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Laptops & COH: A Modern Guide - 2nd Edition


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Laptops and COH: A Modern Guide – 2nd Edition
By Tock (formerly GM Tahquitz)

 


This is an update of the original guide I wrote in 2021.  You can read the original here, but I don’t recommend taking the hardware picks to heart anymore.  (Also, use “Find In Page” features in your browser of choice to hop to the subject of what you want to read instead of digesting the whole thing.)
https://forums.homecomingservers.com/topic/14023-laptops-and-coh-a-modern-guide/

INTRODUCTION

Well, it’s been a while.  And the first guide I wrote has served its purpose.  But things change. 

The great graphic card shortage has MOSTLY come to an end while the enthusiast and high-end cards suffer the same fate as gaming laptops (prices soar, not for demand or scarcity, but mostly because they realized there be whales out there: no one will stop buying them at the higher prices).  The card shortage has given way to the semiconductor shortage, which is starting to wane with the worst of the storm past, but still not enough to shake higher costs.  Manufacturing has been punched in the gut as tech giants shed jobs like crazy with bleak sales everywhere. No manufacturer has positive sales.

You’d think industry turmoil would result in lower prices, right?  Nope.  And I’m right there with you.  Particularly the last year and a half has been a lousy time to buy a new computer.  Low demand, rising prices, and folks buying anyway because they don’t have a choice.  It’s not going to let up.

Silver lining?  The low end for the last few years is in a closeout if you can stomach buying tech that was new and hot 2-4 years ago.  And there’s less trouble getting graphic cards for desktops these days.  But this isn’t advice for desktops.  You’re here for a laptop.  And I’m all about it.

MODE D’EMPLOI

Same as the last guide, I’m going to offer four qualifiers for every subject and an explanation why.  They are:

GOOD: A Good system will be able to play the game.  Frame rates may choke at points unless Minimum or Performance settings are used, otherwise detail may have to be turned down, or physical considerations may apply where others may fare better.  You can solo with a good machine.  RP, even.  But raids, task forces, and some of those parties HC Staff throw on occasion and this will run the game like a flipbook at points.  Average FPS will be less than 30.

BETTER: A better system will do fine with City of Heroes.  You can expect more solid frame rates at Recommended or Quality presets, a good amount of detail in graphic settings but usually not a lot of headroom to run Ultra Mode full blast.  In Task Forces and Raids, you have a good chance of keeping up… if you can tolerate occasional kludge. (Mothership Raids will still be chunky.) Average FPS will be around 30-45 FPS.

BEST: The best systems will be on par with a Desktop’s performance with City of Heroes.  Ultra Mode, if not at full blast with all sliders all the way on the right, can be realized with most settings left on and above 50%.  A well shopped system (not necessarily top tier) will handle a raid with no lag. You can lead a Task Force/Raid easier on such systems, network permitting.

NO GOOD: I’ll also point out what’s no good, or older hardware and technological dead ends that make the game a non-starter.

These will be offered in three areas that I’ve refined from last time: “The Easy Buy”, “The Big Tech Answer” and “The Great Outdoors.”  The Easy Buy I’ll point out with as little advice as possible what to think about buying if you need something right away.  The Big Tech Answer I’ll get into Microsoft, Apple and Google, and what they have to offer a well-to-do MMO gamer.  The Great Outdoors will be the largest part of the guide – how to shop for a laptop on your own.  (I promise, it’s not just a clever title. It can be a jungle out there.)

I will make the following assumptions of the readers:

  1. You are new to buying computers.  If you bought a laptop before I advise trusting your gut and just using this as a reference. 
  2. First, you are considering buying a NEW computer over a used or closeout model.  A used computer isn’t a bad idea, but if you’re going to spend cash on a DC powered pizza box, why not get one that will last a while?
  3. And like the last guide, if you’re going to get a new laptop, why not get one that plays it well?  Hardware that delivers sub-30 FPS and exceeds $400 will be dropped from consideration.  This is, unfortunately, a moving target due to a variety of factors.

WHAT WILL CHANGE

Admittedly, my first guide got a little long on the tooth.  Of course, the last time I wrote a guide like that before Homecoming happened it was on the Live Forums, and I was starting my career in technology.  Today, I’ve grabbed the last brass ring in that career, and I am seeing how far I can take it.  Perspective always changes. 

So the first part that will change is me.  Less narrative, more fact.

The second part?  Hardware will be pared down a bit.  Except for the Graphics Chip which still matters the most.  But the rest isn’t as important anymore in the era of “architecture age over architecture family”.  The Core i-Series naming isn’t going anywhere, Intel seems married to it.  And AMD would be foolish to cut and run from Ryzen this quickly, the same line that reversed their fortune and made them contenders again.

Third: Extra Credit isn’t needed for this guide.  The major salvos have been fired by the hardware industry already.  Chromebooks make a terrible choice for City of Heroes again.  32-Bit Systems are done as far as modern software development is concerned.  And for better or worse, BIOS is dead.  Long live the UEFI.  (I call it “Ooh-fie.”)

The year is 2023.  The Place? Paragon City.  This is… Babylon Five? 

…damn it, I need to stop watching TV while I write.  (My jokes, on the other hand, are still terrible.)
 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

I. THE EASY BUY – WHAT TO GET RIGHT NOW WITH NO FUSS
II. THE BIG TECH ANSWER – HOW MICROSOFT, APPLE, AND GOOGLE CAN HELP YOU… OR NOT
III. THE GREAT OUTDOORS – HOW TO FIND A LAPTOP ON YOUR OWN

             Price
            Processor
            Graphics
            RAM
            Hard Drive
            Battery Life
            Software
            Miscellaneous

With all that out of the way, on with the show…
 

 

I. THE EASY BUY

WHAT TO GET RIGHT NOW WITH NO FUSS

This will be the shortest and sweetest part.  I’ll do the shopping for you, but it has three caveats:

  • Pricing is effective at the time of releasing this guide.  Today, it’s May 13th, 2023, so if you’re reading this past nine months, there’s an excellent chance that either the stock or model could be gone… if not refurbished.  Or that the price no longer applies.
  • This ignores any brand-hate.  A fair deal is a fair deal, even if I don’t like the maker or their history.  Most laptops are plastic and vulnerable, faulting something as ‘weak’ or cheap feeling isn’t a heavy qualifier as most companies making laptops today have been at it at least 2-3 decades.
  • I won’t get into why.  That’s what the last section is for.

So, off we go.  Allons-y!

GOOD: HP 14” Laptop, Ryzen 3 3250U, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD.  This laptop is literally everywhere, from Walmart to Office Stores, from College Bookstores to Best Buy.  The tricky part?  Getting the specs right because lower end models as well as more expensive models use the same body that have mixed results.  Try this one for $359.00 -- (listing on Amazon.)

BETTER: Acer Swift really has a hold on the mid-range space.  For about $650, you get a Ryzen 5 5550U, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD, and backlit keys.  The case is even aluminum, but only 50% as the bottom is plastic (listing on Amazon.) $599.

BEST: If you have $900 or more, any lower end gaming laptop should fit the bill for City of Heroes.  An example?  How about a Dell G15? ($1,149, just above target.) Or perhaps a Lenovo Legion? ($779)  Or an Acer Nitro? ($939)  If you want to address AAA Gaming titles as well as your COH fix (games that cost $60-90 off the shelf), your best bet would be to aim at least in the $1,200 range and find a RTX 3060 or RX 5600 or higher.  The ROG Zephyrus 14 has a good balance of cost-effectiveness as well as lighter weight (gaming power and as light as a MacBook Pro), and starts around $1,200. ($1,000 if you don’t mind a closeout from last year’s stock during tax season.)

For OpenGL, remember that the top of the line does not guarantee results.  Plopping down for a Core-i9 with 32GB RAM, a 2TB M.2 NVMe and GeForce RTX 4090 laptop isn’t a shortcut for 240FPS raids.  A lot of users report that work is needed to optimize that outcome on bleeding edge systems.

Easy part finished.  Now, for the actual work.
 

 

II. THE BIG TECH ANSWER

HOW MICROSOFT, APPLE, AND GOOGLE CAN HELP YOU… OR NOT.

THE BIG PANE (MS)

I say the above title with some affection, as Microsoft Windows is the most trouble-free way to run Homecoming.  And Microsoft devices are a quick way to get good performance in other uses while being able to game...  but their lineup is getting less diverse and not all devices will fare well.

GOOD: Surface Pro 7, 8, 9, as well as Surface Laptops 4 and 5. These systems offer Intel Iris Xe graphics built-in, which is a step further down the “we’re trying to make a dedicated graphics card, honest!” yellow-brick road that Intel is dancing down with a scarecrow, lion, tin-man and a doggo.  (Dorothy did it better to be honest.)  You won’t be able to rock Ultra Mode at full blast, but the frame rates are steadily getting better.

BETTER: Surface Laptop 4 with AMD.  It has an underpowered, but still capable Ryzen 5 processor with Vega Graphics, so it performs at least as well as the above Good/Better laptops in THE EASY BUY.  Ultra Mode doable, but you got to choose looks over frame rate.  It’s also going fast, as it is the oldest of the “new” laptops offered by Microsoft on their website.  Expect this to disappear as a choice in less than a year when Surface Pro or others get a refresh.  Surface Laptop 5 is all Intel only, so unless MS does an about-face and brings AMD back to Surface Laptop 6, it’ll be a long road to have better results on Intel video.

And sadly, this seems to be the end of the line for Microsoft recommendations.  I can’t even make a “BEST” suggestion anymore.

NO GOOD: For new laptops anyway… Surface Go uses a Pentium Silver/Gold processor and video that is underwhelming, so that’s not going to work well.  Surface Laptop Go on the other hand, power efficiency over performance is the focus, so gaming will take a hit. 

And Surface Studio Laptop? Double no. I mean it.  First, RTX A2000 isn’t meant for gaming use (NVIDIA A series cards are centered on media production and video encoding, not gaming.  The game will start but run like it’s on a potato.)  Second, the price is over the moon for the form factor, I can’t recommend anyone drop $1,800 for one when better hardware can be had for the same or less.

Discontinued ones that may make good closeout or used machines?  Not a lot of them.  Surface Book has NVIDIA GTX chips in the “performance base” models, but Surface Book 2 and 3 had such major overheating problems that Microsoft discontinued the entire line.  (Even business customers can’t get a warranty swap to a new one, they get Surface Laptop equivalents instead.  Ask me how I know this.) 

Based on Intel dropping all 2016 and older hardware drivers like a bad habit, I can’t recommend Surface Pro devices before 7 any longer, since WDDM is as good as it gets these days.  Intel Iris and Iris Pro languishes without the right drivers.

Don’t even try: Microsoft Surface Pro X.  Or the Microsoft Surface Pro 9 with ARM or Project Volterra (Windows Dev Kit).  That last acronym is all you need to know: Windows ARM systems are compatible with x64 apps in name only.  The performance is horrible for OpenGL or Vulkan apps.

And that’s the game for Microsoft devices.  It’s a shrinking pool of useable Surface machines to play COH on, and not likely to improve.

 

THE BAD SEED (APPLE)

Yup, tacky Apple joke.  (I dig on all OEMs equally, damn it.)  But guess what turned out to be a surprise nobody expected back in 2020?  Apple M1 actually kicking some butt at gaming that is away from the Apple Ecosystem.  The M1 Mac Mini, despite being based on an ARM Processor Design, wailed on frame rate when playing City of Heroes.  This comes with some asterisks, however…

  • The graphics compatibility is based on similar offerings from Intel on-board but uses an open source instruction set from AMD.  (Mesa, for the geeks.)  Many of the Ultra Mode sliders are off the table, but this is nothing new for Apple users.
  • Wine on M1 can be quirky, as you need to adjust some settings to make play practical (like Linux play, Borderless Windowed is your friend).  But it does work.
  • The duct tape holding it all together: Rosetta 2.  What Apple got right that Microsoft Surface Pro 9/X/Dev Kit hasn’t – a separate on-board chip to co-process emulation on the hardware level.  It’s not just software-based emulation.  However, like OG Rosetta, there is an excellent shot it won’t stick around for too much longer past the end of support for MacOS apps made for Intel Macs.  It’s not a promise or a ticking time bomb.  Any Apple Silicon machine available brand new today will play the game for its lifespan.  But something to keep in mind on future models: if Apple sheds Rosetta 2 in favor of pushing new features, don’t be surprised.

Gamers aren’t fans of Macs for several reasons, but none of them are too dissimilar to Microsoft Surface.  Repairability isn’t in the cards, nor upgrades.  That’s to be expected.  But the elephant next to the trunk of the Apple tree is the ecosystem.  Apple has done a lot to force developers to Metal, Apple Arcade, and to discourage outside development by virtue of Apple Silicon, which isn’t open-source and homebrew friendly.  This isn’t meant to discourage folks from giving it a shot, but to give a realistic idea of what to expect.  You’re not going to play AAA Gaming titles on a Mac unless those developers play ball and take all of Apple’s lock-in requirements.  If any of that bugs you, for the price, money spent on a Mac may make you happier on another laptop.

But if it doesn’t?  Good, here’s the recommendations.  For Apple M1 and M2 machines, check out the Homecoming Launcher forum for updated guides.

GOOD: Apple MacBook Air M1, Apple MacBook Air M2. (Be advised, MacBook Air models will slow the CPU when excess heat is present, which will affect gaming use.  A cooling mat may or may not help.)

BETTER: Apple MacBook Pro 13” M1, Apple MacBook Pro 13” M2.

Again, this is the end of the line on recommendations.  MacBook Pro 14” and 16” machines have the M1 PRO/MAX chip with a ridiculous amount of GPU cores above the base M1/M2 model, but for the price, if gaming is the goal spending $1,500-2,900 on a gaming laptop that runs Windows may make you happier. (For that much, look at Razer Blade or Alienware.) If you have access to one from work anyway, and they didn't lock it down too much or have a "no personal data" policy for it, feel free to install Homecoming Launcher.

NO GOOD: I’m not going to concentrate too much on used Macs or older ones, as the Intel to Apple Silicon changeover is deprecating MacOS on those machines at a faster pace than normal (but not an enormous one… instead of 1-2 years of hardware, they’re pushing 3 lately).  The ones that can play City of Heroes can and do, but the catches are too much to go over for a tightly written guide.  It’s extra-credit worthy, and people closer to Mac have better insights than I do.  (Manga, WanderingAries, et al do a better job.)

And now for the shortest offering…

 

THE CHOCOLATE COMPANY (GOOGLE)

…or what Google used to be nicknamed in Android’s younger days: I’ve waffled a bit on Chromebooks being used to play City of Heroes.  And it’s possible to find a Chromebook that technically can play the game.  But after testing several models (indirectly) I could get my hands on; I’ve returned to the same conclusion I had back in 2019.

It's not worth it again.

I’ve returned to this conclusion based on Google and OEMs making that last option harder.  Getting ChromeOS out of the way and using Linux is the best one can hope for performance-wise.  And that’s considerably harder to do for the newest models even with the right specs to play the game. Finally, remember that Chromebooks exist with multiple architectures, including ARM models.  Unlike Windows ARM, not even software emulation comes with most ARM Linux installations as a feature.  So ARM Chromebooks will not play City of Heroes, period.  (Yes, there’s a hobbyist out there that will read this and say, “Challenge accepted.”  But out of the box, it’s not going to work out.  And telling someone new to Linux to try it is a recipe for pain.)

NO GOOD: Don’t buy a Chromebook and expect to play City of Heroes on it.  From the mouth of a better qualified expert, MrChromebox has it down cold –

“Buying any Chromebook with the intention of running Windows or Linux is not a great idea. Many can't boot anything other than ChromeOS; Those that can boot Linux (or Windows) often have functional deficiencies -- DO NOT EXPECT EVERYTHING TO WORK OUT OF THE BOX. Older models may fair better compatibility wise, but there are still lots of caveats, and it's not recommended to buy a Chromebook as a cheap Linux device. The days where Chromebooks ran Linux well OOTB ended with the 2015 models.”


Alright, feeling good.  Two of the three sections down.  But now, it is time for the section that’s in-depth reading.  You ready?  I’m ready.  I’ve been ready.  I met ready.  And we hit it off.  I’ve visited ready’s high school reunion, donated to its booster club, and I even took a pic with ready.  We’re buds now.
 

 

III. THE GREAT OUTDOORS

HOW TO SHOP FOR A LAPTOP ON YOUR OWN.

 

PRICE

So, in the prior guide, I had a big section on shopping.  This one, I’m taking a different tack: I’m factoring the price as a part of the laptop spec.

In this regard, I’ll give the following advice, and gently expand on it:

  • A laptop’s price has far less to do with its capabilities, and much more to do with its DEMAND.  This is the big secret in the industry.  Spending $2,000 to $3,000 on a laptop is no guarantee it will do anything you want it to do.  Or even everything.  Most expensive laptops are geared for two outcomes: portability and battery life.  (Battery life will make for funny reading in a moment.)  Likewise, if you know where and how to look, spending less than $400 can get you what you want if you don’t expect the device to do it all, and are specific on your needs.  Spending on a cheaper machine doesn’t automatically make it garbage (although to be fair there’s a lot of garbage out there.)
     
  • Spend on what you CAN’T expand later.  A laptop can be one-hundred percent on-board components with no ability to upgrade parts later (Macbook, Surface, and such are popular examples.)  Some not only permit upgrades, but they also modify the laptop case to make such upgrades far easier on amateurs.  RAM, Hard Drive and Wi-Fi door panels on the bottom lid make such replacements minutes away.  A LOT of them hide their expandability, requiring you to remove feet, use picks or a expired credit card to separate hooks on the case, and carefully disassemble the parts to gain access to your upgrade slots.  But almost all of them stand firm on three parts: the screen, GPU and Graphics Card (well, chip.)  Almost all laptops make those components permanent.  If your decision is between one with less storage capacity and one with a weaker CPU, when in doubt, aim for CPU power.  Storage can be added later (even if it’s in the form of USB.)
     
  • Don’t spend when you are emotional.  If the one you want isn’t in stock, or the doorbuster sale for Black Friday became a bait and switch… (“Get this gaming laptop for $400, limit 3 per location.  Rest at retail price.” Boo…) Or let’s say the one you had your heart set on it turns out that it can’t game at all.  In all those cases it’s hard but close the wallet or purse right up.  Also, never let a salesperson pressure you.  Especially don’t let them summon other salespeople to surround you.  Actually, if it helps, ask a friend to join you on the trip and let them talk you out of a bad sale.  Your friend doesn’t have to know anything about computers. Just the ability to read your emotions is enough.  If you’re not happy, it can be easier to walk away if you’re not alone.

So, what’s a fair price for a computer? That is the tricky part.  You’re going to find machines in several classes of pricing.

  • Value/Starter Computers: These are the entry level systems meant for students, young professionals, and people who need a simple computer to handle the basics.  Popular examples include HP’s “nameless” laptop (the HP 14, HP 11, etc.), Dell Inspiron, Lenovo IdeaPad, and most models of Chromebooks.  Processors can be as weak as Intel Processor (formerly Celeron/Pentium.  Silly move, calling your weakest processors your company’s name.) or AMD A-Series and Athlon X4 systems, and as good as Intel Core i3 and AMD Ryzen 3.  (But not much higher: if you find Core i5 or Ryzen 5 as cheap as the above, check what year they were made.  They’re possibly older than they look.)  Pricing centers around the $400 mark. 
     
  • Midrange Computers: These systems will have a touch more of everything: better port selection, more USB ports, bigger or higher resolution/High DPI screens (even in smaller sizes), better performance, and slightly better build quality.  Examples of these machines include HP Pavilion, Dell Latitude, and Lenovo Yoga.  Processors approach either the higher-speed dual core or multi core versions of Intel Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5.  Pricing is usually from $600-800.

And at this point, “specialization” occurs around one of three areas.  Pricing for all of these is north of $900.

  • Gaming laptops.  (BEST: This is the better place for spending nearly a grand.) While it is possible to find a low-end Gaming Laptop less than $900, the majority of them start higher.  Gaming Laptops are designed for three things: screen, ventilation, and graphics.  Where gaming laptops come up short?  Usually, weight, battery life, and portability.  Gaming Laptops have some parallels with desktop replacement laptops in that they tend towards larger size, heavier weight, and the need to be tethered to a desk or table close to a power jack.  All the major players offer a model from the big three: HP Omen, Dell’s Alienware line, and Lenovo Legion.  This trend is changing, however, with gaming laptops becoming lighter and more power conscious when games aren’t running.  Models include the Razer Blade, ASUS ROG Zephyrus, and the MSI GS. But they don’t tend to be cheap.  Expect to spend $1,200 to $1,800 on models that don’t need wheeled luggage to move about.
     
  • Professional Laptops. (GOOD: Don’t expect great performance, but they’re not slouches either.) This is the most popular category of laptop out there.  Light weight, great battery life, big screens (or at least high resolution and high DPI), and a lot more durable than Value or Midrange laptops.  Models abound here: HP Elite, Dell XPS (used to be their gaming brand, but pivoted to the suits), Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, and most Apple MacBooks.  (I’d argue their cheapest one, Macbook Air, is the entry level to this category.)  At the $1,200-$1,500 end of the scale the differences are clearer than in the upper prices past $2,000-3,000.  (Usually, the more expensive, the more capacity and a slightly faster processor installed, if any difference at all.)
     
  • Media Production or Workstation Replacement laptops.  (NO GOOD.  Read on.) These machines are usually only available to businesses or folks with high demands on equipment with price not being an object.  (Whether you’re a film maker, architect, or scientist, there’s an excellent chance you wouldn’t be spending out of pocket to obtain something like this for your work, but also just as likely that you can’t keep it when you change jobs or a project is through.)  Like older Gaming Laptops, they’re large, barely portable, and heavy.  Unlike them, if they come with a graphics chip, it’s usually CAD or video-centric and not meant to game on.  A true workstation replacement has over a dozen ports, slots, and usually a docking port to add even more with a docking station planted at a desk or cart.  Most recognizable models include the Dell Precision line, Lenovo ThinkPad P Series, and the HP ZBook.  (It can even be argued that Apple’s MacBook Pro 16” w/M1 or M2 Max model is in this camp.  The heft is there, anyway.)  Most start at $1,800, so spending that cash towards a gaming laptop will make more sense than one of these.

So, while ignoring the meaningful specs and keeping to generalities, hopefully the above helps to clarify that first bullet point in this section.  Just because a laptop is super pricey, does not mean it’s meant to be everything to everyone.  In fact, considering that most manufacturers expect a 4-7 year lifetime on all of the above models, such a laptop may not really exist.

You can drop a grand on a new machine tomorrow, and it will give you a better experience, may even be put together a little better, and it might have more features.  But it’s not going to necessarily last longer than a cheaper laptop as far as updates and driver support are concerned.

 

PROCESSOR

Second to price, but the most important spec.  In fact, no other factor drives the price of a laptop more. 

And now to negate that reasoning!  THE PROCESSOR DOESN’T REALLY MATTER FOR THIS GAME.

For Homecoming, you don’t really need much.  A Core i3 or Ryzen 3 is plenty for the game.  But a cheaper processor may not be enough for your needs.  For most people, a Core i5 or Ryzen 5 meets the needs of most people.  (This guide was written on a Ryzen 5 laptop, in fact.)  Again, if you are seeing a similar price between two laptops that can game, and one has less capacity but a better processor, side with the better processor.  You can’t upgrade a processor later.  (This is NOT the case with a Desktop system you can build.  But laptops, short of a Framework, it’s stuck with the one you get.)

GOOD: Intel Core i3, i5, i7, i9 -AND- AMD Ryzen 3, 5, 7, 9.
As Homecoming rolls well on all the above, not going to bother breaking these apart to better and best.  If you don’t see the processor in this list, use these sites—

If the processor was released before 2018, think twice about paying more than $400 for the system.  The only consideration to make?  Core i3 and Ryzen 3 will have less “headroom” to multitask (run Discord, Spotify or watch streaming video at the same time) or to run more than one client of Homecoming than the Core i5 and Ryzen 5 models and higher can do.  But you can still do it.

(Mac aficionados: repeating the above advice for Apple laptops, Apple Silicon, such as M1, M2, and all the variant Pros, Maxes, and Ultras all play COH well too.  Just remember when asked to install Rosetta 2, your only answer is yes.)

NO GOOD: Intel Processor, Celeron, Pentium, Atom -AND- AMD E-Series. Any computer made before 2016 would be a good idea not to buy at this point.  (See MODE D’EMPLOI above: assumption #2.  Get something that will last a few years.)

 

GRAPHICS

This is the second most expensive factor on most laptops, with the following impact:

  • Discrete Graphics: a laptop with discrete graphics has a non-integrated separate chip to process video and graphics output away from the processor.  Two advantages to this: your CPU doesn’t waste cycles running graphics on top of regular instructions, it just passes the GPU output to the screen.  And second, Discrete Graphics chips keep their own Video RAM and don’t take a chunk from your system RAM. 

    This is unfortunately getting harder and harder to determine in some cases thanks to manufacturers, except in one case: Nvidia. It’s a safe bet in 90% of cases that any laptop with a Nvidia Geforce sticker has a discrete chip.  But you’ll usually pay a premium to get it over a non-Nvidia equipped model in the same line.  Radeon Graphics is available on gaming laptops, but you’ll really need to check the system specs.  Navi, Vega and any “not described” graphics support from AMD with a "Radeon Graphics" sticker on it anyway you can safely assume the next category…

     
  • Integrated Graphics: integrated graphics are built-in to the CPU.  Unlike the above, the CPU spends time processing graphics along with all other instructions, and your Video RAM is actually a part of your regular RAM.  You can tell this when opening Settings in Windows 10/11, and look in the System panel on the “About” page at the bottom.  System RAM will be reported, with a lower number being given as “Useable”.  The unusable portion is being cordoned off by the CPU as Video RAM for the Integrated graphics.  Something to keep in mind.  Examples include: AMD Ryzen with Vega Graphics, AMD Ryzen with Radeon Graphics, and all Intel Graphics for laptops, regardless of name (including UHD, Iris, Iris Pro and Xe.)
     

So, is integrated graphics guaranteed garbage?  Not necessarily.  For MMO titles made in the 2000’s and 2010’s, you can save a few bucks picking an Integrated GPU laptop over a dedicated one.  If you want to play AAA Gaming titles, you’re going to need dedicated graphics.

(Folks paying attention can see a very clear line of shopping: if cash is not in strong supply, any laptop with either an Intel Core i3 and Xe Graphics, or an AMD Ryzen 3 and Vega graphics at a minimum will play the game well.  It just won’t be fast at heavy multitasking use.)

 

RAM

Unlike the Processor, RAM is becoming a necessary spec for laptops.  You’ll need to pay attention on this one:

  • BEST: 32 GB – 64 GB is best in a Gaming Laptop (you can do higher capacities of course).  With Dedicated Graphics, the RAM is completely open to your operating system with plenty of room for gaming, browser tabs, and any kind of support apps.  If you aspire to be a creator or share your gaming on a video platform, this is mandatory if you want to be able to run it well.
     
  • BETTER: 16 GB is what gaming users should aspire to have in their systems as their baseline.  Even on a cheaper laptop, if it uses Integrated Graphics, that means 12-14GB of useable memory in a 16 GB system over 4-6GB in an 8GB system.
     
  • GOOD: 8 GB is the new baseline.  If you want to use Windows 10, 11, or MacOS, you’ll need 8GB of RAM to use most apps these days.  Multitasking isn’t an outlier any longer but the norm.  And most tabbed browsers flourish with more RAM available.  (Use Discord?  Here’s a secret: every server you join is a “tab” as far as Electron is considered.  Same RAM usage as a tab in Chrome.) Surface/MacBook models, this is especially true as RAM cannot be upgraded after purchase.
     
  • NO GOOD: 4 GB of RAM is not usable any longer.  The only systems where 4GB makes sense is Chromebooks (light use and high battery life devices) or Raspberry Pi (where you have no expectation on gaming past casual apps and headless servers for things like Minecraft or Terraria.)  If you see a Windows laptop sold with 4GB RAM, pass on it.  Mac, expect the SSD to be used a lot for RAM Swap with this little RAM available.

 

HARD DRIVE

A few types of storage to consider:

  • Platter Hard Drives.  On most laptops, these are on the way out, but they are still present on budget devices.  Even at 1-2 TB, these are cheaper than SATA/NVMe M.2, so pay attention to the specs.
  • eMMC Hard Drive.  This is common in Chromebooks and Ultra-light laptops that cost less than $200.  The performance of an eMMC is barely faster than a platter hard drive, but not enough to have an appreciable benefit in gaming.  Unlike a Platter Hard Drive, eMMCs are soldered on board and CANNOT be upgraded. (While unlikely, if a laptop has a M.2 slot elsewhere, they CAN be ignored however.)
  • SATA SSD Hard Drives are present on some laptop models.  These can be in the form of a 2.5” drive slot or as a M.2 device.  SATA is better than eMMC or Platter, but it is now considered middle of the road now (and less common) in comparison to…
  • NVMe M.2.  NVMe stands for “Non Volatile Memory express”, which uses a PCI-Express connection to connect your hard drive to the system bus.  NVMe has the fastest performance (even older standards of it compared to SATA).

Consider a 256GB NVMe M.2 as the starting point.  If a cheaper model of laptop has a platter or eMMC hard drive (but has 512GB or 1TB storage) it will be slower to zone in when trying to hop across maps, missions, and iTrials.

 

BATTERY LIFE

It held true with the prior guide, and it holds true today.  Shall I say it again?

BATTERY LIFE IS NOT A FACTOR.

If you’re going to game on a laptop, it NEEDS to be plugged in to power, period.  Summing up the same points that haven’t changed since 2020?

  • Battery optimization while unplugged means turning down Graphics performance.  This is done at a hardware level and cannot be completely mitigated in an Operating System or on your graphics driver controls.
  • Laptops built for gaming have pathetic battery life WHILE gaming. 
  • The battery on the cheaper, heavier models is only strong enough to move between AC outlets.  For the expensive ones that are lighter, the battery is meant to be used on non-gaming tasks.

So, what has changed?  If the laptop uses USB-C charging and accepts Power Delivery chargers, you may have a second option.  A Power Bank of sufficient size (20,000 mAh to 40,000 mAh) plugged into your laptop charging port could effectively add time gaming to a laptop without turning on Power Efficiency features.  Most laptops with Barrel Jacks and proprietary connectors for power generally will not work on most batteries, even with a PD adapter plugged into it.  (And concerning laptops with a RX or RTX dedicated graphics chip, if your laptop uses a DC power brick over 240 watts, PD charging isn’t even a possibility.)

Any difference in battery life between laptops you’re considering shouldn’t really be a factor.  Expect to be plugged in while playing COH, period.  Gaming on battery means turning graphics way down and taking a FPS hit no matter the machine.
 

SOFTWARE

Operating Systems: not really a factor.  Windows 10 isn’t being sold to OEMs any longer as of the time this guide is being written.  Windows 11 has more RAM and graphical overhead than Windows 10, but not enough to be appreciable to install Windows 10 on it until 2025.  MacOS for Apple systems doesn’t really have any impact on gaming with Wine over the hardware involved.

Linux laptops are a possibility, but I wrote another guide covering that, so I won’t complicate this one over it.

Bloatware: Every laptop is going to have pre-installed apps from the Hardware Manufacturer.  It’s a part of the business.  Every app on the system by default pays the hardware maker for the placement.  The is a simple answer for a laptop that comes from the factory with Windows preinstalled -- download a Windows ISO on a flash drive on another system and wipe it.  (Like for like: comes with Windows 10, use Windows 10.  Comes with Windows 11, use Windows 11.  This is important: Hardware Compatibility Lists are different between the two.)  The stock ISO from Microsoft still has “paid placement” apps like Candy Crush and such, but those are “click to install” from Windows store.  If you never start it, it doesn’t download.

Drivers: Installing graphics and chipset drivers are critical for most systems.  In the past, it was common wisdom to install the drivers from your laptop maker and nothing further.  Today, exploits, game patches, and hotfixes come way too quickly for a laptop manufacturer to keep up with.  Head straight to the source and get your graphics drivers from NVidia, AMD or Intel.


MISCELLANEOUS

Build Quality:

If you spend less than $600 on a laptop, the general expectation is you’re getting an all-plastic machine and simple keyboard. (There are exceptions: Acer Swift.) It may not be as tough as a metal-cased powerhouse, but it works. However, things like trackpad gestures, N-Key rollover, and backlighting usually aren’t in the cards.  That doesn’t mean you can’t mitigate.  USB and Bluetooth accessories can help.

  • Better Keyboard: Mechanical keyboards (good ones) usually start at $100 and go up with the mention of key switch manufacturers and response times.  You might find a model under $100, but there will be some catches (non-removable switches, keycaps, or little to no backlighting.)  If you don’t mind a cheaper model, there’s several Bluetooth models that have good response, backlighting and gaming performance that are easier to obtain.
     
  • Better Mice: Trackpads and MMOs really don’t mix.  You’ll need a mouse.  Corded mice will generally be cheaper, but Bluetooth and RF Mice in the last several years have improved well enough to make them worth a second look.  Most Logitech mice have a battery life of six to twelve months with either a single or two AA Batteries.  Ergonomic choices abound for less than $60, from claw-grip mice to trackballs.
     
  • Cooling: for cheaper laptops that weren’t meant to game on (but you’re doing it anyway…) a cooling pad makes sense to keep your laptop a few degrees cooler than without one.  The king of the heap in most stores in this department (Belkin) is a bit overpriced in this regard.  You can find a solid ABS Plastic and Metal cooling pad for laptops with large fans and quiet operation for less than $30.  Same as the laptop, when using a cooling pad, having a table, lapdesk or flat board to place it on is better than your actual lap (computer fans are mini vacuum cleaners: any fuzz pills or debris on your clothes, blankets, or couch will wind up inside.)
     
  • Carrying Case: when picking a case to carry a laptop around, if you have only a power brick and mouse, finding a case the same size should be sufficient (14” laptop in a 14” case is fine.)  If you have more than that, consider buying a case 1-2 inches larger (even if it slides around, too much case always beats too little) or a backpack with excess storage (14” laptop pocket, rest of the bag holds everything else.)

A high-price system may have some of these areas covered and not need all the above.  But with the right accessories, even a cheap system can meet anyone’s needs.

Warranty:

  • Pay attention to the sale warranty from the manufacturer.  Most machines are sold with 1y coverage at no additional charge.  (Limited, of course: Manufacturing defects, short term failures, or “DOA” – laptops that do not power on when unboxed, therefore Dead on Arrival.)
     
  • If buying direct from the manufacturer, a 2- or 3-year warranty plan may be offered for an additional cost, but only at the time of sale itself.  (If you don’t buy it at the point of purchase, or in a window such as within 14-30 days of the sale, you can’t get it later.)
    • Accidental Damage from Handling (ADH) may add coverage such as drops, cosmetic damage, or even water damage.  It doesn’t cover DOA (usually handled by the original warranty without it), any user-replaceable components such as USB and wireless accessories from the sale (mice, headsets), or loss/theft (no warranty covers that at any price).
       
  • Additional coverage may be offered, such as an extended warranty, but pay attention:
    • It’s usually from a third party, like Asurion or Square Trade (now Allstate). 
      • This isn’t offered by the manufacturer nor involving them, the party that is selling the plan may get consideration (commission) from the insurance company if you do buy it (such as Best Buy or Amazon). 
      • If you do buy it, calling the manufacturer about issues with an extended warranty will be ignored.
      • You can refuse this coverage and finish the sale without it.
    • Coverage doesn’t always start at the sale.  Some plans start AFTER your manufacturer’s coverage is completed.  Pay attention to the terms offered.
    • Be aware that there is the possibility of paying for too much coverage: Buying ADH from the additional provider doesn’t always mean your original warranty magically adds it if you didn’t, or that the extended warranty starts any earlier for it.
    • Most importantly, YOU MAY NOT EVEN NEED IT.  If you can handle basic fixes for laptops and wind up never using the plan, the insurance company essentially made money out of your fear.

 

And that’s the guide.  Thanks for reading, feel free to add below any parts you want to explain further or disagree on, and hopefully this gets you the info you need shopping for new hardware.

Edited by Tock
Typoes. Even had a friend look it over once, still finding them. (Pay your editors, people. Or at least feed 'em.)
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So That's where you went! 😮 

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