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Week in Tech: Mobile Gaming Update

Mobile gaming: It's basically bonkers

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.

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