How to Play PC Games on My Laptop
By Aaron Parson
Updated September 22, 2017
In years past, PC gaming usually meant playing on a full-size desktop tower, but thanks to improved portable hardware -- and a popular return to simpler "retro" graphics -- even a mid-range laptop can run many games released in the last few years. Laptops still don't offer flexible hardware upgrades or the easiest control schemes, but with downloaded games and an optional controller, you can turn your laptop into an on-the-go console.
The largest obstacle facing laptop gamers is the relative weakness of average laptop hardware. Compared to desktop computers in the same price range, laptops often run slower and many lack a dedicated video card. In the past, this completely ruled out playing 3D-rendered games, but modern processors include fairly capable video components. You won't be able to max out every graphics option, but you can get many modern games running at stable framerates. If you want the best visual experience, however, you still need a laptop that includes a discrete video card from Nvidia or AMD. To see whether you can play a specific game, compare its minimum requirements to your system specs or use a site that analyzes your hardware, such as System Requirements Lab (link in Resources).
Assuming your laptop has enough power, it can run the same games as a desktop computer -- but that doesn't mean every title is equally suited to portable play. The main impediment is control schemes. Although a few laptops, like the Razor Blade, have the touchpad situated to the right of the keyboard, its usual center placement and relative inaccuracy make it difficult to play genres such as first-person shooters that require quick and precise control. Instead, try out games that rely solely on the keyboard, such as 2D platformers like "Spelunky," or stick to slower-paced genres. Puzzle games, adventure games such as "The Walking Dead" and turn-based strategy titles like the "Civilization" series all work great.
To expand the range of games playable on a laptop, invest in a controller. Thanks to the fact that many PC games today originate as console titles, controller support has become a standard across almost every genre. Aiming with a controller might not match the accuracy of a mouse, but it easily beats using a touchpad. Combine the controller with an HDMI cable output to your TV, and you fully recreate the console experience. On the other hand, if you have your laptop set up on a table, you can hook up a USB mouse and play with pinpoint precision. Another peripheral worth the investment is a pair of headphones, given that most laptop speakers leave a lot to be desired. If you buy USB headphones, you can also avoid the woefully inadequate sound chips built into most laptops.
Many laptops don't include optical drives, but with over 90 percent of PC game sales installing through downloads, this omission won't keep you from playing. If you already have a digital game library on a service such as Steam, download the client and log in to reach all your past purchases. If you're just starting out, shop around to find the best deals on the titles you want. Other than a few metafeatures such as achievements, games work the same whether you buy them from Steam, GOG, Origin, Amazon, The Humble Store or another site. For low-budget indie titles, you can also check out Desura.
Aaron Parson has been writing about electronics, software and games since 2006, contributing to several technology websites and working with NewsHour Productions. Parson holds a Bachelor of Arts from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.