Gaming My Way

06 Nov

Getting More Power Out of Your Cheap Laptop

If you’re like me, you probably have not dumped a lot of money into your computer, and probably don’t plan to. I recently purchased a new laptop for about $400 as my old one bit the dust. The laptop? An HP g4-1117dx. Probably doesn’t mean much to you, so here’s the guts:

AMD A4 1.9 GHz (2.5 GHz Turbocore) Dual Core Processor
AMD Radeon HD 6480G embedded video card
4 GB DDR3 1333 MHz ram. (I just recently upgraded to 8 GB)
320 GB Hard Drive

For those unsure what embedded video is, it’s basically an integrated card that is on the same die as the processor. This improves performance pretty dramatically, but is still not as good as a dedicated video card.

This has opened some new opportunities for me in gaming. There are, however, some things I had to do to get the most out of it. Some are easy and definitely worth it, others are a trade off and you’ll have to make an informed decision. Some of these will apply to any computer, some less so.

Obligatory disclaimer: I, nor anyone I am affiliated with, can take any responsibility for any damage caused by your use or misuse of this information. I’m a hobbyist, and simply sharing what has worked for me. Some of this is pretty common knowledge, some of it less so. I have done my best to outline any risks I am aware of, but there is always some risk involved when changing settings on your computer. When in doubt, consult a computer technician or expert for advice.

1) Upgrade Your Ram

Seriously, just do this one. A 4 GB stick of ram cost me a very cheap $25 on Newegg. It’s worth it, especially if you run Windows 7 (most versions of 7 are 64-bit, more on that later). Remember, on most laptops you have an integrated video card that is competing with the OS for the ram in your computer, and you want both the system and the video card to have plenty. Also, in Windows Vista and Windows 7, the OS actually designates extra system memory as shared memory based on how much you have, so the more you have in your computer, the more your video card will have access to. On the flip side, this also means that you’ll have less to use for the system when your video card is hogging it all. With enough memory though, it won’t matter. After my recent upgrade, I now have 512 MB dedicated to my video card via the bios, 4 GB dedicated solely to Windows, and 3.5 GB shared between Windows and the video card based on the Windows formula for shared memory. Before, those numbers were 512 MB dedicated to the video card, 1.5 GB shared, and 2 GB to the system. This got me to the point where the Witcher 2 went from barely playable on low settings to pretty smooth on medium settings, with a notable drop with lots of people on screen.

Remember though, you do need a 64 bit OS to use more than 3 GB -4 GB, so don’t bother going above 4 GB if you aren’t on a 64-bit OS. That said, on an integrated video card, more memory is gold, because it helps your system and your video card. Also remember though, the OS sharing memory with your video card was introduced in Windows Vista, so if you’re still gaming on XP, your video memory will be determined solely by your BIOS and/or video card settings.

For those with dedicated cards (unlikely on a cheap laptop), remember that Windows Vista and 7 will do this memory sharing anyway, so it may still be beneficial to upgrade to make sure your system has consistent access to enough memory, or to augment the memory that comes with your card.

Upgrading ram on laptops these days is pretty straightforward, and your laptop’s instructions should detail the process. If not, there are instructions online. Be aware that you do want to avoid any static discharge in your computer while it is open, so it’s a good idea to touch your hands and any tools you are working with to metal before performing the upgrade.  I’ve been told whether or not you should keep your computer connected to power or completely disconnected varies between computers (it should certainly be powered down though), but honestly, every single laptop I’ve found instructions for has said to disconnect the power cord and remove the battery before opening it up. Still, it can’t hurt to do your own research if you are unsure.

2) Turn off Windows features and programs you don’t need

Windows Aero is a resource hog, as are other features of the new versions of Windows. And there’s a nice, easy way to turn them all off. Start, right click computer, choose properties, click performance and information tools in the lower left, then click adjust visual effects toward the upper left. If you click adjust for best performance, it turns off all the visual bells and whistles for the Windows desktop. Freeing up your computer to do the stuff you want it to do, like play games.

Some other low hanging fruit is in msconfig. You can access it now by typing msconfig in the start menu search bar, then selecting msconfig.exe. If this doesn’t work, you can also bring up the run menu and type msconfig to bring it up. Then, generally speaking, it’s safe to turn off all the startup programs and all the non-Microsoft services. Generally speaking. I did have some issues with my touchpad after I did this though, and had to do a system restore to a day earlier to fix it, so be aware it could cause problems, so be prepared to fix those if need be. It caused no problems for me at all on my previous computer though. You may also prefer a more selective approach to disabling startup programs and services, if so, by all means, go for it.

3) Update video card drivers

This one can be a true pain for laptop owners, as video card manufacturers often lock their drivers from being used on integrated cards at the request of laptop manufacturers who wish to release their own specialized drivers. Of course, the laptop manufacturers then fail to produce timely driver updates, if they produce any at all. Luckily, there are communities dedicated to modding the official drivers to work with integrated cards.  Unfortunately, they are not always easy to find. For those looking for modded AMD/ATI drivers, the most recent I’ve found as of this writing are the Catalyst 11.9 found here. Choose the MobilityMod download. You could also try the Mobility Modder, but I’ve not had a lot of luck with it lately.

I’ve never had trouble with modded drivers on any computer I’ve used, but it is possible, especially if your laptop manufacturer uses heavily modified drivers, that modded drivers could cause problems. Probably not a big risk to take, but it’s worth knowing about just in case. It would probably be a good idea to create a restore point first if you want to play it safe.

4) Try Overclocking

If you’re careful, the first three suggestions I’ve written about are unlikely to cause you problems. I’ve noted how they can cause problems, but they are usually easily fixable problems, and I’ve done those three things many, many times, with minimal to no problems. Overclocking, on the other hand, can cause serious problems if done improperly, on the wrong hardware, for too long, without enough cooling, or a host of other reasons. In short, if you are looking at overclocking, you should not take what I say here and think it’s time to give it a shot. Consider this some preliminary information, and a nudge to further research if you think it might be right for you.

I’m going to talk primarily about CPU overclocking, but principles are similar for other components. I’ve chosen to focus on CPU because in my limited experience, it’s very difficult to find a utility that will let you overclock an integrated GPU. In fact, I’ve not found one yet.

The big killer of overclocked computers is heat. So it’s not a bad idea to use some hardware monitoring software to keep an eye your components’ temperatures. I use CPUID’s Hardware Monitor for this. Depending on how much of an overclock you’re going for, you may also want to look into cooling of some kind. For laptops, cooling is pretty limited, but one of those base fans might help some. Also, gaming in an environment with a low ambient temperature will help a little too. Also, if your laptop already runs hot, as many do, you should probably ignore the rest of this section and not give it a shot. Overclocking laptops is generally not recommended to begin with, though that’s beginning to change a little with some cooler running laptops coming out, which is why this section of this post exists.

Knowing if your overclock is successful is also important. CPU-Z will tell you what it’s current reading on your system is and if it’s running at a higher speed.

Finally, there’s the actual overclocking to discuss, not just how to monitor it. Most overclockers I’ve read from seem to prefer overclocking through the BIOS. This makes sense, as the BIOS should be the primary controller of your hardware, rather than the OS. However, there are a couple reasons I don’t like going through the BIOS. The first is that mistakes are harder to correct, especially if you don’t take notes about all of your default settings. Incidentally, you should note your default settings. The second is that most laptops’ BIOS settings don’t provide the ability to tweak the settings you need to overclock.

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here, but there are three basic settings to look at. There’s the front side bus (FSB), your clock multiplier, and your voltage. Some AMD systems don’t have an FSB, but they have another setting that is similar and close enough for our purposes, and I’ll refer to it as the FSB here. The FSB is a clock that basically controls the speed of everything in your system. That may be slightly inaccurate, but it is an easy way to think about it and is mostly true.

According to CPU-Z, my computer’s bus speed is 100 MHz. My multiplier is set to 19 when the processor is running at full capacity, 25 while running in turbocore, and at settings below 19 when my system doesn’t need the power and is trying to conserve energy by slowing the processor down. In any case, I’m sure you’ll note that 100 MHz * 19 gives you 1900 MHz, or my processor’s rating of 1.9 GHz. So that’s the basics of the multiplier and bus speed.

Then there’s the voltage. If you want your processor to perform at a higher level, it may need more voltage to be able to do so. Now, I’ve found in my research that some processors are set to a higher voltage than they need, so you also may not need to increase this either. Note that changing voltages to be too high is likely to be the easiest way to fry your components, and changing them too low will cause system instability when your components can’t get the power they need. So all of this is a careful balancing act.

Now, for those looking to give it a try, I’ll note that the program I use, which works for a good chunk of AMD processors, is called K10stat. Just because I’ve linked you to the program does not mean you should download it and start messing around with it right away. I’ve linked it so it is easy to find when you have done your research and are ready to use it. If you, like me, have an A-series processor, then be aware you will need the most recent version of the program, and older versions will simply give you an error message saying your processor is not supported. Also note, K10stat only allows you to change multipliers and voltages.

I’ve had success setting my processor to be overclocked to 2.5 GHz. I chose this because it is my turbocore speed, and therefore the processor is designed to run this fast, but typically only on one core. So the purpose of the overclock was really to get it to run that fast on both cores, which so far has worked fine for me. I only keep the overclock running when I’m gaming, otherwise I keep my default settings. No point in wearing out my hardware any faster than necessary to get my performance boosts, after all. I’m considering trying to push it a little faster, as I’ve read success stories of pushing this processor to 3 GHz. I’ve noted that my laptop runs pretty cool compared to past laptops, so it may be something to give a try going forward. I’ll likely want to consider a fan for the vents before I do that though.

For me, the overclock to 2.5 GHz actually smoothed out the rest of my performance problems, that remained after my ram upgrade, with The Witcher 2 on medium settings. So it has had a noticeable effect. I also noted that my components so far have maxed out at a single degree Celsius warmer overclocked than they do on stock settings, 71 C as opposed to 70 C, so I’m satisfied with that in terms of heat, as that is likely a negligible difference.

So there are my thoughts on squeezing some more power out of your laptop. Obviously some are easier and safer than others, and it’s up to you to decide what you are willing to do and what you’d prefer not to.  This is, by all means, not comprehensive, but it’s a good start that covers options ranging from low risk and low reward, to high risk and high reward. So for those of you who, like me, are trying to push their laptops as much as they can for gaming, I hope you find something in here that helps you out.

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