Taking on the Dark Lord, Mobile Style

There have been a few recent product launches, with more to come in the near future, from AMD, Intel, and NVIDIA. On the CPU side we have Intel’s Ivy Bridge and AMD’s Trinity, both arguably more important for laptop users than for desktops—and in the case of Trinity, it’s currently laptops only! The two products both tout improved performance relative to the last generation Sandy Bridge and Llano offerings, and in our testing both appear to deliver. Besides the CPU/APU updates, NVIDIA has also launched their Kepler GK107 for laptops, and we’re starting to see hardware in house; AMD likewise has Southern Islands available, but we haven’t had a chance to test any of those parts on laptops just yet. With all this new hardware available, there’s also new software going around; one of the latest time sinks is Blizzard’s Diablo III, and that raises a question in the minds of many laptop owners: is my laptop sufficient to repel the forces of Hell yet again? That’s what we’re here to investigate.

Before we get to the benchmarks, let’s get a few things out of the way. First, Diablo III, for all its newness, is not a particularly demanding game when it comes to graphics. Coming from the same company as World of WarCraft and StarCraft II, that shouldn’t be too surprising: Blizzard has generally done a good job at ensuring their games will run on the widest array of hardware possible. What that means is cutting edge technologies like DirectX 11 aren’t part of the game plan; in fact, just like StarCraft II and World of WarCraft (note: I'm not counting the DX11 update that came out with Cataclysm), DirectX 10 isn’t in the picture either. Diablo III is a DirectX 9 title, and there should be plenty of GPUs that can handle the game at low to moderate detail settings.

The second thing to bring up is the design of the game itself. In a first person shooter, your input is generally linked to the frame rate of the game. If the frame rate drops below 30 FPS, things can get choppy, and many even consider 60 FPS to be the minimum desired frame rate. Other types of games may not be so demanding—strategy games like Civilization V and the Total War series for instance can be played even with frame rates in the teens. One of the reasons for that is that in those two titles, mouse updates happen at the screen refresh rate (typically 60 FPS), so you don’t feel like the mouse cursor is constantly lagging behind your input. We wouldn’t necessarily recommend <20 FPS as enjoyable for such games, but it can be tolerable. Diablo III takes a similar approach, and as a game played from a top-down isometric viewpoint, 30 FPS certainly isn’t required; I have personally played through entire sections at frame rates in the low to mid teens (in the course of testing for this article), so it can be done. Is it enjoyable, though? That’s a different matter; I’d say 30 FPS is still the desirable minimum, and 20 FPS is the bare minimum you need in order to not feel like the game is laggy. Certain parts of the game (e.g. interacting with your inventory) also feel substantially worse at lower frame rates.

Finally, there’s the problem of repeatability in our benchmarks. Like its predecessors, Diablo III randomizes most levels and areas, so finding a section of the game you can benchmark and compare results between systems and test runs is going to be a bit difficult. You could use a portion of the game that’s not randomized (e.g. a town) to get around this issue, but then the frame rates may be higher than what you’d experience in the wilderness slaying beasties. What’s more, all games are hosted on Blizzard’s Battle.net servers, which means even when you’re the only player in a game, lag is still a potential issue. We had problems crop up a few times during testing where lag appeared to be compromising gameplay, and in such cases we retested until we felt the results were representative of the hardware, but there’s still plenty of potential for variance. Ultimately, we settled on testing an early section of the game in New Tristram and in the Old Ruins; the former gives us a 100% repeatable sequence but with no combat or monsters (and Internet lag is still a potential concern), while the latter gives us an area that is largely the same each time with some combat. We’ll be reporting average frame rates as well as providing some FRAPS run charts to give an overall indication of the gaming experience.

And one last disclaimer: I haven’t actually played through most of Diablo III. Given what I’ve seen so far, it would appear that most areas will not be significantly more taxing later in the game than they are early in the game, but that may be incorrect. If we find that later areas (and combat sequences) are substantially more demanding, we’ll revisit this subject—or if you’ve done some informal testing (e.g. using FRAPS or some other frame rate utility while playing) and you know of an area that is more stressful on hardware, let us know. And with that out of the way, let’s move on to our graphics settings and some image quality comparisons.

Update: Quite a few people have pointed out that later levels (e.g. Act IV), and even more so higher difficulty levels (Hell) are significantly more demanding than the early going. That's not too surprising, but unfortunately I don't have a way of testing later areas in the game other than to play the game through to that point. If performance scales equally across all GPUs, it sounds like you can expect Act IV on Hell to run at half the performance of what I've shown in the charts. Give me a few weeks and I'll see if I can get to that point in the game and provide some additional results from the later stages.

Diablo III Graphics Settings and Image Quality
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  • JarredWalton - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    This is the whole purpose of having three different settings, discussing what settings we selected and why, etc. Consider the Value setting a "near-best-case" result while still looking decent; in this case, the only thing you can really do to further improve frame rates is to turn off shadows and/or lower the resolution further. If you look at our Mainstream results, you can see what happens as you start to turn up the dials, and the same goes for Enthusiast. I've discussed in the article exactly how much the various elements impact performance, going so far as to include additional results at "Enthusiast 1080p" but with Shadow Quality on Low/Off.

    If someone can't get at least a decent idea of where to start in terms of settings and what to expect from their laptop hardware with the information in this article, I'm not sure what I could do to help the situation. Hold their hand and walk through each and every specific setting? Because that tends to come off sounding very condescending if I write that way, and I think most people who care enough to read our articles are much smarter than that.
  • kyuu - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    Fair enough, I understand that. However, I'm not suggesting you write in a hand-holding, condescending manner. Just having three bars on the graph for each resolution (one bar for value, mainstream, and enthusiast settings) would be fine. I understand the time constraints, though, as I said. That would be the ideal, however.
  • CeriseCogburn - Saturday, June 2, 2012 - link

    You won't have to worry about that soon for nVidia chipped laptops as nVidia is rolling out that automatic best game play settings in their drivers.
    That's going to be a wonderful thing for the majority of gamers and laptop users who don't have a clue on game settings - I hope it helps increase the user base so computer games overall gain strength.

    Amd needs to follow suit quickly, to help all of us with a larger user base, instead of being stupid and lame on the driver side as usual. Of course, I'm scowling at the idea amd could possibly man up in that area.
  • gamoniac - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    Even though HD4000 is barely playable, I am still impressed by how far Intel has come along. HD4000 is right on the heel of HD6620G, which I didn't expect to happen just 1.5 years ago.
  • geogerf - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    Where's the Alienware laptop comparisons...? I have a M17X R3 6900M and D3 is pretty smooth (sorry didn't download FRAPs yet), but I'd like to see some official numbers.

  • erple2 - Sunday, May 27, 2012 - link

    Just as soon as that Alienware laptop comes down in price to sub $700 prices, it'll show up on this comparo!

    Oh, it's not that much in retail? I guess that your Alienware doesn't qualify as a "mainstream" laptop, like these other ones.
  • geogerf - Monday, May 28, 2012 - link

    Sorry, I don't get your sarcasm.. where does it say in the article that these are only sub $700 laptops tested?

    I'd think Alienware would fit under a "Enthusiast" machine, being gamer oriented and all...
  • Alchemist07 - Monday, May 28, 2012 - link

    I think the ASUS laptop is $1300 or so (was reviewed recently iirc)
  • designerfx - Sunday, May 27, 2012 - link

    higher levels get substantially more performance impacting.

    I'm using a HD 6970 at 1920x1200 with 6 gigs of ram and and an i7 920 and by hell difficulty I've encountered packs of mobs that have brought my machine to it's knees (sub 15FPS).

    Blizzard really needs to work on whatever they did poorly with for othis game.
  • Zingam - Monday, May 28, 2012 - link

    Shut the F up and lower that resolution!

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