December 9, 2023

We are living at the height of a PC gaming renaissance. It’s the best time ever to be playing PC games, given the sheer breadth and volume of games available and the staggering variety on offer for discerning gamers. However, it can also lead to a lot of FOMO if you can’t keep up.

While many PC enthusiasts build their own custom rigs with the latest hardware, or invest in powerful gaming laptops, some of us are cursed with integrated graphics and 2GB of RAM. While many laptops with integrated graphics can now play mid-level and indie games, those relying on outdated hardware may feel like you’re missing out on some of the best games of this generation.

Even if you’re hacking away at an ancient laptop, it doesn’t mean you can’t play games. Pixel-graphic indies should not be a problem, though you may have to make sacrifices when it comes to graphics-intensive AAA titles. Here are a few strategies that can help you start gaming without needing to invest in an expensive setup.


Set Your Expectations

A quick disclaimer: If your laptop is on the brink of aging out of relevance completely, you will not be able to run Cyberpunk 2077 on Ultra with ray tracing enabled. The sad reality is old hardware means compromises, so go in knowing that you are not going to have the best possible experience with most games, and many resource-intensive titles won’t be playable at all.

That said, one of the nice things about laptops is that smaller screen size means you can often get away with lower resolutions and lower-quality settings, meaning less load on your hardware without a noticeable hit to fidelity.


Lower Your Graphics Settings

video settings

The most impactful action you can take to improve performance on older gear is to play with your in-game settings. You will be surprised how many games will run below their minimum requirements, as long as you are willing to give up graphical fidelity. The biggest gains will be had from dropping resolution and the global quality setting.

Other major performance hogs includes ray tracing (especially intensive techniques like global illumination), draw distance, anti-aliasing, shadow detail, and texture quality. The performance impact of individual settings will vary from game to game, depending on optimization, the resources a game leans on most heavily, and how various effects (like lighting) are handled by the game’s engine.

In the end, if running a game at 720p is what it takes to reach a playable framerate, that’s what you have to do. Grab an FPS tracker, like FRAPS(Opens in a new window), and tinker with in-game settings one by one, then jump to a representative part of the game or run an in-game benchmark. Some settings will require you to restart the game to alter them, so I recommend starting there. 

If you play more processor-intensive games, like simulation and world-building games, there are other settings to change. Instead of tuning graphics settings, try changing gameplay or difficulty settings to more hardware-friendly options. For a game like Civilization VI, this can mean lowering the size of the game world or reducing AI difficulty, which will put less strain on your CPU during the opponent’s turn.

If you have any questions about whether a game will run on low-end hardware, Reddit’s /r/lowendgaming(Opens in a new window) subreddit is a good resource to learn from other gamers’ experience.


Take Advantage of Software Solutions

dlss games


PC games that support DLSS
(Credit: Nvidia)

Nvidia and AMD are constantly striving to make more games accessible on their hardware. This effort has led to some incredible software innovations to help solve for potential performance issues. In fact, some of them are so effective it feels almost like cheating. 

Nvidia offers DLSS on supported (RTX) cards. If you happen to own one of these cards—even the slimmer Max-Q laptop version—you should absolutely take advantage. AMD’s FidelityFX Super Resolution(Opens in a new window) (FSR 2.0) renders games at lower resolution and then upscales them at a much lower GPU/CPU cost than natively rendering at higher resolutions. It’s a great way to squeeze some extra frames out of an old laptop without spending a dime.

Razer also has a software answer for struggling machines, though it comes with a fairly obtrusive marketing element. Razer Cortex(Opens in a new window) deploys AI to tune your system for maximum performance, primarily by killing unnecessary background processes, fine-tuning settings, and clearing up storage space. It also includes a launcher and deals hub, so your mileage may vary in terms of functionality, but it’s worth investigating as a one-stop performance booster.


Stream Games Over the Internet

nvidia geforce now


Nvidia GeForce Now
(Credit: Nvidia)

If you are blessed with fat internet pipes and tons of additional bandwidth, but don’t have the hardware to run games locally, consider game streaming as a potential solution. The service will essentially run the game using high-end hardware at a remote site, then stream the feed right to your low-end laptop.

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Our favorite option here is Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, which includes Microsoft’s Cloud Gaming feature, because of its reliability and options to play Game Pass titles on PC and mobile. Other popular services include Nvidia’s GeForce Now, which lets you stream the games you already own, and Amazon Luna.

Just note that while the graphics will look great, it does mean latency could be an issue depending on what games you play and how fast (and stable) your internet connect can be. To help with stability, you might want to connect your computer over Ethernet. If your laptop does not have an Ethernet port, a cheap USB-to-Ethernet adapter(Opens in a new window) will do the trick.

A streaming solution will cost money, so you need to factor in the long-term costs for such services. In the end, you may find that it is a better idea to put that money toward an affordable gaming PC or home gaming console.


Try Classic Games and Low-Fidelity Indie Titles

baldur's gate


Baldur’s Gate

If all else fails, remember that not all games require beastly PCs to play. There is a whole world of low-spec titles out there, including indie games, older AAA releases, and retro games. Check out stores like GOG(Opens in a new window) for classic titles that have been repackaged for modern operating systems.

Never got around to playing Baldur’s Gate as a kid? There’s no better time than now, thanks to the Enhanced Edition. Can’t run Skyrim on your antique laptop? Some argue its predecessor Morrowind(Opens in a new window) is the superior game. Never played Chrono Trigger(Opens in a new window)? Steam has you covered.

In addition, there are lots of indie titles that trade polygons for inventive gameplay. Disco Elysium(Opens in a new window), Into the Breach(Opens in a new window), Stardew Valley(Opens in a new window), and Undertale(Opens in a new window), for example, are just as beloved as any AAA title but can seemingly run on a toaster.

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