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Got a low-powered netbook, like a Dell Mini 9 or an EEE PC?  Want to use it for gaming?  Here are some tips and suggestions for doing just that!

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to try out some gaming on my Dell Mini 9.  For a long time, I used it only for internet browsing or blog writing while watching TV, mainly because I though it was too weak to game on.  But I decided to take the plunge, wipe Ubuntu 9.10 off it, and give it a try with Windows 7.

Between low-powered CPUs like the Intel Atom N270 and integrated graphics like the Intel GMA950, netbooks are far from powerhouses; however, they make for an excellent little gaming machine if you stick to older games (mostly anything 2002 or older.)   Most netbooks ship with limited storage, so make sure you have either a class 6 SDHC card parked in the internal card reader, or upgrade the SSD to at least 16 GB (or both).  If your setup permits, you can use either a high-capacity thumb drive or an external hard drive; they both work equally well.  This kind of setup can be annoying if you use your netbook exclusively on the couch though, so YMMV.

As a general rule, if a game requires you to use DOSBox, it will run smoothly on your netbook.  DOSBox and Ubuntu make a great combination, but most netbooks are too weak to run Windows games in WINE smoothly, so you should stick with either Windows XP or Windows 7 if you plan on playing Windows games.  If you have a copy of Windows 7, I highly recommend using that instead of Windows XP…it can be installed on most netbooks without needing extra drivers, requires less erroneous software like third-party firewalls, and it feels much faster than Windows XP in every way.  Unfortunately, some older games have problems running on Windows 7, and it does lower battery life a bit when compared to XP and Ubuntu (turning off Aero Glass and other visual enhancements will likely help prevent the reduced battery life, although I haven’t tested this.  Logically it makes sense though, since the integrated video won’t be chugging along while just on the desktop.)  Also, Windows 7 takes up far more space than Windows XP, but it can be reduced in size nearly 70% by using vLite.  Those are more or less the only negatives about running Windows 7 on a netbook, so in my opinion, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

Since most netbooks lack an optical drive, if you have a large number of older games on discs already, your best bet is to rip them to ISO files and install them from a thumb drive.  If you are looking for older games, don’t go just downloading torrents or searching for abandonware…make sure you check out gog.com (Great Old Games) first.  They have a HUGE number of older games, everything they sell is DRM-free, and downloads are a single .exe file used to install the game.  Best of all, everything they sell (at very reasonable prices, by the way) is guaranteed to be XP/Vista compatible (and, by extension, Windows 7 compatible as well.)  They offer a great service, I highly recommend you check them out.  Most of the games they sell will run on a netbook, although I suggest you do some research first before plunking down your hard-earned money. 

My own Dell Mini 9, back when it still had Ubuntu 9.10 on it.

My own Dell Mini 9, back when it still had Ubuntu 9.10 on it.

My Dell Mini 9 has an 8 GB stock SSD (which I hope to upgrade soon), an 8 GB Class 6 SDHC flash card that resides in the card reader, 2 gigs of Kingston DDR2 533 RAM, and Windows 7.  When gaming on my netbook, I use a Logitech Trackball, since using the built-in trackpad for gaming sucks. Below are my experiences with four Windows games using this setup.

Arcanum 

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Arcanum runs very smoothly, although when you first start up the game, it takes a minute or two for the main menu to load up (I’m running it from a class 6 SDHC card, so it will likely load faster if installed on an internal hard drive or SSD.)  Once the initial menu loads, things move along great; load times are minimal, the sound works perfectly, and the framerate stays mostly constant.  If you engage in a large-scale fight while indoors, things will slightly slow down…but it is still quite playable.  Highly recommended for netbook gaming!

Deus Ex

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Make sure everything is set to medium, and the game will run ultra-smooth.  It ran slightly too choppy for my taste with everything set to high, but it was still quite playable, so YMMV with the graphics options.  Load times are minimal, regardless of whether you run it from a memory card or an internal hard drive.  Highly recommended for netbook gaming!

Quake 2

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Quake 2 runs great with everything set to high; however, it suffers from an extremely annoying problem in Windows 7: the cross-hair is invisible.  This, for me, is game breaking, but for you more skilled gamers out there who don’t need a cross-hair the game itself runs smoothly.  Running Quake 2 in Windows XP doesn’t cause this problem, so if you have to get your Quake 2 fix on your netbook, XP might be the way to go.  Recommended for netbook gaming.

Civilization IV

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If you turn all the settings down to low, play a single player game, and stick to a Tiny or Duel map, Civ IV is playable…but just barely.  The game will still be choppy, and during the endgame turns will take forever to finish.  Also, you have to modify the .ini file in order to get it to run, due to resolution issues.  In my opinion, the experience of playing Civ IV on a netbook isn’t worth the low performance or the hoops you have to go through in order to get it to work.  Unforutnately, not recommended for netbook gaming.

I hope this article has helped some of you with gaming on your netbook.  Trying to game with my Dell Mini 9 is an ongoing thing for me, so in a couple of weeks I’ll post a follow-up article with other games.  If you want a real comprehensive list though, I suggest checking out this thread on mydellmini.com.

Note: I was not paid or asked to advertise gog.com’s services in any way for this article.  I just really like what they have to offer gamers like me, and want to spread awareness about them.  Give ‘em a try, you won’t be disappointed!