Laptop specs insufficient?
February 20, 2017 5:34 PM   Subscribe

Can we find small ways to improve our laptop so that it is no longer under the minimum specs to run the game we love playing together every weekend?

My wife and I play The Elder Scrolls Online (an MMORPG and we are on the PC North America Server) together every weekend. Recently, a major patch was released for the game, and now it seems that her laptop is just under the minimum specs to run it. Although we can take turns using our desktop to play, this still sucks because that means we cannot play together.

Her laptop is as follows:

Operating System: Windows 8.1 64-bit (6.3, Build 9600)
System Manufacturer: TOSHIBA
System Model: Satellite P855
BIOS: 6.90
Processor: Intel(R) Core(TM) i5-3230M CPU @ 2.60GHz (4 CPUs), ~2.6GHz
Memory: 8192MB RAM
Available OS Memory: 8082MB RAM
Card name: Intel(R) HD Graphics 4000
Manufacturer: Intel Corporation
Chip type: Intel(R) HD Graphics Family
DAC type: Internal
Device Type: Full Device
Display Memory: 1792 MB
Dedicated Memory: 32 MB
Shared Memory: 1760 MB
Current Mode: 1366 x 768 (32 bit) (60Hz)
DirectX Version: DirectX 11
DX Setup Parameters: Not found
User DPI Setting: Using System DPI
System DPI Setting: 96 DPI (100 percent)
DWM DPI Scaling: Disabled
DxDiag Version: 6.03.9600.17415 32bit Unicode

The minimum requirements to play ESO are as follows:

Operating System: Windows 7 32-bit
Processor: Intel i3 or AMD 3870 generation processors or higher
System RAM: 3GB
Hard Disk Space: 85GB free HDD space
GPU: Direct X 11.0 compliant video card with 1GB RAM (NVidia GeForce GTX 460 or AMD Radeon 6850)
Sound: DirectX compatible sound card

Please help!
posted by Groundhog Week to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can you clarify what happens now when you try to run the game on her laptop? Does it error out or just run very slowly? If the latter, have you tried reducing all graphics settings to the lowest level?

The largest issue you have with the laptop is the integrated video, and unfortunately there isn't really a practical solution to upgrading that at the moment in a laptop.
posted by selfnoise at 5:50 PM on February 20, 2017 [6 favorites]

The laptop's integrated graphics chip is an Intel HD Graphics 4000, while the game recommends a discrete chip: at least a 6850 or 460, either of which is about five times more powerful than the chip in the laptop.

You can try updating the video driver and/or turning some of the game settings way down, but don't expect too much.

Laptops with express card slots (to add in a GPU) are rare these days, but you might be able to use an external GPU (eGPU), but that's usually not a great solution and you're probably better off looking for a new computer.

On preview: yep.
posted by lozierj at 5:53 PM on February 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yeah I'm afraid there's not a lot you can do to upgrade a laptop - any laptop - beyond the RAM and the hard drive. I don't specifically see anything about the hard drive in your list of specs, but it comes with a HDD by default - it's possible an (expensive) upgrade to a SSD might help matters somewhat, and you could double your RAM (2 x 8GB sticks), but the bottleneck is going to be the Intel onboard graphics (perfectly good for "office"-type work, godawful for any kind of gaming), which nothing can be done about.

If you have a need for a laptop, and have some money, you may want to look into some "budget gaming laptop" reviews. I hear good things about Dell Inspiron mdels, and Asus Republic of Gamers (RoG) machines. Alienware (pretty sure a Dell offshoot?) are vastly overhyped and overpriced. Then your current Toshiba could be retired into use as a media centre or the like.

Space considerations (and, obviously, portability) aside, though, a laptop is very rarely, if ever, a good investment. Even the most bog-standard budget corner computer store gaming desktop will outperform 99% of laptops, and even if it doesn't, upgrading is 1000x easier. There's a big secondhand parts market and plenty of swap meets for "old" (read: less than 3 years) graphics cards etc., that still perform very well.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:43 PM on February 20, 2017

Some laptops have docking stations that can accept half length PCIe video cards like a GeForce 750Ti. They don't have power connectors, though, so you are limited to the budget models. That would likely be cheaper than buying a new laptop with an NVidia or AMD GPU, assuming such a docking station exists for your particular laptop.

Even a budget card will vastly outperform the Intel HD 4000. Only the chips with Iris Pro graphics come anywhere near even the most low end discrete GPUs made in the past 4 or 5 years.
posted by wierdo at 6:46 PM on February 20, 2017

Yes, it can be improved a lot. That model can take 16GB RAM ($100) and has a 2.5" spinning hard drive that you can replace with an SSD (~$100 per 256GB, video howto). You'll have to Craigslist the old RAM, but the hard drive can be put into an external USB box, which you'll need anyway to transfer Windows to the new drive.
posted by rhizome at 8:39 PM on February 20, 2017

it can be improved a lot

None of those are the specific bottleneck that might keep the game from running well, which is the graphics processor. There's no point in upgrading a system that still won't be able to play the game.

That said, if the game ran OK before the latest update, it may still be OK at this point and the minimum stated specs are just overly conservative.

Toshiba does have an sort of docking station with its own GPU, but this review doesn't sound like it would be great for playing modern games.
posted by Candleman at 8:57 PM on February 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

I agree that the integrated graphics is almost certainly the bottleneck and there isn't any reasonable way to upgrade this on a laptop. There are external graphics cards, but they are very pricey. If you don't use very much of the space on the hard drive, a SSD can be a reasonably priced upgrade that will make an old laptop feel much more responsive, but I don't think it is going to help much with your gaming experience.

I think you are going to have to buy a new computer, if you want to continue to play at the same time. The good news is that you can probably find a suitable low end gaming computer for a reasonable price. I think you could find something workable in the $500 range for a desktop and maybe $800 for a laptop.
posted by jefeweiss at 7:40 AM on February 21, 2017

The answer to the question "can we upgrade this laptop to get it to play this game" is no. Integrated graphics aren't typically upgradeable on laptops. A more recent laptop than yours might have an option for an external graphics card via a Thunderbolt port and something like the Razer Core, but even then something like that is likely to cost just about as much as a gaming-capable desktop on its own, and it's not even an option in your case anyway.

Cheapest option would be to buy another gaming-capable desktop machine and a cheap monitor and keyboard to go with it, as gaming laptops carry a premium pricetag for their miniaturized components.
posted by Aleyn at 1:52 PM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Can you clarify what happens now when you try to run the game on her laptop?
The game consistently crashes on launch. She doesn't get an error message other than "ESO has stopped working," so we're not entirely sure that the integrated graphics are the only problem.

Toshiba does have an sort of docking station with its own GPU, but this review doesn't sound like it would be great for playing modern games.
That might be our best option for a temporary fix until we can replace the laptop with a second desktop. I couldn't find any reviews from someone who has attempted to use it to boost their laptop's GPU. Has anyone tried that successfully?
posted by Groundhog Week at 4:11 AM on February 22, 2017

Has anyone tried that successfully?

The problem is you're pushing video out through a way slower bus than a dedicated video card which induces lag that may be bad enough to effect game play.

"However, the cursor and input delays will have a moderate to significant effect on gameplay. Other 3D-intensive or twitch-based games like first-person shooters will likely suffer from similar results."
posted by Candleman at 1:53 PM on February 22, 2017

There's no way a docking station GPU could operate across the docking port at a speed that would improve things. I mean, you might be able to generate a bitcoin from scratch in half the time because all the work is being done on the card, but for ongoing graphics needs I don't think so. Hence, my suggestion to improve everything else so that you are sure that the graphics card is the only hindrance to your complete enjoyment of ESO.
posted by rhizome at 12:00 AM on February 23, 2017

After looking at the docking station that particular Toshiba uses, no, I don't think it would actually help. It seems to actually be a port multiplier that is connected to the computer using USB3. Some laptops (many ThinkPads) actually have special docking ports on the bottom that expose actual PCIe and USB buses (along with SPDIF, serial, network, VGA/DVI ports, among others) that are separate from the other ports on the machine.

With that kind of docking station you can actually get a useful PCIe slot. Even 1x is good enough that a discrete GPU will outperform all but the best integrated GPUs despite the bandwidth bottleneck, thanks to the on-card memory.

If there is actually a slot on the bottom of the machine, Toshiba may make a different docking station that would be usable for a GPU upgrade. If not, that was definitely a bad suggestion on my part. Simple port expanders are useless for anything but reducing the number of things you have to plug in when you sit down at your desk, and may not actually be any better than a USB hub depending on what you are using it for.
posted by wierdo at 9:59 PM on February 23, 2017

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