Thursday, June 25, 2009

a gamer’s guide to pc care – laptop edition

where do you want to go todayI apologize in advance for the length and relative complexity of the directions below – as I’ve said, trying to find laptop drivers can be difficult. Obtuse or not, I hope I help somebody.

Two weeks ago I wrote this thing about keeping your gaming desktop in solid shape without spending any money. Nobody said anything. Which I take to mean nothing went catastrophically wrong with any of your computers! Or maybe something did, and you couldn’t tell me about it because your computer was a smoking pile of metal and silicon. I wouldn’t know.

But, really, who uses desktops anymore? Laptops are where it is at, or so I hear! So here’s the post I promised last week, but not before I hit you with this alarmist disclaimer:

Charge Shot!!! is not responsible for any damage you do to your computer as a result of following the instructions detailed below. We offer no support and no compensation for those who render their PC unusable. We also offer no guarantee that the following directions will work on your PC – this document is intended only as a set of steps which should work on most PCs.

That being said, I am a paid, trained and certified professional, and I definitely know what I’m doing – this is my day job, and I’m giving you the best advice I know how. Relevant parts of this have been copied and pasted from the desktop version of this guide – this is not because I am lazy, or not entirely, but more for your convenience.

The first and easiest thing that any gamer can do for their PC is a driver update – for the uninitiated, a driver is a piece of software which tells Windows how to interface with a certain piece of hardware, in this case your graphics card. All devices in your computer have drivers, from the mouse and keyboard to the monitor down to the processor itself, and newer drivers can fix compatibility issues, unlock new features, and even speed games up. Our first task will be identifying your graphics card – we can’t update the driver unless we know what we’re updating.

To find out what you’ve got running in your laptop (if you don’t already know), the easiest thing to do is download a nice little utility from TechPowerUp! called GPU-Z. Download and run this guy, and it will give you all the info there is to know about the card – the only stuff we’ll need for our purposes right now is the manufacturer, and the information in the “Name” field:pay attention to what is circled you guys

So I’ve got an NVIDIA card, and it’s an 8400M. Graphics cards typically come in series – for example, the 8400, 8600, and 8800 are all part of NVIDIA’s 8-series, the 9400, 9600 and 9800 are all part of the 9-series, and so on. The M often denotes a Mobile card. All the major card manufacturers work in the same way. Most of your graphics cards will either be from NVIDIA, ATI, or Intel, and I’ll tell you how to download and install new software for each of them.

Extra caution for laptop users

Keep in mind that if you have any problems downloading or installing any of the drivers below, you should follow the directions in the installing your laptop maker’s drivers section which follows this one. In fact, I recommend reading it and making sure you can download your laptop maker’s drivers before following further instructions. That way, if anything goes wrong, you’ll at least be able to get your graphics card working again.

Installing your laptop maker’s drivers

This is the unfortunate truth of notebook graphics drivers – some manufacturers have customized their cards, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes not, and other, newer drivers aren’t always going to work.

That’s when you turn to your laptop maker’s drivers – however old they may be, they’re guaranteed to work. First, you need to know who made your laptop, be it Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer, Toshiba, Sony, or whoever. Next, you’ll need to find the series (i.e., Aspire, Inspiron, Latitude) and the model number, which is typically emblazoned above the keyboard or the LCD panel, or sometimes on the bottom of the laptop somewhere.

Next, go to your manufacturer’s Web site, a mere Google search away, and check their Support page for updated Drivers or Software. Select your model, and look for Graphics or Video drivers. Download the latest available driver which applies to your product and operating system – some laptops offer a choice between Intel or Nvidia or ATI graphics, so choose the right one for you – and follow the updating your drivers directions below to get your laptop working correctly again. These won’t be the latest and greatest, but they’ll definitely work and in some cases will at least be newer than what your computer came with.

NVIDIA cards

The download page for NVIDIA cards is here, and it’s pretty intuitive. First, your product type: most people will have GeForce cards, though the workstation Quadro cards make it into a fair number of business-oriented PCs. Next, pick the product series I mentioned earlier, making sure to pick the “M” version clearly designated as for notebooks, whether it be 8M-series or 9M-series or what have you. Then, select your operating system – the most common will be Windows XP 32-bit and Windows Vista 32-bit, though 64-bit versions of Vista aren’t too exotic. Now, click Search – the correct driver should come up. Check the license agreement box and click Download Now and then wait for the file to download. Once that’s done, skip to the Updating your drivers section to complete the process.

ATI cards

Downloading drivers for some of ATI’s laptop cards can be… frustrating. Here’s what we’re going to do – 9-series, X-series, and X1-series cards are going to use one driver. XP users will want to download this one. Vista and Windows 7 users are, in this case, hosed – the only place you’re going to be able to get drivers is your manufacturer’s Web site, or possibly failing that from Windows Update. Luckily, these are older cards, and laptops using them are more likely to be running XP than Vista.

2000-series, 3000-series and 4000-series have it a bit easier, I think – unless I am mistaken, the same driver package that desktop users download will be the package that you need. The ATI download page, again, is here. Just select your operating system, your card series and the card you’ve got – they’re basically listed in chronological order, from top to bottom. You’ll want to download the Catalyst Software Suite, which includes the updated driver we want and ATI’s control panel, which can be used to tweak a lot of advanced settings. Once the file is downloaded, skip to the Updating your drivers section to finish up. Note: Please let me know, notebook users, if this doesn’t work for you – all evidence suggests it will, but I do not have a modern ATI-equipped laptop on which to test these things.

Intel cards

Owners of Intel’s integrated graphics cards… I weep for you, and as a laptop user, it’s especially unfortunate because you’re almost certainly stuck with that chip until you replace the laptop. Try not to make the same mistake next time, okay? In the meantime, their download center is here, and it’s probably the most arcane of the bunch. GPU-Z should still give you the info you need, though – in the navigation bar on the left-hand side of the screen, hover over Graphics, then Laptop Graphics controllers, and then attempt to find the name which most closely matches the one GPU-Z tells you – the Mobile 965 chipset or whatever.

If you can’t find your exact part listed, click the one that most closely matches what you’ve got and you should be fine. Now, select your operating system, whether that be XP or Vista in their 32 or 64-bit flavors. In the list that appears there should be something that says, approximately, Intel® Graphics Media Accelerator Driver for Windows XP (exe) – make sure that you get the exe version and not the zip version! Click to download, accepting any license agreements. Great, hopefully you’ve made it through Intel’s convoluted joke of a download page, and you’re ready to move on to the Updating your drivers section.

Updating your drivers

Owners of NVIDIA and ATI cards will definitely need to remove the old drivers first to remove the possibility of conflicts between the old and new versions. This is easily accomplished – in Windows XP, go to the Control Panel and select Add or Remove programs. In Windows Vista, go to the Control Panel, select Classic View in the left-hand navigation bar, and then select Programs and Features.

NVIDIA users ought to see an entry titled NVIDIA Drivers which ought to be removed. At this point, if you are given a list of choices, you should bubble in Remove only the following and check NVIDIA Display Driver – the problems which can result from removing anything else are outside the scope of this post. Allow everything to uninstall, and then restart the computer. When it starts back up, don’t be alarmed if your screen doesn’t look right – this will correct itself shortly. Now, find and run that driver file we downloaded from the NVIDIA Web site earlier, accepting all defaults. Once this is done, restart the computer again. Congratulations! You’ve been updated to the latest driver version!

ATI users have it a little easier – in the programs list, there should be an ATI Software Removal Tool, which if removed will take all the drivers and related files with it. Restart the computer, and then run the file we downloaded from the ATI Web site earlier, accepting all defaults. Restart again, and you’ll be updated to the latest version of your graphics driver!

Intel users need to do the same thing, basically – find the entry for the Intel graphics chip in the programs list, remove everything, and restart the computer. Then, run the file you downloaded from the Intel Web site, accepting all defaults, and restart when prompted. Barring any error messages or strange issues, you now have the latest driver version!

Something has gone wrong

Okay, so something isn’t working right. Maybe you got an error message as you attempted to install your driver. Maybe you got your driver installed, but you’re noticing strange behavior or crashes in games. In that case, please scroll back up to the Installing your laptop maker’s drivers section and follow the directions there to get your laptop working correctly again.

We’re done here!

This will get the vast majority of you laptop gamers out there updated with the latest software for your graphics card – you may not see any life-changing performance improvements, but having the latest graphics driver ensures that your hardware is running as well as is possible. Next week, I’ll discuss hardware upgrades you can make to get the most out of your computer. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them in the comments section! We’d like these guides to be as useful as possible for all of you, and if they get a strong response we’ll be more inclined to keep them coming. Until next week, happy gaming!