Struggling with low frame rates when gaming on a laptop can be a frustrating experience. Laptops typically have less power available than their larger cousins, and the sacrifices made to give them mobility often mean there’s less you can do to solve a problem.
Start with the low hanging fruit – drivers and dedicated graphics
When troubleshooting a frame rate issue, start with the low hanging fruit. Updating your graphics drivers takes only a few moments, and can have a dramatic effect on the performance of your games, particularly if you haven’t updated in a while or the game you’re playing is a very new release.
Many laptops sold as “gaming” machines have both integrated and dedicated graphics. The integrated chip is usually a much lighter weight processor than the dedicated card, and will usually be prioritized when your machine is trying to save battery. Make sure you’re taking advantage of the more powerful hardware!
You can do this by making sure you play with the laptop plugged into a power socket, and your power options are set to high performance.
If your laptop has a driver settings program like Radeon Software or the Nvidia control panel, make sure your games are set to use your dedicated card.
Tweaking your game’s settings
Next look at optimizing your game’s settings. Lower detail settings to their minimum, and turn off anti-aliasing and lighting effects like bloom and HDR lighting. If your game plays well, start experimenting with raising various settings until you get a good balance between looks and performance.
A detailed look at the different types of antialiasing is beyond the scope of this article, but in broad strokes less computationally intensive methods are going to be better for performance. As such, if you must use anti-aliasing, use post-processing anti-aliasing methods like FXAA or MLAA in preference to spatial methods such as MSAA or SSAA. Many titles won’t give you details beyond 2X, 4X, etc., so for these cases just remember that lower settings are better for performance.
Keeping it cool
If, after experimenting with your settings you’re still experiencing severe frame rate drops, check that your laptop isn’t overheating. One obvious symptom of overheating is your cooling fans running at their maximum speed for long periods of time. In the worst cases overheating can cause permanent damage to the internal components of your machine. To prevent this, your system will throttle itself in an attempt to cool down, causing major drops in performance. Whilst frustrating, it’s a better result than your laptop catching fire!
There are apps you can use to check the temperature of your CPU – Real Temp or Core Temp are two examples – which you can use to confirm if you have an overheating issue.
Solving overheating starts with some very simple steps, but can get a little more technical as you go. The first and most basic measure you should take is to make sure there is nothing blocking any of the intake or exhaust vents on your laptop. Place it on a hard, flat surface like a desk or table, and make sure there’s enough room for air to move around it. Contrary to the name, laptops aren’t designed for use without a table! Placing one on something soft like a bed or sofa is likely to insulate the machine and block all the intakes, which won’t do you any favors.
Most models of laptop take in air from underneath, and some sit very low to the surface of the table. Some people find that using some cheap rubber feet stuck to the underside to give just a few more millimeters of clearance can increase the airflow enough to eliminate overheating issues.
Dealing with dust
If you’re still having issues, the chances are you’ve got a dust problem. To really fix this you’ll need to open up the laptop’s case, so there a few things you’ll need first. Get yourself an anti-static wristband and insulate yourself, and make sure you use a non-magnetic screwdriver. Canned air can be used to blow dust away, and for stubborn build-ups in tight corners some cotton buds and isopropyl alcohol are very useful. Something to keep screws in will make your life a lot easier as well.
Unplug the laptop from the mains and ground yourself with the antistatic band before you start. If the laptop has a removable battery pack, take that out first before unscrewing anything. After removing the case, the first thing you should do is clear the vents of any dust build up.
Next, check the fans for build up and blockages. If they’re clogged you may be able to clear the worst of it with a few blasts of canned air. Stubborn dust in the cracks between the blades can be cleared with cotton buds. Dipping the cotton buds in Isopropyl will help them to lift the dust away.
Fans are fragile and when working on them you should be careful.
Never let a fan turn backwards, and pin it in place with a finger when clearing dust away. The fan should spin silently and smoothly, with almost no resistance. If turning the fan feels gritty or crunchy, and you’ve cleared away any dust and debris that might be interfering with it, you might need to go looking for a replacement.
It may be possible to breath some new life into a gritty fan by oiling it. If you remove the sticker on the hub, you should see a little rubber plug. If you’re very careful you can get this out without damaging it, by levering it out with a very small flat-bladed screwdriver. Beneath it you should see the shiny metal end of the axle, possibly sat inside a bearing. Place a drop of mineral oil onto it, and wait a few moments before gently turning the fan. You don’t need much oil at all ! The action of the fan should now be smooth, and you can press the rubber plug back into place.
After cleaning, the inside of your laptop should be relatively free of dust. A little in the corners is fine, but there shouldn’t be anything impeding airflow anywhere through the case. If you used isopropyl while cleaning, wait a few minutes to ensure it has all evaporated before you close the case.
If dust isn’t a problem, look into getting a laptop cooler. There are a few types available, but the most reliable are active cooling pads like the KLIM Wind. These work in several ways. By pulling in a larger volume of air around the laptop the active cooling pad will help it to lose air by convection through the case. This also means the air around the case is kept refreshed, and will be cooler than still air, which may get polluted by heat from the exhaust. The air available to the intakes is cooler, meaning the laptop’s cooling systems need to do less work.
Rooting out bloatware
Another thing to look for is other programs eating up your system resources. Bloatware, malware and poorly scheduled antivirus scans are often the culprits for this.
Bloatware can be dealt with by using the system configuration (msconfig.exe) and the task manager to disable any process or service that isn’t vital to the operation of your system, and to stop automatic startup of extraneous programs. Be careful not to disable anything you actually want – it’s easy to just hide all the Microsoft services and disable everything else, but you might actually want certain other services running, like AMD or Nvidia services for specific graphics card functionality.
As for malware, use a firewall and an up-to-date antivirus system to deal with it. Just make sure to schedule any regular scans at times that won’t interfere with your gaming!