Tips and tweaks to upgrade your laptop for gaming
21st Mar 2011 | 14:00
Revitalise apps, graphics, storage and more for gaming joy
Upgrade your laptop for gaming: drivers and apps
Time then to lift the lid on your laptop and delve into its inner sanctum. The juicy technology sandwiched between its chassis is simply ripe for tinkering, and while manufacturers say you shouldn't, we're going to look at how opening up the case can reap rich performance rewards.
Figures show that we've all been buying more laptops than desktops over the last few years and it's predicted that desktop sales will remain flat while laptop sales continue to post double-digit increases. In other words, we'll all be buying laptops while upgrading the one main desktop at home.
So it's time we took a close look at how you can overhaul and game on a tired old laptop.
The biggest single disappointment when attempting a laptop upgrade is the steadfast, single-minded blocking the industry and manufacturers put in your way as the owner and user of that laptop.
They might use industry standard components and connections but that doesn't stop them creating parts that simply cannot be removed, or BIOS locks that construct a virtual Stasi, imprisoning your device and only allowing it to work with permissible components.
While this might sound like the ravings of a cirrhosis sufferer at a beer festival, knowing if a laptop can have its parts upgraded, if at all, is not only useful for the laptop you already own, but can help form future purchases. Choosing a laptop that you know can be upgraded at a later date is invaluable because it'll extend its useful life.
Starting off with a few useful software tweaks is the first step; using hacked drivers can help squeeze more from the hardware. Options to add memory and a fresh hard drive can hugely increase performance as well, as the base installed options can be poor.
The more exotic processor and graphics upgrade routes are substantially more complex, but for many it's a clear-cut case of you can or you can't. Even here, there are other alternatives that can get even the lowest-end options on the gaming platform, as we'll see…
Is upgrading a laptop something you should seriously consider? Well, it's not impossible to do but by the time you've scraped out the inside of your wallet for upgrades you could very well have enough to spend on a similar or better performing new laptop.
Take a look at the Acer Aspire below. It's an example of what £500 will buy; an entry-level gaming laptop. If the cost of your upgrade comes close to or is more than this, a new laptop is probably a better option. (You could level the same accusation at desktops but with laptops you're more constrained to the upgrade options and some manufacturers actively block upgrade routes by locking the BIOS down).
Negativity aside, though, there's no reason you can't drop in a new mobile processor that provides a bump in clock speed.
Start by searching online to see if anyone has managed to upgrade the CPU. This will effectively tell you the single most critical point: is the processor soldered or socketed?
If it's soldered that's a deal breaker (some people, who probably like playing with liquid nitrogen, mention hot-air soldering but it's another layer of complexity and expense on an already complex and expensive procedure).
Under the hood
If your search turns up good news, you need to get a little intimate with your laptop and tease out of it the model of its processor. The best generic tool for this would be CPU-Z; AMD and Intel also supply their own processor ID tools. Grab the AMD OverDrive tool from here or the Intel Processor Identification Utility from here.
These should be able to inform you of the processor model, speed, voltage, socket and stepping. Take this back to Intel or AMD and look up the processors in the same family line, so Core 2 Duo, Pentium or Turion.
To upgrade you'll need a list of processors based on the same socket, same voltage range and within the same thermal profile, which is the power dissipation. The last point is important, because your laptop's thermal module will be tuned for a specific heat output; swapping in a processor with a much higher thermal rating could lead to it shutting down or being throttled.
Even with all of this gathered, the laptop's BIOS may simply not recognise the new processor, either refusing to boot or running it at a lower spec. You can do yourself a favour at this point by doing some more research and searching for your laptop model online.
If you can find the processors it supported on release then you should have a better idea of what range of processor speeds and models it should support. It would also be wise to update the BIOS to the latest version, to make sure that it has the latest CPU ID information in place.
We've gone as far as we can without breaking anything or spending money. Before you start, disconnect the laptop from the power supply and remove the battery. At this point we need to at least locate (and establish we can remove) the old processor. Ideally, a large service panel on the back of the laptop – not used for the hard drive or memory – will provide access to the thermal module and internal components.
Hopefully you can see a socket and fixing screw without the need to remove this. However, depending on the design you may have to, along with the discrete graphics unit.
The alternative laptop design will require you to remove the keyboard and access the thermal module from the top. Typically you'll need to remove a service cover from around the screen hinges, remove fixing screws you find here, and unclick the keyboard. It's also likely you'll need to disconnect the display data cable and power to get full access.
Actually installing the processor is very similar to doing the same thing in a desktop unit, as the processor is a socket design but instead of the standard ZIF lever it's usually a screw. Just make sure you align the processor keying arrow with the same arrow on the socket.
You'll need to add the usual pea of thermal paste before replacing the thermal module. Rebuild the laptop and you'll be ready to restart it.
Upgrade your laptop for gaming: better graphics
Here's how to upgrade and enhance your laptop's pixel performance
The Achilles heel of portable gaming is the lack of any realistic graphics upgrade route. That's not to say there are no options available to you – but all of them have their own pros and cons.
The problems start with the utterly feeble abilities of laptop integrated graphics. The drive to cut costs not only cuts any possibility of an upgrade path but also the starting performance. For an older laptop struggling with integrated graphics, the easiest solution for gaming is to know your limits and simply explore games that are suitable for its abilities.
Before you scream "Cop out!' it is genuinely useful to know the limitations of integrated graphics, while the PC has a vast and varied back catalogue containing archetypal and genre-forming games, many now rereleased on digital download.
The two main generations of Intel integrated graphics (IGPs) are based on the GMA 9x0 (this includes the 3x00 line) and the GMA X3100/4500HD. The distinction between these is important because Intel did a major overhaul for the GMA X3100 architecture that remains right into Sandy Bridge – but we'll get to that shortly.
The GMA 900 and 950 are found in the mobile 915 and 945 chipset: confusingly for N4x0 netbooks, it was re-branded as the GMA 3150 but shouldn't be confused with the GMA X3100. It's an incredibly weak IGP for a couple of reasons.
Firstly it has no actual Transform & Lighting or Vertex Shader hardware: it's all emulated in software on the processor. Cleverly, Intel in later hardware will spin this as enabling the driver to choose to use the CPU or IGP to process vertex instructions for greater efficiency.
It also uses a 'Zone Rendering Technology', which sounds suspiciously like PowerVR to us and could also explain the horrible lack of optimisation for it. Despite all of this, it still supports DirectX 9 and Shader Model 2.0.
Thankfully, for its next generation graphics Intel got with the programme. The GMA X3100 and onwards use a unified shader model with single Execution Units that handle all operations. The X3100 line (in the 96x chipset) has eight of these, the 4500HD (the GL/S/M4x chipset) has 10, while Arrandale (Core i3/5/7) has 12, all sporting DirectX 10 and Shader Model 4.0 support.
Additionally, Intel in recent years has been pushing for developers to optimise games for its IGPs, which can certainly help them reach playable levels. One example was with STALKER seeing a threefold increase in frame rate when switched from a hardware vertex routine to a fully optimised SSE2 implementation. It's an admission that its own Vertex hardware is weak, but running those routines on the processor frees up the execution units to do the Pixel Shader work, making the best of a bad situation.
But what does all of this mean when it comes to playing games? This is where the benchmarking comes in.
We've taken a selection of games that represent different generations of DirectX development and benchmarked these against standard Intel hardware. The somewhat dumfounding truth is that the GMA 900 IGP seems about as powerful as the GeForce 2 GTS released over a decade ago. Or to put it another way, it'll play the original Unreal Tournament and similar DirectX 8 games. Its lack of T&L and Vertex hardware, coupled with a weak processor, kills all performance.
The more accomplished GMA 4500HD provides a good deal more graphics hardware with real unified shaders and sure enough it's just about capable of playing early DirectX 9 games with three to four times the power of the previous GMA 900 and seems the equivalent of the higher-end GeForce 4, released in 2002.
Finally, Arrandale doubles the base DirectX 9 performance and is on-die, boosting memory bandwidth and putting in a performance similar to the GeForce 5 or Radeon 9800 from 2003. All of this bodes well, with Sandy Bridge using the same 12 Execution Units but increasing the maximum clock rate by a substantial amount and opening access to the L3 cache, making existing games playable at HD resolutions.
So you've tried everything possible with your existing hardware or there's a game you want to play that it simply can't manage. What solutions are left?
There are two avenues you can pursue and neither is perfect or guaranteed. The first one involves using an external PCI-e adaptor and PCI-e graphics card to replace the existing hardware. Available from www.hwtools.net, the PE4H costs less than £65, including shipping and enables you to plug in and use an external PCI graphics card using an Express Card slot on the laptop.
This does work on a wide range of laptops, the biggest problems being overall performance and Express Card implementation. With a basic 1x Express Card slot, the best performance you can get is around 50 per cent that of the card. If you're lucky enough to have a 2x Express Card laptop this will increase to around 75 per cent, making this a viable if not fully portable solution.
Nothing in this world is going to help a netbook get CoD: Black Ops up and running. But then, as we've seen, that netbook is going to struggle playing the original Unreal. To get sad cases like this onto the 3D playing field we're going to have to use a little lateral thinking; get something else to do all the rendering.
One option is to use a streaming service. The highest profile is Onlive.com, which has a wide selection of games to choose from. Many of these offer a 30-minute free trial along with three-and five-day passes.
Gaikai.com is a relatively new one that's going through beta testing at the moment. Using their own servers you just need to provide the broadband connection to connect to the server to get gaming.
There's a reasonable DIY option available from streammygame.com. This clever system uses your desktop PC to do all the 3D donkey work and streams it over your local network. The free version is limited to 640 x 480 and your local network. A paid version costs just $9.99 a year and enables streaming over the internet and with 1,280 x 720 resolutions. It requires you to create an account and install a server on the main gaming PC.
Playing a game on the laptop is a case of opening the web page and choosing which game you want to stream. This fires up the game on the server PC and away you go. We found the streaming worked well with only a scant amount of lag but it's certainly not as well supported as it could be – with a little more polish it would certainly be a winning solution.
Upgrade your laptop for gaming: storage
It's an oft-overlooked option but upgrading a laptop hard drive will reap greater performance rewards than you might think. In fact, it could be the solution to two big problems we have with using laptops.
The first of these problems is that laptops only have one drive bay and using external storage means you've got to get up out of your comfy, warm chair (the one with the perfect buttprint) just because you've left the USB cable upstairs. The second problem is that once you start running out of space you can find the drive is moving about as fast as a pensioner browsing a supermarket meat counter.
At this point, the thought of a drive upgrade might fire in those neurons. Most laptops ship with what we might describe as a 'British Rail' class of drive, when you're after 'Deutsche Bahn'-style service.
Smaller capacity 5,400rpm drives are never going to perform anywhere near as well as the upgrade alternatives. The most obvious pick would be an SSD: 64GB models are now available under the magic £100 mark, with 128GB versions under £150.
While we're not here to extol the virtues or pitfalls of these devices, we are here to try and see where best you'd be spending your hard-earned, recession-weary money. Would a faster but lower-capacity 7,200rpm drive be ideal? How about a larger but slower 5,400rpm drive? Or as a further option, should you choose a hybrid drive that packs flash-memory for the best of both worlds?
All of these spinning disk options come in under the £90 mark, making the question of which is best for you a tough one to answer. Even if you already know you want capacity, thus ruling out the SSD option, two drives here are 500GB and the Toshiba is a massive 1TB.
With 2.5-inch drives, simply opting for a larger capacity drive will increase performance, as the 'areal data density' of the platter means more data can be read and written per second on a disk that spins at the same speed.
That neatly brings in the second way of boosting drive performance; just make it spin faster. Unfortunately that introduces its own set of problems.
Firstly, reading the magnetic field at that speed becomes increasingly difficult, so you need to start reducing the data density for reliability.
Increasing speeds to 10,000 or 15,000rpm is possible but this introduces heat and these 2.5-inch devices are designed only for servers that can provide adequate cooling. So are the options a slower, more efficient but larger 5,400rpm drive or a faster, less efficient but lower capacity 7,200rpm drive?
Well, there is a third way that drives can help improve performance: by utilising a data cache. Desktop drives can get away with 32MB and 64MB-sized cache while the physically far smaller 2.5-inch drives top out at 16MB, or more commonly 8MB, which is a fraction of the total capacity size but can help smooth out performance on more complex write scenarios.
This does also overlap with the option of hybrid devices, of which we have the Seagate Momentus XT.
First published in PC Format Issue 250
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