Can Your Netbook Serve Up Playable Performance?
Sure, that little netbook you bought might offer admirable battery life, and it might be the perfect size for your carry-on luggage. But what if you want to play a game? Is there anything that such entry-level hardware can handle smoothly at the full 1280x720 resolution typical of many netbook form factors?
We were curious ourselves, so we tried out a number of our favorite games known for their low system requirements, both old and new, on an Acer Aspire One 522 with AMD’s C-50 APU running at 1 GHz, armed with 2 GB of RAM, and equipped with a 250 GB hard disk. You might be surprised by the performance this machine can deliver at 720p. You might also be surprised how many games it can’t handle, and we'll cover all of those titles on the last page of this piece. Of course, because netbooks are too small to include built-in optical drives, external storage is necessary for many of these games.
Your netbook might not be as powerful as ours when it comes to gaming. But if it sports a C-50-or-better APU and at least 2 GB of memory, you should see similar results. Stronger APUs like the E-350 should perform even better, while Intel Atoms with integrated video will perform poorly in comparison. This list is also useful for folks with older desktop hardware.
World Of Warcraft
Let’s begin with one of the most played PC games in the world. Set to the lowest details settings at 1280x720, World of Warcraft runs surprisingly smoothly on the netbook. Usually, the frame rate is 30 FPS or higher, and although it sometimes dips into the 20s as we run around Azeroth, this is a relatively rare occurrence that doesn't hurt the game experience. This is certainly a title we're able to enjoy on our tiny platform.
Lord Of The Rings Online
We follow up World of Warcraft with another MMO, Lord Of The Rings Online. This well-reviewed game runs exceptionally on a low-performance platform, and we are able to increase the detail preset to Medium and maintain a frame rate above 25 FPS. At these settings, the game looks fantastic, especially considering the limitations of our hardware platform. We're thinking that this title is sure to enjoy a surge in players with the release of The Hobbit film at the end of the year, especially considering its free-to-play model.
Dungeons And Dragons Online
The final MMO on our list, DDO leverages the same basic engine used for Lord Of The Rings Online, so it’s no surprise that this game is also able to run at 720p on our netbook at the lowest graphics settings. Frame rates stay between 25 and 30 FPS, and the title is easy to enjoy. Old-school D&D players will feel right at home with the combat system, and Turbine’s free-to-play model means there’s no investment for interested parties looking to try it out.
Star Wars: Empire At War
With MMOs out of the way, let’s move on to the only real-time strategy game on our list. Star Wars: Empire at War might not be brand new, but it’s one of the few LucasArts strategy titles that really shines, and is just as enjoyable today as when it was released. With both space and ground combat wrapped in a galactic domination meta-game, this title really has a lot to offer. Plus, our hardware has no trouble maintaining 25 FPS at 1280x720 with low detail settings. Surprisingly, the graphics look pretty good, too.
Let’s move on to RPGs. With Diablo II unable to run at 720p, and Diablo III too demanding for our netbook, we have to look to Torchlight for an RPG clickfest fix in HD. This game is as close to Diablo as you can get without actually playing Blizzard's title. It even has a netbook option to drop detail and keep the frame rates acceptable. At low settings, this game manages to run at more than 20 FPS on our platform. That's not ideal for a twitch shooter, but reasonable enough for an RPG with an isometric view.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Our second (and last) RPG on the list, Oblivion shocked us by running smoothly at low detail settings, with an average frame rate hovering around 30 FPS, despite an increased terrain distance setting. Sure, this one sometimes dips into the 20 FPS range, but it's never really choppy or distracting. And frankly, Oblivion looks great at 720p. If you haven’t played this one, it’s easily one of the best open-world RPGs ever made.
Aliens Versus Predator (Classic 2000)
No, I’m not talking about the Aliens vs. Predator released back in 2010. Rather, I’m talking about Aliens versus Predator, Rebellion’s original foray into the franchise, released back in 1999. Yes, the graphics are dated, but this title offers fantastic survival-horror game play, great level design, and the ability to play as a Colonial Marine, an Alien, or a ridiculously overpowered Predator. The best part is that it runs in excess of 60 FPS on the netbook at 720p. If you have the original, you’ll need to Google the Vista/Windows 7 patch, or you can buy it on Steam with the patch pre-installed.
Quake III (And Derivatives)
Quake 3 is a decent shooter, and now you can play it for free through your browser at quakelive.com. But there's more to the story, as its efficient engine is used to drive so many old shooters: the original Call of Duty, Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, American McGee’s Alice, and Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force are only a few of the games built on the id Tech 3 engine.
The hitch is that, even though your netbook is fast enough to handle these games, you may have some trouble getting them to run in a widescreen format (assuming you can get them to run under Windows 7 at all). For instance, we got Star trek Voyager: Elite Force to work, but only after editing the right config files to add 1280x720 support and turning off some audio hardware acceleration options to prevent sound glitches (the widescreen gaming forum is a great resource with information to help get 720p working in games that don’t natively support the resolution). As a result, Elite Force looks great and usually runs at 30+ FPS, though it does suffer from occasional dips to 20 FPS.
Star Wars: Battlefront II
At low graphics settings, Star Wars: Battlefront II looks sweet on a netbook at 1280x720. Moreover, it’s a great objective-based shooter with both space and ground components. If your team achieves certain goals, you can even play as an overpowered Jedi for a short time, and the game is wrapped with a cool meta-game to tie it all together. This is our favorite shooter for the netbook.
Roller Coaster Tycoon 3
Let’s move on to the sandbox games. Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 is a fun theme park management simulator with 3D graphics and the ability to see your attractions from the viewpoint of the patrons riding them. Widescreen support isn’t native to the game, but 1280x720 can be added by editing the "games options.txt" file (once again, see the widescreen gaming forum for help setting it up). With 32-bit color, shadows enabled, and detail levels set to 50%, the game usually runs in excess of 20 FPS. Although it sometimes drops when the camera zooms out, it doesn't dip below 15. Considering the kind of game play this title employs, with no enemies to react to, that's plenty smooth for an enjoyable experience.