Get great laptop gaming performance

Sales of laptops are outpacing those of desktops, even as PC gaming has undergone a revival in the past couple of years. So it's natural that laptop owners would want to play games on their mobile PCs.

Sales of laptops are outpacing those of desktops, even as PC gaming has undergone a revival in the past couple of years. So it’s natural that laptop owners would want to play games on their mobile PCs.

But mainstream laptops simply aren’t built for high-end gaming. For the purpose of this article, I’m defining a laptop as a portable that offers a 16-inch or smaller screen and weighs 3kg or less – something that you might carry on a business trip or a long vacation.

How do you get robust gaming from a current laptop? It’s actually pretty straightforward, as we’ll see.

Laptop limitations

First, it’s worth exploring the limitations that you’ll have to live with. They aren’t as severe as they may seem.

Processor, memory, and storage: Most small and midsize laptops ship with dual-core CPUs. A few models have quad-core processors, but those have less effect on gaming than you might ex­­pect. For one thing, mobile quad-core processors often run at clock speeds substantially lower than their dual-core cousins do. Take Intel’s Core i7 820QM: Intel advertises it as a 1.73GHz CPU with a turbo-boost speed of 3.06GHz, meaning that one of the four cores may run as fast as 3.06GHz when needed, while the other cores remain relatively inactive.

On the other hand, the Core i5 540M is a dual-core CPU that runs at 2.53GHz – but also supports a turbo-boost of 3.06GHz. On many games, the performance of these two CPUs will be very similar, but you’ll pay a premium for the 820QM.

Memory is another factor. You’ll definitely want 4GB of RAM, especially if you’re running the 64-bit version of Windows 7 or Windows Vista. For games, however, more memory isn’t all that useful beyond 4GB.

Graphics and audio hardware: Perhaps the biggest roadblocks to robust gaming on a laptop are the limitations in graphics hardware. An in­­tegrated graphics system – whether built into the chipset or into the processor itself – is especially limiting.

Even if your laptop has “discrete graphics” – a separate chip built into the system just for accelerating 3D graphics and video – it’s likely to be a cut-down version of the chips available for desktop systems, and the performance trade-offs tend to be quite onerous.

What users often don’t realize is that giving up a little graphics eye candy can help game performance substantially. You’re playing on a small screen – as small as 11 or 13 inches in some cases. If you dial back some of the intense graphics settings on a smaller laptop LCD, you may not notice much difference.

Audio hardware isn’t as limiting a factor as graphics hardware is, but the tiny speakers built into most laptops won’t generate the powerful sound effects that many games can produce. If you want immersive game audio, get a good set of in-ear or over-the-ear headphones.

Point and shoot! Touchpads and eraserheads have always been problematic as pointing devices, but they’re particularly bad for gaming. Some newer laptops come equipped with touchscreens, but for the most part PC games don’t support touch. One exception is the real-time strategy game R.U.S.E., which works very well with a multitouch screen. Most modern games, however, respond better to a mouse. For mobility, leave your big gaming mice at home; a cordless mouse de­­signed for laptops will do just fine, as long as it has a scrollwheel button and a couple of side buttons.

The keyboards of many laptops are rather cramped, but a number of games let you reconfigure keyboard controls. This allows you to use keys that may be more suitable: if the arrow keys are too tiny, for in­­stance, reassign their ac­­tion to the <PgDn> key or to a function key.

Driver configuration

Now let’s talk about the issue of configuration – starting with your hardware. You handle that through driver configuration, usually of graphics drivers. Your ability to change driver controls is limited, and any tweaks you make will have minor effects on performance; most of the real gains will be in game configuration.

A key item in graphics drivers is VSync. This feature is a throwback to the era of CRT monitors, when games tried to synchronise the display of a frame of animation to coincide with the re­­fresh rate of the monitor. Most LCDs, however, set their refresh rate to 60Hz, so if VSync is on, your game will never run faster than a match­­ing 60 frames per second.

When you disable VSync, the game can paint frames as fast as they’re rendered. But if the frame rate is lower than the vertical refresh rate, you may see visible tearing in the image. Still, that trade-off may be worthwhile to get an acceptable frame rate.

One other setting that can affect performance is texture quality. Lowering texture quality may affect overall image quality. But if you have a particularly small display, that may not matter or be readily visible. The effect on performance will likely be slight.

Disabling crapware

Uninstalling anything that may affect performance can be worth­­while. Some apps, such as OS X–like menu bars, don’t eat into performance but do take up memory. Look through your system tray and use the system configuration utility to minimise the number of apps that run in the background.

You can launch the utility by clicking StartRun and typing msconfig in the field. Leave the laptop’s Microsoft and antivirus programs alone, but try disabling some others, such as iTunes and Adobe updaters.

Game settings

The games themselves are where you have the most control over both graphics quality and performance. Here are some key game settings to consider.

If the game gives you the option of choosing which version of DirectX to use, go for the lower-numbered version. This choice will almost certainly improve system performance.

Look for a global setting in the game’s graphics configuration screen. It may let you choose a setting such as ‘optimal’, ‘medium’, or ‘low’. Ex­­periment with different global settings.

Some games enable anti­aliasing by default. Switch off anti­aliasing.

Turn shadow settings to ‘low’. On lower-end hardware, or on systems with integrated graphics, disabling shadows entirely may be the best course.

If you have the option of setting the view distance (how far into the virtual world you can see), reduce it – but not too much, or objects may pop out in a jarring way.

Set postprocessing effects to a minimum. The game may have no specific setting for postprocessing; instead, you may see settings for features such as depth-of-field and motion blur.

Try starting with lower resolutions, such as 1280 by 720, and then pushing up the resolution gradually. On smaller LCDs, it’s better to turn up the features first, and then the resolution.

As an example, Sid Meier’s Civilization V is a demanding game graphically, taking advantage of the latest DirectX 11 graphics technology in Windows 7.

The game gives you two options: ‘DirectX 9’ and ‘DirectX 10 & 11’.

To maximise performance, choose the ‘Di­­rectX 9’ option and then adjust most of the in-game settings to low.

This is a good rule of thumb with any game: If the title gives you the option of dropping down to an older version of DirectX, do it. Performance will improve.

Choosing games

The laptop hardware you carry around may be the de­­ciding factor in your choice of games. A netbook can’t handle the heavy demands of a modern first-person shooter, but it may be able to play casual or older titles.

A 2.2-kilogram thin-and-light laptop with modest discrete graphics, on the other hand, may prove surprisingly capable. Here are a few games that should be playable at low-to-medium settings on each class of system.

Netbook gaming: We’re definitely in low-end territory here. Casual games such as Peggle, Puzzle Quest, and Plants vs. Zombies are playable on netbooks. The latter two titles have strong appeal even for more serious gamers. And some games attract hard-core gamers despite having low-quality graphics or even old-school ASCII text, making them very playable on laptops; examples are Dwarf Fortress and Minecraft.

Thin-and-light, integrated graphics:

Your game repertoire can expand a bit here, even if you have fairly entry-level Intel integrated graphics hardware such as that built into Core i5 processors. Most strategy games are playable, though you may have to tweak the settings for certain relatively demanding real-time strategy games. Some shooters – for instance games in the Call of Duty line and Valve titles such as Team Fortress 2 – are quite playable if you dial down the default settings and the resolution.

Thin-and-light, discrete graphics:

Now the choices expand even more. A few games, such as the demanding Metro 2033 first-person shooter, may be only marginally playable, even at lower settings. But most games are playable if you’re willing to sacrifice resolution and graphics settings.

The problem is the variation in products. Thin-and-light laptops can have chips that range from fairly high-end (like AMD’s Radeon HD 5850 Mobile or Nvidia’s GeForce GT 445M) to entry-level (such as the Nvidia Ge­­Force GT 325M or the AMD Radeon HD 5450 Mobile).

The last word: experiment

If you are mostly a mo­­bile PC user, as more and more people are, you can still get your gaming fix. All you need is a little knowledge, a desire to ex­­periment, and a willingness to run your games at more modest graphics settings. Not every game will run well on every laptop, but you should be able to find excellent titles that will tickle your gaming fancy, whatever your hardware budget.

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