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 - Monday, May 28, 2012 - link

    You'll note that with further investigation into the performance, it does not appear that the Acer is throttling. It simply isn't hitting max turbo during testing because the game doesn't require it. The performance of the much faster CPU in the N56VM is never more than 20% faster than the Acer, and that accounts for the GPU clock speed difference.

    As for later acts, give us a bit of time and we'll return to the benchmarks with results from late in the game. We have some other stuff that's higher priority, but we are aware of the fact that the Act I numbers are not fully representative of Diablo III performance. It will probably be a couple weeks, though.
  • tacosRcool - Monday, May 28, 2012 - link

    Pretty decent review, I wish more cards could be tested tho
  • slagar - Tuesday, May 29, 2012 - link

    "... is making plenty of news, and we managed to get a copy for testing purposes."

    Nice try, Jarred ;)
  • JarredWalton - Friday, June 1, 2012 - link

    Hey, it pays to work in the industry. One of our hardware contacts managed to get me a code -- actually had to buy a box, open it up, photograph the key, and email that to me. Hahahaha... Something about the address on my Battle.net account not matching the billing address for the CC, so that was just easier than trying to figure it out. Thank goodness for that as well, as there's no way my wife (with a newborn) would be letting me buy Diablo III.
  • justsomedude84 - Wednesday, May 30, 2012 - link

    Well, just to give some perspective on the low end laptops, I try and play D3 on a HD3200 & 2ghz dual core AMD, and its pretty horrible most of the time. I even have it set to 800x600! and get about 10-20fps... Im looking for a better, but inexpensive upgrade. I have a q6600 & HD4870 desktop that runs the game pretty well with all setting low or off at the highest resolution and it looks great and runs ok. Im wanting to get a laptop with a 6750M...
  • justsomedude84 - Wednesday, May 30, 2012 - link

    BTW, Iv managed to get to Hell act 1 all myself... lol. (mostly on my desktop, but have to do most of my gaming at work)
  • JarredWalton - Friday, June 1, 2012 - link

    HD 3200 is sadly very old by today's standards; it's actually not much better than Intel's Arrandale HD Graphics (original Core i3/i5 dual-core laptops). HD 3200 was fine when it came out in early 2008, but then AMD didn't release a significant update (just similarly clocked HD 4200/4250/4290) until the launch of Llano last June. That's over three years without a real improvement in IGP performance, which is pretty much an eternity for GPUs.

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