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Hard Choices: Gaming Laptops, Part Two

Harder Still

As promised, we're back again with part two of our deep dive into gaming portables. {Part one} This time around we're going to dig into the tricky choice between whitebooks and branded bricks, ponder the dark art of graphics upgrades, have a think about screens, and take a closer look at the budget options. And some other stuff. Like CPUs. So, lots to discuss. Let's get cracking!

Part one threw up a barrage of interesting banter. Some of it, frankly, I wasn't expecting. Seems a lot of you are having pretty good experiences with mid-range mobile GPUs. It was enough to have me digging through the benchmark numbers I've massaged from mobile machines the last few times I did a gaming laptop round up.

I've pulled my spreadsheets and there remains a bit of a disconnect between what you guys are reporting and my cold, hard numbers. But we'll come back to that in a bit. First up, let's talk whitebooks versus branded goods.

Whitebooks or bare bones laptops are essentially generic designs, cranked out in large numbers and rebadged under various brands. Historically, a company called Clevo has been the biggest noise in whitebooks, cooking up fairly bland designs that a wide range of smaller system integrators pick up and rebrand. Indeed, several of the UK's biggest whitebook sellers deal in Clevos today, including the likes of PC Specialist.

MSI is another big player in the whitebook market and it seems a number of you have Medion-branded MSI whitebooks. Anyway, how it generally works is that a local system integrator buys bare bones whitebooks with most of the core hardware already fitted, including the screen, motherboard and battery, and then drops in final touches. The CPU, the graphics and the storage, in other words.

It is possible to buy a bare bones PC and source at least some of the above yourself. But in my experience, pricing for mobile parts can be pretty inflated. So there's better value to be had using a system integrator to do the leg-work for you. That's before you even think about warranty issues with a home build lappie. The alternative to all this is to plump for a big brand system. I'm talking custom or one-off designs you can't buy from anyone else. But which should you go for? It's very much a case of weighing pros and cons.

For starters, the fact that whitebooks are designed for local system builders to add the finishing touches makes them that little bit more configurable. If you're going to be able to upgrade the graphics on a laptop, your best chance is usually with a whitebook.

Now, there was a time when the MXM mobile graphics module looked like it might catch on and make graphics upgrades the norm for performance laptops. And some manufacturers, including Clevo, do use standardised MXM modules. But we're still miles from the promised land of easy graphics upgrades using off the shelf parts. Even with those notebook models that do use mechanically standard MXM modules, upgrading is not guaranteed. You might be able to source a card that's mechanically compatible, for instance but then run into BIOS support problems. And that's before you consider power supply and cooling issues. So, if you're really serious about giving yourself the best possible chance of upgrading, you'll need to dig in and do your research.

Still, the generic nature of whitebooks also tends to make for wider compatibility with mobile graphics driver releases. It can be a real pain getting timely updates for branded systems when the generic driver from AMD or NVIDIA won't play ball. If that's the upside to life with a whitebook, there are plenty of downers, too. Build quality and style aren't exactly synonymous with bare bones-based portables. If you want something slick and stylish, you generally have to go branded.

It can also be hard to know what you're getting with whitebooks when it comes to screen quality. Admittedly, there are variations among the branded players, too. But if you want, for instance, an IPS panel in your portable, very likely it will have to be a branded system.

I've also found that battery life is something the big brands do better, probably because the configurations are more tightly controlled and optimised. The same goes for cooling and more generally for longevity. Whitebooks, I'm afraid, tend to be rather chintzy lash ups with great specs but plenty of rough edges.

The flip side to branded polish, of course, is a lack of choice. If you sniff around the branded options you'll find lots of prospects that are perfect save for one regard (usually the mobile GPU). And there's often nothing you can do about it. As for what I'd go for, it's a very tough choice. If I wanted maximum gaming power for my greenbacks, it would have to be a whitebook. To give you an example, PC Specialist will do you a 15 incher with AMD's latest Radeon HD 7970M graphics and a 1080p screen for pretty much £1,000 on the nose (the Vortex III, if you're wondering).

But before I bought, I'd do some research into the the underlying whitebook model and do my best to gauge the screen quality. However, if you make battery life and portability more important parts of the mix – and especially if you're not too price sensitive – the big brands are hard to beat.

Next up is screens. We've already touched on the general issue of screen quality and the difficulty knowing what you're getting, especially with whitebooks. There's no easy solution to this. If you can get a look at a sample system before you buy, that's obviously the best bet. Whatever, you can still decide on size and resolution. Personally, I tend toward high resolution panels. Partly, that's because I love the sharpness you get in-game with higher pixel densities. But it's also because low res screens are ghastly, restrictive things for non-gaming larks. At this stage, I'd be reluctant to go below 1,600 x 900 for any portable whatever the screen size or less than 1,920 x 1,080 for anything 15 inches or larger.

Odds are, the latter 1080p standard will soon become the norm, even for low end lappies, thanks to the recent trend for high res screens in smartphones and tablets. Anyway, the obvious corollary is that the higher you go with the res, the bigger the stress on the GPU, which you have to factor into your choice of mobile GPU. Bandwidth becomes the big issue here. So, I'd be reluctant to match a 1080p screen with anything less than a GPU with a 192-bit memory bus. That said, it's worth remembering that high pixel density makes the need for anti-aliasing less acute. I'd always take a high res panel running natively without AA than a lower resolution running interpolated with AA. Yuck.

As for size, it's really a question of playing off portability with power. You can't have a top end mobile GPU in a thin and light. Not yet, anyway.

Anyway, to get back to that disconnect I mentioned at the beginning, it might be my preference for higher resolutions that explains why some of you are feeling differently about mobile graphics. I've pulled out my numbers and among the mobile GPUs I've tested in the past 12 months are NVIDIA 670M, 640M, 570M, 560M, 555M, 540M, 485M and 460M and a few less on the AMD side but including the 6990M, 7660G, 6620G.

There have been others, but those are the ones I could unearth up at short notice. And I'm a little baffled at comments suggesting mid-range mobile GPUs making mince meat of games with all the eye candy maxed out. To take a couple of the examples mentioned in the comments last time, I wouldn't be terribly crazy about having the likes of the NVIDIA 555M or 640M in a laptop I'd bought primarily for gaming. They're just about tolerable at moderate settings in current games. But I wouldn't fancy loading up the latest shader-soaked spectacular a year from now.

I suppose it comes down to context. Both of those chips do have some gaming chops. If you're on a tight budget or if you want something more portable, they'll do a passable job at playing games. But if you're serious about gaming, I say plough as much money as you can into the thing from the get go.

That's especially true when you consider that you're probably stuck with whatever graphics it came with. In other words, saving a couple of hundred is likely to turn out a false economy in the long run. I say again, if it was me I'd get the fastest GPU humanly possible. But not necessarily the fastest CPU. You've got to be careful not to overdo the GPU-CPU balance. But I'm much more flexible on CPUs in laptops. A mid-range dual-core Core i5 mobile chip is just dandy. On that very note, I've got an AMD-based lappie coming from MSI shortly. It sports the Trinity APU combined with AMD's latest 7970M mobile GPU.

On paper you could have the ultimate gaming notebook. The APU can handle everything when away from the mains, delivering excellent battery life. Then you spool up the 7970M when you want to play games. But will the CPU part of the Trinity APU be up to proper gaming? Admittedly, the concept is already available in the form of NVIDIA Optimus and AMD Enduro. But there's something about the overall Trinity package that's particularly intriguing.

A little further out, we have the promise of Intel's Haswell chips, which have double the performance of current Ivy Bridge CPUs from its integrated graphics core. It might just make for an interesting budget chip for gamers. Gaming on an integrated GPU? You never know.

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Jeremy Laird