomes unplayable, with far too much stuttering and screen tearing, although 27 fps is often doable.
Which Games Will Run on Integrated Graphics?
Will a particular game work with integrated graphics? It’s tough to figure out what kind of performance you’re going to get for a specific game. If you look at the minimum graphics settings for popular games, they always recommend a discrete graphics card, while integrated graphics are largely ignored.
That means you either have to figure out which graphics card your built-in GPU performs close to, or get an idea of performance on a per-game basis. The latter is the method we’d recommend, as the information is more readily available and will be generally more reliable.
Let’s say, for example, that your laptop has a “Tiger Lake” Core i7-1185G7 CPU with Intel Xe graphics and you’re looking to play The Witcher 3. Simply plug something like “Intel Xe graphics Witcher 3” into Google to see what comes up. You should get a number of videos with examples of gameplay and results from sites like User Benchmark.
Watch some of the videos to see what the performance is like for the game you’re interested in bearing in mind that while the graphics are the same, the CPU may be stronger or weaker than yours. What you want to find out from these videos is what resolution the gamer was playing at, what their graphics settings were, and what kind of frame rate performance they had. Most of the time, graphics and resolution information is either in the video or in the video description, and frame rates will usually be displayed during the video.
Once you get an idea of the performance your rig is likely to achieve within a given game, you can make a more informed decision on whether it’s actually worth your time and money.
Thankfully, many modern gaming stores—like Steam—offer refunds.
A Word About CPUs
Onboard graphics have come a long way, but the best performers have only come in recent years. You’ll have the best results with a Ryzen 3000 APU on desktops or a Ryzen 4000 processor on laptops. For Intel, the newer the better. Intel Xe offers good performance on laptops at the time of writing in December 2020. On desktops, a CPU with UHD 620 graphics or later will do—depending on the game.
Mac users have it a bit easier, as only a comparative handful of games are available to run natively on the platform, and the system requirements spell out which generation of Mac you need. By and large, however, Mac games on Steam will work with most Intel-based Macs built in the last three years or so.
Those with an M1 ARM-based Mac, however, will have more of a trial and error experience. Since so little software is built for these computers right now, you’ll have to run games via the Rosetta 2 compatibility layer, which may or may not work depending on the title.
Sticking with onboard graphics instead of a graphics card isn’t always easy, but it’s doable for those willing to make compromises. You won’t be able to play all the latest and greatest games, nor will you see the high-level performance you would with even a mid-range card at 1080p. Nevertheless, there will still be a wide library of choices out there for you without spending the extra money on a graphics card.