With laptop sales continuing to rise – up by 43.3 per cent in the first quarter of this year alone, according to Gartner – it would appear that more and more of us are riding the technology wave.
Keeping up to date with the latest advances in laptop computing enables us to work longer, faster and, generally, for less. The good news for gaming is that this relentless march of technology means it's no longer necessary to own a dedicated gaming laptop to enjoy the odd game now and again.
Of course, PC gamers who are serious about their entertainment will still benefit from pricey GPU technology – particularly if they're going to be playing cutting-edge games – but these days even netbooks are capable of keeping you amused.
There are several factors that have helped increase the gaming potential of even the cheapest laptops, and the improvements made to processors are leading the way. With the likes of the Core 2 Duo trickling down to budget machines, and the wonderful Atom coming in dual-core spins, there are cores aplenty to keep modern multi-threaded games going at a healthy pace.
Not only that, but memory capacities have continued to increase as well, with a previously unimaginable 1GB now available as standard in many laptops, and it's generally easy to upgrade your machine's offering to 2GB or more yourself.
The biggest advances in gaming PCs, however, have come through improvements to integrated graphics engines. Even Intel's oft-maligned Graphics Media Accelerator has come on in leaps and bounds, and with a little care and attention can be cajoled into playing games that would once have required a desktop PC costing many thousands of pounds.
You may need to pick lower quality settings to get some games working at reasonable speeds, but that's not too great a sacrifice. The only potential problem comes from the handful of games that demand DX10 hardware, but even this isn't quite as limiting as it sounds, because Intel offers support for the DX10 API with the GMA X3100, 4500 and HD ranges.
Besides, most games still offer a DX9 codepath for compatibility reasons, and all of Intel's chips support that revision of Microsoft's gaming API.
Don't worry about DX11 yet either – it's been available for a while, but there are no DX11-only titles out there right now and few are in development.
As with desktop gaming, your display is the biggest barrier to smooth frame rates. The higher the resolution, the lower your framerate. In fact, apart from anti-aliasing, which improves the look of games significantly, screen resolution is the one factor that affects performance more than any other.
Drop the resolution down as low as it will go (maintaining the aspect ratio where possible) and you should be able to hit the all-important minimum of 30fps. If you manage to reach the heady heights of 60fps, you can try increasing the detail level or resolution to improve the game's fidelity.
Either way, experimenting with games settings is essential and can be fruitful. Getting your game running smoothly is an important factor if you want to enjoy some serious gaming on the move, but don't underestimate how important the input side of the equation is.
A mouse of any description will improve most games notably, with the likes of the Logitech G9 being the preference for many. Don't forget to disable the touchpad to stop unwanted movement at vital moments – you can usually do this via a shortcut on your laptop, such as [Fn]+[F3].
A USB keyboard isn't quite so essential, but can help if you have a smaller laptop with cramped keys.
Serious mobile gaming
If you're looking for a serious mobile gaming experience, you'll need a machine with plenty of RAM, an SSD or fast hard drive and a recent GPU, such as Nvidia's GeForce GT 460M engine or AMD's Mobility Radeon HD 5850. These options come at a price, and despite the big names, they lag behind desktop components by quite a margin.
Fortunately they're still capable of driving the latest and most demanding games at reasonable settings and resolutions. If you have a powerful desktop computer as well as a laptop or netbook, then there's another option for playing games on the go in the form of game streaming services.
StreamMyGame runs the game on your desktop and streams it over your local network to your laptop or netbook. The free-to-use client limits the resolution of the stream, but upgrading the service is affordable and the inherent lag isn't anywhere near as bad as you might expect.
If nothing else, this experience will give you a taste of what it might be like playing games hosted on the cloud – something that many experts predict will be the future of gaming.
There are plenty of ways to use your laptop or even a humble netbook to punctuate your working day with a little entertainment. It's worth taking a look at the likes of Good Old Games, which has taken a selection of classic PC games and re-released them to work on modern versions of Windows. The system requirements are generally quite modest, and there are some stunning games to be had for only a few pounds.
First published in PC Plus Issue 302
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