Tech Tips - Gaming on the Atom N570

I've been carefully exploring over these last couple of weeks the many possibilities my HP 210 Mini netbook provides, and I'm thoroughly enjoying the experience. Intel's N570 dual-core Atom really is a decent performer. But working with applications and multimedia is only part of the picture. My testing has shown that, despite popular opinion, the N570 platform is adept at handling more than one 3D graphics title out there!

If you've been itching to get your hands on the smallest/lightest Windows device that will provide a decent casual gaming experience, or need a 10" netbook that can do more than just documents and spreadsheets, these gaming tips here should help turn a lackluster day into something decidedly more entertaining.

DETAILS:

I've been an avid PC gamer for a long time, slowly amassing a nice collection of titles that all run great on my 17" Toshiba Qosmio X305-Q708 quad-core SLI notebook. I haven't really purchased anything new though, basically because I've grown tired of paying $40 to do the same thing over again. As you'll see here, a lot of the games being demonstrated are older titles, but can still be fun to play, and provide decent entertainment value.

There are a few things to keep in mind when gaming on a netbook, and I'll go over those first. The biggest hurdle is working with a game that requires a disc to run, since netbooks lack a built-in optical drive. You can purchase a slimline external USB drive for around $30 and tote that around with your CD wallet, but a more elegant solution is to use drive emulation software.

Daemon Tools Lite is a free utility you can download that offers solid DVD and CD software drive emulation. It lets you mount as many as four virtual drives at the same time, works with copy-protected game discs and can even be used for installing software ISO images - handy if you download software often but cannot burn to a disc.

Alternatively, many games may have updates available that remove the disc-in-drive requirement. These are usually official updates released after the games have gone on sale, and can include bug fixes and other enhancements. It's always wise to check for updates, especially for games that have already been out for some time.

Finally, make sure you have at least 10-20GB of free space available to use on your hard drive, as some game installations and disc images will eat into your storage. A 160GB hard drive or SSD should be the minimum to start with if you plan to load up a handful of games, movies, music and photos on your netbook. Hard drives 250GB or larger will work very nicely.

Now for the fun stuff. I've put together a list of 10 games here that I have verified to work solid on my HP 210 Mini netbook. The images you see shown are actual screenshots taken from the games in progress. And no, you're not going to find Crysis 2 here.

1. FarmVille

With over 33 million verified "likes" on Facebook and an estimated 80 million players across the globe, FarmVille has become not just one of the most-played games on the internet, but possibly the most successful Flash game of all time. And while it's creator Zynga has branched out into other Flash games and offers game perks to those who "buy" in-game cash, it's the social networking interaction that makes FarmVille so enjoyable. You get to play with other real people in real time, working together, helping out with tasks, sending free gifts, sharing items and not just building/improving your farm, but competing for rank amongst your neighbors.

For those who have yet to play the game, it can be highly addictive once you start, and it's best to get beginners help from someone who has already played, since you will need "neighbors" for your farm if you really want to get ahead - and the more the better. The good news is the game will work with any browser (Firefox/Chrome), and runs smoothly on the N570 Atom, even being able to multitask with a virus scan running in the background. Yes, you will need an active data connection, so don't expect to tackle this with a capped 5GB 3G plan. But where there's wifi and unlimited 4G, you're all set for a roll in the virtual hay.

2. SimCity 3000 Unlimited

It's too bad the SimCity franchise had to end with SimCity 4 Deluxe, but it was actually the success of this game that led to so many others after it. I didn't like the changes Maxis made to SimCity 4, so I kept playing SimCity 3000 for many years after it was pulled from the stores. Look hard enough, though, and you can still pick up the SimCity 4 bundle for a few bucks.

This game does normally require the CD in the drive, but you can find a no-CD patch online that removes this annoyance, allowing you to play the game on a netbook. Performance is very smooth on the N570, but be wary that if you decide to go with a mega-sized city it could impact system memory - I've found 2GB is plenty to run the game through to the end. As always with Windows 7, you should run the setup executable in administrator mode and ignore the compatibility message when running the game. You may get pop-ups from the GMA3150 about a display resolution conflict when you exit the game, but it's safe to ignore.

3. Microsoft Train Simulator

Many PC gamers would be amazed to discover how many train enthusiasts there are out there, and the fact that this title is still played this many years after it's release is testament to the fact that some games just don't die. Based on the same principle as MS Flight Simulator, Microsoft Train Simulator lets players control and operate several different types of locomotives and consists on scenery modeled after real-world locations.

It's critical that you download the official MSTS update after installation, which includes a lot of performance fixes and removes the disc-in-drive requirement. You won't be able to run the game smoothly with all the eye-candy options turned on maximum, but adjusting the advanced display settings near the middle will provide adequate frame rate with ample scenery details. This game is a great way to kill time, especially once you get into creating your own track layouts, modifying consists and add new locomotives. The vast online support community is full with tips, tricks and extras you can use.

4. Hoyle Casino 2008

You only have to go once in your lifetime to Vegas to get sucked into gambling. But while the flashy lights and free buffet may get you in the door, there's no need for you to lose real money just to have fun. Hoyle Casino 2008 is a great way for you to enjoy your favorite table or card game without risking the mortgage (and marriage) back home.

The game offers a vast selection of all the casino classics, with tutorials, talking opponents, a custom face creator and varying game difficulty with bet limits. The selection of voices even includes the likes of Dirty Harry and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Jaaa, hit me!). Installation from disc is easy and the updated version won't require you to keep the disc in the drive, making it a great game to have with you on your netbook.

5. Monopoly

I know I, like many other adults out there, love a great game of Monopoly. There's just nothing like sitting down with three friends at that unmistakable square board, throwing the dice, playing with real tokens, and watching your pile of paper money grow. But while only a select few of us will ever get to own a top-of-the-line Franklin Mint Collector's Edition, there's nothing stopping you from taking the monopoly experience with you on your netbook.

For those times when space is at a premium and friends are far, you can have up to 5 AI opponents tackle you with 3D animation, host voice-overs and no worries about running out of paper money. The game lets you use standard rules or set up your own custom rules, alongside letting you select board layouts from various US cities. This game will require the use of Daemon Tools as it expects the CD during game play. As with SimCity 3000, simply run the install executable as administrator and ignore the compatibility message when running.

6. Windows 3D Pinball

Who can forget this hugely-popular Microsoft classic from Windows 95? While it officially disappeared from Windows after the arrival of Vista, you can actually get the MSI installer for Windows Vista and 7 if you hunt for it online. This is actually one of a few games that plays totally great on netbooks, since you can grip your netbook with two hands while flipping with your thumbs.

I was a big fan of Pinball back in the day, and being able to play it again now on my netbook is just so cool! The lighting and sound effects on this game are very authentic, and the harder you play the more points you score. Let's see if I can beat my old record of 48 million...

7. Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit

You weren't going to think I would give up without spinning some wheels with my N570 did you? Surprised as I was at how old this game is, I was able to crank settings on maximum and still get fluid frame rates. This game requires installation from a virtual drive image in order to play without the disc (make a note of that drive letter), but otherwise the procedure is no different - run the install executable as administrator and then select Windows XP for compatibility mode to run.

I've always preferred to use the keyboard when playing racing games, as I find it easier to steer, brake and shift all at the same time. Fortunately, the HP 210 Mini has decent-sized keys with good key spacing. Go ahead and set up your A/Z keys to accelerate/brake and your left/right cursor keys to steer. Then use your up/down cursor keys to shift up/down. This setup has always worked great for me!

8. Civilization III Complete

I'm a huge fan of the Civilization turn-based strategy game, as this is yet another one of those titles that's great for when you have lots of time to kill. I also like it because I never play the same game twice, making me always come back for another highly-entertaining session. It's good that you can save/load a game as well, as playing conquests on the largest maps can literally take days to complete.

Unfortunately the last-known official update (1.29f) doesn't remove the disc-in-drive requirement, so you will need to look for an unofficial no-CD patch, as this particular game disc doesn't like Daemon Tools. Once updated and patched, however, the game runs effortlessly on the N570 - you can easily get engrossed in play for hours on end, or until your netbook battery dies!

9. X-Plane 5.52

Flight simulators have been around for decades, so there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to find one that runs on a netbook. X-Plane is actually one of the better products out there, since it is extremely realistic yet still offers the fun of simple controls with enough scenery details to make flying around interesting. The ability to customize the wide selection of included aircraft is a neat feature, letting you think up anything crazy and then fly it... on Earth or Mars!

This game will also require the disc as it contains the scenery used for the sim, but installing and running from a virtual drive image takes care of that. For those that have a v6 or v7 disc lying around, it may be worth trying on lower settings as well - I have a v8 and v9 disc, but have yet to test those. Despite the lack of a numpad on my netbook, taking off and flying with autopilot is child's play. Best of all, the sim runs totally fluid on the N570 with maximum details at 30-50FPS.

10. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2006

I've always been a sucker for a good PC golf game. The TW series offers plenty of fun with near-realistic details and great game play. The selection of courses is enough for you to keep playing for weeks on end, and the longer you play the better the game actually gets as you acquire advanced shots and skill sets. This game looks and plays absolutely amazing on the N570, even on high details, making this my top netbook gaming pick!

Unfortunately, Electronic Arts failed to provide any updates at all, given the annual renewals of this series. While there's nothing wrong with the product, the disc-in-drive requirement will force you to hunt for a no-CD patch for it to work on your netbook properly. Also, the poor snapshot you see here is only because the game doesn't allow fullscreen image capture.

AND TWO MORE GAMES YOU MIGHT LIKE TO TRY:

Doom 3

Lock your doors, turn off the lights and turn up the sound. First-person shooters didn't get any better than this back in the day, and I find Doom 3 is still a great game to play, especially with a better set of headphones. Obviously, you'll need a good trackball/mouse, but the fun of fragging on a netbook is just so neat - you really are missing out if you don't give it a try.

Be prepared to turn your detail settings totally down to get this one going on the N570, but once you apply the latest update the game is pretty-much set to go! Don't expect fast frame rates, however - this title is really pushing the limit of playability. But if you're OK putting up with the minimum eye-candy and frame rate, it's a great game to fire up on your netbook. The opening soundtrack alone totally rocks.

GTR2

When the need for speed turns into a need for competition, GTR2 is a top racing game that makes getting to the top of the podium a white-knuckle affair. The game gives you a huge selection of tracks, cars, livery, race lap options, difficulty, realism and even full-length 24-hour events. The included tutorials teach you not only how to drive a GT race car, but master each circuit corner-by-corner.

As with Doom 3, you'll need to lower your detail settings to the floor to get this to perform on the N570, but I found it ran OK on my display's native 1366x768 resolution. Frame rates aren't stellar, but good enough to provide the sensation of speed and make driving fun. When all you want is a quick 15 minute race with a handful of opponents and some tight laps this game delivers. Too bad the official 1.1 update fails to remove the disc requirement, making a no-CD patch again necessary.

CONCLUSION:

Whoever said you cannot use an Atom netbook for gaming obviously wasn't trying hard enough. These examples shown here are proof that netbooks can provide a nice balance of casual gaming and entertainment. Most importantly, they open up a world of endless fun! Combine with an affordable sub-$400 price, full MS Office capability and flawless HD multimedia playback, you begin to appreciate just how much today's netbooks can do for you.

This list is also probably only just scratching the surface, as there are many more games out there perfectly capable of running on an Atom N570. What's noteworthy is that even these older PC games are considerably more advanced than the game apps found today on more expensive slates - you would be hard-pressed finding something on the iPad that compares to the depth, options and game-play of Train Simulator or Civilization III for example. Best of all, you can grab most of these titles for free or on sale for a few bucks at your local bargain bin, putting them on par with the price of an app purchase.

As a disclaimer, I can neither condone nor recommend the use of any unofficial patches - take that as you like. It is up to the software companies to release updates to their PC games. While it is understandable that the disc-in-drive requirement is done to curb piracy after initial release, it is nothing but an annoyance for honest customers trying to enjoy their purchase. Netbook users won't be toting around a bulky CD wallet and a separate burner just to play a game. Until game manufacturers understand the timely need to unlock their disc products with an official update, or offer games as an easy-to-use download at a reduced price, the underground cracking community will continue to thrive.

Critics who suggest that you still cannot run more modern, demanding titles like Crysis 2 on the Atom - that won't happen even on a Brazos E-350 system. There's little point in running such a graphically demanding game at bare minimum settings on hardware than won't even reach 24FPS. Another factor to keep in mind is that netbooks like the HP Pavilion dm1z, despite offering better graphics hardware than the N570, simply aren't built with a chassis capable of supporting dedicated gaming. That's because the small size of the fan and heatsink chosen for these systems does not provide adequate heat extraction. Any GPU running at 100% for extended periods has to dump that heat somewhere, and lack of decent cooling, will warm up to the point that the hardware thermal breaker eventually trips and shuts off. Use of a netbook cooling pad may help shave off a couple of degrees, but it's better to just learn to use the right tool for the job. A gaming-centric notebook like the Alienware M11x, with a more substantial fan/heatsink under its hood, will have a much better shot of running the latest games all-day long and stay within thermal limits.

That said, I would strongly recommend letting your N570 rest after 1-2 hours of intense gaming. Remember, we're talking about just casual use here, and you don't want to keep the N570 above 65C for prolonged periods. All-day gaming should not be interpreted as the objective of this guide, as netbook heatsinks simply are not designed for that. Occasional use with regular breaks in between should not be an issue though, and will provide the best entertainment experience for netbook owners. Let the fun begin!

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