What To Look For In A Gaming Laptop
The Black-and-White... And The Unwritten
Most people looking for a gaming setup nowadays know roughly a thing or two already of what they need. Usually, you can get obvious clues by looking at the recommended specifications chart listed on the back cover of your favourite, or yet unreleased, game. "Random access memory", or RAM, is one of the easiest, obvious things to look out for. More RAM generally means better performance, especially with modern games heavy on resources. Then, you might also see things like "dedicated graphics memory" or something. What is the difference, actually? This article will help to demystify any doubts you might have about the hard specifications you may not always understand directly.
However, when you are looking to purchase a gaming laptop, some things are not always there in black-and-white. That is to say, there are issues that exist that are unquantifiable - they do not appear in your specifications sheet, but can ruin your enjoyment of your game if you are not aware. What are they? Read on. This article will teach you how to be a more critical consumer when it comes to purchasing a gaming laptop, looking at the stuff that really matter, and not be confused by those which are not so important.
Random Access Memory (RAM)
You know the pop experiment where you try to name as many different fruits as possible, and most people get stuck at seven? Some maybe one or two more... Others one or two less. Of course, there are exceptions, but that is to show that on the average, most of us have a short-term memory capacity of seven items. That is something like what RAM is - short-term memory. Except that for computers, they do not go by number of items or concepts, but they encode all their memory in bits and bytes, depending on the specific information variable they are trying to store.
Everything in your computer needs RAM for everything is your computer could be storing, reading or writing data at any one time. Your games, especially, need to store enormous amounts of data when they run - how many bullets you have left in your rifle; how many bullets does the enemy have left; what speed is the next car travelling at; how much gold do you have and how much does the tower cost to build etc. Modern games e.g. Call of Duty; World of Warcraft; Need For Speed, with more complex variables and gameplay, need a lot more RAM than the games of old, like Pac-man, for instance, and these RAM requirements grow as newer versions of these games are written with increasing complexity. Thankfully, like I mentioned briefly earlier on, most games have got their RAM requirements stated so you do not have to do guesswork - even for games not released yet, with the Internet nowadays it should not be too difficult to find some information from the developer or other sources.
For instance, the popular "Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty" requires 1 to 1.5 GB of free RAM in the system, depending on your operating system (because remember, everything, not just games, even idle applications and processes need RAM; and Windows Vista sucks more RAM idle than say, Windows XP). If you are the kind who listens to your techno tracks using RealPlayer rather than the in-game music while you are gaming, then your computer will be using even more RAM as it goes along. Most laptops nowadays have easily 2 GB of RAM if not more, up to perhaps 8 GB for some models. Question to ask yourself is how much RAM do you need then? Personally, 4 GB is a good compromise between cost and performance, but if you want to future-proof your laptop for future games and heavy multitasking (I foresee for maybe 4 to 5 years?), 8 GB of RAM is a must.
Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)
While RAM is short-term memory, graphics processing units is an umbrella term for some sort of imagination mechanism in your head that helps you to visualize vivid scenes and all. The faster it can do its work, the smoother your fantasy. For gaming, it means higher framerates, and lesser jerks. This can also translate to being able to play the game with higher detail levels without issues with sluggishness.
For most gamers, you are probably looking for a dedicated graphics card. This is in contrast to an integrated graphics card, which really just means that there is no separate graphics processing unit on the laptop, so everything is done by a small soldered-on graphics chip on the processor e.g. Intel GMA. These are smaller, cost less, use less power and all, but also mean that they are significantly less powerful than what you actually require for most games which may require more horsepower - you will understand more later.
The graphics card requirement is thankfully another hard specification usually found in black-and-white on the game boxes. However, sometimes it might simply say"ATI XXXX or better". To compare across graphics cards of different brands or sometimes, even just across to a different series from the same brand, we need to sometimes do a little bit of further research into the exact capabilities of the graphics card.
Let me just say that I often go to Wikipedia to get information quickly regarding the above. Let us just assume now that I own, or plan to purchase a laptop with, a NVIDIA graphics card. Going to the Wikipedia NVIDIA GPU comparison page, and let us say that I have my eye on the GeForce GT 540M. A lot of the specifications listed there are mainly technical and only really interesting to people who have the know-how, but our focus is on the "API support"; "Memory Bus Type" and "Memory" columns. The "Processing Power (GFLOPs)" column can be a rough indicator of comparative graphics power prowess in case you are stuck between deciding between two cards.
For "API Support", most games should state for what version of DirectX, or OpenGL they require support for. These refer to the programming routines game programmers use in creating the game. DirectX and OpenGL in a sense serve to translate whatever the programmer programs in software to the hardware so that your computer can run it. To my knowledge, these APIs are backwards-compatible, so if you have a DirectX 10.1 game, your DirectX 11-capable Geforce GT 540M will not have a problem with it. However, if the reverse is true i.e. running a DirectX 11 game on a DirectX 10 card, you might face sluggish performance in-game for some game graphics rendering routines might not have been implemented previously. There are similar charts on Wikipedia for other brands of graphics cards. Check again with the manufacturers' website if Wikipedia's reliability is a concern for you.
Also, some games may have more specific demands such as "Pixel Shader" or "Vertex Shader" versions. These are also available in datasheets online - if Wikipedia has it not, the manufacturers will have it. If the latter have it not, Google will have it. ;)
The last issue with graphics cards is with their available "dedicated memory". This is just like RAM, but only for the graphics card to use - this means that if any information has to be stored to help with the graphics rendering e.g. physics information about car crash - where each particle should explode to, it will probably go here, rather than to the common RAM e.g. speed of car when it crashed. The advantage with having a dedicated memory store is that it is usually located closer to the graphics card, so less time is required for transfer, translating to lower latencies in-game. This is also indirectly why they are known as "dedicated graphics card" rather than "integrated". The integrated graphics cards actually have to share a common memory pool with the usual processors and this can cause issues with certain graphics-intensive games that simply cannot run - hence the "ATI XXXX or better" specification. The "Memory Bus Type" on these graphics cards refer to the speed of RAM read/write operations - generally, the greater the number, the better: either DDR3, or GDDR5 perhaps.
Just something for your knowledge: The arrangement of your system RAM e.g. whether it is a 2 x 2 GB RAM or 1 x 4 GB RAM - can make a difference. Two RAM sticks in parallel can actually be faster than a single one on certain motherboards because of the capability of "dual channel" reading - technical stuff you can google further.
Central Processing Unit (CPU)
The processor is actually not as important as the RAM or graphics card as modern games tend to be heavier on those requirements rather than pure non-graphics related calculations. From Call of Duty to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, for instance, the most obvious improvements have been in the graphics department, then gameplay which is secondary.
Again, looking at the back cover of games will help you see what kind of processor you need already. Most games quote in terms of Intel chips rather than AMD, so I will focus on the former. Some things to note - the clock speed e.g. 2.4 GHz, is not directly comparable across processor families. That is to say, a newer Core i3 can be faster than an older Pentium Core with the same clock speed. How do you compare then? Usually, if the game does not specify, look at the year of its production, and research to see what processor family belonged to that year e.g. 2010 was when the Intel Core i series came out, and use that generation of chips as a benchmark. Maybe going like a step lower for newer processors for older games is fine e.g. 2.4 GHz instead of 2.6 GHz, but this is really just experimenting. If you can, get the same. Generally, clock speed has a certain threshold limit. Once you cross it, you are unlikely to see any further improvements in gaming performance unless you are a multi-tasker, so don't just go getting some 3.1 GHz chip right away.
Multi-cores are another good-to-have thing - real-world performance is hard to quantify, but you can just multiply your effective clock speed by say, 10% - 20% more for every extra core you have. They do not actually scale 100% if you have not noticed. You might also have heard of complaints about game issues like frame skips on multi-core setups. My opinion is that those problems are bugs with the games rather than with the premise of multi-cores, and ought to be fixed. Any well-written, well-behaving game should not cause problems with multi-core chips, so you need not worry anyway.
Something you ought to know is that the Intel Core i series made things interesting. You might see CPU specifications of "Intel Core i5 2.66 GHz with TurboBoost 3.2 GHz". This just means that you should take the effective clock speed to be 3.2 GHz, but the processor (with TurboBoost, a new feature with some of the i series) is smart enough to lower down the clock speed to 2.66 GHz without manual overclocking when you don't need so much processing power, saving on electrical consumption. Anyway, Core i3 is simply entry-level. For gaming, Intel advises i5 or i7. To me, i7 is for multi-taskers.
Also, you may also hear, especially this year, of "Sandy Bridge" processors which are still labelled i3; i5 or i7 like last year - this is just referring to a revamped version of the CPUs that Intel has made. Just take them to be faster than the older Core i series.
Also, and this may be something you do not see on "hard specifications", what is cool with the Sandy Bridge processors is that apparently they have made the integrated graphics chip so powerful, it actually can outperform certain lower-end dedicated graphics cards, without all the dedicated memory and stuff. Intel claims to support high-end games like Starcraft 2 with its integrated chip, so it can be interesting to the budget-conscious who do not wish to pay extra for a dedicated card.
Enough of What The Game Wants! Let's Talk About What YOU Want
Well, whew, we are done with the brute horsepower stuff that a game demands from your potential laptop. Now, let's look at some other black-and-white specifications that you, the gamer should demand from your potential laptop.
LCD screen size seems to be a priority for many. There is little point in having a powerful discrete graphics card and a fast CPU with loads of RAM, only to play your game in a measly 1024 x 768 pixels resolution, or worse. Luckily, most gaming laptops in the market are at least 15 inches and above, the more common ones being 17 inches actually. The larger the screen is, the more pixels they are able to pack. More pixels generally mean more detail and crispness. That is what a gamer wants to derive satisfaction from the game. Enough said.
Next, is the weight of the machine. Now, because of the LCD screen size, the dedicated graphics card and all, a gaming laptop tends to be heavier than its non-gaming oriented counterparts. This may or may not be a concern for you, depending on how much you need to move around with your laptop. Aesthetically, laptops can be heavier because of all the extra weight they build in for durability and looks i.e. think Alienware, and this again may or may not be desirable. On the issue of weight, I would say is up to you, but just remember to consider this in case it slips your mind and you end up with a giant you didn't expect to have.
I also want to just mention hard disk space - the more space, the more huge games you can have on your laptop; so this is something to note, though really, nowadays the few hundred gigabytes that come with modern laptops would be enough for any game - the main competitor for space is the huge stashes of media files people have nowadays, all the digitally archived music and movies. Some resources might mention solid-state disks. While they are indeed really fast, to me, it is not as important as the other things I would have mentioned about. Plus, they are still way too costly for anyone but geeks. Gamers, save your money for buying the games!
What Is Not Written
Now, not everything is written down nicely for you. This is when I advise you to hands-on with the laptop if you can. Attend tradeshows, go into physical shops. If you are planning to get your laptop online, ask around and do your research.
While gaming laptops tend to be larger to help air the machine better, since the dedicated graphics card and all do produce quite a lot of heat compared to other mainstream models, the way the heatsink and other components are built can do with a little bit more thinking at times.
If you are using a normal laptop now, just stop what you are doing and rest your palms on your palmrest below your keyboard with the touchpad in between. There is a high chance that your left hand is feeling a tad more heat than your right hand. This is because of the way most laptops are built - the design seems to favour heat-generating components concentrating on the left of your laptop. You might not have always noticed it, but it is a problem you can allow yourself to be annoyed with. For gamers, that is where your palm is resting when you do WASD. Should you leave your palm resting there for hours gaming, it is going to heat up.
Good gaming laptops should circumvent that bad design and leave you with a both-sides cool palmrest. Indeed, this was what I observed during a quick walkaround of a gaming laptop booth - most of them had the left-side heat problem. Only the largest models seemed to avoid it. Minor nuisance for some people, major annoyance for others.
The other thing would be the sound. This is relevant for you only if you do not use a set of headphones or earphones when you game, preferring to use the internal speakers instead. It is hard to compare laptops based on sound performance without actually having heard them. Having some form of technology advertised on them generally helps, but it is really subjective. You want directionality; loudness; bass and perhaps voice clarity - these are things best judged by your own ears.
Bearing all that above in mind, I hope that my article has been useful in introducing some of the things you should be looking out for when shopping for a new gaming laptop. Should there be anything you think I should have mentioned or missed out, do inform me of such.
Over time, some of the concepts in this article may change because of newer releases of components and changes in technology, so you should still very much remain the alert consumer and stay updated of trends.