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Four generations of Intel HD Graphics tested

Update 3/13/2016: We’ve updated the article with results from Inte HD 540, the IGP in the Dell XPS 13 with Core i7 processor

Update 2/3/2016: We’ve updated this article with results for the Intel HD 520, which is the IGP in the Surface Book and Surface Pro 4.

Intel’s introduction of the first modern Core processor in 2008 was a major change in direction, and not just because of its break away from the Netburst architecture which powered Pentium 4. The company also made a pledge to take graphics performance seriously, and it made good on that promise. When the first Intel HD Graphics showed up in 2010 alongside the new Core mobile chips, it more than doubled performance over the preceding Intel Graphics Media Accelerator in some games.

Today, six years later, Intel’s crusade for improved integrated graphics continues. Each new generation of Core brings a much bigger boost in graphics performance than per-core processor performance. Nowhere was this more apparent than with the fifth-generation Core launch, as Intel’s own slides claimed a mere four percent boost to productivity, but a 22 percent surge in gaming.

But these impressive gains have occurred in the face of more demanding games and ever increasing display resolution. Over the past five years, laptops have leaped from a typical resolution of 1,024 x 768 to 1080p, and premium models push 4K.

To find out what this means for real-world performance, we rounded up eight different models of Intel HD graphics spanning four generations; HD 4000, 4200, 4600, 5500, 6000, as well as the HD 520, 530, and 540 which, despite the name, are actually a generation newer than the 6000 series.

The hardware

We used a variety of hardware to perform this test. An Apple Macbook Air running Boot Camp with fully updated Intel graphics drivers served as our stand-in for third-generation Core processors with Intel HD 4000.

Related: Check out the details of Intel’s fifth-generation integrated graphics

Next up we have the fourth-generation chips, represented by the Acer Aspire Switch 11 and Zotac Zbox Oi520, which offer Intel HD 4200 and 4400, respectively. The latter is particularly important, as it’s the most common IGP from the outgoing family. Most Intel-powered notebooks sold over the last year have an HD 4400 inside.

Intel NUC Core i5 NUCi5RYK mini PC review scale hand
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Dell’s XPS 13 (2015) and Intel’s NUC with Core i5 processor, with HD 5500 and HD 6000, respectively, carry the banner for the fifth generation. Aside from the Iris 6100, which is not a common choice, HD 6000 is the quickest graphics solution currently available with Core processors.

HD 520 was tested in an i7 Surface Book with the dedicated GPU turned off. There’s also Intel HD 530, which we tested in the Core i7-6700K desktop processor. Despite the removal of a numerical from the name, HD 530 is meant to be a new mid-tier integrated graphics option for desktop chips. Finally, we have the HD 540. We tested it with a newer version of the Dell XPS 13 with a Core i7-6560U processor.

We’ve also thrown in AMD’s A10-7870K to provide some additional context. That processor is a quad-core that sells for $140 and packs AMD’s most impressive integrated graphics to date. You can find out more by reading our full review.

Obviously, it’s impossible to conduct an absolute apples-to-apples test. The Veriton’s Core i5-3337U is not as quick as the NUC’s Core i5-5250U, so processor performance will be in play here, as well. It’d be ideal to test each IGP with the same processor, but ultimately the point is moot, as Intel HD Graphics can’t be used independently of the processor it’s paired with.

3DMark

Futuremark’s 3DMark is essentially the industry standard among graphics benchmarks, and it provides a generalized look at performance that usually translates well to real-world games. Let’s dive right in and see how Intel has matured over the years.

These results are not difficult to interpret. Intel’s HD 4200, the low-power IGP for the thinnest and lightest fourth-generation Core systems, is the obvious loser. Second-worst is Intel’s HD 4000, the headliner of third-generation mobile graphics, which is just slightly beaten by HD 4400, the most common fourth-generation IGP.

intelhdgraphicsgenerations

HD 5500 and HD 6000 quite easily defeat HD 4400, but the difference between them is less than expected. It’d be reasonable to think doubling execution units would lead to a major performance bump, but that’s not what’s happening here. Instead we see HD 6000 offer an extremely modest gain of just under five percent.

The newcomer HD 520 doesn’t fare much better, with only a four percent gain in Cloud Gate.

Fortunately, HD 530 arrives to save the day, and it pretty well stomps on every other IGP. Its score of 7,621 represents almost exactly a 100 percent improvement over HD 4000, and a nearly 50 percent increase over HD 6000. That actually exceeds the 40 percent improvement that Intel claimed to the press.

Intel’s HD 540 is also strong, though it doesn’t beat the HD 530. That may seem odd. But remember, the HD 530 is in a desktop processor, while the HD 540 is a mobile IGP. That may mean that in spite of its lower model number, the HD 530 is quicker. We’ll have to see how it shakes out in real games.

World of Warcraft

worldofwarcraft
Blizzard Entertainment

Blizzard’s famous massively multiplayer game is over 10 years old, but it’s not a cinch for modern hardware to handle. The game has been updated significantly over the years with new areas, new textures and, most recently, new character models. There’s also been a general increase of stuff in the game, from foliage to particle effects to larger areas. Can today’s Intel HD hardware handle this evolving title?

intehdworldofwarcraft

World of Warcraft doesn’t fair so well on older Intel HD graphics. Intel HD 4400 and HD 5500, two very common solutions in ultrabooks from the prior generation, struggle to provide an enjoyable experience when detail is increased beyond low. The least powerful version of Intel HD we’ve tested, the HD 4200, can only handle the game at 1,366 x 768 resolution and low detail.

The latest generation, however, does better. Intel HD 520 can play the game at 1,366 x 768 and high detail. HD 530 and 540 tack a few extra frames on to that performance, and come close to — but don’t quite manage to — reach an average of 30 FPS at 1080p and high detail.  HD 530 and HD 540 are neck-and-neck here, while the desktop HD 530 IGP had an edge over the mobile HD 540 in 3DMark.

You might notice that all the HD 500 generation hardware performs similarly at low detail, at both 1,366 x 768 resolution. This indicates there’s another obstacle aside from the GPU holding back the framerate. That’s not uncommon to see when a game achieves very high framerates, and in any case, there’s little reason why a gamer would want to play World of Warcraft at over 100 FPS.

Despite reasonable performance, even HD 540 falls short of AMD’s A10-7870K APU, which exceeds 30 frames per second at 1080p and high detail. Clearly, the AMD option is the better choice if, for whatever reason, you’re restricted to playing the game without a discrete GPU.

Battlefield 4

battlefield4
DICE/Electronic Arts

The latest game in DICE’s famous shooter franchise is no longer at the absolute cutting edge of graphics, but it’s still quite demanding, particularly at high detail. Even low-end desktop video cards choke on it at 1080p resolution. Does that mean it’s absolutely too much for Intel HD to handle?

intelhdbattlefield4

The difference between generations in this game is incredible. A few years ago, in the HD 4000 and HD 4400 generation, Battlefield 4 was utterly hopeless. It would not play even at 1,366 x 768 resolution with detail wound all the way down.

The Intel HD 5500 and 6000 series changed that, to an extent. It at least improved performance to a level that was vaguely playable, albeit at a low resolution. Most gamers would not be happy with the experience. But if you didn’t have anything else to play Battlefield 4 on, you could manage it. Kinda.

Intel HD 500 takes the game a step further. HD 530 and HD 540, in particular, raise the bar. The HD 530 comes close to 30 FPS at 1080p resolution and low detail. HD 540 exceeds that, and also makes 1,366 x 768 at High detail playable, if only just.

But Intel HD graphics isn’t out of the woods. While Battlefield 4 ran at excellent framerates, we noticed graphical glitches with both the HD 530 and HD 540. They were particularly bad in the latter case, and seemed to become more severe as detail increased. At 1080p and High, entire textures were missing from surfaces (which may even have contributed to improved performance).

Even at its best, Intel HD is far behind AMD’s APU. It exceeds the performance of HD 540 by a notable margin, and just as importantly, rendered the game without a glitch in sight.

Conclusion

These tests produced interesting results.

Our first surprise came from the competition between HD 4000 and HD 4400. We expected that the latter would provide a marginal boost over its predecessor, but in fact the two are virtually tied. While it’s true that HD 4400 was not the quickest fourth-generation mobile graphics chip, it’s also true that HD 4400 was by far the most commonly encountered, as it shipped with the widely used Core i5-4200U (and its close siblings). It appears the fourth generation’s graphics performance was, in practice, more of a side-step than a leap forward.

Intel’s fifth generation is a definite leap forward, even in HD 5500, which appears to be the new mainstream graphics champion. The boost in speed over HD 4400 approaches 40 percent in select Battlefield 4 test loops, and exceeds 20 percent general. Those figures are enough to make a noticeable different in games. Beyond Earth can be enjoyed at 1080p and minimum detail on the HD 5500, for example, while HD 4400 struggles to handle the same load.

Intel’s HD Graphics remain the solution of last resort.

We’re more suspect of HD 6000. The version we tested was in Intel’s NUC; we haven’t encountered it in a notebook yet. We have no reason to think the NUC would perform worse than a mobile system, though, and the latest drivers were installed. Given the rise in execution units from 24 to 48 we expected to see major boosts in speed, but instead HD 6000 offered gains of around 10 percent over HD 5500.

The HD 520 marks a significant jump in real-world gaming performance. It beats out the HD 6000 by a noticeable margin in almost every one of our gaming tests, although it suffers as resolution and settings climb, just like all of the other integrated chips. It sneaks past 30 FPS in Battlefield 4 on low and 768p, which may even satisfy users coming from the console side of things, where 30 FPS is the standard.

At the top end of the tested GPUs, HD 530 and HD 540 by far offer the best overall performance. In most tests it substantially outran its predecessors, including the 15 percent slower HD 520. The HD 530 and HD 540 are fast enough to play many 3D titles from the last five years at low detail, and can handle anything from a decade ago. But driver-level stability is still an issue, as evidenced by the graphical gremlins that plagued Battlefield 4.

Ultimately, Intel HD graphics still hasn’t moved beyond its reputation as the solution of last resort. An Intel HD 500 series IGP can handle many games, but can’t handle the newest titles, and there’s no particular reason to choose it if a discrete GPU is an option.