A steady stream of ultraportable Windows 8 hybrids have crossed our desks lately, including the Lenovo Yoga 2 11, HP Pavilion x360, Dell Inspiron 11, and Acer Switch 10. These systems, all under $500, are powered not by Intel Core i-series CPUs and discrete graphics cards, but by more modest Intel Celeron, Pentium, and Atom chips, with only basic built-in graphics hardware.
Forget about battery life and application performance, what people really want to know is, can you play games on them? To answer that question (one also asked years ago of the original generation of netbooks), we tried a wide variety of games on the systems cited above, using the Pentium-powered Yoga 2 11 and HP x360 as our primary test machines.
For this roundup, the focus is on new and recent games that can run on a $500 laptop with basic integrated graphics. And if your tastes run more towards retro games, today it's easier than ever to get versions of PC game classics that run on modern operating systems from online game stores such as GOG.com and Steam (for example, Painkiller is a great retro shooter that runs like a dream).
The games that follow are either new, or newly revamped versions of classic games. All ran more than smoothly enough to play, although most require medium-to-low graphics settings, and you'll want to hook up an external mouse for some. Unless noted, all games were played at 1,366x768 resolution.
This point-and-click style adventure game ($9.99 at gog.com) has the pedigree fans of the genre are looking for -- it was designed by Jane Jensen, best known for the classic Gabriel Knight series of PC games. The UK-set Gray Matter is polished, with a twisting plot and plenty of puzzle-solving, even if the overall style feels dated -- or retro, if you're feeling generous. The game worked well on our test systems, but required "low" graphics settings to run smoothly.
There are few visual settings options in the menu for this strategic space sim ($9.99/£6.99) on Steam). But you hardly need any, as most of FTL is spent staring at real-time blueprints for your ship and an enemy ship, as you allocate resources and target enemy systems in a series of battles. It's a bit wonkish, but addictive after the first few fights. The game is so stripped down that it ran great on our Pentium CPU.
This long-running sci-fi show has been never been treated kindly by its licensed video game offshoots. This series of short adventure games ($19.99/£14.99 on Steam), produced episodically by the BBC (and initially offered to UK residents for free), is probably the best of the bunch. Gameplay is basic and buggy, but with good scripts by TV series writers and excellent voice acting by Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, and Arthur Darvill (the Tardis cast at the time the games were made), there's genuine "Doctor Who" feel here, and it's worth playing just for that. The game was playable but slightly choppy at medium settings for us, but that speaks more to its unpolished, low-budget design than our hardware.
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers - 20th Anniversary Edition (2014)
This 20th Anniversary version of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers ($19.99/£12.99), coming to PCs on October 15, overlays new graphics on top of the original 1994 game. The strength of the that game (the first in a trilogy written and designed by Jane Jensen) means that it still works as a gripping piece of interactive detective fiction even 20 years later. The upgraded graphics look amazing, and ran smoothly at medium settings on our hybrids. [Editor's note: The prerelease build we played kept the original game's credit sequence, including voice credits for the original cast. The publisher now tells us the voices have been re-recorded with a new (non-famous) cast, so you won't hear Tim Curry, Mark Hamill and others, although the soundalikes are very good.]
A modern take on the point-and-click adventure game ($24.99/£18.99 on Steam), this episodic fairy tale plays much like publisher Telltale's other big hit, The Walking Dead. With details dialed down to the lowest settings, the game plays smoothly enough to not miss any of the occasional button-mashing segments that intercut with traditional exploration and puzzle solving.
It's not the newest dungeon-crawler on the block, but this action-packed RPG became an instant classic several years ago, combining elements of Diablo, Gauntlet, and countless other top-down sword and sorcery games. Especially on smaller screens, Torchlight ($14.99/£10.99 on Steam) still looks and plays well, and because the graphics are in a similar cartoon style to World of Warcraft, we ended up setting the detail levels to high while still getting a decently smooth experience. The largely similar Torchlight II carries on the button-mashing tradition if you need more.
An all-time classic, remastered for modern PCs. This side-scrolling action/adventure game ($9.99/£5.99 at gog.com) had production values far ahead of its time (the original version was released in 1991 and featured incredibly smooth rotoscoped graphics). The new version of Another World has sharper, more detailed graphics, but the same punishing trial-and-error gameplay. It's usually (but not always) more fun than frustrating. Even our low-power ultraportable hybrid played the game with no trouble at all.