Bang for the Buck (or Quid) with Laptop Hardware

In Overclocking & Tweaking on July 17, 2009 at 6:09 pm

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At this point in time, I have three laptops. How did this happen?! I was always a desktop person, but in the last three years it seems I somehow… lost… my way. Now I’m kicking myself wondering why I kept buying more laptops. Surely any old laptop would have served my portability needs. The last two Dell and HP-Compaq systems that I paid £750 and £500 for (respectively) would have been money better spent on a desktop. But that was when I moved around a lot and another laptop made sense to me… at the time.

So here it is, my most powerful machine… Rather crap for gaming. While i’m planning to get myself a real juiced-up desktop soon, I thought it would be fun to start squeezing this baby for all it’s worth.

A £750 Dell XPS M1530 ... Let's open 'er up

A £750 Dell XPS M1530 ... Let's open 'er up

My system specification reads something like:

  • Core 2 Duo 2.1 Ghz T8100
  • 4GB RAM
  • Vista 32-bit (Yes I know… But at the time Dell just didn’t offer 64-bit Vista, and I was planning on reinstalling 64-bit Vista somewhere along the way. Something I still haven’t got around to).
  • NVidia 8600M GT with 256MB GDDR3 (Not bad, but not great either)
  • 160GB 7200RPM Hard Disk (I’m running into a space-limitation wall, but as disk space doesn’t do anything to limit frame rates, I don’t mind)
  • yadda, yadda…

Obviously the feature that’s most lacking of this (and typically any) laptop is the graphics card. So I decided to start with a moderate overclock, which seemed to work out quite well. With some optimization thrown into the mix it was like the system had new life. It would run fairly recent games like Company of Heroes, Grand Ages: Rome, Age of Conan and Warhammer Online very well. For all those WoW addicts, if it’s a system to play WoW you want, then something like this will run it very very well for ya.  On maximum settings I get pretty good frame rates, and the game is still a treat for the eyes. The WoW art style has aged nearly as gracefully as Kim Basinger, but you be the judge of that:

The Town of Goldshire in World of Warcraft

The Town of Goldshire in World of Warcraft

If I could do things over, I would have gone for a nice little desktop with at least a Geforce 8800 GTX or a Radeon 4850, but I didn’t. No use crying over spilt milk, let’s make the best of what we have.

And by that I mean overclocking the system. The original Dell drivers didn’t allow overclocking, so after some driver updates, I fiddled around with Riva Tuner before deciding to go the route of NVidia System Tools with ESA Support.

My initial overclock was very moddest. Most people would advise against overclocking a notebook owing to the excessive heat generated, and my case was no different. The system got hot fast, and notebooks are just not designed to handle all that excess heat. So I cleaned the fan on my laptop with a vacuum cleaner – yeah. I used a vacuum cleaner to suck out the dust on my fan because as much as I tried to open up my laptop some of the nuts were bolted too tight. Being lazy by nature I decided to improvise rather than wrestle with the bolts. The vacuum cleaner worked quite well in fact and my system was running about 10 degrees cooler in no time (all temperatures are in centigrade unless otherwise expressly stated). I also ordered myself an Akasa Libra AK-NBC-08AL notebook cooler sporting dual 80mm fans and an aluminium surface for good heat conduction. The thing plugs into a USB port and is extremely quiet. I can barely hear it. If it starts making noise, just remember to clean out the fans and it will go quiet again.

Akasa Libra AK-NBC-08AL Cotebook Cooler Aluminium

Akasa Libra AK-NBC-08AL Notebook Cooler Aluminium

So things were a lot cooler for my system now. From 95 degrees with no overclocking I had gone down to 75 degrees at full load, giving me a lot of headroom. One thing I’d like to add about the laptop cooler: I wish they’d make one that plugs into the mains outlet. This cooler is fine, but for really heavy duty cooling it just doesn’t have the voltage/amperage from that USB port. A high power cooler that plugs into the wall socket would be a refreshing addition to any stay-at-home laptop that serves as a desktop-replacement system. With higher end cards coming out like the 260M it would be nice to get some good overclocking going, even on laptops, if such a system was made available. I looked high and low but only managed to find a USB cooling solution. Perhaps a mains cooler for laptops does exist, but I am unaware.

NVidia System Tools with ESA

NVidia System Tools with ESA

On to the overclocking then! The standard clocks of the 8600M GT are set at 475 MHz core clock, 702 MHz memory clock for DDR3 or 400 MHz for DDR2, and 950 MHz shader. I settled on an overclock of 575 core/800 memory/1250 shader, and things ran fine at these settings. As I became more familiar with the heat and clocks, I started pushing things a bit more. At one point I was running on a pretty massive overclock of 650 core/950 memory/1350 Shader, but after a few hours of Age of Conan, and a stress test on Furmark the system started artificating. The performance was great, however! What a pity.

So I lowered the clocks down to 600 core/800 Memory/1300 Shader, and found this to be quite stable, and then worked my way up to 600/882/1300.  At this setting achieving a higher score on 3D Mark 06 than a typical 8700M GT on their database.

3D Mark 06 results, beating out an 8700M GT at 630MHz Core/882MHz Memory/1300MHz Shader

3D Mark 06 results, beating out an 8700M GT at 630MHz Core/882MHz Memory/1300MHz Shader

Pretty soon I came to the realisation that it was the memory that was being stressed. While providing the least returns for increase the memory couldn’t handle a 900+ clock rate. So I eventually worked out another very stable overclock at 630MHz core/885MHz memory/1350MHz shader. I’m quite sure I could push that core upto 650 even if I tried.

8600M GT clocked at 630MHz core/882MHz memory/1350MHz shader

8600M GT clocked at 630MHz core/882MHz memory/1350MHz shader

At these clocks after an ‘Extreme Burning’ mode stability test on Furmark, temperatures rose to 85 degrees. The fact is, my GPU would run just as hot with no overclock. Apparently last year Dell installed a few 8400 and 8600 GPUs on their XPS systems that ran quite hot. Sadly, I received one of those. At any rate, the chip is rated at over 100 degrees so it’s not really that bad.  I also manually set the clocks each time I start a game. That way my laptop is running at higher clocks only for the 1-2 hours when i’m gaming, after which I just reset the clocks to the default. One last gripe before I wrap this up. I can’t manually set my laptop fan speed. If I could, I would max it out everytime I overclock the system. It’s almost like Dell (and several other PC OEMs) intentionally design their laptops to screw enthusiasts in every way possible.

In conclusion, I managed to squeeze a bit more “use” out of a laptop that I had rapidly outgrown, and it still runs as stable and cool as it ever did. No regrets. Good day!

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  1. […] you may know from my previous post, I did manage to overclock my 8600M to beyond the levels of NVidia’s high-end 8700M GT. That’s shaping up quite nicely. The system is running as cool as it ever did – […]

  2. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  3. vacuum cleaners with very powerful motors are the ones that we always buy, they are a bit expensive but definitely better “

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