Laptop gaming has only become attractive in the past decade. While laptops have been running simple games for decades, if you wanted to get into anything graphics intensive that involved buying a big computer and a monitor – and ‘portable’ gaming meant moving that machine to a LAN group. However, recent trends suggest that portable technology – technology that can be easily carried or even worn – is poised to take over.
At the most basic level, better components have made it easier for laptops and other portable devices to achieve acceptable performance. The integrated GPUs from AMD and Intel are still a little weak for 3D games, but today they are enough, especially if you limit yourself to older titles. AMD and Nvidia mobile graphics cards have reached a threshold where they can run any 3-A desktop game, often with minimal sacrifice in fidelity. And in 2021, many gaming laptops will be VR-capable — quite astonishing for those of us who remember PCs struggling with the transparency effects of Windows Vista.
In the meantime, portable designs are becoming easier and cheaper to build. PC chip manufacturing has shrunk to the 7 or 10 nm standard, down from 14 nm as recently as a few years ago. This means better performance from smaller chips, and therefore lower power consumption. Combined with more efficient lithium-ion batteries and a switch to flash storage, it’s possible to build portable gaming rigs that no longer weigh a ton or run out of battery in an hour. Furthermore, 5nm manufacturing should become commonplace in the next few years, although Intel is still moving towards the 7nm mark.
If it’s enjoyed modest success, Valve’s upcoming Steam Deck — which uses AMD’s custom chips — could herald an era of super-optimized laptops. While not every PC maker wants to use handheld devices, there is a clear market for cheaper, more compact hardware that focuses on gaming—primarily consoles. In fact, both the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are based on AMD’s architecture, so the only things stopping them from being “real” PCs are Sony and Microsoft. Valve will, of course, have to overcome its history of abandoning hardware like the Steam Link and Steam Machine.
If the prices and specifications were the same, which PC game format would you choose?
The technological universe is becoming portable
Several cultural factors are driving computer games in the mobile direction. One is the shift towards remote work, particularly in the wake of the pandemic. While this may theoretically favor desktop sales, the truth is that many people need the flexibility to work wherever possible, whether it’s in a hotel, coffee shop, or simply in a quiet room away from children. Wherever the work computer goes, so does the gaming PC, in many cases.
See also: Top 10 tips for working remotely
In fact, there are a growing number of gamers with children the Entertainment Software Association supports, and these people have increased time pressure. It can be hard to find hours to play anything when kids need a shower, dinner, or help at school. Mobile devices allow parents to tap into play whenever appropriate.
The whole world is also used to the idea that technology should be portable. Many people can only live with the phone. Even when they have the money for more, they often buy laptops and tablets. A stationary computer can look outdated, regardless of whether its performance is wiping the floor with the competition.
The whole world is also used to the idea that technology should be portable.
It’s hard to ignore the potential of portable designs. Steam Deck should offer the convenience of a Nintendo Switch, with access to a larger and more diverse game library. In fact, Valve was supposed to be inspired by the wild sales of the Switch, as well as the popularity of mobile games in general. There are people who have only played songs like Fortnite, PUBG or Apex Legends in their phone renders.
Meanwhile, the Oculus Quest 2 may not be the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to PC gaming, but it enables portable virtual reality without a $2000 desktop or laptop—a glimpse into the future. It’s easy to imagine the PC-like Quest 4 serving as someone’s only gaming device, perhaps even their only PC. Quest 2 is already capable of many work and video streaming functions across apps and the web.
Cloud services like Google Stadia and Xbox Cloud Gaming can reduce hardware barriers, allowing even cheaper and smaller devices to run realistic graphics by pushing display and storage into server farms. The main catch is bandwidth – with many ISPs offering uneven coverage or onerous data caps, it will take some time before the cloud is 100% reliable. We also need a subscription that offers a good selection of PC games for one monthly fee, preferably with the option to play them offline. This does not exist yet.
What gets in the way of laptop gaming?
One of the main things slowing down the portable shift is simple: heat. High-end laptops are notorious for being so hot that companies like Razer put a lot of effort into cooling. The performance of heat caps either directly or in terms of design limitations. Players do not like to touch burning metal, and a machine that gets too hot may stop working to prevent damage.
Prices can’t be ignored either. Mobile processors are expensive, something that drives many desktop enthusiasts. A tower computer will always be the most cost-effective option, since its makers don’t have to worry so much about cooling or miniaturization. Furthermore, laptops usually require docks and external drives to offer the same connectivity and storage, and these accessories may not be suitable for mobile devices or VR headsets.
Interface issues are also difficult to overcome. Mouse and keyboard is a feature that makes cross-platform gaming separate the PC players and console. Laptop owners may only need to add a mouse, but the closest other hardware to get (if not docked) is the trackpad, touchscreen, and/or software keyboard. There’s a reason why people who want to get things done prefer a laptop or desktop — and preferably connected to the largest screen they can afford.
When will laptops take over?
Don’t expect desktops to disappear completely or overnight. On top of the cost and performance advantages, there’s a dedicated fan base that treats them like works of art – consider the antiques featured on the r/pcmasterrace forum on Reddit. Whatever laptops they can bring, desktop computers will continue to have a special appeal.
However, in the years to come, this particular appeal may be similar to the way CDs, cassettes, and vinyl still appeal to some audiophiles. If they can afford it, the average person will go with the best balance of comfort and quality – which, for PC gaming, increasingly means that it’s portable.