It’s 2021, ask any avid laptop gamer: Nvidia is still on top as far as mobile GPUs are considered without any competition whatsoever. I’m sure most people know the basic difference between Nvidia’s normal desktop GPU and its laptop counterparts.
We have recently observed, however, that many manufacturers are playing with a broad range of power limits provided by Nvidia on their mobile GPUs. The terms Max-Q and Max-P are often used widely these days.
Before spending your hard-earned money on a gaming laptop, understanding these terms is critical. This is because the actual graphics performance depends on the rated power. For laptops, this is particularly true. Therefore, you can’t expect a GPU with a low-rated TGP (Total Graphics Power) to match the performance of the same GPU with a higher TGP.
So now let’s get to what the terms Max-Q and Max-P really mean.
The Max-Q design from Nvidia
Traditionally speaking, gaming laptop manufacturers who want to keep their laptops on a slim profile but also perform well in games with respectable frames use the Max-Q design on their laptops.
Razer, Asus, Gigabyte and many others have a wide range of gaming laptops that feature the Max-Q design.
In layman terms, the Max-Q graphics run at a lower power limit. Running at a lower TGP (Total Graphics Power) means less heat and therefore lower cooling requirements. This in-turn affects the overall design and thickness of the laptop. Less cooling requirements mean a thin and less bulky laptop.
Technically speaking, the Max-Q design from Nvidia prioritizes better performance-per-watt (or efficiency).
Take the RTX 3070 (shown in the picture below) for example: the GPU power ranges from 80-125W. This means that a brand that uses the RTX 3070 on their laptop can choose from an 80W TGP all the way up to 115W.
Keep in mind that this is still lower than the rated graphics power of the desktop-grade RTX 3070 (which is rated at 220W).
So, a laptop GPU with lower TGP is usually termed as Max-Q.
The Max-P design
To get some background, the Max-P term started floating around in the tech news community back in 2018, when Samsung listed its Odyssey Z gaming laptop with a GTX 1060 Max-P onboard. Yeah, back then, Samsung made gaming laptops. Samsung later suppressed the Max-P word since it’s the same as a regular GTX 1060 mobile GPU.
Max-P is a term used internally by laptop OEMs to distinguish between the Max-Q and non Max-Q variants of a graphics card.
This just means that any regular laptop graphics card that is not Max-Q is Max-P. Take the example of the RTX 2070 from last year. If the same RTX 2070 (Laptop Variant) is running at a maximum rated power of 115W, it will be classified under a Max-P design. The P is for performance.
The Max-P design focuses more on raw performance with lower performance-per-watt.
So the next time you see the word Max-P used in the future by some brand, do not get confused.
If you’re planning to buy a laptop in the future and prefer a sleek, lightweight laptop with respectable graphics performance and battery life, then go with a laptop powered by the Max-Q graphics.
If you’re ready to sacrifice battery life and a thin, lightweight design for better performance; if you’re ready to carry a bulky power brick, then go for a laptop that features a regular laptop version of your favorite Nvidia graphics card with higher TGP (otherwise called Max-P).
UPDATE: The 3rd Generation Max-Q design from Nvidia
Nvidia showcased its 30-series laptop graphics at CES 2021. There was no mention of the term Max-Q in the showcase. This made it seem like Nvidia is officially dropping the term.
This is evident when you see the official specs sheet for these GPUs (look at the below image).
The following was quoted by an Nvidia spokesperson to Tom’s Hardware when they inquired about the same:
No, Max-Q branding is not going away.
When we originally introduced Max-Q back in 2017, the brand was initially used in GPU naming since Max-Q referred to the GPU TGP only.
In addition, to be more transparent about a laptop’s exact capabilities, RTX 30 Series laptops now show more information than ever, listing exact TGP, clocks and features supported. You will find this in the control panel which now reports maximum power (TGP+Boost), and support for key features including Dynamic Boost 2, WhisperMode 2, Advanced Optimus, and others, all of which fall under the Max-Q umbrella.
We strongly encourage OEMs to list clocks and other technologies a laptop supports, including Advanced Optimus, Dynamic Boost 2, and more. Ultimately, like all laptop features and specs, it is up to the OEM to market what their particular laptop configuration supports.)
What does this mean?
Nvidia’s new 30-series mobile GPUs are powered by the latest Ampere architecture and have introduced the 3rd generation of Max-Q technology. This is very different from the earlier Max-Q design I mentioned earlier in this article.
While the original Max-Q term was used only in relation to the total TGP (Total Graphics Power), it is now used to refer to a complete package of new features offered by the Ampere architecture, such as Dynamic Boost 2, Whisper Mode 2, Resizable Bar and more, which promise to deliver better performance and efficiency while keeping your laptop in a slim profile.
How do I know if the laptop I want to buy has a Max-Q or a Max-P?
The short answer is: You can’t unless you have the laptop with you or check it out on a store. Following the recent changes by Nvidia with the 30-series GPUs, one thing is clear: OEMs are no longer obliged to use the term Max-Q on their laptop specifications.
It doesn’t matter how much Nvidia claims that they are encouraging OEMs to mention on their spec sheets the exact number of Cuda Cores and TGP for the GPU, this does not seem to happen anytime soon.
This also means that not mentioning the term Max-Q or at least the exact TGP on the specification sheet of a laptop may mislead buyers. Say for example, that you bought an RTX 3080 laptop with a TGP of 80W only to see that the actual performance of the graphics in games is quite similar to that of the RTX 3070 with a 125W TGP.
Personally, I’d love to see every OEM mention at least the rated TGP on their laptop’s specs sheet, if not the Max-Q or Max-P term themselves.
At the end of this very long article, I’d ask you guys to check the reviews of the laptop you want to purchase or, if possible, visit your nearest store and check the Nvidia control center to know the exact TGP of that laptop.