Week in Tech: Mobile Gaming Update

Embrace the brick

Long ago, in an age when PC magazines ruled the land, the internet had barely achieved broadband and being a tech journalist really meant something (OK, that last bit was probably never true), I used to be a laptop gaming junky. This, I’d largely forgotten until Nvidia’s new mobile GPUs launched the other day and were accompanied by some conspicuously OTT hyperbole from wet-behind-the-ears padawans in the tech press. How quickly they forget the great mobile GPUs of yesteryear. Thus, for a serious dissertation on the delights and, let’s be honest, drastic downsides of laptop gaming along with a grudging admission that the new GeForce GTX 970M and 980M do actually look pretty damn fine, you know what to do.

So, gaming on notebook / laptop / portable / whatever PCs. The internets has it that the Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M is the new mobile gaming hotness, and for once the internets has it right. What Nvidia’s latest is not, however, is anything new in terms of its relationship with desktop graphics. This isn’t the first time mobile GPUs have come close to desktop graphics for pixel pumping prowess. Not even close. And I should know.

I was once a devout laptop gaming evangelist. It started with an Inspiron 4000, the first of a series of Dells back when the company was often first to market with the latest and greatest mobile chips and screens.

Anyway, the 4000 packed a Pentium III mobile CPU, its single core humming a 600MHz tune, and an ATI Rage 128 Mobility graphics chip with 8MB (count ’em!) of graphics memory. The result, very much against expectation, was smooth Counter-Strike 1.6 gaming at 1,024 by 768 native on the 14-inch LCD panel. What a great machine the Inspiron 4000 was.

Next up was probably my favourite gaming portable ever, a prized Dell Inspiron 8100. The processor was a decent upgrade in the form of a PIII 1GHz chip – the die-shrunk 130nm Tualatin, model, natch. But the big news was graphics on a removable daughter card. Yes, folks, we’re talking upgradeable graphics, one of the holy grails of laptop gaming.

Dell’s 8100 wasn’t pretty but it was clever

I ordered the thing from Dell Outlet at about half the retail price. It came configured with an Nvidia GeForce 2 Go 32MB GPU and a truly glorious 1,600 by 1,200 pixel 15-inch panel. This was back when a CRT capable of 1,280 pixels was a big deal.

Anyway, I managed to source an upgraded ATI Radeon 7500 Mobility 64MB daughter board from Dell in the US. They wouldn’t ship to the UK, but I found a dodgy mail forwarding company and rolled the dice. Remarkably, the card turned up. I fitted it. And it worked.

Soon, I was Counter-Striking at native UXGA. On a bloody laptop. Good times. From there it was largely downhill. My next lappy was yet another Dell (an 8500) with one of the first widescreen panels (a proper 1,920 by 1,200 item, none of this 1080p crap) and a GeForce 4 Go. Great panel, same GPU as the best desktop GeForces of the day, albeit lower clocked. Awful chassis.

While we’re talking graphics upgrades, it’s something which has never really caught on despite efforts like the MXM mobile graphics standard.

The reality is that the packaging and thermal demands of laptops / notebooks mean proprietary designs remain the norm and that usually precludes graphics upgrades. Even when is has been possible, the window of opportunity is typically pretty narrow. Rarely if ever can you keep in dropping in better and better GPUs. A single upgrade cycle is usually your lot.

Today, exceptions to the non-upgradeability norm do exist. But choice is extremely limited and I’m not convinced it makes sense to buy a model you generally don’t want in return for the promise of a GPU upgrade.

Dell’s 17-inch XPS with GeForce Go 6800 and 7800 was probably the peak for mobile gaming

Whatever, the noise around the new GTX 980M has reminded me of my historical escapades and the fact you could get laptops with the same GPUs as the best desktop graphics cards over a decade ago. It’s nothing new.

In fact, I’d say the golden age of mobile gaming was in fact the GeForce Go 6800 and Go 7800 era. Both were available in full-fat spec with all pipes enabled and performance only a whisker behind their desktop equivalents.

ATI (now AMD, of course) had some interesting mobile GPUs back then, too. But they appeared so rarely in actual shipping notebooks as to be almost irrelevant.

Anyway, fast forward to today’s GeForce GTX 970M and 980M and you’re not actually getting the full Nvidia Maxwell (in this case coodenamed GM204) goodness. I won’t drill down through all the specs, but just as an example, with the 980M it’s 1,536 Maxwell-style shaders instead of 2,048 for the GeForce GTX 980 desktop sibling.

Nvidia’s GTX 980M is far from the first mobile GPU to rival desktop performance

We’re still talking about very powerful GPUs even with a few bits turned off and Nvidia’s Maxwell architecture is very well suited to mobile gaming. It’s a brilliantly efficient graphics architecture and going by the specs I’d be staggered if these weren’t the new weapons of choice for laptop gaming. If you’re looking for a full-on gaming portable, you’ll want one of these new chips.

On the subject of currently available mobile GPUs in general, a quick word of warning. Be very careful to make no assumptions regarding product naming. Things are rarely what they seem in mobile graphics.

Possibly the worst current example of this problem is Nvidia’s GTX 860M. It can actually be one of two dramatically different chips, one from Nvidia’s Kepler family of graphics chips, the other a Maxwell model.

Admittedly they’re specced to give similar performance. But it’s still bloody confusing and indicative of the liberties both Nvidia and AMD currently take with mobile graphics branding. It’s a mess.

Of course, so far we’ve assumed laptop gaming makes sense in the first place and that’s hardly a given. Stuffing a fully gaming-capable PC into a properly portable chassis has always been a challenge and I’ve not seen anything to make me think it’s got any easier.

In fact, helping my brother pick a gaming portable earlier this week served as a timely reminder of just how punitively-priced any mobile PC with good discrete graphics remains.

External graphics boxes like Alienware’s Amplifier are interesting but painfully pricey

Likewise, powerful gaming PCs come with plenty of other downsides. They’re nearly all big, fat, ugly and cheap feeling. They typically have mediocre battery life. And a lot of them suffer from cooling problems sooner or later.

Any sane analysis would have you buying a decent gaming desktop and a cheapish laptop for the same overall budget and getting a much better overall experience. Weave the latest game streaming technology into the mix and you might wonder why you’d want a gaming laptop at all.

After all, if you can use your desktop rig to stream games to portable devices, who needs a powerful gaming laptop?

And yet I do get the attraction of a single, portable device that can do it all. Laird minor is a decent enough case study here. He’s just moved into a new flat. He may not actually live there very long. He doesn’t have a desk in his room and probably can’t be arsed to buy one, he likes being able to move about the place with his PC and the fact that if he moves house again, a laptop is trivial to transport. And he wants to play a few games. Lappie it is.

Just for completeness, I should also mention one final technology that seems initially interesting and seems to offer a solution to the aforementioned graphics upgrade conundrum – an external graphics box for portables. Both MSI and Alienware have developed just that, allowing a standard desktop GPU to be hooked up to a portable PC for a big performance boost as well as easy upgrades

These days, I prefer smaller portables with occasional gaming nous

The problem is that by the time you’ve added up the cost of the laptop, the external box and the graphics card, you’re back to the same old problem. To take the Alienware example, the Alienware 13 laptop is $1,000 for starters (£950 and up in the UK). Then you need another $299 for the external box and then whatever you want to spend on your desktop graphics card of choice.

And remember these external boxes are proprietary technology. You can’t just plug them into any old laptop. So, it just doesn’t add up.

In the end, then, there’s no getting round the fact that properly powerful gaming portables are almost always over priced, ugly, inefficient and unreliable. It’s just despite that they’re sometimes still the best option you’ve got.

If you absolutely want the flexibility, the ability to lug full-on gaming performance about the house or across town, there’s really only one way to achieve it. And that’s a big old brick of a gaming laptop. For everyone else, I reckon a combination of desktop and laptop – the latter perhaps with a low-end discrete GPU for very occasional mobile gaming – has to be the way to go.

31 Comments

  1. Mezmorki says:

    I think I probably lost my hardcore gaming cred when, about 8 years, I abandoned my lovingly hand-built tower monstrosity for an Asus 14″ ‘gaming’ laptop. My friends laughed and chastised me. But who got setup at the LAN the fastest, huh? HUH!?

    More seriously, lifestyle has forced me away from the stationary desktop PC, and I’ve found myself languishing in the waters of middle of the road gaming laptops since. This works for me though because I have a tendency to play games years after they come out – so even though my current laptop (from 2010!) would probably crush under the weight of some newer games, I can enjoy the games of yesteryear in all their glory today!

    They still laugh, but I don’t care.

  2. logo1 says:

    i honestly think alienware are the single laptops that can handle hard games
    problem is that they are very expensive
    I personally do logo design and I use a macpro, whic is also a fast laptop
    http://www.logo1.ro

  3. lowprices says:

    This may not be the right place for it, but I am in a similar position to Laird Jr. It’s time for a new gaming machine, and as I don’t have the space and may be moving semi regularly over the next few years a laptop is the best choice. My budget is around £600. Could anybody suggest one that could play modern indie games and last-gen AAA stuff (not worried about current gen Ultra-graphics, which is beyond a laptop at that budget)? Thanks in advance!

    • richard says:

      I’ve got a similar requirement and budget and an ASUS N551JK-CN073H is as good as I can find, but unfortunately it is “temporarily out of stock” at the only UK vendor. I ordered a week ago anyway. The £ really seems to shaft us compared to the $ for grunty laptops.

      • lowprices says:

        After a little researching, my frontrunner is a Lenovo G710. Seems to be a reasonable laptop for £600, and the specs seem to be up to the task of running most of the games I currently own or want.

    • Rian Snuff says:

      Going with a console sized apu (no dedicated gpu) for a 720/1080 build with 1800mhz ram might be a better path to go in your price range.. You will get a lot better reliability, longevity aaannnd game performance as well, upgradable..

      You could basically afford the best apu on the market, 8-16gb 1800mhz ram, and maybe even fit a 2.5 1TB Hybrid drive into your build for 70-90 bucks. Much quieter than normal drives… Less heat than a full sized HDD.

      Could easily toss that into one of the Mini ITX cases WITH power supply bundles on newegg.
      200 watters would do the trick.

      Just my two cents. : )
      I’ve built a ton, they can be pretty damn small.
      Just pay attention to the dimensions of the cases and have a tape around for reference.

      Hell, come christmas you’d be able to then drop a 250gb SSD in there for under a hundred dollars..

      Suddenly your low end gaming rig is still making your friends drool… Ha.

      If you didn’t mind it being slightly larger, (still mini ITX), maybe get a cube with a handle or something simular you could easily get a 750ti + into there for starters.. But the sky is the limit. I’d better roll my dice with the last of the refurb’d 660’s, the worst case is they have slight coil whine and that’s why they got RMA’d. You can pay 100-140 for a 660 right now if any are left.. Pretty soon refurb’d coil whining 770’s will drop around 200 bucks..

      • Rian Snuff says:

        link to newegg.ca

        link to newegg.ca

        Something like this is what I’d start my build off within your situation.

        And if you did want full sized gpu support.
        link to newegg.ca

        Best bang for buck for under a 100 bucks right there.
        I’ve used a ton of these and they FEEL expensive.
        I feel sad whenever one sells cause I use an open bench..
        I’ll likely snap one for myself soon.

        But yea.. I share a single room with my family right now.
        HA. And have lived in about six different places this year.

        One thing people appreciate other than not having to lug around giant pc’s.. These boxes are near silent, or create very soft sound anyways. And they don’t blow out tons of heat either, which is nice for air quality. Not drying out small rooms so much.

        Just nice side effects of low watt gaming builds that don’t get discussed a lot. My lady couldn’t stand my old loud beast.

  4. bravekarma says:

    I had been a laptop-only gamer since I left my P4, GeForce FX 5200 desktop at home for university, where they gave out crappy laptops for every student. The first laptop had a surprisingly decent ATI GPU, but the next one was integrated I think, so I wasn’t really gaming unless I was playing older games for nostalgia.

    Senior year I bought myself a proper laptop, which wasn’t technically a gaming laptop but had a decent GPU, then I renewed it in 2012 for a Lenovo Y470p with a Radeon 7690M. For 2 years I had so many heat-related problems that I gave in at last and built myself a mid-range desktop. I guess you get what you pay for when you buy a “gaming” laptop for $800.

    Gaming on my desktop is a super pleasant experience compared to all the laptops I owned, though that may be due to the fact that I can never bring myself to pay thousands to buy a proper gaming laptop, like those huge MSIs or a Razer Blade or whatever. So I don’t really see myself doing laptop-gaming for a while.

    • Rian Snuff says:

      It’s hard to go back.

      I went travelling last year and chose to sell my 120hz monitor, and throw my old cheap one in my parents basement.. WORST MISTAKE OF MY ENTIRE PATHETIC LIFE.

      Since then it’d be a dick if I wasted money on a 120hz monitor so I use an old crapper..
      Gaming is not the same. I spend each night up all night crying now.

      Safe effect in application for you I’d say with hardware. : P

      • bravekarma says:

        I definitely can’t go back to sub 60 fps gaming for sure. I actually don’t want to try a 120 hz or above 1080p monitor, because then I would have to upgrade my GPU and spend more money :P

  5. PopeRatzo says:

    Are there any laptops that will be able to run next gen games like Assassin’s Creed Unity?

    • Geebs says:

      Bear in mind that UBI are masters of the “laptops not officially supported” thing

    • MrTijger says:

      Probably but at what resolution and what GFX quality is the real question.

  6. lumni says:

    I love my own laptop, it’s an i7 with a GT 740M. It’s not a gaming laptop and it’s not much, but hey, 99% of the time I use it for work but when I want to spend some quality gaming time everything works perfectly.

    • Jamesworkshop says:

      Yeah i have a similar laptop with a GT 745m, even the 4400 intel is capable for games of Diablo 3 quality

      the display is only 1366×768 so it doesn’t strain anything

      I don’t care about desktops anymore

  7. daver4470 says:

    I currently use a gaming laptop (an iBuyPower CZ-17 I bought in 2012; it’s basically a reskin of an MSi gaming laptop). Has a GTX 670M in it. Perfectly happy with it. Runs everything fine.

    Here’s the thing: you really only have to worry about the video hardware if you’re going to use the laptop to push video to an external screen or a 4k LCD. If – like me – you have a 1080 native panel that you’re using exclusively, any of the current Nvidia or Radeon chips will push out good framerates at high levels, because that’s not where the ‘action’ is in graphics rendering these days. Current gen chips are looking to push out 4k resolution at 120fps – most laptop resolutions are child’s play for them, even if it’s a gimped desktop chip.

    Your bottleneck — and what you should really be paying attention to with gaming laptops — is memory and motherboard speed. All the speed in the world on your GPU won’t help if your CPU is bottlenecked because of bad memory read/write times or pokey north/south bridge I/O speed.

    That’s not to say that you can safely ignore GPU selection, mind you. A bad video chip is still bad. It’s just that these days you’re much better off getting a gaming laptop that has a fast motherboard with tons of memory and a previous-cycle GPU vs. one with the newest GPU but otherwise crappy innards.

    • Rian Snuff says:

      Good advice, I really have no experience with gaming laptops beyond APU driven stuff that just pretends it could even handle a decent game. But not enough people comment on those speeds on these devices, I’d be interested to check that out someday.

  8. Clavus says:

    Happy with my MSI GE60 (Core i7 3630QM, GTX 660M). However it seems it can’t handle my Oculus Rift DK2 as well as it did my DK1, so I might end up upgrading to a proper portable VR solution at some point.

  9. Insidious Mental Pollution says:

    Honestly the abilities of dedicated gaming laptops are understated. Yes, if you are wanting to drive a 4K display or make a real powerhouse, it can be an issue, but I have two Sager (Clevo to the uninitiated) laptops that do quite well at their native resolutions. My main, a P170EM (17″ laptop), has a decent 3rd gen i7 matched up with 680M graphics and even two years later it plays everything I throw at it on either High or Max settings at 1080p. My true mobile gaming device though is a W110ER which has an IPS screen I swapped in (stock screen on that thing was bad). It uses a much more modest i7 3610QM paired with a 650M graphics chip. At 1366×768, it also runs everything pretty well provided I keep shadows and AA turned low or off. But on an 11″ screen, that resolution is solid. Both computers use SSDs exclusively and have plenty of RAM (16 gigs each).

    Gaming laptops have an undeserved rep for being underpowered machines when in fact they can be outstanding.

    • Eukatheude says:

      It’s the other way around actually. Clevo makes the barebones, Sager is just one of the many rebrands.
      Me, I’m about to buy a P170SM-A.

  10. Retro says:

    I usually like this series of articles but this one just seems to be rambling without much of a point. :(

    I’ve been using gaming laptops for a few years (Asus G1s and now some custom clevo-based thing) and I’d never go back. Yes they’re heavier, yes the battery lasts shorter, yes they’re harder to upgrade but they run all games in a satisfying manner (resolutions over 1080p – and displays over 15″ – are IMO a no-go anyway) and the ability to take it with me to vacations, to friends’ places, to customers (if necessary, which it is for my job) is trumping everything else.

  11. Eukatheude says:

    I’m actually about to buy one such laptop. I’m going the barebone route, though.
    And, by checking now it seems that the vendor I’m buying it from has upgraded it with a 970 (from a 860) at no extra charge! Woohoo!

  12. Arathorn says:

    After buying a Dell XPS laptop with a video card that regularly became too hot for the built-in cooling to handle (resulting in two dead cards already, the second time outside of its warranty), I’m off powerful laptops. What also doesn’t help is that everything inside is soldered together so the only replacement I can do is motherboard, cpu and gpu and that’s simply not worth it any more.

  13. ChuckB says:

    I bought a Razer Blade 14 roughly a year ago (so it’s the 2013 model, not the latest). Yes, it is expensive (and yes, the screen is not good) but I’m really happy with it. Most importantly, I travel quite a bit (including internationally) and the size and weight of the Blade allow me to carry it (together with a Macbook Air, iPad etc.) in my laptop back without braking my back.
    Secondly, I’m still positively surprised by the performance. Yes, it will not run Crysis or Far Cry 3 very well (and I’m not even trying it) but even Total War Shogun 2 runs pretty well on High to Very High settings, Civ V runs at max and so does a lot of the other stuff that keeps me “busy” (Witcher 1, CKII, EUIV, Endless Legend).
    I recently purchased a new monitor with a 2560×1440 resolution to use together with my Blade at home and I was surprised how well the machine handles the high resolution.
    The Blade gets warm to hot under pressure, but I use this link to amazon.com and love it, puts the laptop at a nice angle and can be folded for travel.
    This week I bought a new video card (Geforce 970) for a 5 year old desktop I have in an apartment in Europe and yes, gaming on this machine with a 27inch screen is much better than on the Laptop but if you need the mobility, gaming laptops are a great way to go (literally)

  14. cpt_freakout says:

    I moved countries because of study, and since I obviously couldn’t take my always up-to-date desktop rig across the ocean I decided to invest in a laptop. So, three years ago I bought an ASUS G74SX with an i7 and a GeForce 560M; the only games I’ve really had to struggle with a bit settings-wise are some new shooters and the Witcher 2. Even so, to me, only a few of those shooters (Wolfenstein, Far Cry 3 and BD, etc) are worth the trouble, and they still look fantastic even on “only” mostly high settings. I played Wolf mostly on my TV with a cheap-ass HDMI cable and it never once gave me any problems after finding a good settings balance. The framerate was like 90% consistent in all those games, so I haven’t really had any reason to even think about upgrading. Besides, thanks to the indie scene, it’s not like I would be missing out on stuff if I stopped playing the latest CODs (which I don’t, anyway).

    What I’m saying is, if for some reason you can’t have a desktop rig, don’t worry, you’re covered with a good high-end laptop. It will cost more, yes, but the cost is offset in the end by the versatility of the thing being mobile. If you’re not a complete graphics-crazed person, new games will still look amazing (I got Alien: Isolation to run on near-max as well, and doesn’t ever stutter!) and pretty much everything in your backlog will run in max settings or near enough.

    Also – go ASUS or MSI; Dell ones tend to melt, or so I read when I was off researching what to buy back then.

    • maktacular says:

      I’m in the gaming laptop camp purely due to the fact I work offshore and as you say, can’t cart a dektop around. As half my time is spent in a pokey cabin in the North Sea something good to play games on is still essential for my sanity, and the bulkiness and poor battery life of gaming laptops doesn’t bother me as I’m almost always next to a socket.

      I guess it means I miss out a bit on really serious gaming power when I’m at home but the fact I can take comparable gaming power away with me outweighs any downsides. On a gigabyte p25 with i7 4810, gtx880m and 16gb ram just now and it plays everything I want to play at near enough ultra.

      So yeah, as you say, a decent laptop is in some cases far more suited to the job (and therefore worth the extra cash) than a beasting desktop. Horses for courses innit.

  15. Premium User Badge

    Zamn10210 says:

    My laptop has now been completely squeezed out between my desktop PC for REAL GAMING and my IPad for the light gaming I might want to do on the move. Very rarely do I have any call to dust off the laptop at this point.

  16. jonasjonas says:

    Hi I own an Asus N56jr (now they sell it as an Asus G56jr). Its built in a nice understated metal frame and its specs are: Core i7 4700HQ, 8gb ram, nvidia GTX 760m (860 for the G56jr). It plays everything i throw at it and theres no weird glowing dragons on the chasis. Furthermore its quite skinny for a gaming laptop.
    You could probably find it for ~800 £.

  17. Premium User Badge

    Earl-Grey says:

    I was a strong advocate of gaming laptops for a long time.
    Specifically during my years in higher educatiuon, I found it much easier to move flats once every year with a laptop than with a tower pc.
    Then I got a partner, a dog, a job, and a steady income.
    Now I’m dreaming of building my own home computer and stuffing it in my “office”.

    I can’t stand spending any time with my gaming laptop.
    The fans on that thing, shit.
    Even when the machine is idle the noise makes me want to chuck it out the window.

    • qwurp says:

      Same here. First two machines I ever bought were “gaming laptops” but the fans/heat issues always wore me out and when it came time to upgrade- well, time to start over from the very beginning and buy a whole new machine. Converted to building a machine 4 years ago when I found I could build one with the same specs (or better) as the latest Dell/Alienware gaming laptop for a little over half the cost.

      Just upgraded that 4 year old machine again and now am running a i7-5820k Haswell-E 6 core 3.3Ghz, 32 GB DDR4 (woohoo x99 MB!) w/ GTX 780Ti Classified 3GB. It runs so quiet in my 4 year old Thermaltake Level 10 GT case that I can’t hardly hear it and it runs super cold with some basic water cooling. Was a costly upgrade but one that would have been impossible on a laptop (without a budget that doubled mine) and this build should easily hold me for another 4-5+ years (gaming laptops just cant age that gracefully unless its a $4k laptop).

      All that to say, I don’t see myself going back to a gaming laptop. Ever.

  18. dforce66 says:

    I love mobile gaming. The ability to move around my house so I can game in the living room while my wife watches TV, game when I’m travelling, etc. is worth so much more than the incremental cost or not being able to play every game on the absolute highest settings. I have an Alienware 17 that’s a couple of years old, and can play all the newest games on max or close to max settings, and I can do so anywhere I want. I’d highly encourage all of the desktop purists to consider the freedom and flexibility of a laptop.