Putting “ultra” in front of something creates high expectations. With the recent flood of thin, light, and relatively powerful “Ultrabooks” coming from nearly every PC manufacturer on the planet, it’s time to take a close look at how well these laptops live up to their names when put in the hands of a PC gamer. Ultrabook gaming may never deliver the maxed-out graphics of a good desktop GPU, but you can at least get your fix — even with high-end games.
Note that right this moment is probably not a good time to buy an Ultrabook for gaming. In just a couple of months we’ll probably start seeing Ultrabooks based on the new generation of Intel CPUs, called Ivy Bridge. In addition to promised improvements in battery life, Intel claims Ivy Bridge will make substantial gains in graphics performance. We’ll have to wait and see on that, but in the meantime, here’s what’s available today.
What’s an Ultrabook?
It’s an unfortunate truth that Intel’s definition of “Ultrabook” is a little on the loose side. For example, the Acer Timeline Ultra M3 sports a 15.6-inch display, discrete Nvidia GPU and an optical drive, but it also weighs just north of five pounds. In my book (pun intended), that’s no Ultrabook. I see Ultrabooks as the Windows-based equivalent of Apple’s Macbook Air: very thin, very light, but with very good performance for everyday computing. These laptops typically weight 3.5 pounds or less and have 13.3-inch screens or smaller. HP’s Envy Spectre 14, with its 14-inch display and four-pound heft, is about as large as I can accept in that category.
If you’re the type of PC gamer who simply isn’t willing to sacrifice high detail levels, ambient occlusion and other effects, just stop reading now. You won’t be happy gaming on an Ultrabook with Intel graphics.
Ultrabooks typically use Intel low-voltage processors like the dual-core Intel Core i7-2677M, lack optical drives, and use SSD storage, all of which save power. Most run some flavor of 64-bit Windows 7 and ship with at least 4GB of RAM. All that sounds like a good recipe for gaming, but the fly in the ointment is that they’re usually based on Intel’s Sandy Bridge integrated graphics.
That’s not as bad as it sounds. In the past, PCs using Intel’s integrated graphics hardware meant crappy — and I use that word unreservedly — gaming performance. But with last year’s Sandy Bridge processors, Intel finally hit an acceptable minimum for gaming performance. What I’ll do here is show you what kinds of games run well on Ultrabooks, using a $1,000, 2.9-pound Asus Zenbook UX31E and its Core i7 2677M and 1600×900 resolution screen as a test system.
Let’s take a look at a few scenarios — and some sample games — to get you going.
Casual and (Most) Indie Games
Obviously a casual game like Peggle will run fine, but what about some recent, more sophisticated indie games like Orcs Must Die! or Bastion? As an example, I played Defense Grid: the Awakening, a great DirectX 9 tower defense game.
No big surprise here: Defense Grid consistently ran at 35-45fps and felt responsive throughout three levels. This level of gaming is definitely a go.
Turn-Based and Real-Time Strategy
Turn-based games are an excellent choice for relatively low-end gaming, since they’ll often have excellent graphics but don’t have a lot of stuff going on at once to really tax your GPU. Civilization 5 is one example.
You can run in DX9 mode with almost all the details turned up and still hit 20 to 24fps — lower than that would be a big problem, but you don’t really need more. What’s more critical is to keep the framerate high enough and anti-aliasing disabled so that the mouse cursor remains responsive. Sure, Civ5 does look better in full DX10/11 turn-up-the-knobs-and-levers mode, but we can’t have everything.
RTS games, with all their hundreds of moving parts, are more demanding on both the CPU and GPU, so you’ll need to be careful about detail settings, but I was able to get Dawn of War 2: Retribution running well (at the medium global settings) on this particular Ultrabook.
If you’re not playing competitively, you can get by in single-player RTS games when running at 20 to 30fps. However, I don’t recommend going up against a human opponent without dialing down detail levels and even resolution to bare minimums to keep from putting yourself at a disadvantage.
Let’s look at a couple of really big games. First up is Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Running through Arkham Asylum, framerates maintained a constant 25 to 30fps. The detail level was set to medium, and everything in the game settings control panel below dynamic shadows was set to “off.” It was acceptable, but only barely, and for a game so heavily dependent on timing that’s not a place you want to be.
Skyrim is a tougher nut — its scenery has tremendous detail and goes on for miles. The medium detail setting seemed good enough, but only just — typical frame rates were around 20fps. Even then, there was significant framerate stuttering. You’ll want to run Skyrim at the lowest settings to achieve a more playable result.
As long as you remember going in that an Ultrabook is not intended for heavy gaming purposes, you should still be able to get a solid gaming experience, particularly if you back away from the cutting edge and revisit some old friends. All it takes is a willingness to dial down a few knobs and levers, and you’ll have a great time gaming on the go.
Squeeze Out Extra Performance
Remember: the typical screen size on these slim PCs is 13.3 inches, with 1366×768 to 1600×900 being the norm for resolution. That means that even if you could turn up all the detail levels, it’d be tough to see all that eye candy in all its glory. So you can go ahead and reduce a lot of detail settings without much perceived loss of detail. A scene that might appear to be a blurry mess of small textures and low polygon counts on a 27-inch monitor looks surprisingly good at 13.3 inches.
There are a number of performance-sucking detail settings in games you can dial down to get better frame rate:
- Ambient Occlusion Ambient occlusion makes shadows look more realistic, particularly on detailed objects, but it’s also a big performance hit. You’ll see this feature listed as ambient occlusion, HDAO, and HBAO. Just disable them.
- Shadow Quality This is usually separate from ambient occlusion. Set to low.
- Reflections Some games let you set reflection settings in a very granular way: reflect world, reflect player character, etc. Just set to the minimum setting, and don’t enable reflecting of all objects.
- Anti-Aliasing Just say no. Really, don’t turn on AA on an Ultrabook.
- Detail Level Sometimes this is labeled “object detail” or something similar. It’ll vary from game to game, but medium is a safe bet.
- Texture Resolution Also called texture quality. Medium is fine, but sometimes you can get away with high. If the frame rate is acceptable, turn it up.
- Anisotropic Filtering 4x is good enough for this class of machine.
- Disable Vsync You may see some tearing, but frame rates are likely to always below 60fps on an Ultrabook, so it’s not an issue. If the game is limited to 30fps, you might try this.
These are rough rules of thumb, and you’ll see other settings that may be available. When I experiment, I generally start at high levels, then dial down to the minimum acceptable frame rate. I recommend Fraps — it’s a neat little utility you can use to capture in-game screenshots, but you can also use it to put up an in-game frame rate counter, which can be a big help in judging performance in real time as you’re playing.