What kind of gaming can you expect from a netbook?  Many people talk about playing older games at low settings but what does that mean?  And how does it compare to similarly priced older ultraportable notebooks?

For our testing we chose the mainstream game Unreal Tournament 2004 as I played UR quite a bit back in the day.  We originally thought older… but URT03 didn’t list XP and it’s demo wasn’t readily available.  A demo is nice for anyone wanting to compare their own ‘puter to these performance marks. Also you can easily slap these onto a test computer from a flash drive.  We like things simple here. (Side Note: other older greats like Starcraft or Diablo II are playable on netbooks because they only fake a 3D perspective without using actual 3D acceleration)

If you don’t already have them snag the Free FPS utility Fraps and the URT04 Demo from CNET:

We tested the ASUS 1000HA & Sony SR240 a typical netbook and an aging ultraportable from 2006.  The test was simple play DeathMatch at 800×600 with all the settings on “low” (no shadows and checkboxes left alone).  Use Fraps to give us a real world estimate of the performance you could expect playing an older 3D Game on low settings.

Asus 1000HA (10″ Netbook)
1.6ghz N270 Atom
1 Gig RAM
Intel Integrated GMA950
Win XP

Range: 10-30 FPS
Normal: 12-15 FPS if a bot was visible

Tweaks: Reducing settings to “lowest” when available and using the asus overclock utility raised the FPS to high teens but the game would still sometimes dip to 10 FPS.

Sony SZ240 (13″ Notebook)
2.0ghz T2500 Core Duo (not C2D)
1 Gig RAM
GeForce 7400M
Win 7

Range: 55-110 FPS
Normal: 60-85 FPS if a bot was visible

Tweaks: Increasing the resolution to the native 1280×800 and raising the settings to “Normal” still maintained a very playable 45-65 FPS.

Sony SZ240 (13″ Notebook)
2.0ghz T2500 Core Duo (not C2D)
1 Gig RAM
Intel Integrated 945 (hybrid discrete graphics off)
Win 7

Range: 30-55 FPS
Normal: 32-45 FPS if a bot was visible

So we see that a netbook could really use about twice the oomph in CPU or GPU to make 3D gaming reasonable.  Meanwhile an older ultraportable with integrated graphics is already at that level thanks to a more powerful CPU.  Grab an ultraportable with discrete graphics – even an older one – and you are at another level of gaming.  No Crysis here, but the list of titles you can’t play drops considerably.