When the latest generation of Intel GPUs were announced last year, Intel made some bold claims about gaming on Intel-based laptops. Instead of talking up the ability to play DOSBox and retro games, charts were featuring titles like Total War: Three Kingdoms at supposedly playable frame rates. Intel even started throwing shade at AMD.
So now that we’ve got real-world devices with the new chips, just how good is the integrated GPU? I’ve been playing around with an Acer Swift 5, one of the laptops sporting the latest Intel architecture, to find out.
I was contacted recently by Acer, to see whether I’d be interested in giving one of their upcoming laptops a go. And I’ve always had my eye on their Swift line, a series of thin and light laptops famous for weighing under a kilogram.
There’s obvious caveats with that, of course. The build quality has never been as nice as a Dell, Microsoft Surface Laptop, HP’s premium Spectre line, or even the super competitive Huawei Matebooks. But for a lot of people being able to have a proper keyboard on a chassis that weighs about as much as a Surface Pro? That’s a huge deal.
The actual laptop itself has plenty of grunt, for a thin and light laptop. The exact model I’m using is the S514-54T, which gets you an i7-1065G7 quad core chip, 16GB RAM, 512GB storage (of which you get about 475GB usable), and a 1080p non-touchscreen display for about $1999. An i5 version with 8GB is going for under $1500, but the model you really want is the version with the i7 and the Geforce MX250. That wasn’t available in Australia at the time of writing, although Acer are advertising the MX250 on their landing page.
I’m actually surprised by the user experience. The screen, keyboard and touchpad don’t have that same premium feel that you might get on, say, the new Dell XPS line. And the lack of weight in the chassis means I can see the screen bounce around slightly as I bash the keyboard, a natural byproduct of having to shave weight wherever possible. But there’s a pleasant amount of depth in the keyboard. The touchpad is a little harder with a bit more of a plastic feel to what you’d get on a Surface device, but it’s responsive enough and works well, and there’s no glaring design flaws or hard ridges around the chassis. And I like that at least someone is making a thin-and-light laptop with multiple ports! There’s a USB-C port on the left hand side, HDMI out, and two traditional USB ports, one for each side. I don’t mind having USB-C dongles to do what I need, but it makes life a hell of a lot easier to have the option.
The only real missing element is that discrete MX250 GPU, which is still more efficient than Intel’s onboard graphics. And from initial testing with games that I wouldn’t ordinarily run on a thin-and-light, you’ll want that discrete GPU for faster-paced, more graphically intensive games. Despite tanking every option imaginable in Hitman 2 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider – including turning Shadow down to 1024×768, a resolution I last used when I was playing CS 1.6 – the Acer Swift 5’s integrated grunt just couldn’t keep up. (For reference, Hitman 2 was running at 1280×720 in DirectX 11, while Shadow of the Tomb Raider ran with DX12.)
Mind you, that’s not hugely unexpected. As much as Intel has talked up the ability to play fairly demanding games like Total War, nobody in the industry reasonably expects games like those, which tax the GPU and CPU extensively, to run well.
But there are games that are a lot less intensive. Overwatch is one example of a game that’s fairly manageable on low-end laptops, partially because the requirements are low and there’s a lot of flexibility with the in-game options. The stylised look makes Overwatch a bit easier to play at lower settings, and the aggressive resolution scaler means you can get some serviceable frame rates on super low-end machines.
Overwatch doesn’t have an in-built benchmark, so what I’ve done is use the Open Capture and Analytics Tool (OCAT) to monitor frame rate and frame time performance over the course of some Quick Play matches. The frame time performance is important, because it shows how stable gameplay actually is: while hitting an average frame rate is nice, it doesn’t highlight how unstable the experience can be if you’re getting a lot of frame rate drops during major battles.
For instance, when running Overwatch at 720p with all settings on low or disabled and with a 100 percent resolution scale, quick play matches reported just over 60fps. The actual experience, however, had a lot of spikes depending on how much action was on screen, particularly in large team fights. OCAT spits results out in handy .csv files or visualised PDF graphs, so you can see the variance in moment-to-moment gameplay.
When you look at a frame time graph, what you’re looking for is as few spikes and as little variance as possible. That means you’re getting a smooth experience with minimal stuttering, regardless of the on-screen situation.
There’s some nasty spikes at the beginning, and some fairly consistent juttering throughout the course of a match. It’s playable, sure, but thin-and-light laptops aren’t equipped with a low latency, high refresh rate displays. And the effect of that makes gameplay a lot harder to evaluate, and a whole lot more unpleasant.
Lowering the resolution scale to 75 percent ups the average FPS to just over 66, and while there wasn’t any enormous spikes like before, you can still see there’s a good amount of instability over the course of a match.
Just for an extreme comparison, here’s what a frame time graph for Slay the Spire looks like. Minus the solo spike which occured – the game occasionally flashes on the laptop while running in exclusive fullscreen or borderless fullscreen mode, which could just be an integrated driver issue – the performance is buttery smooth.
So thin and light laptops are almost there. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when the 4000 series Ryzen laptops start making their way into the Australian market; I’ve heard that might start happening in the next few months, and if the driver issues are reasonable, we could see some really interesting performance results.
But if you’re buying a sub-$2000 laptop today and you can’t get something with a discrete GPU? Then you’ll probably want to stick to indie games. And you can play games like Fortnite or Overwatch, or older titles like Sleeping Dogs if you’re hankering for something more serious. The laptop experience is actually quite good! But if you’re hoping Intel’s integrated GPU has vastly improved the gaming experience, that’s a different story.
You can check out more details on the Acer Swift 5 over on the Acer Australia website.