PC GAMING ON A BUDGET: $500 LAPTOP
BACK IN THE DAY
I grew up as a PC user until my senior year of college, which was way back in the day. Before we had the YouTubes and the FaceBooks. That’s right, I’m talking about nearly the turn of the century… 2003. As soon as I could afford to pick up my first mac for graphic design I did so, and I haven’t looked back until now.
MY MAC IS FOR WORK
Macs are beautiful machines. I don’t think the beauty of their industrial design is up for debate. I have rarely if ever had an issue with the operating system. They created a walled garden that for my work, I still prefer. Note: I am a graphic designer, not a video editor, not a high end photo retoucher, nor do I work with 3D.
The one area that Mac has fallen so far behind it’s shameful is hardware. If you do not take into account the industrial design and level of finish on the Apple devices themselves, the interior hardware is not priced competitively to a PC counterpart. The other aspect is gaming. Although the 2017 update for the iMacs may have brought things to a more comparable place.
MY PC IS FOR GAMING
Regardless, PC has always been the best option for gaming. I love my consoles, and my handhelds, but let’s be serious for a minute. Does anyone like buying the games over and over because the latest and greatest console is not backwards compatible? No, and on a PC that’s not even up for discussion. You buy a game once and it works forever (mostly). That is the sole reason behind me owning a PC at all.
SELECTING A BUDGET PC LAPTOP
I am a steam gamer, I know there are other options. Honestly, I don’t care. Steam makes it easy, has great sales, and I like the community. What I was looking for is a cheap laptop that I can use to play games. I have a more varied interest in games then most people so when I say games I’m talking about nearly everything… especially indie games. I wanted a graphics card with a minimum of 2GB, enough hard drive space to accommodate my games, and a enough memory so it didn’t get bogged down. This lead me to the Acer Aspire E 15. Unfortunately, Newegg had a typo where it listed the graphics cards as the GTX 960M… what arrived was a GeForce 940MX. While disappointed, I realized that for the price it was probably too good to be true anyways. Here is what I started with:
ACER ASPIRE E 15
Intel Core i5-5200U
NVIDIA GeForce 940MX with 2GB Dedicated VRAM
8GB DDR3 L Memory
1000 GB HDD
PRICE $439 via Newegg
An i5 is a respectable processor, but the 940MX was well below current gen console quality that I was hoping the GTX 960 could beat. If I was going to place the 940MX into a comparison with consoles I’d say it’s somewhere around PS3 quality. I say this because it can handle a game like Tomb Raider… but The Witcher 3 nearly made me sick. That being said most of my love for gaming falls into the Indie Games and stock this laptop needed a few upgrades.
The best thing about PC’s is the freedom to upgrade them. The Acer Aspire E 15 is about a $400 laptop, and this is a $500 budget so we had some room to play. So let’s flip this thing upside down and take out some screws. The Acer had a moderate amount of screws, but all and all it was a rather easy rig to open and mod. You’ve seen a trend on PC Builds where they are using SSDs to run the operating system and larger drives for storage. I did the same thing here, and also added a healthy dose of memory. Here’s the upgrade list:
PNY CS1200 SERIES 240GB 2.5” SATA SSD
[Generic] Second HDD Caddy
Samsung 8GB DDR3 L Memory
This Acer has nothing where the optical drive would have been. This is a fantastic opportunity to put in a second hard drive. In this upgrade we are removing the 1 TB HD drive that came with the laptop and replacing it with a 240GB SSD. The original drive is then inserted into a hard drive caddy that allows it to be installed into the empty area for the optical drive. The reason for this swap is the connection will be faster for the SSD, and that is where I’m installing Windows 10.
Just because this is what I did, does not mean you should throw research to the wind. There are far more passionate people covering the same topic. I had specific goals, and due to a typo, I didn’t even end up with my ideal scenario (GTX 960M) for a budget laptop that rivals consoles.
Seriously? It is astonishing to me the level that bloatware has gotten to. ACER should literally be ashamed of the amount of bloatware they have shoved into the Aspire E 15. I understand that it helps keep the cost low, but damn what a terrible experience. Before the SSD install, I was experiencing everything from Windows Explore could not be found to wifi connectivity issues. It was a nightmare. When I installed the SSD, I wiped the computer with a clean install of Windows 10. Literally all the operating system issues I was having disappeared.
CUSTOM GRAPHICS SETTINGS
The Acer Aspire E 15 has a 940MX graphics cards and an integrated card that kicks in for better battery life. That’s lovely, but the Windows seems to have an issue where it doesn’t recognize all games played through Steam as games. This results in the Acer using the integrated card to run a game. To avoid these kind of headaches I set the 940MX to be the only card the computer would use in all instances. This results in optimal gameplay and sub optimal battery life.
I’m not going to compare buying used or a DIY build to purchasing a new Mac. The comparison makes very little sense to me and you can purchase a used mac, and even ones that can be upgraded. I understand that Apples and Oranges are both fruit, but let’s have a conversation that makes sense.
MY BUDGET LAPTOP EXPERIENCE
The Acer is a mixed bag. I have the greatest sympathy for anyone that doesn’t wipe the system and get rid of the bloatware right off the bat. The quality is hit or miss for me. The case has a nice brushed metal look, fake but nice. As someone that wanted to sticker bomb my PC I can tell you that texture is not conducive to applying sticker. Before jumping into the gaming let’s review the Screen, Keyboard, and Trackpad.
The screen is the worst screen I own and the same can be said about the trackpad. I’m currently writing this review on a 2009 Macbook Pro that has a 17in 1920x1200p matte screen which makes the Acer’s 15in 1080p screen a noticeable step down. When you factor in that this is a budget purchase, the screen is completely serviceable and when compared to other $400 laptops there is nothing to complain about.
The keyboard includes a number pad, which unfortunately for me feels unnatural. This is a personal experience, but I’ve been using laptops for about 20 years, and all of them have had a centered keyboard with no number pad… so everything on this laptop feels of to the left. Couple that with the keys not being backlit and I’m often hitting the wrong keys. If it’s something you’re used to I don’t think it would be an issue.
CLICK DAMN YOU
The trackpad on the other hand is terrible. It’s lack of responsiveness drives me nuts to the point that I no longer use it at all. Clicking, dragging, gestures… it’s all terrible. Thankfully I had an extra mouse to bypass the trackpad. On the upside the laptop has USB ports on both sides so there is no need to run the wire from one side to the other regardless of if you are right or left handed.
The reason I bought the game was to play the PC Games on my Steam account that I couldn’t my Mac. I didn’t run benchmarks, if you really want me to let me know in the comments below. Their are generally 3 different types of games so let’s discuss the experience of gaming on this budget build.
WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINER
The first category of games is those that just work. This is much more like the console experience of starting a game and enjoying it. Bastion, Banner Saga, Brawlhalla, Cuphead, Oxenfree, & Heroes of the Storm all run perfectly without having to mess around with setting. With the exception of Heroes of the Storm this are indie games with fantastic art and gameplay but not very taxing in terms of hardware. Most games that work well tend to be 2D experiences, Cuphead for instance runs on an the Acer build as well as on an Xbox. Blizzard has a knack for creating games that can run on anything so Heroes of the Storm is not very surprising. Other games that fall into this category are Half Life 2, Super Meat Boy, FTL, Titan Souls, and Super Hot.
SACRIFICES MUST BE MADE
The next category is the games that will run but sacrifices need to be made. Fortnite, Grid 2, Dota 2, Dark Souls 2, Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, and What Remains of Edith Finch all fall into this category. This build is capable of playing What Remains of Edith Finch but all of the setting needed to be dropped down significantly. Even so I enjoyed the experience immensely. I find that dropping down to 900p was the largest improvement you can make for games that don’t seem to run well initially. This does create a blurry aspect, but this is a budget build and in most cases it’s better than not playing the game at all and is often comparable to a console experience.
NO THANK YOU, SIR
The final category is the saddest. These are the games that just wouldn’t play at a passable level for my gaming tastes. PUBG, Overwatch, The Witcher 3, and DOOM were basically unplayable for me. This is not to say that you could not mess around with the setting long enough, or sacrificed enough that you couldn’t find a version you were willing to play. I spent a few hours trying to get The Witcher 3 on this build to come anywhere near the PS4 and the results gave us motion sickness. Something I’ve never experienced from a game before. I’m not a fan. Instead, I played The Witcher 3 on PS4. The PS4 version has some frame rate drops in cities & while riding a horse you may even see mild some screen tearing which was perfectly fine for me. Trying to play online competitive games with frame rate drops is a pretty terrible experience, and Player Unknown’s Battle Grounds required all setting on Low and still had stuttering.
We highly suggest playing The Witcher 3, it is one of the best games every made. A dense world with fantastic experiences to be had regardless of where you prefer to game.
Luckily for me the majority of my steam games fall into the Winner Winner Chicken Dinner category. So I have a ton a 2D and light 3D games to play. I also love a console experience and I really don’t like the using the Acer as a laptop. Thankfully a Father’s Day gift landed me with a $50 gift card for Steam. I picked up the Steam Link and a Steam Controller during one of their sales so that I could take advantage of the Acer’s computing ability without having to use it’s keyboard, trackpad, or screen. I’ll have a review for that in the near future, but this has been a remarkable improvement in my experience overall.
ACER ASPIRE E 15
As negative as I may sound about my experience with the Acer Aspire E 15 I have to say that for the price it’s a pretty decent machine if your expectations are set appropriately. I was expecting a GTX 960 and the 940MX really can’t compete there, but that is of no fault of Acer. If you are looking to play Triple A modern games I would highly suggest saving up for a minimum of a GTX 960 laptop (ideally a 1050), but if keeping up with the latest Indie Games or playing oldies but goodies is more your thing then you should consider the Acer Aspire E 15. Budget builds are always a balance between price and performance. This one hit just under where I’d like it to be for my gaming style.