Someone told me I couldn’t make a sub-$200 laptop that could competently run WoW: Cataclysm at 30-60fps. Do I hear a challenge?

Posted: February 26, 2011 by ryanlecocq in Off-topic

So on occasion I have this guilty pleasure of making fools of angry 12 year olds on message boards to blow off steam.  C’mon, we all do it.  One of my favorite spots is the World of Warcraft official forums, because they have the best rage-tards.  One of those (let’s not name names, besides my first and last which is everywhere I go online) loves to tell every person with a crappy old computer that they are n00bs and they need 1337 gear.  I do not ascribe to this formula.  Nothing warms my heart like a guy who shows up to a LAN party with some ancient Dell with a fan duct-taped to the side.  That’s a real man of genius right there.  If you can rock it, rock it.

So after a long and drawn out argument that started when someone wanted to find a lappy under $200 that would run WoW “okay” (their exact wording).  I said “no problem!” and started looking stuff up.  Mr. I-own-an-i7-my-parents-bought-me showed up after a couple of posts with the old line of “no crappy old rig under $200 will give you acceptable framerates and you should really just save your money so you can play with the big boys.”

Long story short, my final argument was “I have $200 right now and I’ll prove it to you smartass.”  So here it is, the sub-$200 WoWbook.

If you wanna get high, you know you gotta start low: The Acer TravelMate 4400.

Rather than trying to ebay some brand new extreme low end clearance notebook and overclock it or looking for a broken laptop and fixing it (both of which would have been dishonorable in my opinion), I decided to start with an older laptop with decent RAM capacity, single core 1mb L2 CPU and an older mobile GPU with dedicated memory that I knew I could flash with a Mobility Modded new driver and overclock with ATi Tool.  I ended up with the Acer TravelMate 4400, purchased on craigslist for $150.  It’s hard to tell from the pic, but the screen is a 16:10 1280×800 and that keyboard is contoured (cool!).  Specs as follows.

Single Core Turion 64 1.66ghz 1mb L2 cache 1600mhz HyperTransfer

Ram (stock) 768mb (max) 2gb

ATi Xpress 200 chipset with Mobility X700 GPU with 64mb dedicated memory.

100gb 5400 RPM HDD

Wireless b/g blah blah etc. etc.

It sounds extremely weak and is barely above the minimum specs listed on WoW’s support page (the RAM is even below at 768mb).  With no modification it runs WoW at the lowest settings (besides view distance at fair) at around 15fps(crowded) to 30fps (wilderness).  Not anywhere near the performance I promised, but we’re not even started yet.  Regardless, for $150 I already have a system that plays WoW as well as 25% of all 12 million subscribers according to Blizzards own polls.  For comparison I compared to benchmarks with brand new Netbooks and Notebooks with Intel graphics and the TravelMate was slightly superior stock configured.  In addition to this, the 64-bit processor works very well with my Win7 Ultimate.

It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll.

At this point it comes down to three things I excel at: Technical aptitude, market research and raw luck rolls.  Combining these I got 2 1 gig sticks of DDR 333Mhz laptop ram for $15 (also on craigslist) and ordered a 3-fan chill pad for $8 and some Arctic Silver 5 thermal paste also for $8.  If you’re keeping track that puts us at $183 all told including shipping.  I used the remaining $17 dollars to buy a wireless laser mouse with selectable 800/1600 DPI and a nano-reciever (it was a Targus and not too shabby).

After installing the RAM, I then fully removed the casing to apply the thermal paste to the CPU and GPU as well as the GPU’s 64mb GRAM bank.  The CPU and GPU I applied a thin layer of Arctic Silver 5 and the re-mounted the copper heatsink plate, just like you would with a desktop processor and heatsink fan.  The GPU RAM bank I just lightly coated it to make a heat diffusing layer, kind of like microchip sunblock.  The reason for this as well as the high flow chill pad is for the full system overclock.

With all of these cooling upgrades and at stock configuration, the hottest points of the board have dropped from about 55C to about 25C, way, way in the healthy cooling range.  So that means we’re safe to overclock a bit without much risk of damage.  I won’t bore you with the trial and error of different speeds I tested, just the final working configuration and the results.  I used SetFSB to overclock the CPU and RAM and a Windows 7 modded version of ATi Tool to overclock the x700 GPU.

Speeds are Stock/Overclocked

CPU: 1.6ghz/2.2ghz

RAM: 768mb@333mhz/2gb@440mhz

GPU core: 350mhz/425mhz

GPU RAM: 316mhz/400mhz

At these speeds with all the increased cooling I still never get much above 45-50C, so still in the healthy range for a notebook at peak operating.  Even more amazing, lo and behold my performance claims are met.  In normal play situations (questing, 5-mans, non WG PVP, etc.) it gets 30-60 FPS at medium settings with AA, Sunshafts and new water effects all off.  In the most taxing of situations (raids, near auction houses, Wintergrasp) the notebook still hangs on with 25-30fps with a couple of settings turned down a bit (shadows to low instead of fair, trilinear filtering down from 2x aniso, reduce interface lag off).  Even at the worst notebook killing situations like flight over busy zones and sudden mass mob spawns in scripted instances, the frames only briefly go below 20 and it’s barely noticeable.

Conclusion:

Those numbers may not compare to a decent desktop with a full sized graphics card, but many of you out there with brand new $700+ lappys and getting similar frames may be saying WH-WHAT!?!  It’s all about knowing your tech boys and girls.  WoW was designed for the tech of 2004 and even with all of it’s updates, you can still get it running pretty well on tech of that era.  It also helps to know how to get the best drivers for mobile GPUs with Mobility Modder instead of getting the watered down versions the laptop manufacturers provide.  Finally dedicated GPU RAM makes all the difference.  Even though it’s only 64mb in this case, it makes a huge difference over even the newest Intel HD integrated graphics sharing system RAM.  So even if you have a brand new i3 laptop with 4gb of DDR3 running at 5x the speed of my system here, you’re getting worse frames because your GPU just plain can’t game.

I wouldn’t want people to think that I went to all of this effort and cost just to be the smartest on the WoW forums (not a huge bragging point), but rather to help and inform the needy and the wanting out there in the WoW community.  I’m also going to use the hell out of it since I don’t have a laptop, so it’s not just a trophy.  Today I’m painting the silver parts cobalt metallic blue with fancy auto paint and the same for the silver part of the mouse.  I ordered all new ATi and AMD stickers for it that look fancy, so it should turn some heads at the college computer lab next week.  When I tell then it’ s a laptop I built myself from 5 year old parts for under $200 I expect some blown minds too.

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Comments
  1. lagunawsu2 says:

    My $200 dollars is in the mail. I respect results sirrah! Your craftsmanship is the finest in the lands, and I must have my hands on one!

    How much extra is the paint job?

    • ryanlecocq says:

      Well, lesse, one can of Volkswagon Jetta Cobalt Metallic Blue touch up paint set me back about $6.35 at Pep Boys and I figure it’s got about 60 paint jobs in it, so .11c?

  2. Jacob says:

    Thank you for this I’ve been looking days for something like this

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