Myth or Fact: Budget Gaming Laptop

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October 10, 2014

Myth or Fact: Budget Gaming Laptop

When you think gaming laptop, perhaps Dell’s Alienware or ASUS’s Republic of Gamers range of laptops come to mind. Not everyone has $2,000 to spare on a laptop though. How low can we go? Do budget gaming laptops really exist? Let’s find out!

The Situation Today

Today, CPU makers like Intel and AMD invest considerable resources into the graphics subsystem of their processors, for better or for worse. For better, because many budget laptops traditionally come with integrated graphics (of which performance used to be really mediocre), and any improvement in that area would definitely be welcome. For worse, because now it makes even less sense for manufacturers to consider putting a higher-performing discrete graphics card into their laptops because they deem integrated graphics to be good enough.

A quick search on Amazon revealed certain trends. Below $500, virtually all laptops run on integrated graphics, with the exception of the Acer Aspire E5 (may want to modify affiliate link) which, at $499.99, comes equipped with a Nvidia GeForce 820M. Expanding the search to $700 provides a glimmer of hope, with again an Acer model, but this time equipped with a higher-end GeForce 840M processor. Some people may have their misgivings about the Acer brand in general, but I think they have improved leaps and bounds of late and their value-for-money in the low-end is still unbeatable.

We are going to restrict this comparison up to $700 because anything above would probably not fit in the budget theme any longer. Though, the principles learnt here could be easily applied if you decide to buy something more expensive anyway.

Now, for the million dollar (or rather, $500) question: can you game on integrated graphics?

Gaming on Integrated Graphics

Not all integrated graphics are made equal.

Intel has two main classes (actually three, but only two are relevant in today’s discussion) of graphics. The first is found on Intel Atom, as well as Intel Pentium and Celeron processors with prefixes starting with J and N (e.g. Intel Celeron N2840). The latter is found on Intel Core i3/i5/i7 processors, as well as Intel Pentium and Celeron processors without a prefix (e.g. Intel Pentium 2955U). For Intel Core i3/i5/i7 processors, their graphics subsystem are labelled with a model number, the most common today being the Intel HD Graphics 4400. Meanwhile, for the other processors, they are simply branded Intel HD Graphics.

The confusion arises with Intel Pentium and Celeron processors, because there are variants based on Atom, and then there are those based on the Core series. Pentium/Celeron processors based on the Core series have more powerful graphics, but both variants are labelled “Intel HD Graphics”. The only way to tell them apart is the J and N prefixes used on Atom-based processors and the lack thereof on Core-based processors.

On the AMD side, it’s far less confusing, because AMD labels their integrated graphics by performance. R7 beats R6, R6 beats R5, and so on.

Now, what is considered good enough? That’s a tough one to call, because that depends on your expectations. If you’re expecting to play demanding games like Battlefield 4, you may want to look away now. On the other hand, if you play casual games like Counter-Strike, any would be good enough. Of course, such distinctions are easy to make. For the rest of us, however, we often lie somewhere in between.

Thankfully, Notebookcheck has a very useful comparison tool showing how modern games perform on various graphics subsystems.

From the various benchmarks on the website, I have summed it all up for you. In essence, you probably want to look for something with an Intel Core i3 processor (or their Pentium/Celeron equivalents) at the very least. Looking at their benchmarks, Atom-based processors perform abysmally on most games released in the past five years. AMD processors are competitive only at the R7 and R6 levels, but most budget laptops come with only R5 graphics. This leaves us with Core-based processors, which can handle games such as DOTA 2 and Counter-Strike: GO with ease. Battlefield 4 runs at 23fps, which in my opinion is barely playable, but you may be able to get by if you have a high tolerance for stutters.

Such Core-based processors can be found quite cheaply. This Dell Inspiron, for example, comes with a Core i3 processor at less than $400. It’s really a good deal for some casual gaming, and then more.

An important point to note: Please opt for Core i3/i5/i7 processors of the 4000 series and above (e.g. the Core i3-4010U), or Pentium/Celeron processors of the 2000 series and above (e.g. the Pentium 2955U). Graphics performance has improved by leaps and bounds between generations, so it is imperative that you purchase the latest models as the earlier models have much poorer performance.

Gaming on Discrete Graphics

Having a dedicated graphics card in most cases makes for a more pleasurable gaming experience. Let’s first discuss the GeForce 820M (roughly equivalent to a Radeon R7 M260 if you can find them), found in a couple of laptops priced $700 and below. According to Notebookcheck, it is able to play most current games with ease at the lowest setting. Battlefield 4, for example, manages a respectable 38.8fps on Low settings, whereas on Medium settings you get about 26fps, still faster than the Low setting on the Intel HD Graphics 4400. Crysis 3 is a little bit of a stretch, whereas Titanfall should run great on Low settings.

Moving up to the GeForce 840M (roughly equivalent to a Radeon R7 M265 or M265X), performance is much better. According to Notebookcheck, you should be able to run all games in Low settings comfortably, and Medium settings should be achievable for most. Battlefield 4 runs at about 66fps, nearly twice that of a GeForce 820M! Thus, if you’re a demanding gamer on a budget, get a GeForce 840M at the very least.

Where do I find budget gaming laptops?

When I first embarked on my research, I wondered where I could possibly find a list of laptops that fit my price and graphics requirement. The answer, as I found out, is rather easy. Just search “laptop” on Amazon and you’ll be presented a page with filters on the left. Now, in the price range filter box, enter your lower and upper price limits and then, under “Computer Graphics Processor”, filter for NVIDIA GeForce and Intel Integrated Graphics (depending on your preference for integrated or discrete graphics).

You may have noticed that I deliberately left out the “ATI (aka AMD) Radeon” option. That is because selecting it would lead you to a wide selection of AMD-based laptops. That isn’t a bad thing in itself, but because of the budget orientation of most AMD laptops today, you’d be hard-pressed to find one amongst them that offers at least decent gaming performance. If you insist, however, just make sure you choose one with at least a Radeon R6 or R7 processor, or for the older generation, something with at least a Radeon HD 8770M.

Myth or Fact?

From the above, we can see that the budget gaming laptop does exist. Sure, down the price range the definition of “gaming” narrows, but at just $700, you can purchase a decent gaming laptop without any qualification of the word “gaming” itself. Therefore, I wish you the best of luck in your quest of choosing the best budget gaming laptop for your needs.

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