How Much Video RAM Do I Need?

MSI has just issued another press release concerning its 17.3-inch GT780DX–the latest model from MSI, which looks very attractive in terms of specifications and pricing. The only news this time, however, seems to be that MSI has doubled the amount of video RAM available to the included NVIDIA GTX 570M from 1.5GB of GDDR5 to 3GB of GDDR5.

Why they do this is something of a mystery, considering that there is currently no laptop graphics card on the market that can take advantage of 3GB, but if it adds nothing to the price tag then so be it. Perhaps it’s to alleviate buyers who are comparing it to the ASUS G74SX, which has 3GB in its less powerful GTX 560M–something that makes even less sense (not to mention the 2GB in the ASUS G53SX).

TrissMake no mistake: Adding more video RAM to your laptop’s graphics card usually has no effect on your games whatsoever. And the less powerful it is, the less memory it can use effectively. By comparison, the desktop version of the GTX 570 (without the ‘M’) is a more powerful card and ships with 1280MB of VRAM.

For example, The Witcher 2–one of the best looking and most demanding games to date–uses less than 900MB of video memory when played on the Clevo P150HM with an even more powerful 2GB GTX 580M. And this is at 1080p resolution with no texture downscaling, the ‘Texture Memory Size’ parameter set to ‘Very Large’, SSAO enabled and level-of-detail distance set to ‘Far’ (among other things). Skyrim (yes, I’m an RPG buff) at 1080p manages to use slightly more than 1GB with all of the eye candy turned on including NVIDIA’s special ambient occlusion add-on. And as far as laptops are concerned, only the GTX 580M and possibly the AMD HD 6990M are capable of running these games at the aforementioned, memory-hogging settings.

A counter-argument would be that it uses more video RAM at higher resolutions, for example when hooking up the laptop to an external monitor with 2560 x 1600 resolution and above, and it does. It’s just that as screen resolutions go up, frame rates go down, so you will have to adjust the visuals accordingly with the result that the amount of required video RAM goes down or evens out.

All of this will be different in the future with more advanced games that eat more video RAM, but by then your current GPU will be obsolete anyway.

Another interesting comparison is to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, both of which are rather old by now and not comparable to a modern gaming laptop, but they still produce good visuals at reasonably high resolutions (often downsampled though). Nevertheless, the ATI chip in the Xbox 360 can use up to 512MB of GDDR3 RAM in total (shared with system RAM) and the custom NVIDIA chip in the PlayStation 3 gets by with 256MB.

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