How do they game? Intel Sandy Bridge and AMD Fusion graphics, overview

It's a tale of two new laptop chipsets promising better graphics for everyone: we explore both systems to see how they fare with everyday gaming.

Integrated graphics get an upgrade: Fusion and Sandy Bridge can handle gaming.
Integrated graphics get an upgrade: Fusion and Sandy Bridge can handle gaming.

Both Intel and AMD, the two main companies that make the vast majority of computer processors, have new platforms for 2011. AMD's Fusion and Intel's second-generation Core i-series (formerly code-named Sandy Bridge) share a common goal: to package improved integrated graphics on the chipset that work much better than the previous generation, making it possible to play better games and stream more HD content without the need for a dedicated video card.

For most people, computers with integrated graphics are the default, because they cost less. Unless you're a serious tech enthusiast, you don't want to spend more than you have to, which is why integrated-only graphics are found in the majority of laptops. The new AMD Fusion and Intel Sandy Bridge CPUs are more powerful than their predecessors, and can offer a boost to photo editing, multitasking, and even video encoding, but what about gaming?

With versions of the same promise from both chipmakers we were eager to explore the gaming capabilities of each. The two laptops tested are an Intel-provided Sandy Bridge whitebox (a non-commercial test unit) and the HP Pavilion dm1--a high-end ultraportable with the AMD Fusion CPU. It's obviously not an apples-to-apples comparison--one is on the high-end (Sandy Bridge Core i7) while the other is at the low-end (AMD Fusion-E series)--but this will give a broader prospective on whether gaming is feasible on either level. And with the recent Sandy Bridge problems causing delays, it may be a while before we get a more comparable Sandy Bridge system in to test.

Intel's second generation of Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 processors incorporates the CPU, graphics adapter, and some I/O functions together on the same physical piece of silicon. On the first generation of Intel Core CPUs, the graphics were in the same physical package as the CPU, but not on the same silicon.

Unlike Intel's Sandy Bridge, which is launching with expensive quad-core models first, the initial batches of AMD Fusion CPUs are aimed at mainstream PCs, all-purpose laptops, and Netbooks, with an emphasis on power efficiency. The Fusion chips also combine a CPU and graphics processor in a single piece of silicon, working in tandem with the CPU to execute data-intensive tasks faster. With what we've tested so far, AMD Fusion chips offer better graphics performance than Intel's competing single and dual-core Intel Atom chips, which are currently found in most Netbooks.

For both systems, we used Unreal Tournament III, Street Fighter IV, and Metro 2033--from the low end of the gaming spectrum to the more intensive--using the same game setting and resolution for each. We ran our benchmarks at 1,366x768, to match the native resolution of the smaller HP dm1, and at medium graphics settings when possible. Note that the Intel Whitebox had trouble running some games, as it is a non-retail pre-production unit.

Unreal Tournament 3 (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,280x768, 0X AF, Texture Details 1, Level Details 5  
1,366x768, 8X AF, Texture Details 1, Level Details 5  
Intel (Sandy Bridge) white box
93.4 
88.9 

Street Fighter IV (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,280x768, AA OFF, V-Sync ON, Parallel Rendering ON, Texture Filter DEFAULT, Model Quality MID, Bkgrd HIGH  
1,366x768, AA OFF, V-Sync ON, Parallel Rendering ON, Texture Filter DEFAULT, Model Quality MID, Bkgrd HIGH  
Intel (Sandy Bridge) white box
55.7 
55.09 

Metro 2033 (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,280x768, DX10, Quality LOW, AAA, AF 4X  
1,280x768, DX10, Quality MEDIUM, AAA, AF 4X  
Intel (Sandy Bridge) white box
19.6 
17 

Unreal Tournament 3 (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,280x768, 0X AF, Texture Details 1, Level Details 5  
1,366x768, 8X AF, Texture Details 1, Level Details 5  
HP Pavilion dm1-3005
25.7 
23.5 

Street Fighter IV (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,280x768, AA OFF, V-Sync ON, Parallel Rendering ON, Texture Filter DEFAULT, Model Quality MID, Bkgrd HIGH  
1,366x768, AA OFF, V-Sync ON, Parallel Rendering ON, Texture Filter DEFAULT, Model Quality MID, Bkgrd HIGH  
HP Pavilion dm1-3005
26.72 
25.81 

Metro 2033 (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,280x768, DX10, Quality LOW, AAA, AF 4X  
1,280x768, DX10, Quality MEDIUM, AAA, AF 4X  
HP Pavilion dm1-3005
8.1 
7.7 

Based on these benchmarks, both the Sandy Bridge and AMD Fusion chips are capable of playing mid-level games, but it'll be interesting to come back and look some more when we have a closer dual-core Intel system to compare to. The good news lies with the AMD Fusion: a slightly better than Netbook system can get 25-plus frames per second in decent games, and more if you tweak the settings a bit.

Gaming aside, overall testing performance on Sandy Bridge Intel Core i-series CPUs--in comparison to Core i-series systems of a year ago with similar specs--have increased by at least 3-6 percent in overall speed. As more systems come into CNET Labs and get tested, more charts and reviews will be readily available for a wider comparison. For now, it's a trickle effect.

Basically, both Intel and AMD have the changed the game quite a bit and are once again worthy competitors in the CPU game. It's been a long time for AMD, but with Intel's recent recall of Sandy Bridge systems it looks like AMD may have a bit of a head start until Intel gets it together. However, AMD shouldn't sit on its laurels for too long to release the more exciting Bulldozer processors. That's where the fun starts and the comparisons get really interesting.

Finally, what does this mean for the average consumer? As long as the pricing for integrated systems remains affordable (less than $800 for mainstream/less than $500 for Netbooks/ultraportables) and the promising outlook of the power of this new technology is consistent, the toss up between getting an integrated graphics versus a discrete graphics system for the family isn't as daunting anymore.

About the author

    While taking psych and theater courses in college, Julie learned her mom overpaid a PC technician to...lose her data. Thus, a tech geek was born. An associate editor for CNET Reviews, as well as a laptop testing analyst at CNET Labs, this wayward individual has maniacally dissected hardware and conquered hardware/software related issues for more than a decade. Just don't ask for help on her time off--she'll stare at you quizzically, walk away, and make herself a drink.

     

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