Gaming notebooks are brilliant.
Unfortunately, they don't always work – at least not as well as they should.
Sometimes you'll get a game that won't play ball, or the performance will be woeful (and it really shouldn't be). Worry not, though, there's a solution – wrestling back control of your graphics drivers.
You see, while Nvidia and AMD update their drivers on a regular basis, laptop manufacturers don't, and they make their machines in a way that these generic graphics drivers don't work, either. The reason, in a word, is heat.
As far as notebook designers are concerned, if you were left to your own devices, you'd unsettle the fine balancing act that the system integrator had spent so long getting right – the balance between speed, temperature, aesthetics and battery life. In fact, if you were to examine the actual clockspeeds of your graphics hardware, you'd discover that most of the time it's actually running far slower than the specification allows for.
Actually unlocking the true potential of your graphics is easier than you think. Essentially, it simply means updating an INF file then taking a few precautions before overclocking the graphics engine. Actually doing this is pretty much identical to overclocking a desktop graphics card, but with the added fun that your graphics cooling is probably shared with your processor.
A good place to start with sorting out laptop cooling is to give your machine a good clean. It's amazing what a difference dust makes to performance. We'd also recommend grabbing a laptop cooling stand. Replacing the default fans with more powerful ones is worth considering, too. Alternatively, you can grab your drill, and start making your laptop chassis a lot friendlier to airflow. We'd go for the laptop stand for starters, though.
Improve your laptop's graphics
We've started here by benchmarking our laptop using the latest available drivers from Dell, which in the case of the XPS Gen 2 date back to the heady days of 2005 – when the world was a much simpler place.
To be fair, these are fairly stable drivers, and most games do work, although the performance on newer games is a little unpredictable. You obviously don't need to benchmark your own mobile wonder at this point, but it does give you something to compare your overclocks against later on.
Once you've done that you should download the latest drivers for your particular graphics core along with the modified INF file from the appropriate site.
Once you've got them on your hard drive, unpack the drivers to a cunningly titled directory and then overwrite the original INF file that's included in the reference drivers with the modified file you retrieved separately, before running the driver setup utility.
Instead of getting the usual message that there are no compatible drivers for your particular mobile hardware, you should just fly through the whole process without a problem and be rewarded with up-to-date drivers. This alone should sort out any incompatibility problems you've been experiencing, and may even reward you with more frames per second. This is just the beginning, though. The real tinkering is just around the corner.
Turning it up a notch
You could start overclocking your laptop graphics straight away, but your chances of being successful are low. There is some good news, though – installing the default drivers will enable you to run temperature-sensing software, such as the wonderful HWMonitor (free to download from www.cpuid.com).
To check how hot your graphics chip gets, leave this on in the background and run a game for 15 minutes or so – hey, it's work. Once you've finished, pop back out to the desktop and take a look at the Max value for your graphics card. Unless you regularly clean your machine, you'll probably be surprised at how hot the graphics core gets.
It's time to give your machine a good clean out. How you go about this depends on your chassis, but essentially you need to fight your way down to the laptop motherboard, fans and cores. In the case of the Dell XPS Gen 2, this essentially means taking the whole machine apart – if you have a nice manufacturer, you should find the manual online somewhere to help you with this.
Be prepared for some serious unscrewing – you may even have to take your laptop screen off. The first things you'll probably have access to are the cooling fans. How many you have and how they are arranged is completely dependent on your chassis, but you need to clean them.
Compressed air is your friend here, although lots of blowing and dusting with a tissue can work too. You'll also need to give the radiator fans on the heat pipes a good seeing to as well – our test machine was just plain filthy. Give it a clean regardless.
The main thing you're searching for is the graphics core. It's not easy to access the actual silicon in our particular case, as the heatsink completely encases the GPU. Grab a star screwdriver, though, and you'll pop this baby open to reveal the embossed graphics processor complete with dodgy thermal pad that interfaces with the cooling unit.
Our heatspreader was okay, but it doesn't do as good a job as thermal paste, so carefully peel this off and then remove any residue left on the top of the GPU and the bottom of the heatsink.
Now you can add your thermal paste and reassemble the graphics unit. Piece the whole thing back together – carefully now, we don't want too many screws left over at the end – and you're ready to start squeezing some more frames out of your mobile kit.
Overclocking a laptop's graphics engine is identical to performing the same operation on a desktop, with the added fun that overheating will slow your entire machine. Even so, it's not too tricky, and if our testing is anything to go by, there are plenty of extra frames to be had – we garnered a 20 per cent improvement in WoW, and just less than that in 3DMark06.
Install RivaTuner and run it. Click on the Customise option under the Driver settings icon, hit System Settings and tick the Enable driver-level hardware overclocking checkbox. Now you can push the clocks up slowly (10MHz at a time) until you get a stable overclock that actually produces a performance increase. This is why we benchmarked the machine in the first place, so that we had a figure we could compare against.
With the XPS Gen 2, we managed to take the initial settings of a 450MHz Core and 1064MHz memory clock and go all the way to 530MHz and 1248MHz. Let us know if you manage better.
NVIDIA vs AMD
There have been substantial differences between ATI/AMD and Nvidia graphics cores over the years, but when it comes to unlocking your graphics engines in your laptop, it's surprisingly similar.
The only difference is where you get the driver updates from – owners of ATI Mobility Radeon graphics need to grab the INF update from driverheaven.net while owners of the green camp's engines should point their browsers at www.laptopvideo2go.com for the latest drivers and the accompanying INF file.
Unfortunately, those with Intel graphics engines aren't going to benefit from such driver upgrades as these are automatically updated with the chipset drivers (as the graphics core is part of the north bridge anyway).
First published in PC Format, Issue 223
Now read Secrets of the extreme overclockers
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