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Netbooks: The Dark Horse of Portable Gaming?

Netbooks have come along way from their introduction in 2007. Originally invented by Asus, the idea was a low cost computer where the user can undertake basic functions. The small form computer was good for browsing the internet, making use of Youtube videos and Wikipedia on-the-fly, writing documents, and it could be taken anywhere. Inside the box the computer was partying like it was 1999, with a sub-Ghz Celeron processor and 4GB storage. But unlike previous mini-computer attempts, it turned out netbooks were capable of running Windows XP. Unlike the Fisher-Price simple version of Linux on the Asus Eee PC, having Windows XP gives netbooks all the functionalities of a standard PC, aiding their success.

As the name subtly indicates, the drawbacks with netbooks are the lack of power. Yet consumers are often oblivious to this. Most netbooks ship with the Intel Atom processor, a micro-form processor designed with power-efficiency over performance. According to Toms Hardware, the tech review site, the first Intel Atom processor performs as well as a 1.2 Ghz Intel Pentium III despite it’s 1.6 Ghz clock speed. That’s akin to a decade old processor. Its other features are no-frills, either having a modestly sized hard drive or a more durable solid state drive (SSD) and a gigabyte of RAM, and built-in graphics. The dividing factor between netbooks comes from battery life, price, size and HD output for good measure.

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So, if netbooks aren’t meant to be powerful, how can it be viable for gaming? Simply because PC games didn’t first exist in 2005, and despite the execrable performance of the Intel GMA 950 graphics that come built in most netbooks, it’s easily more powerful than what the PSP can muster. Could you imagine Half-Life 2 and World of Warcraft on a PSP? They’re both (just about) playable on a netbook. Netbooks don’t have optical drives, but there are many downloadable services offering back catalogues. Steam service offers all of Valve’s original Half-Life games, alongside Deux Ex, all the retro Quake games (Quake IV is overkill), and Wolfenstein for FPS’s. Sports fans can look to Football Manager, and EA Sports games such as FIFA, Madden and Tiger Woods are available on EA’s Link. Goodoldgames.com has dozens of compatible, DRM-free titles, and the low-tech indie community on the PC platform is a gold-mine for netbooks, rather than making warranty-busting firmware hacks to play Snake on a PSP. You can even program your own on the move with one. And do I need to remind you? Emulators for every format up to the Nintendo 64 work on a netbook, and just for good measure there are endless flash games on t’internet.

And it’s only going to get better. Already Asus’s N10 model comes equipped with an Nvidia 9300M graphics chip which will at least boot up new releases, but can be switched to the built-in graphics to save power. The next big introduction is the Nvidia ION chipset, which ships with the Intel Atom and the 9400M graphics chip, and is capable of running everything to date. Running it however doesn’t mean it’s playable, and the Intel Atom is seriously going to bottleneck Crysis. More modest games, such as the aforementioned WoW and Source engine games like Left 4 Dead and Counter-Strike: Source will work a pleasure. It’s not going to turn netbooks into a gaming monolith, but Nvidia claims ten times better graphics performance than the Intel GMA, a boon for those wanting to watch HD videos.

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With things looking good for the future of netbooks technologically, to really be a viable portable platform various concerns need to be addressed. Although mobile gaming won’t be the manufacturers priority, battery-life and HD capability is. The longer-lasting netbooks use larger 6-cell batteries, for instance the Samsung NC10 can endure up to 9 hours when idle, and manages 4½-5 hours when running videos. That’s comparable with that of the original PSP, although may dip below that when running 3D games. However, the Nvidia ION series claims efficiency comparable to the Intel 945 chipset (the one with the rubbish graphics), with the upcoming Samsung N510 to last a respectable 7.5 hours. But a premium chipset with battery longetivity does cost extra, the N510’s £420 price tag proves ION-based netbooks will not come cheap. If a netbook exceeds £300 it is getting too expensive; this enters budget laptop territory and defeats the low-cost, low-power maxim of a netbook. With the PSP Go set to cost £220 though, a long-lasting netbook with competent graphics costing under £300 could really give it a run for its money. But will we see the sweet spot between price, battery life and performance?

A netbook is never going to provide a pick-up and play experience the PSP, DS and the iPhone due to compatibility and the intrinsic non-standard of the PC platform. Netbooks are even less handheld than a Sega Game Gear, so you’d have to pick your games carefully control-wise. Retro consoles are relatively easy to play on a keyboard, but you will have to learn how to play FPS’s with a touch pad or FIFA with a keyboard if you don’t have a mouse or controller handy. Yet the Intel Atom’s small size has so much potential. Make a few modifications and it could be the perfect processor to power a handheld games device. The PSP and DS are technologically antiquated and have been around for years whilst the iPhone’s gaming prowess seemed accidental. If the Nvidia ION chipset made its way into a handheld machine it could demolish the trio. But as history teaches us, being better isn’t enough. The N64-esque capabilities of the DS has become the most successful handheld of its generation because of its price and its vast selection of both hardcore and universally accessible games. The price of a powerful Atom handheld could be too forbidding, but even using the Intel GMA chips it would easily better a PSP.

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Inevitably, this is all optimistic speculation. Netbooks by nature couldn’t replace handheld platforms outright. But with the way they’re heading they could be a viable alternative for the tech-savvy rather than buying an actual portable system. If you shop around right you’ll have a reasonably priced netbook that trounces PSP power, and with superior chipsets around the corner it’s looking better. Can you browse the internet via 3G, write your epic novel, edit spreadsheets, encode videos, do some programming, edit images and remix music in a comfortable fashion on a PSP, DS or iPhone? You can on a netbook, and play games that are relatively far more advanced. Or even play every retro game ever made. There is the control issue, they do cost more than a handheld (although some netbooks are on par with the PSP Go’s inflated price) and they won’t quite fit in your pocket. But there is a lot more you can do with them. After all, they do run Windows, a life without walls. If the Atom allows it.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2009.

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