In pursuit of processing power
When it comes to gaming laptops, desktop performance has always been the measuring stick to which gamers hope mobile gaming will finally reach. Now with this year's crop of gaming laptops, we've seen greater mobile computing performance is finally obtainable thanks to the introduction of desktop parts working in tandem with laptop components.
Two machines that best represent this are the Origin EON15-X and MSI GS30 Shadow with GamingDock. The former comes equipped with a desktop processor packed into a 1.5-inch chassis. Meanwhile, the MSI GS30 links up with a desktop GPU box via a port at the back of the notebook.
The two are similar in that they utilize desktop components to achieve a higher level of performance beyond even the most decked-out mobile gaming rig. However, with Intel's Broadwell CPU and Nvidia's Maxwell GPU raising the bar for notebook performance,, is the desktop still really that much farther ahead than laptop components?
We're going to examine just how much more power you get out of desktop components over their mobile equivalents and determine which are truly the best for gaming.
CPU or GPU
For starters, this isn't a race that will end with one prize pony coming in first. It's a bit more complicated because the processor and graphics card are used to perform completely different but connected processes.
The CPU is in charge of basic computing tasks, like running your basic PC environment for email and file management. While gaming, the processor also serves a larger role in running all the calculations needed for a game to run from player movement to the physics of every virtual detail.
For role playing games, the CPU is also extremely important to power all the in-game artificial intelligence for non-playable characters. What's more, real-time strategy games require significant computing power to churn through tons of equations including rule sets, the movement path of units and the calculations of AI-driven decisions.
The graphics card meanwhile is tasked with generating visuals and draws the scene in games. This includes loading and rendering textures, which it then processes into one seamless picture. While this might sound like slightly less taxing work, the GPU is equipped with thousands of small cores designed to handle multiple tasks simultaneously.
While the CPU and GPU components handle different tasks, neither can stand without the other. The CPU creates the underlying framework of a game and tells the GPU what it needs to render in order to create a visual world since it's not designed to do it on it own.
Crunching the numbers
Of course, talking about the difference in performance between a more powerful graphics card versus a processor is only half equation. The other part comes from testing, and it just so happens we recently reviewed the Origin EON15-X and MSI GS30 Shadow with GamingDock, pitting both machines through our battery of benchmark tests.
Here's how the Origin EON15-X performed in our suite of benchmark tests:
- 3DMark: Cloud Gate: 27,405; Sky Diver: 24,414; Fire Strike: 8,788
- Cinebench CPU: 874 points; Graphics: 158.01 fps,
- PCMark 8 (Home Test): 4,697 points
- Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (1080p, Ultra): 68.52 fps; (1080p, Low): 160.59 fps
- Metro: Last Light (1080p, Ultra): 36 fps; (1080p, Low): 138 fps
Here's how the MSI GS30 with Gaming Dock performed in our suite of benchmark tests:
- 3DMark: Cloud Gate: 23,603; Sky Diver: 25,435; Fire Strike: 11,285
- Cinebench CPU: 630 points; Graphics: 140.85 fps
- PCMark 8 (Home Test): 4,098 points
- Middle Earth Shadow of Mordor (1080p, Ultra): 93.70 fps; (1080p, Low): 208.48 fps
- Metro: Last Light (1080p, Ultra): 51.33 fps; (1080p, Low): 139 fps
There are a lot of numbers to digest here, but it should be abundantly clear both systems are on top of their game in different ways. Unsurprisingly, Origin's machine produced a higher PCMark 8 score of 4,697 points compared to the MSI GS30's 4,089 points. PCMark 8 is a synthetic benchmark test that checks the CPU's capabilities and efficiency by simulating a series of everyday tasks such as word processing, video calling and some light graphics rendering.
The difference between the two machines PCMark 8 scores aren't too distant, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Advances in processor technology haven't been dramatic over the course of the last few years. Of course, clock speeds have increased along with improved power efficiency, but generally even a modest CPU will last a few years, whereas new and much more powerful GPUs come out almost every year.
That said, the CPU plays a much more important role in computationally heavy games like Cities Skyline. Although Intel's Core i7 processors are reported to be just as fast as their desktop counterparts, the latest Razer Blade choked hard while trying to play the city building simulator on low settings at both 1080p and the machine's full 3,200 x 1,800 resolution. Meanwhile, even our modest desktop outfitted with Intel Core i5-4590 processor and a Nvidia GTX 670 graphics card.
The problem with laptop processors stems from the way they are designed for power efficiency with slower clock speeds. Desktop parts, on the other hand, can focus purely on performance since a PC tower will always be plugged into the wall.
Machines equipped with desktop processors, such as the EON15-X, also lend themselves to other calculation-intensive work in the media world. A fairly powerful CPU is extremely advantageous for video editing, 3D modeling or most other media creation tasks that require intense calculations.
When it comes to gaming though a beefier GPU will often be more advantageous than a high-end processor. This is especially evident looking at the results of our hardest gaming benchmark, Metro: Last Light. The desktop Nvidia GTX 980-aided MSI GS30 Shadow was able to play the game at a much higher 51.33 frames per second compared to the average 36fps the Origin EON15-X equipped with a Nvidia GTX 980M was able to maintain.
3DMark's Fire Strike test, a synthetic GPU benchmarking tool, shows just how much more powerful a desktop card is in comparison to it compact notebook equivalent with a nearly 3,000 point difference. In essence, this shows a more capable graphics card will allow you to play games at their highest settings with more enabled graphical flourishes and higher frame rates.
In our own testing we found we were able to play modern games such as Dragon Age Inquisition on Ultra at 60fps with the frame rate dropping down to 50 intermittently. However, the desktop Nvidia GTX 980 proved to be an even better performer keeping the game locked to a steady 60fps. Undoubtedly it could have gone even higher if we plugged the MSI GS30 into a monitor with a 120hz refresh rate, but at the time of testing the game was only able to run at a maximum of 60fps on a 60hz monitor.
It's commendable how far mobile components have come to match performance of their desktop equivalents, but like laptop processors, mobile graphics cards are anchored by power constraints. What's more, a full-size graphics card simply comes packing more CUDA cores, allowing it to render games and video with better quality and at a greater fidelity.
Top of the heap
There can only be one winner in this CPU vs GPU battle, but once again we have to caution this is not a one-horse race. More often than not, a powerful GPU is much more important for playing games at their max settings with a decent frame rate to boot.
That's not to say you can get away with any dainty processor paired with the most extreme graphics card. If you were to pop into a completely packed town in World of Warcraft on fully populated servers with such a rig your frame rate would go down drastically no matter how insane your GPU. This is because the computer needs to process where all the characters are and calculate the physics of every virtual body bumping into each other.
If you plan on building or making an SLI system such as the Aorus X7 Pro, a low-powered CPU can also become a bottleneck. On the other hand, going with lackluster graphics card will leave your gaming options limited to games with less resource intensive visuals or always setting your graphics options to low.
Mobile components still have a ways to go before they fully catch up with desktop parts. It's also evidently clear gamers can't skimp on either the CPU or GPU as neither can live on their own, but for the most part they'll want a nice fat graphics card to truly game.