Gaming without a GPU has never been easier, here’s how we did it

Like tropical birds, gaming laptops are bright, flashy, and not always an affordable or sensible purchase. I mean where do you even put a bird? Can it just chill in your living room or does it need a cage? Anyway, gaming laptops. They’re expensive, they run hot, and for everyday use you don’t usually need all that extra horsepower.

That doesn’t mean you’re out of luck when it comes to gaming though, the integrated graphics you have right there in your work laptop can get the job done if you’re careful with your settings — and your game selection.

Testing conditions

To get an idea for how you should tune your settings on laptops running integrated graphics, we tested each of the games below on Asus Zenbook UX330UA with an 8th-generation Intel Core i5-8250U and integrated Intel UHD 620 graphics, and a Surface Pro 4 running a 6th-generation Intel Core i5-6300U with integrated Intel HD 520 graphics.

These systems represent a cross-section of the kinds of onboard graphics you’re going to find in an everyday work laptop, or student laptop. If we can get games to run smoothly on these systems, chances are you’ll be able to apply the same strategies to improve performance on your laptop.

Hearthstone, Gwent, and Duelyst

To be perfectly honest there are more games you can play on integrated graphics than we can list in a single article of reasonable length. Seriously, go have a look at any Steam sale and you’ll see dozens of games that fit the bill. Instead, we’re going to focus on a few popular games to give you an idea of how they perform on integrated graphics, and what kinds of tweaks you should make to get the most out of them.

First up, Blizzard’s flagship collectible-card game Hearthstone. We didn’t have much trouble getting Hearthstone to run, even on a barebones last-generation Microsoft Surface Pro. Thing is, basically any computer made in the last four years or so can play Hearthstone without too much trouble. You just need an internet connection and decent battery life. Just look at the minimum requirements: Intel Pentium D, or AMD Athlon 64 X2, 2GB of RAM, and just 3GB of hard drive space.

Hearthstone | Graphics Settings Menu
Hearthstone

On the Asus Zenbook UX330UA, with Intel UHD 620 integrated graphics, we saw a consistent 30 FPS average at 1080p, even on Hearthstone’s High graphical preset. As a turn-based game, FPS isn’t as important as it is in the other games on our list, but it’s nice that you can crank it up and not worry about causing your system any serious distress.

There are a few things you can do to improve your performance on an older device, even with a low-impact game like Hearthstone.

Unless your system is a Surface Pro 4. At the highest settings in Hearthstone we encountered some slowdown when there were a lot of cards on-screen — or when a bunch of effects were triggered at once. To mitigate that, we have a couple tricks.

There are a few things you can do to improve your performance if you’re running an older device like the Surface Pro 4, even with a low-impact game like Hearthstone.

First, open your options and turn the quality preset to Low. I know, it’s not going to look as nice, but it’ll feel a lot smoother and run better overall.

Second, and this is something we wouldn’t recommend with a more action-oriented game, try running Hearthstone in windowed-mode with a resolution just below your display’s maximum resolution — for 1080p displays, that’ll be 720p. The window will look great, you can also quickly hide it behind a web browser or a spreadsheet so your boss doesn’t see optimizing your Warlock deck on company time.

If you’re a little tired of Hearthstone or you want to give a new card game a try, these tricks also work on CD Projekt Red’s Gwent and Counterplay’s Duelyst. Like Hearthstone they’re free-to-play PC games, so there are no upfront costs in just trying them out.

Gwent screenshot
Gwent

Gwent in particular, is newer than Hearthstone so it’s a bit more demanding, but not by much, check out the minimum requirements: Intel Celeron G1820 or AMD A4-7300, an Nvidia GeForce GT 710, and 4.5GB of disk space. Chances are your PC can run it just fine without a GPU, but just in case head into the graphics settings, turn on windowed mode, downscale your resolution and you’re good to go. Same deal for Duelyst, which suggests you have at least a 1.5GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 and an Nvidia GeForce 600-series graphics card with at least 2GB of memory. The minium requirements are low enough that you should be just fine with the tips we outlined for Hearthstone.

Rocket League

If you’re looking for a good game for a lower-end system or work laptop, you really can’t do better than Rocket League. The video settings are pared down to the barest of minimums, laying it all out for you under the headings of High Quality, Quality, Performance, and High Performance. It’s an elegant way to break down typically obtuse graphical settings. On top of that, Rocket League is surprisingly lightweight for such a good-looking game.

Rocket League is also a notoriously competitive game, so sometimes visuals take a backseat to a high FPS. Luckily, the in-game video settings are varied enough that it’s easy to get what you want out of the game’s performance.

Rocket League | Graphics Settings Menu

For the more competitive-minded player, you’re going to have to dig deep to max out your framerate on integrated graphics. The highest FPS we were able to hit on average, 88 FPS, came at significant cost to visuals. To get there, all you need to do is head to Video menu, turn both render quality and detail quality boxes to High Performance and Performance, respectively. Then step your resolution down to 720p.

The game looks real rough at these settings, but we managed an average of 88 FPS on the Asus Zenbook. That’s impressive for a humble Intel UHD integrated graphics chip. Quick enough that you can play in competitive matches, even if your game does look a bit drab.

If you’d rather your game still retain a bit eye candy, just go ahead and step that resolution back up to 1080p. We saw a consistent 35 FPS at the Quality preset in 1080p. Taking some deeper cuts into the graphical detail, we hit a surprisingly high average of 54 FPS at the Performance preset. Stepping up to Quality, we saw 35 FPS on average, and at High Quality our FPS dropped to 22 FPS.

So, for most systems without discrete graphics cards, the Performance preset at 1080p is a great starting point. It offers a quick framerate for competitive games but enough visual fidelity that your car’s tricked out rims will still sparkle.

Heroes of the Storm

There are dozens of different MOBAs on the market right now, and most of them are free to play. Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm isn’t as lightweight and quick-on-its feet as Riot Games’ League of Legends, which is why we chose it for our benchmarks. It’s a little more intensive, and at the highest settings it can make even mid-range gaming rigs start to chug. The minimum requirements are pretty low — Intel Core 2 Duo, or AMD Athlon 64, GeForce 7600 GT, 2GB of RAM and 10 GB of disk space — but it should be more than a sufficient challenge for our humble Asus Zenbook and Surface Pro 4.

Heroes of the Storm | Graphics settings menu

Heroes does a decent job of guessing which video preset you should use, but for our purposes be sure you set everything back to Low. When you do this, make sure you take a look at the texture detail setting on the right-hand side here, and set that to Low also.

Running Heroes at 1080p on these settings our Zenbook saw an average FPS of about 113. That’s definitely high enough to contend with any slowdown or frame loss you’ll see in an action-packed competitive game with abilities going off left and right. For a game like Heroes, the visual detail you lose here is pretty minimal overall. At high settings you will see a lot more fine detail in the game world and the ability effects, but your framerate will take a substantial hit. At high settings, the Zenbook managed an average of 31 FPS. It’s playable, but during spikes of activity like teamfights, the game slowed down significantly, making it hard to land attacks accurately.

We saw very similar results on the Surface Pro 4 at 1080p, hitting 98 FPS on average at low settings, and 27 FPS at High settings. Our recommendations here are the same, make sure your texture detail is set to Low, and play Heroes on the Low preset if you’re running on integrated graphics.

Keep in mind these framerates are high, but there’s a reason for that. It’s important to have a good amount of FPS headroom for when things get hectic in competitive games. On average, we saw our framerate take momentary hits of about 50 percent in big team fights. So even though you can play Heroes on high settings on a recent laptop like the Zenbook — even a discrete GPU — you probably won’t want to, unless you want to end up dropping frames when the other team rolls up on your objective.

Fortnite: Battle Royale

Epic Games’ popular (and free) Fortnite: Battle Royale presents something of a problem for us. It’s a competitive game, with drop-in gameplay that makes it ideal for playing a couple rounds while you have some downtime at work or you’re waiting for class to start, which is great.

Fortnite is a demanding game, especially when you don’t have a GPU.

However, it’s more graphically demanding than any of the other games on our list here. Don’t be fooled by the minimum requirements though — Intel Core i3 2.4GHz processor, Intel HD 4000 graphics, and 4GB of RAM — Fortnite is a surprisingly demanding game, especially without a GPU.

That doesn’t mean we didn’t get it to work, it just required a little extra attention. The Fortnite art style really helps mitigate lower-end graphics settings. In the end, we hit an average 32 FPS by sacrificing just a bit of our graphical detail.

So here’s how you can tune your underpowered laptop for Fortnite. When you first fire it up, Fortnite will offer to scale your video settings based on your hardware. Say no to this, that way we know we’re going into the same menu layout together without any changes having been made.

Fortnite | Graphics Settings Menu

Once you get in game, open the options and navigate to the graphics menu. There are a lot of settings here, but we can ignore most of them for now. First, we’re going to have to figure out your resolution. We ran into some issues running on integrated graphics, particularly on the Surface Pro, so make sure the game is set to Fullscreen.

Next, lower that preset to Low, and take a look down at the bottom of the menu, where you’ll see options like V-Sync, Motion Blur, and Show FPS. Make sure Motion Blur is disabled. And finally, where it says 3D resolution, right under the quality presets, roll it all the way to 75 percent. Why not 100 percent? Well, as much as we prefer to run games at full-resolution, for the purposes of this guide it’s better to keep your resolution scale at about 75 percent, at 100 percent our average framerate dropped to 18 FPS.

Additionally, it’s worth pointing out that if your laptop is a couple years old, the integrated graphics chip might not be able to handle Fortnite very well. If that’s the case, go ahead and step your resolution down to 720p, and keep the resolution scale at 75 percent. You should see that framerate creep back up into the playable range. At these settings, we still had trouble on the Surface Pro 4, but maintained an acceptable 28 FPS on average.

If you’re still having some framerate problems at these settings, roll the resolution scale down to 50 percent. There’s a chance you might still hit some snags, but this is the lowest you want to go with Fortnite. Scaling the resolution down further will increase your framerate, but your game will be so blurry and jagged that it will be nearly unplayable. If that’s the case, it’s time to call it, and move on to other games.

Making the most of the least

Playing games on integrated graphics will always provide a lesser experience than gaming on a system with a discrete graphics card. Nothing we do to the in-game settings will change that, but with these tweaks you should be able to get a good, playable framerate out of esports games, and games with a bit more graphical wiggle room.

These tips work for most games in fact, even ones we don’t specifically name here. Tune things down to Low, step your resolution scale down to about 75 percent, or worst case, step your overall resolution down to 720p and you should be able to get a playable framerate out of all but the most demanding games.