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Netbooks are an attractive concept. These handy low-price PCs get you online on a budget, and they aren’t as bulky to carry around as traditional notebooks. Hell, Bitmob’s even giving away a netbook.
But are they good for gaming?
Game-tech journalist Jason Cross, formerly of ExtremeTech.com, helps us figure out if netbooks are good for playing World of WarCraft or are more suited toward Facebook and browser games or retro classics.
Bitmob: How practical are netbooks for gaming?
Jason Cross: Frankly, not at all. Nearly all netbooks have an Intel Atom CPU and Intel integrated graphics that leaves a lot to be desired. Even if you get something like the Lenovo Ideapad S12, with Nvidia’s Ion platform — basically an Atom and the GeForce 9400M integrated graphics — you’re still hamstrung by the Atom CPU, low amounts of RAM, etc. They’re fine for some of the less-intensive Flash games and Facebook games, stuff like that. Older edutainment games may run OK.
If gaming is something you care about — if it’s a buying consideration — I’d avoid the netbook market.
Bitmob: What level of gaming can you get out of netbooks? What are the options beyond online Flash games, older games, and MMOs like World of WarCraft?
JC: Even an MMO like World of WarCraft is going to run like a dog on a netbook. You’ll have to crank the details down as far as they can go, and when you get to a crowded area, like Dalaran, or a big boss fight, it’ll turn into a slideshow.
Netbooks have the overall power of a modest PC from like 5 years ago or 6 years ago. If you’re on a big retro gaming kick or want to fire up some arcade ROMs with MAME, you’ll be OK. Forget about modern games.
Bitmob: How easy is it to upgrade netbooks for gaming?
JC: Most of them have RAM soldered on to the same module as the CPU, so you can’t really upgrade the RAM. You can’t really upgrade the graphics, either. The most you can usually do is slap in a faster hard drive, which isn’t going to solve your problem.
Bitmob: What are some good games for netbooks?
JC: The small screen size and relatively low CPU power, [graphic processer] power, and RAM means that netbooks suffer least from old retro classics. If you’re into emulators like MAME and classic arcade games, or reliving the glory days of point-and-click adventures with SCUMMVM or something, those games work pretty well.
Bitmob: How can game developers best take advantage of the benefits of netbooks?
JC: Well, the “benefits” of netbooks revolve around their size and weight and battery life. It’s hard to develop for that, per se. The best games to hit the netbook market are browser-based games like RuneScape, Travian, Ikariam, etc. That’s what netbooks are made to do well — go online, and go there cheaply.
Bitmob: How does cloud computing, netbooks, and gaming fit together?
JC: Gaming has been increasingly moving to the cloud for years — long before that was the buzzword — and that’s still going on. More people play Mafia Wars on Facebook than all but the most successful retail games, for instance.
There are some that think gaming will move entirely to a “thin client” model with services like OnLive or Gaikai. It remains to be seen if today’s netbooks have the power to decode the video data quickly enough to make those services work well, though.
Still, look at the excitement around BlizzCon, which just ended. Clearly, rich PC games that use online services are still going to be big.
Bitmob: What about OnLive — it made a splash at the 2009 Games Developers Conference. Will it be a good fit for netbooks?
JC: Well, until I see it running on a netbook, it’s hard to say if that will be enough power to handle the video decoding necessary for OnLive — or Gaikai, for that matter. If it does, it will probably be the only way to experience modern games outside of browser games on a netbook. At least without tearing your hair out [because of] how slow it runs and how you have to turn it down to “super ugly mode.”
Bitmob: What are game developers doing now to make games for netbooks?
JC: To the best of my knowledge, nothing at all. Developers are starting to take Web-based games and such quite seriously, [along with] free microtransaction games like Battlefield: Heroes — which doesn’t run well on most netbooks, by the way. Those trends don’t seem aimed specifically at netbooks, though.
In packaged PC software, the system requirements aren’t suddenly dropping to “runs well on a netbook” levels.
Bitmob: What’s the future look like for netbook gaming?
JC: Most of that depends on how netbooks evolve over the next couple years. They need to get more powerful, double the RAM, and have far better graphics capabilities. Fortunately, all those things will probably happen over the next year or so.
The fight is to lower the price, not raise the capabilities, right now. Even so, Intel’s next-generation Atom platform, code-named Pineview, and Nvidia Ion-based netbooks ought to be the first ones, together with 2GB of RAM, that have a decent shot at being able to play modern games on them.
They’ll never be as good as a regular notebook or a desktop for games, though. It’s a simple matter of power and cost. If you have a 9-inch to 10-inch netbook that expects 6 hours of battery life and it has to cost $400 or less, you just can’t put hardware in there as powerful as a notebook that is larger, uses more power, and can cost more.
Bitmob: Do you game on a netbook? If so, what do you play?
JC: I recently tried playing the Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition remake on a Dell Mini 10, which is fairly indicative of the power of netbooks these days. It was awful. Slow, choppy, hard to see…annoying. And that’s not even a very demanding game.
If I owned a netbook — and I don’t — I’d probably play some old classic arcade games like Galaga on it. I bet I could get a Genesis emulator to run pretty well. Beyond that and browser-based games, I don’t think that I would bother with games on a netbook.