Is Your Windows 8 Tablet Fast Enough For PC Gaming?

Gaming On a Windows Tablet: Not a Plug-And-Play Experience

By no means am I forecasting the impending success of Windows-based gaming on tablets anytime soon. But as some enthusiasts wait for their favorite PC experiences to hit the Android ecosystem, my passion for the desktop pushed me in a different direction. I write for Tom's Hardware, after all. 

Of course, if you expect to spend a lot of time away from home base, a gaming-capable laptop is probably your smartest play. High-end notebooks sport high-res screens and the underlying hardware to drive them at demanding detail levels. If your budget is fairly flexible and you want the convenience of a convertible tablet, Microsoft's Surface Pro and Razer's Edge are much more powerful than the Venue 8 Pro tested today. But expect to pay four or five times more than I did.

But if you're a PC game enthusiast, you're willing to put up with a time investment into customized settings, you covet small form factors, and you dislike the idea of toting a full-sized notebook around, you'll be pleasantly surprised that the latest Windows 8.1-based tablets sport hardware fast enough for mainstream gaming. The fact that they're also quite affordable is icing on the cake. 

A couple of years ago, if you tried to tell me I'd be enjoying a game of Left 4 Dead on an 8-inch tablet, I probably would have laughed. Substitute that title with Oblivion, Burnout Paradise, The Battle for Middle Earth 2, Dota 2, and so on. They're all enjoyable, and I just showed that they're playable, too. Plus, the legacy PC game library is spectacularly huge; we didn't even scratch the surface here today.

That also speaks to price. You can pick up older PC titles with a lot of gameplay value for very little money, many of which are available on Steam. A Windows tablet sells for as little as $200, and that number keeps falling. I've seen announcements for sub-$150 devices, even. While you a couple of Bluetooth-attached peripherals to maximize the experience, you end up with a true Windows-based piece of hard that easily replicates the functionality of a small notebook with Microsoft Office. Sony's PlayStation Vita, Nintendo's 3DS XL, and Nvidia's Shield don't boast nearly as much flexibility.

How about the limitations? They are indeed significant. We couldn't get most of the games we typically benchmark with to run. Titles like BioShock Infinite and Sins of a Solar Empire won't launch properly, while Star Trek Online, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Grid 2, Dirt Showdown, and Just Cause 2 simply run too slowly. Current-generation Atom processors and HD Graphics engines are simply underpowered and unable to handle the vast majority of modern PC games, even some that are known to have relatively low system requirements.

As for controls, the SteelSeries Free Bluetooth gamepad is a complete pleasure to use. Unfortunately, in my opinion, a separate peripheral takes away from the unified mobile console experience. While GestureWorks' Gameplay software gives us the option to use a virtual gamepad overlay, it has its own quirks. Having said that, the utility's future looks promising thanks to responsive developers, and I think it's worth the $15 price tag. Of course, the ideal setup would be game controls affixed to the left and right edges of the screen, similar to Razer's Edge gaming tablet. Wikipad promises a controller able to do that called the Gamevice, but it's not expected until later this year.

Storage is another concern when you start thinking about installing Windows-based games. Most tablets include 32 or 64 GB of NAND, which is woefully undersized. I avoided that issue with SanDisk's Ultra 128 GB MicroSDXC Class 10 UHS-I card. Of course, much cheaper 32 and 64 GB models are available if you're trying to save some money.

If you're a PC gaming enthusiast willing to do a little trial and error for compatible software, there's a lot of entertainment to be found in small, low-cost Windows-based tablets. In another year or two, I think this space will have evolved tremendously. When that happens, it's possible that gaming on tablets might become more mainstream. Fingers crossed.

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    Top Comments
  • Great Review :)

    Finally i see one noticeable advantage of Windows Tablet over Android
  • What I want to know is why has no one pushed an AMD APU into one of these windows tablets for gaming?
  • Other Comments
  • Same article with SP3 would be a worthy read since it gives a chance to see how their HD4400 vs HD5000 on the variants match up, and if possible a projection on what the newer chipset that wont be making into the current SP3 but might make into the refresh by holiday season?
  • Great Review :)

    Finally i see one noticeable advantage of Windows Tablet over Android
  • Burn your hands on the tablet while gaming, why don't you?
  • "...turning it into a portable PC gaming console..."

    Does not compute
  • Awesome article, Don, I have had the same thoughts recently. I think we would have appreciated some more info especially on:
    - Battery (maybe most important when you speak of portablility) - how long does it last with this model. I was eyeing the Asus Transformer Book T100TA, which they say has a quite respectable battery (but is also more expensive)
    - Does a PS3 controller (free, if you have a PS3) work with it?
    I would ideally have liked to see a mention of the Prince of Persia / Max Payne (1+2) / (Older) Tomb Raider / Splinter cell (1-4) and similar older third-person adventure games. In my opinion those work marvellously with a PS3 gamepad. Ah, I forgot - I wonder whether the touch would work directly with games from the Monkey Island series. Ah, another great genre for playing on a tablet, that was totally missed here - turn-based strategy games like the Heroes of Might and Magic series and Civilization (4). And also the grand-daddy of "modern" open-world FPSs - FarCry 1 :)
    The biggest risk with those games is still compatibility with touch/Win 8.
    An expanded re-visit maybe when the new generation of chips come out from either from Intel or AMD?
  • I mean isn't the controller choice obvious: PS4. It connects via bluetooth and has a touchpad so you can control the menus with a mouse.
  • If you bought a Surface Pro 3 it probably wasn't to play games, but nice to know it is one of the best performers out there in the tablet range
  • What I want to know is why has no one pushed an AMD APU into one of these windows tablets for gaming?
  • I am also thinking SteamOS as dual boot...
  • What's up with these multiple posts!!! Sorry for the splamming, it seems every time the page gets refreshed, the post is re-submitted!
  • Nice tests Don !! We are looking forward for more tests !! Maybe with a MS Surface Pro, or any AMD based tablet (with more GPU punch).
  • I enjoyed this article. I just spent some time configuring my own new tablet to run some games - a Dell Venue Pro 11 (with an "i5" dual core). It's about as powerful as you'd expect, which is to say it's not spectacular.

    Some games run very well on the tablet - Left4Dead 2 and Unreal Tournament 2004 run fantastically, as you might expect because they're a bit older, or based on older engines. Likewise, some other games that have lower system requirements run perfectly well (indie stuff, smaller games, games that were ported from PC to tablet). Examples include Castle Crashers, Geometry Wars, Plants Vs Zombies, Puzzle Quest, Pac Man DX, etc

    Some newer games that I've tried have framerate issues, but still at least play at lowest settings and resolutions. The games below, despite their framerate issues remain playable for the most part.

    Battlefield 4 (looks horrific because resolution scaling must be used, 20-35fps)

    Diablo 3 (35fps out of combat, 20-25 in combat, 17-19 in Torment II/III combat).

    Borderlands 2 (30+ out of combat, some dips in combat)

    Saints Row IV (45+ in places, 17-20 in others, it's odd, more geometry = bad)

    Tomb Raider (27-45fps or so, perfectly playable for the most part).

    In most cases, I am nerfing settings to a ridiculous degree.
  • I'd also add that cell phones have some Bluetooth controllers worth considering, like the MOGA series of controllers. Likewise, I hear that PS3/4 controllers are an option, but the concern with all of these is whether or not they have XInput (rather than using a program to bring compatibility with each game).
  • For some reason, I'm estimating that by time the Surface Pro 6 is released, that one will be great for gaming. Integrated GPU will have caught up, sufficiently. You know how PC gaming is, it only gets so good to a certain point, because they have to make console ports, as well. Granted, the XBOX One/PS4's GPU is already outdated by the PC having discreet GPUs.
  • No matter the frame rate playing Dota on an 8 inch screen makes it unplayable. I have a 10 inch laptop and it's practically impossible on that.
  • ...Nintendo's DSi XL? Did you happen to miss where it's been succeeded by the 3DS XL and the 2DS?

    (3DS XL and 2DS aren't really directly comparable due to the different form-factor - clam-shell vs tablet)
  • 665346 said:
    ...Nintendo's DSi XL? Did you happen to miss where it's been succeeded by the 3DS XL and the 2DS? (3DS XL and 2DS aren't really directly comparable due to the different form-factor - clam-shell vs tablet)

    That was a bit of a brainfart in the intro, the actual article mentions the 3DS XL.

    Anyway, thanks for catching it. Fixed. :)

    As far as being comparable, in the broad sense any portable gaming device is comparable. Portable console, phone, phablet, tablet... so I believe it's a relevant comparison in this context.
  • Quote:
    What I want to know is why has no one pushed an AMD APU into one of these windows tablets for gaming?

    MSI has. MSI W20. I think the issue has more to do with the clock speeds on the APUs in this power envelope, around 1 ghz. With this low a clock it may not have the necessary oomf. The recent APU has the power envelope and oomf, but we are only now starting to see it used in Tablets.
  • 749236 said:
    Burn your hands on the tablet while gaming, why don't you?

    The Venue 8 Pro got warm during our play time, but I never found it uncomfortable.