The Graphics Cards themselves are probably going to be great. Knowing what you are buying – that is the point of today’s article.
The NVIDIA 3000 Series of Graphics Cards have made a massive jump in gaming performance. Ray Tracing is starting to become more commonplace, performance increased across the board, and benefits outside of pure gaming are on more customers radar.
At CES 2021, NVIDIA announced that the 3000 series is coming to laptops. Not sometime in the future, but this week. Well, most likely in the US. I don’t think Australia will see any for a while, but that’s a different issue.
This is a unique and exciting position for laptop design. Usually, new laptop CPUs come out (e.g. Ryzen 5000 mobile/Intel 11th Gen), then quite a bit later mobile GPUs are released. For the first time in a long time, consumers will be able to buy a whole new platform.
Why is a whole new design important?
From a buyers perspective, it might not seem like a big deal. You buy a Lenovo Legion today or wait a while, and you can buy the refreshed model with slightly upgraded hardware.
The last couple of years, companies keep using the same design just change the chips. The cooling solution would work for an Intel 7000H series CPU, but power requirements on even the 9000H series CPUs require a lot more cooling. The solution? Make the fans run faster, making for some really noisy laptops with terrible battery life.
This year, we can get entire refreshes where adjustable power limits and cooling performances have been implemented from the get-go. New designs will allow for increased performance with thinner designs without compromises.
Well, as long as you can buy them.
The stock issues will impact these new systems!
Demand for any computers has increased dramatically over the last year. NVIDIA and AMD have had trouble keeping up with demand on the desktop components, and laptop supply will be the same.
I am not trying to say this as a failure on most companies part. You can’t make a million laptops if you only have 100,000 CPUs and 50,000 GPUs. Demand for these new systems will be high, and scalpers will be a thing.
Brace yourself for this. There isn’t much you can do apart from being patient. Don’t pay exorbitant prices just to have a new machine now if you can avoid it.
And the naming scheme for the NVIDIA GPUs is going to make this worse. It is going to be very difficult to know what you are buying without a lot of research.
What do you mean? They are 3060, 3070 and 3080 – same as always!
Yes – and No. Laptop GPUs and Desktop GPUs aren’t the exact same thing. They still have the CUDA cores, and NVENC, and all that sort of thing. The most significant difference that you need to worry about is power consumption.
In straightforward terms, for a processor to work faster, you put more power into it. There is more to it of course, but if you have 2 of the same chip running at 80W and one at 120W, you would expect better performance coming from the chip running at 120W.
What you shouldn’t expect is the same chip to be running 50% better. More power has diminishing returns and the more power you push through a chip, the more cooling you need to provide. But it would be reasonable to expect visibly better performance.
What has this got to do with anything? A 3080 mobile will still be a 3080 mobile?
This is the problem – no, they won’t. Sticking with the 3080 for illustrative purposes, you can have a 3080 that maxes out at 80W, and others that max out at 150+W!
Now this by itself isn’t new. NVIDIA introduced the Max-Q standard for low powered GPUs, which guarantee a certain level of performance and audible levels at a lower TGP or Total Graphics Power level.
Max-P is a kind of defacto standard used to show a Graphics Card installed at its maximum power levels. These are the ‘best’ cards you can have in a laptop and generally draw a premium price.
We knew about this. This isn’t new.
No, it’s not. There are two new things with the 3000 series though. Firstly, the minimum and maximum power levels are now incredibly far apart. This means that you can get a 3080 running at 80W in a laptop significantly more expensive than the same specced laptop running a 3070 at 125W. For raw FPS, I would lean to the laptop with the 3070 in this case.
Secondly, and far more importantly – companies don’t have to tell you what power limits the Graphics Cards are running. This is where you won’t know what you are buying without a lot of homework.
Wait, NVIDIA says that the card can run between certain levels. Can’t it run at all indicated power levels?
Theoretically, yes. The thing is theory is a beautiful idea but isn’t always what happens. Instead, NVIDIA is leaving it up to companies to advertise power levels, as the power limit depends on many things. Cooling and power limits are the most significant factors here.
The problem is this disclosure isn’t compulsory, nor is supporting the upper power limit. I can see many companies providing ‘Max-P’ products, and charging for the extra cooling and power management required. And their additional cut for premium branding, of course.
Then there is the flip side – I can see other companies ‘cheaping out’ on build quality but charging the premium pricing, and you won’t know until you try and run a game.
There is also the issue where you will not be able to increase the power to the GPU even if you felt like tweaking. Laptop options are locked down pretty tight, so once you buy one that’s what you have.
So how can I find out what I am buying?
One way you can get an idea is the power supply that comes with the laptop. If you buy a computer with 100W power brick, there is an excellent chance that you won’t have a high powered system. You would expect a budget of 45-65W for the CPU, then 10+W for everything else. Anything else would be GPU and a little overhead.
And all this is just for GPUs. The low core count Intel 11th Gen CPUs are also going to muddy the waters as well.
This isn’t a surefire way of working out what is going on. You can get an idea by looking at things like this, but selling a bigger PSU won’t hurt most laptops.
However, there is a surefire way to get a laptop that meets your requirements.
Best bet – follow YouTube and other Tech reviews like never before.
Wait for the reviews. Watch what they have to say about the systems, and see what they have to say about them.
For laptops, I can highly recommend Jarrod’s Tech and Hardware Unboxed. Both are Australian YouTuber channels know what they are looking at, and more importantly, what they are looking for. I often watch their videos to keep an eye on what the industry is up to.
Both pull no punches if they find an issue with what they are reviewing, and put their findings in simple terms. Even without this, both show performance benchmarks of the laptops and different workloads including gaming, showing you expected performance very clearly.
Before last year, my thoughts were if you bought a reputable brand, you would get a decent computer. This is still the case, but the list of caveats has increased with every new release.
This year, the catch will be lots of amazing computers – but they are going to be more purpose-built. Knowing what you need to get the right system will be more critical than it has in a very, very long time.
So I only want a high power graphics card?
Not necessarily. A Max-Q GPU needs physically smaller power bricks, run cooler and can be put in lighter laptops. If you want to game on an easily transportable laptop, Max-Q is what you should be looking at.
The problem isn’t that Max-Q exists. The problem is vendors being able to hide what you are buying, potentially charging you more than you ‘should’ be paying.
Like any tech, different configurations exist for different needs. If your goal is portable productivity and gaming, Max-Q variants are a good choice, but you need to know the limits of what you are buying to make that decision yourself.
Until next time,