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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  • CeriseCogburn - Saturday, June 2, 2012 - link

    Thanks for that bit of info, ignore the fanboy, and continue your observations please - as we have already been told in the last card reviews by so many users here they have 1900X1200 monitors and they are by no means rare and "all real enthusiasts" have sought them.

    So the information you have there is very valuable to all the amd fans that own their 1900X1200 here that only lost to the new nVidia flagship by 9% at that resolution instead of 14% overall loss at 1920X1080, which anand doesn't show.

    Please ignore the sniping, cursing rude person and continue the observations as that one surprised me.
  • Sabresiberian - Sunday, May 27, 2012 - link

    "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, 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."

    WoW got a major graphics upgrade for the expansion pack Cataclysm, and it is now one of the few DX11 capable MMOGs released. You're overall point is valid in that Blizzard makes games so that people with lower priced systems can play them, but a bit out-of-date when it comes to WoW.

  • iwod - Monday, May 28, 2012 - link

    Anyone old enough would have remember those article about Mobile Graphics, How they sucks, how every year we were suppose to get 50 - 100% performance improvement. How Quake 3 didn't work, we could only play SimCity 2000.

    And by todays standard, Diablo 3 isn't even ground breaking in terms of Graphics. And yet, most of these laptop dont even play the game at acceptable frame rate ( 30fps ), ( And we are already excluding ANY of the ACT 3 / 4 loads in the game )

    And we even have Retina Display resolution coming. We are talking about 2 - 4x Pixel Density.

    I really do hope Haswell will provide 3x the performance of Top HD4000 numbers. This way we could push and ensure that everytime i select a discrete graphics in Notebook, i am guarantee to get at least decent graphics performance numbers.
  • Zingam - Monday, May 28, 2012 - link

    Ever heard about heat and battery life. Laptops are not for games! They actually do run games good when they are 5+ years older than the laptop itself. :)

    So play old games and be happy and they are mostly better than the current breed of graphic intensive crap.
  • Zingam - Monday, May 28, 2012 - link

    BTW That's the reason why consoles are better than PCs for gaming. You invest once and it guarantees you (unless it is XBOX 360 and rings red of death) that you will be able to play all available games until you have it. For the price of a console you cannot even buy a good graphics card.
  • iwod - Wednesday, May 30, 2012 - link

    Yes, but Diablo 3 is exactly like a game 3 - 5 years older then my current laptop ( 6 months old ) with 6630M.

    We have Laptop as Desktop Replacement. But most of those dont even run the game well.

    And exactly like you said consoles are MUCH better for gaming. Which leads me to think we are getting less efficient in extracting performance out of GPU.
  • Computex - Monday, May 28, 2012 - link

    I would use it for school since I can afford something like this on my own.........
  • amanstay - Monday, May 28, 2012 - link

    i wanna play D3 with laptop, what suitable laptop and what is the requirements that i need? pls help me..
  • JarredWalton - Monday, May 28, 2012 - link

    What's your intended resolution and what level of detail are you willing to run at? If you're okay with 1366x768 and Low Shadow Quality, you should be able to play through at least Normal and Nightmare difficulty on any Llano, Trinity, or possibly (if you're tolerant) HD 4000 laptop. If you want higher quality settings or a higher resolution, you'll want probably something with at least a GT 630M level GPU.

    Best bang for the buck right now, I'd go with the Acer AS4830TG: http://www.microcenter.com/single_product_results....

    It's a bit larger (and should therefor run a bit cooler/better) than the 3830TG used in the benchmarks for this article. At a price of $600, I don't see Trinity A10 surpassing it any time soon, though I do suspect the number of 4830TG units currently available is all that's left, so they might go out of stock in the next month or so.
  • Dark_Archonis - Monday, May 28, 2012 - link

    First thing is first, Acers are horrible laptops.

    Secondly, many gamers now are on laptops, not by choice, but some by necessity. There are quite a few gamers that are, in fact, space-limited and simply don't have the space for a full desktop setup. I am actually one of those at the moment. I will have more space in the future, where I will then get a desktop, but I don't have enough space right now. That is why a laptop is ideal for me. Secondly, a laptop has almost everything integrated and makes it easy to be mobile; speakers, trackpad, keyboard, screen are all in one unit. You can't be lugging around a desktop everywhere. If you're going to a friend's house or visiting somewhere, a laptop allows you to game on the go.

    Lastly, laptops are all about cooling. An Acer that's throttling is not going to cut it. The Act 1 benchmarks are not realistic. In Act 3 or 4 with tons of mobs on screen, that will stress both the CPU and GPU a lot more. A properly cooled and properly designed laptop should be hitting max turbo speeds almost always, and should not be throttling at all. Properly cooled the laptop should be running at minimum on base clocks when hooked to the A/C adapter. If you're gaming on the battery, than that's a bad idea. Gaming should be done hooked up the adapter when possible.

    With an i5 or i7 hitting max turbo clocks, combined with a 540M or 630M Geforce, D3 should run smoothly at medium/high settings even in Act 3 or 4. If your laptop is throttling, then of course that's a different story. So in the end, it is possible to game pretty well on a laptop, as long as the laptop has strong cooling.

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