EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a new series of posts beginning in 2009 where I share with you my experience and knowledge, offering advice for notebook users on various topics of interest.
My review of the HP dv7 CTO notebook last month and my experience with the Toshiba Qosmio X305-Q708 one month earlier presented me with two very different notebooks. Both are very unique in appearance, offer some notable features, came fully loaded, approach gaming differently and are priced totally apart from each other.
And while both notebooks are indeed very good at what they do, the experience has left me with one burning question - just what does it take to make a great gaming notebook?
You may recall my less-than-fantastic encounter with the Gateway P-7811FX. This was a unit marketed specifically for gaming with typical hardware under the hood and priced extremely competitively. Indeed, for $1400 the lure of a 512MB 9800GTS paired with a Core 2 Duo, 4GB DDR3 memory and ultra sharp 1920x1200 display created a buzz of attention among the gaming community, and unfortunately for Best Buy, a ton of returns.
Taking those same specs further, we have the Toshiba Qosmio X305 series of gaming notebooks. With significantly better features than the Gateway, along with more solid build quality, gamers could again take home a gaming notebook for only a few hundred more than the price of the Gateway.
With my HP dv7 CTO, I got a very high end CPU paired with a midrange GPU for under $2500, offering basic to good gaming performance.
At the $2000 price point, there's the Toshiba Qosmio X305-Q706 with hybrid SLI graphics offering very good gaming performance. At $3000 you can get a crossfire equipped OCZ whitebook with even better gaming performance.
And at the top end $4000-plus range, you have the quad-core SSD equipped Toshiba X305-Q708, Dell XPS line of notebooks and the Sager NP9262 models, fully loaded with hardware that will bring even a modern desktop to shame.
So the question arises, just which one do you choose, and what does it take to come up with an uncompromised gaming experience on a notebook. Fortunately, there are numerous ways in which to approach the issue, so let me tackle these one by one.
For many gamers, price is the number one concern when purchasing a notebook, as many are students/teenagers with a very tight budget. This was one reason why the $1400 price of the Gateway P-7811FX made it so popular among gamers. It's also the reason why gamers often get away with the same hardware for half the price by building a desktop, sometimes for as little as $650.
If you are a gamer looking to seriously frag on a notebook, my recommendation is to aim for the $2000 mark. At that level, manufacturers will offer you mid to high range components that are more suitable for running games, alongside websurfing and the other mundane things you would do when taking a break from endlessly hitting the wasd keys. It's also a price range that opens up more models not available in stores, since most Best Buys and Circuit Citys today favor the $500-$1500 notebooks, as opposed to high-end $2500 units.
2. GRAPHICS CARD
It is without argument that the graphics card is the most important hardware piece and determining item when it comes to gaming performance, be it notebook or desktop. The rule here is simple - the better the graphics card, the smoother the game will run, the faster the framerates will be and the higher you can turn up the options for eye candy. Once you have set a price range, go for a model with the best graphics card available. For notebooks today, that choice rests with the nVIDIA 9800M series of GPU cards, my recommendation being a single 512MB 9800M GTS or better.
Another handy indicator is to run a graphics benchmark such as 3DMark on a notebook you intend to use for gaming. If you can get a 3DMark06 score of 8,000 or better, your notebook is pretty much good to go for the games being released in 2009, and will run very well for anything released before then.
3. THE GAMES YOU PLAY
Games to computers are like cars to gas - each one will run differently even when you use the same gasoline or graphics card. For that reason, it is important to look at what games you will be playing, whether these are older games you already have from a few years, current hits requiring recent hardware, or newer/future games that will need the newest hardware to run effectively. It is very important to realize that unlike desktops, notebook graphics cannot be upgraded, so you will want to buy a notebook that is able to play the games being released not only today, but games coming out for at least the next 18 months. You don't want to end up buying a $2000 investment that cannot play a hot, new title released just six months later.
For older games of the DX8/9 genre, a mid-level card such as the 512MB 9600M found in the HP dv7 is more than adequate and will give you fast framerates with maximum details. Even for non-gaming, a dedicated graphics card will provide quick video acceleration, a necessity if you use the media playback features of a notebook such as HDTV tuner or Blu Ray movie playback.
If you play newer DX10 games such as Crysis, have a fetish for high resolution eye candy, refuse to tolerate framerates under 30FPS or are always experimenting with the newest titles the day they go on sale, your best choice is to stick with the highest model graphics card in an SLI or crossfire configuration. A pair of 1GB 9800M GTX cards in SLI will provide notebook gaming performance comparable to a tricked out desktop, but without the weight, without the huge power draw, and make going to LAN parties as effortless as taking a backpack, not to mention earning a few nice bragging rights. Likewise, a high-end setup will ensure your system remains future-proof for the life of the hardware, up to four years, and offer a fairly good guarantee that future games will run on your notebook without problem.
A Core 2 Duo is pretty much standard in notebooks today, and offers decent multitasking and 64-bit performance for Windows as well. My recommendation is a Core 2 Duo T9400 or better, but if you can get you hands on a QX9300 mobile quad-core CPU, you will get the best performance for gaming, multitasking, video encoding and anything else you care to run.
If you can afford it, stick with a 17" screen. They offer much more real estate, come in much higher resolutions and provide a more complete viewing experience for movies. For power users, you'll get more room for icons, taskbars, spreadsheet cells, windows, tabs and whatever else you load up while gaming. As far as resolution goes, I would not get anything lower than 1680x1050, and recommend a WUXGA 1920x1200 if available. These screens are very high res and offer full HD playback of Blu Ray movies as well.
5. OS AND RAM
I'm hitting a nerve here, but while many gamers will swear by XP, every notebook released today comes with Vista 64 SP1. I find Vista 64 runs very stable, have never had a crash, nor have I met a game that wouldn't work. It also allows use of more than 3GB of ram. Many new notebooks also come with newer chipsets which do not have drivers for XP, making Vista a requirement. While Win7 promises better performance, it is yet to arrive or prove itself for games, so in the meantime, my recommendation is to go for Vista 64 Ultimate or Premium.
6. HARD DRIVE
Gamers will accept nothing slower than a 7200RPM notebook drive, so if the choice is there, take it. Many newer notebooks also offer dual drive configurations, letting you install your OS and apps on one drive while leaving a dedicated drive available for game installations. With some games taking up as much as 60GB, a second drive will not only speed up loading times, but will let you get more organized with your notebook and boost your storage space tremendously.
Some dual drive notebooks also offer RAID capability, which let you use two drives as if they were a single, huge, fast drive. This speeds up the drive, but also increases a drive failure rate by double. The best notebooks offer three drives with RAID 5, offering speed, storage and data redundancy in the event one drive does fail.
New in 2008 and becoming more common in 2009 SSD drives will offer the fastest speeds with no risk of mechanical failure. OS boot times, application load times and game levels load extremely fast, the drives run completely silent, generate no heat, and can match/exceed capacities of mechanical platter drives. Their downfall however is high price, but as they become cheaper, more notebooks will be including them.
A good gaming notebook requires a good gaming keyboard, both in layout and key feedback. With 17" notebooks, I look for full-size shift keys on both left and right, isolated inverted-T cursor keys, and a separate 4-column number pad. When gaming, the 8 keys I find I use most are the wasd keys and the 4 cursor keys - if these keys aren't laid out well or don't give good feedback, it will not make for a good gaming experience. The best thing you can do here is find a notebook and test drive one for yourself, using your hands and typing as a guide. If you cannot find a model in store, look for a friend with one or search online forums for owners. In the worst case, you can still return a purchase if the keyboard doesn't work out for you.
A good gaming notebook deserves a good pair of speakers, especially considering the amount of detail put into the sound in today's games. Even for non-gaming, you want a unit that will play music well, make watching movies pleasant and give clear vocals for webcam chats. As an audiophile, I look for good frequency response, speakers that can play loud without clipping, and provide bass that is rich, full and free of distortion. Unfortunately this is one area that you really can only check my listening for yourself, either in store or on a loaner machine. My tip is to take a USB thumbdrive with your favorite tunes and play them, listening for things you're used to hearing on home speakers or a good set of headphones. While stores can be noisy, if you can hear what you want in a noisy location, you will get better sound at home.
And while two good speakers are recommended, a four speaker arrangement is even better and allow surround sound as well.
Notebooks with a separate subwoofer will provide the best bass, and will allow the main speakers to focus on the mid-high tones. For the best sound, choose a 5 speaker arrangement with a separate bass-reflex subwoofer - games will come alive, music will play like from a quality home audio system, and movie action sequences will boom with surround sound.
9. BUILD QUALITY
Gaming notebooks tend to get a lot of rough treatment. Gamers can sit for hours at a time pounding away at the keyboard, stressing the hard drives and CPU/GPU at peak loads, running the fans continuously and at times creating quite a bit of heat. Gamers also aren't afraid to manhandle their machines, bumping them frequently, tossing them in bags that fly around or spilling that can of monster juice on the keyboard. For them, they want a solidly built unit, with a sturdy display bezel and lid, solid frame/casing, parts that don't fall off or break and an effective cooling/heatsink that will withstand many hours of use under load.
While last on the list, if you're gaming on a notebook, chances are that at some point or another you're going to be running on battery. Traditional gaming notebooks have offered very poor battery times of 10-30 minutes, but newer models are promising gaming times of 1 hour or greater away from the outlet. If your idea of mobile gaming means being totally unplugged, keep this in mind.
With these tips at hand, which current model tops the list? I would have to put my bet with the Toshiba Qosmio X305-Q706. Priced at $2000, it provides the best bang for the buck with 9800M SLI graphics, an amazing 5-speaker sound system, solid build quality, a proper keyboard layout and a standout gamers color scheme. This model is very similar in performance to the X305-Q708 I looked at, minus the high price tag.
So there you have it! Ten things to look out for when choosing a notebook for gaming. 2009 promises a slew of new models and new technologies, so stay tuned for the latest reviews here at lgpOnTheMove.