While many PC enthusiasts look to high-end units or trick out their own custom rigs with the latest hardware, some of us are cursed with integrated graphics and two gigs of RAM. Though we have previously found a way to build a gaming PC for less than $1,000, not everyone is going to take the time to piece that together.
But just because you have an ancient, crappy laptop doesn’t mean you can’t play games—it just means you’ll have to make a sacrifice here or there. Here are a few strategies that can help you start gaming, without needing to invest in a super expensive rig.
Lower Your Graphics Settings
Let’s start with the obvious: you’d be surprised how many games will run below the minimum requirements, as long as you’re willing to give up some graphical fidelity. When you start up a modern game on a low-specced machine, it may not always use the most optimal graphics settings by default, so before you try anything else, head into your game’s Video Options menu and turn down everything as low as possible.
When I say “turn everything down,” I mean everything. Not only should you lower fancy graphical effects like anti-aliasing, shadow detail, and texture quality, but you’ll want to crank down the resolution, too. If running a game at 720p (or less) is what it takes to reach a playable framerate, that’s what you’ll have to do. I was shocked at how well some of my test games ran on a $500 laptop with integrated graphics, with nothing but a few settings tweaks. If you aren’t sure whether a game will run, Reddit’s /r/lowendgaming subreddit can be a good resource to learn from other gamers’ experience.
Hack the Config Files for Even Better Performance
Let’s say you have a truly low-end laptop, though. Perhaps it’s more than a couple years old, and was cheap even in its heyday. If your game looks like a slideshow even with the lowest video settings, you might be able to improve performance with a dive into the game’s config file.
YouTube channel LowSpecGamer regularly tackles hidden settings in popular games, in an effort to run them on as many PCs as possible. The performance gains are impressive, even if the graphics aren’t. Through the game’s config file or console, you’ll be able to push the graphics lower than its in-game settings allow by enabling lower resolutions, turning off shadows, decreasing view distance even further, and so on. In some cases the results can look downright silly, but the game will be playable…and isn’t that what gaming is really about?
If you’d rather not do that work yourself, a popular piece of software known as Low Spec Experience can perform all the tweaks in just a few clicks. It supports a number of different games and offers multiple profiles for balancing graphics and performance. I generally recommend tweaking the settings yourself rather than using third-party software—that way, if something ever breaks, you’ll know why (and how to fix it). But it’s a valid option if you want it. Just remember to keep your PC backed up before pursuing either of these methods.
Stream Games Over the Internet
If low-res graphics are a total deal breaker, you have another option: stream your games over the internet. There are a number of services that will essentially run the game using high-end hardware on a server, then stream the feed right to your low-end laptop.
The graphics will look great, though it does inherently produce a little input lag, and you’ll need a decently fast internet connection for a smooth experience. I recommend connecting your computer over Ethernet, too, if you can—it’s a bit more reliable than Wi-Fi streaming, in my experience. If your laptop doesn’t have an Ethernet port, a cheap USB-to-Ethernet adapter will do the trick.
Nvidia’s GeForce Now is the most well-known of these services, and it’s currently free while in beta. The wait list is long, however, so you won’t be able to use it right away, unless you own (or buy) an Nvidia Shield set-top box, which gets you immediate access.
Other services—like Parsec, LiquidSky, and Shadow—are similar, but with varying pricing structures. Shadow, for example, is $35 per month for as much gaming as you want, while Parsec and LiquidSky charge per hour (usually about 25 hours of gaming for $10). You’ll need to do the math to figure out which is most cost effective for you—and keep in mind that in the long term, you may be better off putting that money toward an affordable gaming PC (or an external graphics card dock like the PowerColor Gaming Station).
Try Classic Games and Low-Fidelity Indie Titles
If all else fails, remember that not all games require beastly PCs to play. There’s a whole world of lower-specced titles out there, especially if you dig into the past and want to play retro video games. Never got around to playing Baldur’s Gate as a kid? There’s no better time than now, thanks to the new Enhanced Edition. Can’t run Skyrim on your antique laptop? Some argue its predecessor Morrowind is the superior game.
In addition, there are lots of newer indie titles that trade polygons for inventive gameplay. Whether you’re looking for strategy (try Into the Breach), RPG (Undertale), or Action (Bastion), there are plenty of games that’ll run on lower-specced machines—and they’ll be cheaper, too.
Some will claim higher minimum specs than others (like Superhot with its required 4GB of RAM and GTX 650), but with Steam’s 24-hour refund window, you can always give it a shot. Just don’t forget to turn those graphics settings down.