Gaming laptops becoming more mainstream

Owen Sound Sun Times (On)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Desktops have long been the vanguard of PC gaming, but laptops are starting to push up through the ranks.

Until fairly recently there was a marked difference between a “gaming laptop” and a “mainstream laptop”. Not only are the differences becoming fewer and fewer, but mainstream laptops are becoming quite viable for gaming.

This means that, for not much more than the price of a desktop, you can take your gaming with you. So what’s out there for the mobile gamer on a budget and how do you pick the specifications of your laptop to be?

Mainstream laptops come in all shapes and sizes, so it can be hard to figure out what to look for, but there are a few things to check for.

RAM: New computers with Windows Vista like RAM. It also likes a lot of it. Make sure you get a laptop with at least 2 gigabytes of RAM. But on that note, unless you are buying a laptop that specifically states it has the 64 bit version of Vista don’t get 4GB of RAM, the normal (32bit) version of Vista will ignore all memory after 3GB.

Look for 2 or 3 GB of RAM

Video card: The video card is the most important thing to look at when buying a laptop for games. The video card will make or break your laptop.

Video cards use RAM. Video cards will either have their own RAM or share the system RAM. Make sure you get a laptop with dedicated video RAM for gaming (it may also be referred to as discrete in advertising) and the more video RAM the better. It can sometimes be hard to discern if a laptop has dedicated RAM through advertising, but here are some pointers:

There are three main laptop video card manufacturers, Intel, ATI and nVidia. For gaming avoid Intel video cards they’re not up to par for current generation PC games. Both ATI and nVidia make video cards that use only shared memory, ATI’s is the xpress series, and nVidia’s is the GeForce Go series. Almost any other video card will have dedicated RAM and perform acceptably for games. The current best bet is the nVidia GeForce 8x00m series of video cards with the 8400m being the slowest and the 8800m being the quickest. These numbers carry considerable differences in performance with them, the 8800 series is much faster than the 8400, but all 8000m series cards will perform acceptably in most games. Remember, laptop video cards can almost never be upgraded later, so if you spend $200 more from the get-go you may end up with much better gaming longevity.

Screen size: Screen size is completely up to you, if you want your computer to be very portable, or have a large display, but larger 17-inch laptops tend to have more video RAM than smaller laptops, and therefore have better gaming performance. This is because larger screens are higher resolution and take more graphics power to run. I personally prefer gaming on the larger screen.

Processor: The processor also makes a big difference, but less so than the graphics card. AMD’s Athlon line of processors and Intel’s Centrino line tend to be the best. AMD’s Turion and Intel’s Celeron processor lines are budget processors and will perform accordingly. With processors more GHz is better, but anywhere between 1.6GHz and 2.0GHz dual core processors will be more than adequate for games and will only get better as multiple cores are better supported in games.

Hard drive: The size of the hard drive doesn’t make a difference to gaming performance, but the bigger, the better. More space means you can store more games. Games tend to take up a lot of hard drive space, so if you can get more, go for it, but if you don’t want to pay up for more storage it won’t affect your gaming performance much.

Real life performance: Here are a few example systems and how games will generally run on them:

1.66-2.0GHz processor, 2GB of RAM, 128MB shared memory video card (ATI or nVidia), 15.4″ or smaller screen (approx. price $800): Most games that were released before 2004 will run quite well on a system like this, some newer games may run at reduced screen resolution. Not a gaming machine, not much longevity.

1.66-2.0GHz processor, 2-3GB of RAM, 256MB dedicated memory video card (nVidia 8400m or equivalent), 15.4″ or smaller screen (approx. price $1,000 to $1,200): Will run games from up until 2005 quite well, newer games will perform adequately, but at reduced resolution. Quite adequate for gaming, good price/ performance trade-off, but reduced gaming longevity.

1.66 (or higher) GHz processor, 2-3GB of RAM, 512MB dedicated memory video card (nVidia 8600m), 17″ screen (approx. price $1,200 to $1,500): Best performance of mainstream laptops, will play almost all current games at high resolution, not as much longevity as a gaming laptop, but will pull through for at least a year before you have to lower graphics settings too much.

Recently I bought a new Gateway P-6831FX laptop, priced at $1,349.99 at BestBuy. (It has since been discontinued in Canada and a new model is rumoured to be in the works): 1.66GHz Centrino Dual Processor, 3GB RAM, 512MB GeForce 8800m GTS dedicated memory video card, 17″ screen.

Performance on this laptop is second to none for the price. It will run all but the most graphically intensive games with the graphics as pretty as they can go, but is comparable in price to a high-end mainstream 17″ laptop. This is the best price for a gaming laptop currently available, and the P-6831FX is most definitely a gaming laptop at a mainstream price.

I recommend that anyone considering a gaming laptop on a budget keep an eye on what Gateway releases next, because the p-6831FX is really the first midrange gaming laptop that I have seen. It will be interesting to see if other manufacturers react to this laptop, since it could see the mainstream/ gaming laptop divide close even further.

As usual, the final word for laptops is if you can wait to buy one, wait. The longer you wait, the better performance you will get for your money.

Calen Henry is a fourth year student of Japanese studies and multimedia at McMaster University. He grew up in Owen Sound, has been a gamer since childhood and is also interested in music and film.

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