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What is the difference between laptop and desktop GPUs?

What is the difference between laptop and desktop GPUs?

GTX 1080

Anyone who has shopped around for a gaming rig knows that the graphics card (GPU) is arguably the most important thing to consider. Without an appropriate graphics card for the games you want to play, you'll be stuck with sub-par graphics and an overall disappointing experience.

Buying a gaming laptop adds a bit of intricacy to the buying process. You might have heard that an NVIDIA GTX 980 is a powerful GPU — it can even run VR — and this laptop says it has a GTX 980M within. You buy the laptop, get it home, and realize you can't play a recent game on ultra settings. What gives? Let's explore the difference between laptop (M) and desktop GPUs.

The difference between laptop and desktop GPUs

Lots of room in this desktop!

Consider the amount of space in a laptop PC against the amount of space in a desktop PC — there's simply way less room in a laptop, even a bulky gaming laptop.

This lack of room has traditionally called for a different graphics card than one designed for a desktop. NVIDIA, up until their latest 10-series cards, names these graphics cards something similar and just adds an M to the number. AMD does something similar with their desktop and laptop GPUs.

While the architecture of the laptop and desktop GPU are the same, that's about where the similarities end. If you compare the AMD Radeon R9 380 (opens in new tab) with the AMD Radeon R9 M380, you're going to get roughly half as much performance out of the mobile version as you would the desktop version. These specs from GPUBoss tell the tale:

CategoryAMD Radeon R9 380AMD Radeon R9 M380
Memory bandwidth176GB/s96GB/s
Clock speed970MHz900MHz
Shader units1792768
Texture mapping units11248
Video composition97.9 frames/s47.87 frames/s
Pixel rate31.04 GPixel/s16 GPixel/s
Compute units2812
Render output processors3216
PassMark score56003047

Even if you're unsure what pixel rates and texture mapping units really mean, it's clear the R9 380 without an 'M' in its name crushes its mobile counterpart.

The same can be said for last-generation NVIDIA 9-series GPUs. Again with specs from GPUBoss, it's clear that the battle between the GTX 980 (opens in new tab) and the GTX 980M is won by the desktop version:

CategoryNVIDIA GeForce GTX 980NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980M
Memory bandwidth224.4GB/s160.4GB/s
Clock speed1753MHz1253MHz
Shader units20481536
Texture mapping units12896
Texture rate136.2 GTexel/s99.6 GTexel/s
PassMark score97125596

Again, it's clear the laptop version, named the same other than the 'M' on the end, suffers when compared to the desktop GTX 980.

The future of GPUs

NVIDIA's new 10-series GPUs, the GTX 1050, GTX 1060, GTX 1070, and GTX 1080, have dropped the 'M' from the end of the number when designed for a laptop. Why? You can expect almost the same performance from both versions.

GTX 1080

For example, both GTX 1080s (opens in new tab) have 8GB of GDDR5 VRAM and 2560 CUDA cores. The main difference is in the clock speed, where the laptop GTX 1080 comes in just under the desktop version. While performance isn't completely on par with desktop versions, you shouldn't see anything more than about a 5-10% difference.

This is good news for fans of gaming laptops, as you won't have to sacrifice performance or lug around an external GPU with you when you take a trip.

Which should you buy?

Whether or not you buy a laptop or desktop for gaming really depends on what games you want to play and how much money you want to spend. Laptops are generally more expensive than their desktop brethren (though that gap has been closing over the years), but obviously more portable.

Before you pull the trigger on a new laptop, be sure to check out whether or not it has a laptop GPU, and, if it does, make sure you compare it to the desktop counterpart.

If you'd like a more extensive guide on buying a GPU, head over to our best graphics card collection for help with choosing the right hardware.

Cale Hunt
Cale Hunt

Cale Hunt is a Senior Editor at Windows Central. He focuses mainly on laptop reviews, news, and accessory coverage. He's been reviewing laptops and accessories full time since 2016, with hundreds of reviews published for Windows Central. He is an avid PC gamer and multi-platform user, and spends most of his time either tinkering with or writing about tech.

38 Comments
  • I really admire nvidia's move here. Can't wait to see how it turns out.
  • Love these tech news. Does anyone have any information on buying a wireless card for laptop? What's the best one out there and how to know if it's compatible with ones laptop?
  • Good idea. I don't believe the claims made in this article for a second, so we'll have to see how it turns out. The only way this is true is if we've found a way to suspend the laws of physics (thermal management and power draw). I suspect the author is looking at specs or marketing material and ignoring some important issues, like the fact that you will only get maximum performance when the laptop is plugged in, in which case all laptop GPUs will throttle clock rates after just a few seconds to keep heat in check. Measure framerates on a high end GPU after ten minutes of BF1 and the desktop card will always perform noticeably better. That 5% - 10% number wont hold up for a notable amount of time in comparisons between highest end desktop and mobile SKUs. On the other hand, few people purchase the highest end GPUs and for those people, i.e the majority, it really won't matter that much. For mid range cards and below, I can imagine this to be true, but the article doesn't make that distinction.
  • I'm of this belief too....I mean I am open to seeing proof of it but I can't just believe the marketing that these are now suddenly much closer to the desktop cards whilst being completely reduced in size. I don't dispute that you can game nicely on these laptops, I just don't think the situation has suddenly just changed and we now have the same performance from both over a prolonged period of time.
  • GeForce2 MX 400
  • Laptop Pro: convenience, take anywhere. Desktop Pro: piecemeal upgradeability.
  • If you want to buy a laptop you should stay away from Optimus powered laptops.Optimus just doesn't work.Too many problems
  • optimus is dead
  • optimus?
  • And here I was being sad my laptop I just ordered doesn't have Optimus. Why is it so bad? Sounds like a good concept
  • Great concept, but it doesn't work with G-Sync.  In many cases gaming laptop makers aren't willing to compromise on that feature, so they have to leave out Optimus. 
  • Laptops are not made for gamers or heavy load. Not only the gpu is less powerful (at least if you want a decent battery life but all the components are. U need to build it smaller with less possibillities to cool it down while the battery usage is a big deal. And like that they cant run as fast as a desktop computer which has more space and not really a limit concerning power or cooling (or better to say it is much less of a problem at least). A laptop should only be bought if you need it to be portable. If u do not needed it, buy a less expensive or more powerful desktop pc with a good keyboard, monitor and mouse which are even upgradeable over time... If u need mobility get the laptop. They can do most stuff a desktop can do. They are just more expensive or less fast while being not or to a very smalll amount upgradeable.
  • GTX 10 series like was mentioned in the article are almost just as fast as their desktop counterparts.
  • So, all of those people playing games with thier laptop, aren't really playing games?
  • It's true.  We're actually outsourcing our gaming to a game center in Taiwan where a amateur pro plays for us.  We just sit and try to match our keystrokes to the person on the other end.  Kinda fun really... I think I've picked up some ESP along the way.  
  • Gold comment
  • Like i told ya'll
  • It's because laptops have less room for heat management, this is why they have to run the cards at lower specs.
  • Power too. The desktop intel 6700k uses 91 watts and can create a ton of heat. Having that on a laptop battery would just kill battery life, while outputting a metric ton of heat. (even with a liquid cooler, it still can get up to 66C on certain cores when OCed and at full bore)
  • No one really expects a person to use a gaming laptop on the go for gaming.  I personally consider the battery onboard my Asus as a back up power source.  Maybe some light surfing between plugs. 
  • They still dont have the power. Laptop power supplies and even the motherboard itself cannot deliver the power that a desktop unit can. They will never be as fast.   We are only where we are because games arent challenging modern GPUs at 730P or 1080P.
  • A lot of power and energy consumption.
  • Here's an idea..what if you could run an external desktop GPU with proper heat cooling in an enclosure and it attaches via an external PCI port
    #Billions #GettingAPatent
  • AMD already did it in 2008 and in 2015 search it
  • Like all those Thunderbolt 3 GPU docks already available? 
  • So...a dongle PC. The mobility of a desktop and the compromises of a laptop, with a price to match. :)
  • Is it the for CPUs?
  • intresting read. i didn't know this. i have only had a desktop other then a surface rt at one point. ive never entered the laptop market. im an old dog i like my old trick :D
  • Quite an old dog indeed.
  • Nvidia has really done a good job with their 10 series GPU models for laptops. Hope AMD will do the same job. So, that competition will be there to expect better and better GPU from those two.
  • Radeon Is rocking till now.
  • Graphic pictures unit gpu
  • Graphic pictures unit gpu
  • Graphic 'Processing' Unit methinks, not Picture...
  • Perhaps Nvidia is so far ahead of AMD that desktop users are being short changed.. I have a really nice and huge cooler on my 980ti G1 - the fact a laptop with a tiny cooler is even in the same conversation indicates something is amiss.. Don't get me wrong I'm a NVidia share holder, more than happy for them to keep their cards close to their chest but I miss the GeForce FX (hair dryer) bleeding (sic) edge days.. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=PFZ39nQ_k90 But battlefield 1 @2560x1440p Ultra = 90fps, who can blame them, software needs to step up and maybe the HTC Vive graphics won't look so 'yesterday' on my rig.. ;)
  • 5-10% less performance in the first 15 minutes, then the whole toy heats up, throttling kick in and you are screwed
  • This is an important point. The throttling on a laptop GPU is what really changes the game. Desktops have much more consistent performance, while laptops rarely return to peak performance after a few minutes of medium-intense gaming.
  • Another tip would be if one would still want a laptop with GPU upgradability (enthusiasts) then get one with MXM slot. All major gaming laptops (MSI/Asus/Sager) support it.