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 - Friday, June 1, 2012 - link

    Anand commented to me the other day that "Windows HD 4000 results are faster than MBP15 with dGPU results", if that's anything to go by.
  • Patflute - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

  • DanNeely - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    Some people are severely space limited; others are casual gamers and don't play enough to justify having two computers. As a very mass market game; DIII will be selling a huge number of copies to people in the latter group.
  • kyuu - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    Many people have both laptops and desktops, and regardless of the desktop obviously being superior for gaming, they'd still like to be able to game a bit on their laptop when they're out and about and don't have access to their desktop.

    Then, there are people who don't have the space for a desktop, or simply prefer the freedom of being able to move around their home but would still like to play games.

    The question is, why do other people's usage models bother you so much? You don't care about the gaming ability of laptops. Fine. Don't pay attention to articles about it. Meanwhile, there are plenty of others, such as myself, who are highly interested.
  • frozentundra123456 - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    I am confused about the GT540M vs the GT630M. Isnt the GT630m just a re-badged GT540m with higher clocks? Or is it the new G-force architecture? I believe only the 640M and above have the new architecture.
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    The GT 630M is technically a straight up rebadge of GT 540M. However, the GT 630M in the ASUS N56VM that we have shows clocks that are quite a bit lower than other GT 540M GPUs. Strangely, those lowered clocks don't appear to matter much in Diablo III, so either NVIDIA's control panel (and GPU-Z) are reporting incorrect information, or the shader cores aren't as demanding as you might expect.
  • frozentundra123456 - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    You did say the acer was running hot. Maybe the cpu/gpu was throttling due to temps. Or maybe the quad core in the Acer made a difference (not likely?).
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    Correct. The Acer is definitely not hitting Turbo speeds, let along the base 2.3GHz clock. So the combination of faster CPU + slower GPU works out in favor of the N56VM in this instance. I really wish I had a good way to test the N56VM with the fully clocked GT 540M, though.
  • Arcquist - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    Google 'ThrottleStop'. Many of the Acer Aspire users that experience throttling problems in games use it to prevent the under-clocking. Note it will get hot though and you might want to raise the back of the laptop off the desk with a binder or something to improve airflow (intake).
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, May 27, 2012 - link

    Funny enough, I actually reran tests with ThrottleStop already and it just didn't seem to help. I'm not sure what's going on, but even with TS enabled and set to a 20x (or 21, 22, 23, Turbo) multiplier, the system still seems to just plug along at the 800-1500MHz range during testing. I've done everything I know of to make it run faster, and it just doesn't seem to matter. But this particular laptop has always been a bit quirky; I might try looking for a new BIOS again just to see if anything has changed, but I doubt it.

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