Netbook gaming, you have got to be kidding me. No, I am not joking, there are massive amounts of games that you can play on a Netbook, and I am not just talking about web games, or Peggle (although Peggle is loads of fun); I am talking about some of the best PC games ever made.
How to have fun playing amazing PC games on a $300 Netbook:
I should start by saying that I do not actually have a “Netbook.” What I do own, is a very low powered tablet PC, the Motion LE1600. The version I have is about 4 years old, and is based on the ultra-low voltage (ULV) Intel Celeron processor. The chip clocks in at 1GHz, and I have upgraded the machine to 2GB of RAM. Additionally, the graphics are courtesy of the Intel GM900 integrated chipset. This machine, although not a Netbook, does have very similar hardware. Recently I have been playing a lot of games on this PC, and have been having a blast.
It all started last year with the public beta of Good Old Games. I wanted to play Fallout andFallout 2 again, but I didn’t know where the actual games were. The disks had been lost somewhere along the winding road. Well, lucky for me, GOG had a launch sale, 2 for 1. I thought for sure I was buying Fallout 1 and 2 until I saw another game, Messiah. Messiah was my white whale of gaming. I had preordered it after playing the demo, and paid in full (mistake) at the Electronics Boutique website. The game was delayed and my pre-order, and my money, were “lost.” Well, the GOG version of Messiah would unfortunately not run well on my main gaming rig, something about it being just too awesomely powerful. So I fired up the tablet, and tried it there. Brilliant, the game ran perfectly. This got me thinking about what other games I could enjoy on this “ancient” piece of hardware.
The next game I tried was Alpha Centauri, one of my personal favorite games of all time, and considered by many to be the best turn-based 4X strategy game ever made. It was perfect. I could sit in bed or a recliner, and play for hours on a single charge without the machine getting more than a little warm. This my friends, is gaming at its best.
Now, I have had gaming laptops before. The last one I used regularly was equipped with a 15.4″ widscreen display and Radeon 9700. Sure it was great to play Half-Life 2 on, for about 30 minutes. By that point it was too hot to handle, and had to be put on the desk and plugged in, not to mention that it was uncomfortable to hold weighing in at around eight pounds.
Other great games that run beautifully on my Netbook stand-in are Warcraft 2, the original Half-Life, anything from id up until and including Quake 3, Firefly Studio’s Stronghold: Crusader, the excellent racing game Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed, the incredible Deus Ex, and the indispensible No One Lives Forever.
Maybe these old games do not sound that incredible to you, well have no fear, new Netbook will be here. Newer Netbooks will soon be available with Intel’s G45 graphics core. This chip is easily as fast as an NVidia 6600GT. In fact, I have an HTPC built on a G45 with a Core2 E4300 at 1.8GHZ. This system should be roughly equivalent to Netbook’s coming out in the near future. These will run things like FarCry, Quake 3, Oblivion, Mount and Blade, SimCity 4, orRollerCoaster Tycoon 3. I have even played modern source engine games like Team Fortress 2on this machine with decent frame-rates by sacrificing resolution and graphics quality. Imagining something like that in the form factor of an 8″ Netbook is amazing. With a small, portable mouse, you will experience portable gaming bliss. Integrated notebook graphics have such a bad reputation, you would think no games will run on them. It is always surprising to me how ignored one of PC gamings greatest features is: the back library. No console can come near to matching the number of titles that will run on a modern PC. As a very general rule, a current Netbook with a 1.6GHz Atom processor and GMA950 graphics is about as powerful as a low end Pentium 4 with a GeForce 4 graphics card. If you own a Netbook, check out the system requirements on some of your older games, or just install them and test them out.
Now, to examine the not so great side of Netbook gaming:
Two main technical issues may arise when gaming on a Netbook, or a similar low-power laptop; these are operating system compatiblity and the lack of an optical drive. On my tablet, I have been running various Windows 7 alpha-beta soup builds since November. In my experience Win7 has the same backward compatibility with games that Vista and XP did. Games that you can get to run in Vista or in XP will generally work in Win7. So far, I have not run into any OS specific issues except one that relates directly to the second technical issue mentioned above; the lack of an optical drive.
Most Netbook’s do not have optical drives, so digital distribution is a godsend. However, if you cannot get the games you want to play from Steam, GOG, Impulse, GameTap, or another digital distribution service and you still have the original CD you are not necessarily out of luck. I have found that quite a few games will install from a folder containing all of the files from the CD itself. In the days of 5 GB harddrives, it was hard to have many games loaded this way, but now, your whole “old games” library of CD’s could easily be put in folders or virtual cd images onto your machine. Unfortunately, the widely used CD emulation software Daemon-Tools will not run on Win7 yet (it runs fine on Vista). To mount virtual images in Win7, you will need a tool like Alcohol’s Virtual Clone Drive, which lacks the copy protection emulation features of Daemon-Tools.
Now stop, wait a minute. Before you stop reading and assume I am a pirate because I have mentioned Daemon Tools, there are very legitimate uses for the software. Namely, me wanting to play old games with CD based copy protection on a machine without a CD drive built in. Sure I could plug in an external drive, launch the game, and then unplug the external drive and hope the game will not check for a CD more than the single time at start up. That sounds like a blast. It is entirely within my fair-use rights to create an image of a disc that I own that can be emulated with software to let the game run. All this does is use a software layer (Daemon Tools) instead of a hardware layer (a CD or DVD drive) to show the game executable the copy protection string. This is not the same as using a modified “no-cd” executable created by a release group. Utilizing an executable that has been altered to bypass copy protection is a much more gray area in terms of the EULA and copy protection laws. If you own the game, you shouldn’t lose sleep over doing it, but I will not discuss it in anymore detail here. This non-sense only really applies to fairly recent games anyway. Any game before about 2000 should not have this issue. Club CDFreaks has a great list of the copy protections used in games, and information on how to make backups that will work.
The idea of Netbook gaming may make some more maximum users cringe, but I love it. With the right expectations, the Netbook can be a fabulous supplemental platform. Buying a Netbook and expecting it to run Crysis will make you sad, but realizing that you can replay through some of your old favorites while on the bus or out in the park is amazing. This is what we all dreamed about 10-20 years ago; “Some day computers will be small enough that you can play modern games in the palm of your hand.” I don’t see console gamers complaining that the PSP or DS are underpowered compared to their 360 or PS3, so why do so many PC users give the Netbook such a bad reputation for gaming? Current Netbooks are great, and with what is expected this year, the possibilities for an ultraportable gaming rig are excellent. The Netbook as a companion for your main gaming rig is a killer combination, and owning a Netbook will really extend your PC gaming experience, especially if you have missed, or just want to replay, some of the greatest games ever made.