By now, every PC gamer has at least heard whispers of Alienware’s new M11x “Gaming Netbook”. 11-inch screen size, combined with multiple power-saving options, it could very well be a portable supplement to a PC gamer’s lifestyle. But what about those of us who already own a Netbook? What do we do with machines meant for the sole purpose of doing work?
The Netbook’s entrance into the consumer market began more than three years ago, and is marketed as being a convenient alternative to both the typical 15.6″ laptop, and the various smaller, but more power-hungry, options available to consumers. With hardware that screams “bare minimum”, and a price that reflects such a fact, any gamer would find themselves apprehensive at the thought of using one of these machines for their hobby.
That’s not to say it can’t be done, however. After more than a year of trial-and-error and several, sometimes foolhardy, attempts to squeeze every last drop of power out of it, I think I’ve come up with a solid base of information for the owners out there not satisfied with just doing work.
I own the ASUS EEE 900HA. With an 8.9″ screen, it has an Intel Atom N270 at 1.6ghz, an Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics chip, and 2GB of DDR2 RAM at 800mhz. An older model, I purchased it because it was dirt cheap – $198 from an online retailer, and that was a year ago. For such a price, I could not believe what I got; the machine functions brilliantly for all my basic tasks.
Taking notes, listening to music, surfing the Internet, either separately or simultaneously, works just as well as any other system. However, as any gamer would understand, I had to ask myself: “What can I play on it?”
Considering the hardware, this question could not be easily answered. A low-powered single-core processor and an integrated graphics chip doesn’t exactly translate to “Gaming machine” by any stretch, but surely something would work. I started looking around at old boxes, listings of system requirements, and tried to get an idea of where the Netbook stood.
The statistics were interesting. The N270 comes out to being the rough equivalent of a Pentium IV at 2.2ghz, and the Intel chip, while just as low-powered as any other Intel graphics solution, could actually handle some 3D applications and at least play movies at 720p. It was not a beast, but it would do. My nostalgia already mounting, I rummaged through my library in an effort to find something to play.
Of course, the first obstacle was overcoming the lack of an optical drive. Netbooks don’t have them in an effort to keep the small form factor and as a means of lowering power consumption. Mounting software and ImgBurn alleviated this concern quickly; armed with a flash drive and several backup disc-images, I set to work.
My first attempt at Netbook gaming was in some sense both a resounding success and a crushing failure. The first game I tried, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, actually worked, but it ended up taking a lot of in-depth tweaking to get it to perform well. After several hours of changing configuration files and altering the way it managed resources, I managed to get the game to run at a steady 25-30 frames-per-second.
These results were not what I expected. According to every source I had read on the subject, the hardware should have had no problem running such a game. However, such is the nature of the beast. Sometimes, games just don’t work as they’re designed to, and putting an already temperamental one on a machine with odd hardware made for a frustrating experience. That said, once it was working, the game was certainly playable, and not with everything on its lowest settings.
Battery life didn’t take as much of a hit as I thought it would, either. In-game, I was able to play for nearly two-and-a-half hours without a problem. This held true for nearly any game I played, 3D or not. Considering my desktop doesn’t travel, and my laptop lasts all of thirty minutes in-game, this information put me at ease. I knew that, at any rate, I’d have something to do on a long trip.
But what else worked? Morrowind, as it turned out, was an exception to the rule; other open-world, fully three-dimensional games worked brilliantly on the little PC, including titles such as Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, San Andreas, Dungeon Siege, Dungeon Siege II, and what is arguably the current generation’s cult-classic Mount & Blade.
It goes without saying that Infinity-Engine classics such as Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, and Fallout all worked without a problem as well. As a rule, I found that nearly any PC title from 2003 and before either worked well on its own or could be made to work, and such is what I stand by today as the rule for Netbook gaming.
Understandably, most gamers probably won’t be won over by this. After all, these games are quite old. Most of us have either already played them or never had an interest. However, there is always that niche of people who love their old games, and for those of you out there, if you want a machine that can do it without too many problems, consider a Netbook. It’s certainly a convenient alternative to firing up dad’s old P4 machine, or having to find workarounds for the newer operating systems.
As for the gamer considering a Netbook as a main gaming machine, such would be an entirely foolhardy endeavor. Even the “world’s most powerful 11-inch gaming machine” (the m11x) can’t do anything near what mid-range 15.6″ models can (much less a high-powered desktop), and on its own, a Netbook is not a complete computing solution. They are made as a supplement: a counterpart to a greater system that can travel easily and come back home at a moment’s notice.
For those of you out there who already got in on the Netbook craze, don’t be afraid to try any one of the titles I’ve listed here, and certainly don’t be afraid to try others. Though there exists little information as to the actual performance most of the machines achieve, the process of finding out is not nearly as long and laborious as it seems, and can end up with a sweet payout if you’re willing to go back a few years.