Originally Published: Wednesday, 27 June 2001 Author: Colin Mattson
Published to: enhance_articles_games/General Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Gaming on the Go

As recently as a year ago the idea of serious gaming on a laptop, especially a Linux laptop, was a little silly. No longer! Colin Mattson takes an in depth look at the new world of Linux gaming at thirty thousand feet and takes a look at two systems that may meet your Linux laptop gaming need.

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For years, the very idea of gaming on a Linux system was preposterous. Similarly, it was unheard of (or at least masochistic) to attempt gaming on a laptop system. In recent times, though, the gap in both areas has closed significantly, with many commercial games coming to Linux and laptops rapidly becoming true "desktop replacements" complete with advanced graphic capabilities.

As appealing as laptop gaming may be now, it hasn't always been this way. Rather, laptops had long been frustrating fortresses of proprietary, oddball components and multimedia chipsets not quite up to snuff. Expecting 3D acceleration on a laptop would have been nothing short of a joke as recently as the beginning of this year. Even getting Linux running on older laptops often required a lot of luck. While ATI offered their Rage Mobility and M4 chipsets for laptops, with some 3D capabilities, they were lackluster at best in Microsoft Windows and nearly useless in any other OS. All this began to change with NVIDIA's 2000 announcement of their GeForce2 Go chipset.

Many gaming industry rags wet their pants at the idea of a GeForce in a laptop, and for good reason. It would finally be possible to deathmatch at 30,000 feet. Flash forward to 2001 -- we've got the GeForce2 Go now, baby! Reviewers are happy, users are happy, and you can bet NVIDIA's happy. In the most basic sense, the GeForce2 Go is a GeForce2 MX running on a reduced core voltage and produced using a .18 micron process. In English, it can make lots of pretty pictures really fast using only a little power.

Laptop Gaming

NVIDIA has made huge advances in laptop video technology, but there are still many other components that can affect the gaming experience. Most hardcore desktop gamers have souped-up systems with the likes of Creative's SoundBlaster Live! Platinum, an NVIDIA card, a monitor between 17 and 21 inches, a booming speaker system (the loaded ones have ungodly expensive Klipsch sets), and probably a nice optical mouse.

It's no secret that no laptop has all that, or even anywhere near most of it. That doesn't make it automatically suck, though there are some notable differences between laptop gaming and desktop gaming.

Audio

There's no way you're getting an SB Live in a laptop. Creative Labs doesn't make any PCMCIA sound cards, nor do they offer any high-end embedded chipsets for mobile use. One of the more common chipsets at this moment is the ESS Maestro 3, which isn't anything to give up on. It's capable of pumping out the audio, in several methods, but it doesn't offer the same sheer gusto as a Live. The current kernel module is promising, but as of yet many features of the Maestro 3 are unsupported. ALSA also offers Maestro 3 support, but due to time constraints I cannot offer any insight into how well it works. Other common chipsets are put out by Yamaha, and are supported more completely at this moment than the ESS Maestro 3.

Even with a decent sound card, there's a long-running joke included in almost every laptop. That joke is the set of speakers. More likely than not, they're underpowered or tinny, forcing the audiophile to run out for external speakers. While even the most demanding person might be satisfied with the surprisingly nice JBL speakers on the Compaq Presario, they double as the wrist wrests. Oops. On the go, external speakers are cumbersome and not worth the trouble. A good set of headphones goes a long way in that case, saving anyone near you from the appetizing sound of someone being gibbed in Quake 3 Arena but letting you hear it perfectly.

Video

A GeForce2 Go is all that's needed for nice rendering. Two basic models exist, with 32MB of 64-bit DDR or 16MB of 32-bit DDR. These are the options Dell presents, but Toshiba opts for the cheaper (and notably slower) 16MB card equipped with SDR RAM. The two DDR cards are capable of 576 million texels per second, not too far from the 700 million texels per second a number of the GeForce2 MX cards offer. Like most NVIDIA products, TwinView exists on the GF2 Go, as well. Say it with me -- "Mmm, dual head." It's tricky to get set up with X, but doable (just the LCD is simple, Twin View is antisocial). The GF2 Go also reduces the load on the CPU, one of the more power-draining devices in a laptop. NVIDIA claims that the average power usage is only 0.8 watts, and the maximum is 2.4 watts. Not too shabby.

While you can get some killer framerates with this card, there's one obstacle on any system not using a CRT: the LCD display. LCDs refresh at a constant 60Hz -- about 60 times per second. Even if you can draw 140 frames per second, the screen's only being redrawn 60 times -- giving you an effective fps of 60. LCDs also only have one native resolution, and running at anything below it results in scaling which may distort the image to some degree. As one user puts it, the native resolution is razor sharp, but scaled resolutions are about as clear as your average CRT. While LCDs don't come in 19 inch models, remember you'll tend to be much closer to the screen than you would be with a desktop.

Much like framerates color is limited by the LCD -- while the video card may support 32-bit color, LCDs are only capable of displaying 24-bit color.

Input Devices

Keyboards are very similar to a standard 101-key, though they tend to cram the keys closer together and require the use of an Fn key to access some keys as second functions of others.

Mice tend to be replaced by either a Trackpoint (the eraser head in the keyboard) or a trackpad. Dell systems offer both, while most manufacturers only offer one or the other. Neither are particularly suited to gaming, but it is possible to play with a trackpad after some adjustment and changing the play level to the easiest possible. For these reasons many companies have jumped on the mobile mouse bandwagon. Companies like Belkin and Kensington offer mini-mice aimed at mobile users, while unheard of companies offer mice smaller than a tube of lipstick with buttons the size of Chiclets.

The fact that most mice are operating using an established standard is great for Linux users -- XFree86 setup is usually as simple as choosing IMPS/2 and mouse support itself is easily set up in the kernel whether choosing to use the onboard input devices (generally PS/2), an external USB device, or an external PS/2 device. Switching between the onboard mouse device and a PS/2 device is handled seamlessly by the laptop's hardware, making it incredibly simple even for Linux users.

Hard Drive

While there are some very large hard drives available, the majority of notebook hard drives are rather slow when compared to desktop drives. Most drives spin at 4200rpm compared to the 7200rpm speed becoming more common in desktops. Seek times tend to be longer, but not necessarily to the point of crippling the system -- again, advances are being made to make laptops more usable. To truly speed things up, plenty of RAM will keep you from hitting the swap partition too much.

Battery

In most cases, a laptop is going to be using its battery for power. Everything in the system or attached to the system is going to draw power, which is an important fact to remember. The CD-ROM drive, especially, will suck the battery dry, throwing any battery life estimate out the window. It's also important to realize that many manufacturers, and even testing labs, don't get a realistic picture of battery life for gamers. More often than not battery life is determined by sitting idle at the desktop until it dies or doing something as "intensive" as word processing. If your laptop offers a modular bay that can take a second battery, buy a second battery. Switchover between two batteries is handled by the laptop's hardware, meaning things will work properly for Linux users. Most battery functionality is available in a Linux environment (for example, charge remaining). One function that generally does not appear in Linux is automatic suspend when the battery reaches a critically low level. Windows systems will suspend to prevent data loss, while you can easily overshoot remaining battery life and lose data or disrupt normal hardware function using Linux. Learn the LED indicators for your particular system so that you can execute a system halt with time to spare.

Processor

Just a quick note about CPUs -- nearly all of the current mobile Pentium IIIs either have speed stepdown or SpeedStep. Stepdown, as used in the Dell Inspiron 8000, will run the CPU at 700MHz regardless of max speed unless you are running on AC power (this can be disabled in the BIOS). SpeedStep, as used in Toshibas, performs a similar function, but can be actively enabled and disabled from within Windows -- but not Linux. Both serve to extend the life of the battery, as running at a full 900MHz or 1GHz would eat batteries rather rapidly.

Real-World Performance

While technical data about the GeForce2 Go may be mildly interesting, real-world performance is what everyone really wants to see. If everything performed as well in reality as it did on paper, this would be a very different world.

For benchmarking purposes, Quake 3 Arena's timedemo feature was used to test four resolutions and three quality levels. "High" represents Q3A's highest quality setting, "Medium" represents Q3A's normal setting, and "Low" represents Q3A's fastest setting. Two demos were used, the first being PC Gamer's office deathmatch, and the second being one I recorded for the purpose of this benchmark. These figures are representative of a 32MB DDR GeForce2 Go running on a 900MHz system with 128MB of RAM.

(FPS rounded to nearest tenth)

High Quality
  Demo 1 Demo 2 Mean
1600x1200 34.6 37.9 36.3
1024x768 75.6 85.0 80.3
800x600 112.2 119.4 115.8
640x480 122.0 123.3 122.7

Medium Quality
  Demo 1 Demo 2 Mean
1600x1200 36.0 39.3 37.7
1024x768 82.0 90.8 86.4
800x600 115.9 122.0 119.0
640x480 120.1 122.9 121.5

Low Quality
  Demo 1 Demo 2 Mean
1600x1200 38.8 45.2 42.0
1024x768 101.7 105.5 103.6
800x600 137.1 133.9 135.5
640x480 141.0 135.5 138.3

As these figures illustrate, the GeForce2 Go shows that today's laptops aren't too shabby for gaming. 1024x768 is the best bet for fluid gameplay, but 1600x1200 is more or less playable. 800x600 and 640x480 are really overkill if you're looking for high framerates because they are less detailed as well as the fact that you're not going to notice much of an improvement over 60 FPS.

Using Chromium BSU as a benchmarking utility, gameplay is smooth and perfect. Playing through Loki's Descent 3 and Soldier of Fortune demos is equally impressive, with very fluid, sexy gameplay.

The Contenders

There are currently only two systems shipping with the GeForce2 Go as an option. The first offering is Dell's Inspiron 8000, which is fully customizable in almost every way. Toshiba's Satellite 2805-S402 is limited to one base configuration.

Closer Look: Dell Dell allows users to customize their systems in many ways, from the processor to the internal mini-PCI card.

Ports/Slots: 1 Serial, 2 USB, 1 Parallel, 1 PS/2, 1 Video Out, 1 FireWire, 2 PCMCIA
Connectivity: 1 RJ-45 (optional), 1 RJ-11, or 802.11b wireless
Audio: 1 Line-In, 1 Output, 1 Mic-In, 1 S/PDIF Out (w/TV-out dongle)
Fixed Drives: 1 Hard Drive, 1 Optical (CD-ROM, DVD, DVD/CDRW, CDRW)
Modular Drives: 1 (Floppy standard)
Video Options: 16MB GeForce2 Go (DDR), 32MB GeForce2 Go (DDR)
Screen Options: 15" 1600x1200 24-bit, 15" 1400x1050 24-bit,
14" 1400x1050 24-bit
Weight: 7.9 lbs (with modular floppy)
Dimensions: 13.0"x10.8"x1.75"

Closer Look: Toshiba As of this writing, Toshiba only offers one model with the GeForce2 Go, and does not offer the ability to custom-build a system. It's also worth noting that there is only one SoDIMM socket, so upgrading your RAM means spending more money.

Ports/Slots: 2 USB, 1 Parallel, 1 PS/2, 1 Video Out, 2 PCMCIA, 1 SmartMedia slot
Connectivity: 1 RJ-45, 1 RJ-11
Audio: 1 Line-In, 1 Output (integrated w/TV-out), 1 Mic-In
Fixed Drives: 1 Hard Drive, 1 CD-RW/DVD, 1 Floppy
Modular Drives: N/A
Video Options: 16MB GeForce2 Go (SDR)
Screen Options: 15" 1024x768, 16-bit
Weight: 7.5 lbs
Dimensions: 12.9"x10.9"x1.6"

Product Comparison For the purposes of a side-by-side comparison, below are two systems configured as similarly as possible. These prices are correct as of June 15, 2001.

  Dell Inspiron 8000 Toshiba 2805-S402
CPU 900MHz Pentium III 850MHz Pentium III
RAM 128MB (512MB max) 128MB (384MB max)
HD 20GB 20GB
Video GeForce2 Go 16MB DDR GeForce2 Go 16MB SDR
Screen 15" 1400x1050 15" 1024x768
Optical DVD-ROM/CD-RW DVD-ROM/CD-RW
Price $2187.00 $2199.00




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