Laptop Gaming: Optimize Performance on Portable PCs

Sales of laptop PCs are outpacing those of desktop systems, even as PC gaming has undergone something of a revival in the past couple of years. So it's natural that laptop owners would be playing games on their mobile PCs. Gamers want to have their favorites on the go, whether those titles are casual games such as Plants vs. Zombies, strategy games such Civilization V or Starcraft 2, or first-person shooters like the Call of Duty franchise.

The problem is that mainstream laptops simply aren't built for high-end gaming. Sure, you can buy one of those 10-pound monsters that claim to be "gaming laptops," but they're really laptops in name only. For our purposes here, I'm defining a laptop as a portable that offers a 16-inch or smaller screen and weighs 7 pounds or less--something you might reasonably carry on a business trip or a long vacation.

How do you get robust gaming from current-generation laptops of reasonable size? It's actually pretty straightforward, with a little knowledge and the willingness to give up a few features that you'll never really notice on the small screen.

Laptop Gaming: Understanding the Limitations

First, it's worth exploring the limitations you need to live with. As it turns out, those limitations seem more severe than they really are.

Processor, Memory, and Storage

Most small and midsize laptops ship with dual-core CPUs. A few models have quad-core processors, but those don't have the impact on gaming that you might suspect. For one thing, mobile quad-core processors often run at clock speeds substantially lower than their dual-core cousins. Take Intel's Core i7 820QM: Intel advertises it as a 1.73GHz CPU with a turbo-boost speed of 3.06GHz. What that actually means is that one of the four cores may run as fast as 3.06GHz when needed--but the other cores are 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. Performance under many games will be very similar for these two CPUs, but you'll pay a premium for the 820QM. Those extra cores become useful if you're heavily into photo or video editing, but they don't add much to the performance of many games, particularly at the lower clock speed.

Memory is another factor. You really 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.

Whether you have a dual-core CPU or a quad-core one, the processor isn't the biggest player in holding back gaming performance--the graphics component is.

Graphics and Audio Hardware

Perhaps the biggest roadblocks to robust gaming on a laptop are limitations in graphics hardware. Integrated graphics--3D hardware built into either the chipset or the processor itself--is particularly 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 what's available for desktop PCs. The number of computational units (often called shader units or shader cores) may be smaller than on even midrange desktop graphics cards. Similarly, clock speeds and memory bandwidth may be lower. So while these chips can technically support the latest and greatest graphical features of modern games, in practice the performance trade-offs are too great.

What users often don't realize is that giving up a little graphics eye candy can help game performance improve substantially. Remember, you're playing on a small screen--as small as 11 or 13 inches in some cases. Even a 15- or 16-inch laptop screen isn't large when compared with affordable 22- to 27-inch desktop displays. If you dial back some of the intense graphics settings on smaller laptop LCDs, 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, what you should really get is a good set of in-ear or over-the-ear headphones.

Related Video: Discover tips on buying the right laptop.

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. You'll find a few exceptions: The excellent real-time strategy game R.U.S.E. works great with a multitouch screen. With most modern games, though, you'll want a mouse. For mobility, it's best to leave the big gaming mice at home; a cordless mouse designed for laptops will work fine, as long as it has a scrollwheel button and a couple of side buttons.

Although carrying a small, cordless mouse isn't too onerous, lugging around a keyboard is usually out of the question. While the keyboards built into many laptops are somewhat cramped, many games often allow you to reconfigure keyboard controls. Reconfiguring allows you to use keys that may be more suitable: If the arrow keys are too tiny, for instance, reconfigure their action to the PgDn key or a function key.

Rules of Thumb: Hardware Driver Configuration

Now that you have a basic understanding of the hardware limitations, let's talk configuration. First, you need to configure your hardware. You do that through driver configuration--in most cases, graphics drivers. The discussion below applies to AMD, nVidia, and Intel driver control panels. In truth, you can make only limited changes to driver controls, and those tweaks will have only small effects on performance; most of the real gains will be in game configuration. But every little bit helps.

The various graphics drivers have similar options; some have more than others, but you can generally ignore the more esoteric ones.

One key item is vsync. This feature is a throwback to the era of CRT monitors, when games would try to synchronize the display of a frame of animation to coincide with the refresh rate of the monitor. Most LCDs, however, set the refresh rate to 60Hz--if vsync is on, your game will never run faster than 60 frames per second.

When you disable vsync, the game can paint the frames as fast as they're rendered. The downside: If the frame rate is lower than the vertical refresh rate, you may see visible tearing in the image. But the trade-off may be worthwhile to get an acceptable frame rate.

Intel Graphics and Media Control Panel

The other setting that can have some impact on performance is the texture quality setting. Lowering this setting may affect overall image quality--but if you have a particularly small display, it may not matter. Texture quality will likely affect performance only by a slim margin.

Disabling Crapware

It's amazing how much performance-sucking junk comes preloaded into retail laptops. Going through your notebook and uninstalling anything that may affect performance might be worth your time. Some apps, such as OS X-like menu bars, don't really eat into performance, but they do take up memory. Look through your system tray and use the system configuration utility to minimize the number of apps your laptop runs in the background.

You can launch the system configuration utility by clicking Start, Run and typing msconfig in the field. It's best to leave all the Microsoft apps running, as well as any antivirus programs. But try disabling some of the others, such as iTunes, Adobe updaters, and so on.

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