Netbooks: Good for Gaming?
Computers keep getting smaller and smaller. In the past few years the world has largely abandoned desktop PCs for laptops. Just as that transition has neared completion, notebooks got poleaxed by netbooks. We've yet to see how far the trend will go, but there's no denying that netbooks have gained tremendous popularity in the past year. These minuscule computers don't pack much in terms of horsepower or storage, but they make up for it in price. Some netbooks cost as little as $200, making them almost throwaway items. You might not be happy if your laptop bag walked away with one of them in there, but you certainly wouldn't be shedding tears.
It should go without saying that the netbook's small screen, tiny keyboard, and anemic processor don't make it the ideal gaming machine. But if you have one for typing on the go or browsing the Web in a cafe, the option to play games certainly doesn't hurt. A game like Crysis is out of bounds, but there are plenty of games on the market that don't need computing brawn to entertain you when you're stuck in a boring class. (Not that we’d ever recommend playing games in class, of course.)
Within the netbook category you'll find a few classes of hardware. Once we toss aside screen sizes and other miscellaneous features, netbooks fall into three broad categories. The weakest netbooks on the market feature a VIA processor and graphics chip. We didn't have one on hand; but after reviewing CNET's test results, we surmised that it wouldn't be worth the effort to see what kinds of games run on them. The VIA processor is considerably slower than the ubiquitous Atom, and the Atom doesn't exactly get the juices flowing to begin with. You can find the VIA processor in older-generation netbooks, most of which aren't sold anymore. (Ed - New VIA Nano-based netbooks are on the way that should compete close to parity with Atoms.)
The second, and largest, category of netbooks has the 1.6GHz Atom N270 or N280 processor paired with an Intel onboard graphics solution. The onboard graphics chip truly destroys any chance of modern 3D gaming. The Eee PC 1000H we had for testing falls into this category. You'll also find some netbooks with Intel's Celeron processor paired with its onboard video solution. These netbooks cost anywhere from $250 to $600.
The final category of netbooks is the most expensive ($600-plus) and also the most capable. They have the Atom paired with a GeForce 9300M graphics chip. They are far from ideal gaming machines, but the added GPU horsepower lets them do much more than the average netbook. In the near future you should be able to find netbooks with the GeForce 9400M--and at considerably lower price points. We used the Asus N10J to represent this category.
The one thing all netbooks share is the lack of a DVD drive, which makes installing disc-based games troublesome. You could lug around a USB DVD drive, but it's certainly not convenient. Outside of Web-based games, a digital download service will easily get games onto the hard drive without any extra hardware. We tested a pile of games from our Steam account and detailed the results on the following pages.
Eee PC 1000H
The Eee PC comes with standard Intel onboard graphics and the Atom N270. As we mentioned earlier, the range of games open to this class of netbook is limited. We tried out some modern games but instantly pulled back. Most of them crashed outright, and the ones that worked, such as Left 4 Dead, chugged on menu screens. Spore's cell stage worked well enough, but the rest of the game, not so much. Geometry Wars ran as though it were in slow motion. On the plus side, it's a great way to get a better score if those dastardly trapezoids are too much for you at regular speed. You'll have many seconds to decide where to go and what to shoot first.
World of Warcraft ran fine, but we imagine any large raid would get hairy on a machine this slow. After trying a few more new games, we realized that the machine just didn't have adequate horsepower for them. However, older 3D games, such as Quake 3, ran amazingly well. At that point we switched over to more hardware-friendly games, such as World of Goo, Defcon, Puzzle Quest, and Audio Surf. All these games ran without a hitch. Their small hard drive footprint also suits the netbook's tiny hard drive much better. When you've got only 80-120GB, loading up five large games can take up a substantial portion of your available space. In general, unless the game is dead simple, you might want to stick with games that came out prior to the turn of the millennium.
The Asus N10J has the Atom N270 paired with the GeForce 9300M graphics chip--this little mobile graphics chip provides more than enough horsepower to get the netbook going. We're actually stunned that the 9300M comes with 512MB of RAM to power a 1024x600 screen. The GPU is almost too much for the machine. It's clear that the biggest limitation to gaming will be the Atom N270.
The GeForce 9300M gives the N10J enough power to fire up games like Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3. After that little victory,we felt like walking on the wild side and clicked on Fallout 3. Bad idea. The piddly little Atom just doesn't have the power to get the game running at a decent speed. However, less demanding games, such as Left 4 Dead, Spore, Defense Grid, and Pirates, ran very well. Surprisingly, GRID zoomed along well enough to play. Even shooters like Counter-Strike: Source ran silky smooth at high quality settings. The range of games open to the N10J is considerably broader when compared to the average netbook. However, don't expect to run newer games at high-quality. We had to run Left 4 Dead at medium to low quality, however slower games like Defense Grid worked well with high-quality settings.
We weren't terribly surprised by how the Eee PC performed. Our expectations for onboard video have simply bottomed out. It has been clear for years that gaming requires a real GPU. By contrast, the GeForce 9300M found on the Asus N10J lays waste to the Eee PC. Not only could it run more games, but it ran them with far better quality and speed. As the popularity of these devices grow, you can expect their capabilities to expand as well. If you find time to mix in some netbook gaming during your breaks between banging out the Great American Novel and surfing the Web, let us hear about it in the comments below.