Gaming notebooks and DTRs (desktop replacements)
The gaming community is huge and the number of gamers moving to gaming notebooks is quickly building. This is due to the power and features now available in notebooks. Up until recently notebooks were unable to run the latest games out and were one step behind. Today though gaming notebooks have achieved true respect with the gaming community easily running the latest games with high settings producing framerates you will never see complaints about. This has come at a cost though, the notebooks are often heavy with poor battery life. To someone wanting to be mobile running on batteries for many hours every day a gaming notebook is not for them, but someone who wants the power of a desktop in a system they can easily take with them to LAN parties or wherever they will have an outlet handy a gaming notebook is often perfect for them.
Let's discuss the features of a gamers most look for and what is most important for the best gaming experience:
1) The GPU
(Graphics Processing Unit) or Video Card.
Pictured left is an NVidia 6800 mobile card next to a desktop ATI 9800PRO
GPUs in notebooks used for gaming are going to either be made by ATI or NVidia and have dedicated memory. Many notebooks have shared video which uses the notebooks resources to produce the video (CPU, RAM) and it can not produce framerates to run most of today's high end games. They often even are unable to correctly render 3D effects that games require. To reference the latest GPU releases from both ATI and NVidia, you can check out their websites- http://www.ati.com/products/mobile.html and http://www.nvidia.com/page/mobile.html and you can check out the reviews on the notebooks which usually have 3D and game benchmarks on sites such http://www.notebookforums.com
More expensive isn't always a better notebook GPU. For example NVidia has a line out called the Quadro FX. It is more expensive than their own Geforce series. The price difference isn't because it performs better in gaming, it's because it's designed for professionals in applications like CAD work. You have to make sure you're informed or you can end up spending extra money on less performance.
These high end systems are now attempting to offer notebook upgrades by using a socket GPU design. Unfortunately no companies are successfully able to guarantee there will be an easy end user notebook upgrade offered to a current system, but upgrades do become available sometimes. They seldom allow the user to do it themselves and often require sending it in for the manufacturer to do it. The upgrade sometimes just takes a swap, a bios update, or sometimes a motherboard revision. Basically don't count on an easy GPU upgrade happening with any system you get at this point even though it's something companies are working for. GPUs, evem if socket type, are propriatory and will not directly work between brands. Meaning you can't take the socket GPU out of a Dell and use it in your HP.
Right now you shouldn't expect a high end system to go more than a couple of years playing the latest games smooth with high resolutions. Games coming out are always pushing the limits of GPUs which makes technology grow old quickly. What is leading edge right now, 5 years from now you will be laughing at having once drooled over it. For example, Battlefield 2 just came out at the time of this article and it's MINIMUM requirements to even be able to play the game is technology that was brand new/just released about 3 years ago even with desktops.
2) The LCD
(Liquid Crystal Display) or flat panel display
There is a lot of confusion with LCDs and which is the best choice not only in gaming notebooks, but any notebook purchase. A lot of the reason for confusion is that some LCDs are better for different uses and personal choice can be a big factor also. For gaming notebooks, there are mainly 6 different specs that play a role in how good your LCD is. These specs are-
Rise/Fall time, Brightness, Angle view, Contrast, Resolution, and Size
Resolution- The LCD is made up of cells that show up like pixels from a CRT (the dots that are put together to display images). These cells are turned on and off with different voltages that decide the color they will be to make up the colored image you see on the LCD screen. The number of cells the LCD has decides its native resolution. For example, if an LCD has 1,024 cells from left to right in each row and 768 cells from top to bottom in each row, it has a native resolution of 1,024X768 which is a 4:3 ratio and considered an XGA LCD. The XGA LCD has a total of 786,432 cells and will look best running at its native resolution which is 1,024X768. Each cell is controlled by voltage which tells it to be on or off and what color to display if it is on.
You can run an LCD lower than its native resolution (800X600 for example with the XGA) but since you have 1024 cells across and only showing 800 zones, it will divide up the cells to 1.28 cells for every zone. Since you can not physically divide up a single cell, where the edges meet from one color to another it will not be as sharp and you may notice a slight blur. Some people are bothered by this, others don't notice it, especially in gaming where it's constant animation, action, and moving. If you try to run it higher than the native resolution, there aren't enough cells and the system will usually cut off the top, bottom, and sides and require you to scroll the screen to see everything.
So, does higher resolution mean it's a better gaming LCD? That's debatable. Most people try to find the right resolution for them. Having a higher res will give you more space for work because it makes the images and text smaller. A picture that is 800X600 will fill the screen of a SVGA LCD running native resolution but only fill 1/8 of the screen on a QUXGA running native. Some people want the higher resolution and just turn it down when it's not needed. Other people want a lower res because the picture isn't as crisp if you're not running native. For gaming it's even mixed. My suggestion is to decide the maximum resolution you will want to run and pick the appropriate LCD. What people often do that order gaming notebooks online is go to BestBuy and play with a display model that has the screen size they're considering. Change the resolution and decide what fits you the best. If you think the view is too small for a WUXGA and not something you will likely be running, there's no point at all to getting the WUXGA if there's an equal specked lower resolution LCD option.
Here's the screen resolution standards for your reference:
WXGA 1280X800 (768)
VGA-Video Graphics Array
XGA-Extended Graphics Adapter
W-Widescreen (16:10 discussed below)
Rise/Fall Time (response time)- This is measures in ms (milliseconds) and is very important to gamers. The lower number the better here and you want a 25ms of lower rise/fall if you don't want to see any ghosting. Ghosting is when the cells are too slow to respond to the animation on the screen. If you have something moving quickly, the appropriate cells need to be turning on and off to show it moving, if they are not turning off quickly, you will see a ghost trail behind the object showing where it once was. Most of today's gaming notebook LCDs have a 25ms or lower rise/fall, but if you're looking at this spec be careful because some will display only half of it. If they list it as 25ms rise, once you add the fall it will have over a 40ms total rise fall time and you will be seeing ghosting.
Brightness- The brightness is listed as "nit" which is a unit of luminance equal to 1 cd/m2 or 0.292 ftL. You're typically going to find higher end notebook LCDs running 150-200 nit or more.
Contrast- The contrast ratio is listed in a format such as 200:1 which is a measure of the difference of peak black vs peak white that the LCD can display. 200:1 means the black displayed is 200 times darker than the white displayed. The number after the : will always be 1 and the higher the number before the :, the better contrast ratio. Having a higher contrast makes the colors stand out more against each other for a better view. Many display devices have a contrast ratio spec listed, but they do not necessarily compare to each other. For example, a contrast ratio of a LCD on a notebook will be nothing like one on a projector. Most higher end LCDs on notebooks will have at least a 200:1 contrast ratio and the extreme notebook LCDs will be 400:1 or higher.
Angle View- You'll notice some LCDs you have to look at directly to see the screen and moving a little to the side they begin to wash out. Colors and shapes become hard to see. Other LCDs you can look at from extreme angles and they look as crisp and colorful as looking directly on. Giving group presentations it's very important to have the most extreme angle views, but with gaming, most want enough to where you can be sitting with your legs propped up and someone watching over your shoulder with nothing washing out. Nobody games from an extreme angles and expects to get the required headshots needed to still be standing at the end of a round. Many feel a a 45 degree viewing angle is the minimum you would want. Often if the LCD has a 45 degree viewing angle to each side, they list it as a 90 degree viewing angle considering the viewing field goes from 45 degrees on the right side to 45 degrees to the left. You will find many LCDs out there with 30 degrees viewing to each side and many are going to see LCDs washing out at that point. A 120 degree viewing angle (60 degrees each side) is where you're going to be in the average to over average range in higher end notebook LCDs. You will find LCDs that go beyond the 120 degrees and would be considered extreme viewing angle LCDs or "wide angle LCDs" not to be confused with "widescreen LCDs" that refers to the aspect ratio discussed below under "Size".
Example of a washed out LCD due to a poor viewing angle (angled above):
Example of a good viewing angle (angled above):
Size- Your LCD size is going to come with two factors, the physical measurement and the aspect ratio. The standard aspect ratio is 4:3 but one becoming more popular with notebooks just like TVs is the widescreen. For the notebook LCDs the widescreen ratio is mostly found as 16:10 which you can reference above with all of the resolutions that start with the "w". All games support 4:3 gaming, but some games to not by default support 16:10 with it being something people have more recently taken to. What this means is you will either have to view the game stretched, with black bars on the sides, or hack one of your files to allow the widescreen ratio. It's usually not too hard to hack the file to display in widescreen. Many by default have the widescreen setting anyways and others just play with it stretched and get used to it. I personally play on widescreen and many of my friends do also. We like it better for the over all wide view, but it is very annoying some games don't have it by default. We discuss it all the time and some people feel the few that don't release with widescreen options (FPS) is because you have more of a field of view (FOV) giving an advantage in games.
There's no doubt Widescreen 16:10 LCDs are quickly passing 4:3 LCDs on gaming notebooks in both availability in flagship models and also gaming notebook sales.
3) The RAM
(Random Access Memory)
Regardless of the model you're looking at, any current gaming notebook is going to provide you sufficient RAM speed for gaming. Notebook memory speed is not going to affect your gaming experience so much as the amount of memory you have. You will find notebook memory in gaming notebooks and desktop replacements usually varies from 400MHZ to 533 available in both DDR and DDR2. Trying to find a system without RAM to buy a lower CL is typically not going to do you any good considering it's locked in the bios and most systems come with RAM as fast as the computer can use. Running faster RAM may work, but will only run at the speeds of the system and provide no benefit. It's most often recommended to purchase the RAM with the notebook int he amount you need.
The RAM in most notebooks is called SODIMM which means small outline dual inline memory module and refers to its design. It's smaller than desktop memory even though it operates the same.
The SODIMM is on the left pictured next to desktop RAM.
Most systems have 2 banks (slots to put your RAM sticks in) but a few out there have 4. You do not want a system running dual channel DDR to have all of the RAM in one slot because it will not enable the dual channel feature that increases the over all performance of the RAM significantly.
With the current games out, it is recommended you go with 1GB of RAM. 512 will run all games, but you will catch lag on some that 1GB will eliminate. I don't really see a need for normal use and gaming for more than 1GB, but some feel running multiple apps and future games, it's best to have 2GB in the system so it's ready for about anything.
4) The CPU
(Central Processing Unit)
The CPU is in a way like the RAM in that all current models considered gaming notebooks are going to have a CPU that will give you great gaming performance whether it be a mobile or desktop processor if you're looking at AMD and Intel.
Many companies have gone to using desktop CPUs in their notebooks that are considered DTR (desktop replacements). This really doesn't provide a significant difference in gaming. A desktop CPU will often provide better multi tasking performance and raw muscle outside of gaming at the sacrifice of battery life.
This subject is very highly debated with passion from every side so I will leave it with that and open to discussion.
5) The Hard Drive
Notebook hard drives are usually listed as a 9.5mm or 2.5inch standard and are not propriatory. High end systems will use one of two types of drives, either PATA or SATA. If running a single hard drive system, you should shop by the size of drive you want and the rpm which is the speed of the drive. The SATA is new to the notebook and newer technology having its advantages. SATA drives do not really produce much benefit in the same system when compared to an equal size and rpm PATA drive... that is in a single drive system. There are a couple of hardware raid system out there that will run dual hard drives in raid 0 or raid 1. When running in raid 0 you will see a benefit using the SATA drives due to the bandwidth and design. Two PATA drives in raid 0 will max out the bandwidth allowed with that technology while the SATA opens up with more room easily passing.
Is this an advantage for gaming? Well it is without a doubt an advantage for the over all DTR system performance, but with games it can depend on the game. It can help game load times to start the game and while in the game. People will argue each side of it on the true over all affect to games. Without a doubt though, the RAM, CPU, and Hard drive set up will not affect the gaming performance nearly as much as the GPU in most any current model gaming notebook or DTR.
Most gamers running a single hard drive system will get a 7200rpm PATA drive, while those running dual hard drives with the SATA option will go with the SATA and raid 0.
There are various features on the hard drives that can tip the scales very slightly in favor of one over another such as the cache, sustained data transfer rate, and the access times of the drive. With mobile drives though it's not currently a significant change and focusing on the rpms is where you should be. Another thing people consider is the size of the notebook hard drive. Considering the platter is the same size from a 40GB to an 80GB drive, many believe the larger drive has the speed advantage for the reason of data being stored closer together and efficiently. If you look at the manufacturer specs though they do not show a difference in any performance spec between two equal drives of different size. So, again, base it off the rpm and size you NEED as your reasons for choosing what drive in a single drive set up.
This is just something I threw together thinking it might be info some people could use. Feel free to correct me or add anything I missed and I will update.