If you’re looking for a gaming laptop that’s able to handle demanding titles or high-resolution gaming but don’t want the thickness, weight and loud fan noise that often comes with gaming laptops, a PC running a Nvidia Max-Q graphics card may be the answer.
When shopping for a new gaming laptop, you’ll probably run into models featuring some sort of Max-Q graphics card, such as an “RTX 2080 Max-Q.” Max-Q graphics cards are a technology Nvidia first launched in 2017 that allows the rendering horsepower of the company’s higher-end graphics cards -- previously reserved for desktop PCs or very bulky gaming laptops--to fit in a slimmer form factor that more like mainstream laptops. There are Max-Q versions of Nvidia’s GTX and RTX graphics cards, but there is no AMD equivalent to Nvidia’s Max-Q.
If you’re wondering about the unique name, the term Max-Q is one that Nvidia borrowed from the aerospace world. As Nvidia detailed in a blog post, Max-Q is when a spacecraft has its maximum dynamic pressure. Go figure.
But for PCs, Max-Q is about allowing laptops to run Nvidia graphics technology while still being thinner, quieter and more energy-efficient than other gaming laptops. In general, graphics cards require substantial heat management, which leads to bulky, loud cooling systems and the thick and heavy form factor of typical gaming laptops.
Max-Q graphics cards are meant to to optimize efficiency and cooling systems so you can run heavy graphics workloads, such as 4K gaming, on a laptop that doesn’t look like a heavily ventilated, noisy, chunky PC from the ‘90s. Max-Q laptops aim to have a peak noise level of 40dBA from a 25cdm (cubic decimeter) distance and when facing “average” gaming workloads and room temperatures.
Again, Max-Q graphics cards are only found in laptops. You wouldn’t buy one to equip your gaming desktop or custom PC build. Laptop vendors currently making laptops with Max-Q graphics cards are Acer, Alienware, Asus, Dell, Gigabyte, HP, Lenovo, MSI and Razer. You can find a full list of Max-Q laptops here.
How Do Max-Q Graphics Cards Work?
Max-Q graphics cards are able to fit in thin laptops due to Nvidia optimizing them for “peak efficiency.” So rather than ramping up the clock speed, voltages, and memory bus to deliver the best performance, they are tuned to deliver the best performance possible in a given thermal envelope or at a given level of sound output. According to the company, chips, drivers, the control system and thermal and electrical components are carefully engineered for Max-Q graphics cards.
Max-Q laptops still have cooling systems, but their makers have to carefully construct things like thermal and electrical designs, heatpipes and heat sinks, efficiency energy regulators, quality, yet quieter, fans and other components.
Are Max-Q Graphics as Powerful as Regular Mobile Graphics?
Max-Q graphics cards are generally slightly less powerful than their native counterpart (i.e. you can expect slightly lower framerates from a laptop running an RTX 2080 Max-Q than one running an RTX 2080, for example). But the Max-Q laptop should still be thinner, lighter and quieter than the other, as well as less expensive (assuming all else is equal).
This article is part of the Tom's Hardware Glossary.