What’s the best cheap laptop for running Minecraft? – The Guardian


I have just read your 2015 guide, What’s the best laptop for running Minecraft?, and wondered if you could update it for 2016. My 10-year-old son adores Minecraft, and his Chromebook isn’t cutting it. He’s really into Pixelmon, so I was thinking about spending approx £300, though I’m willing to go up a bit if it gets something that will grow with him. He is using the web and the usual office tools a lot, and he’s increasingly keen to learn coding. Claire

This has been a common query for three or four years, and when buying a Minecraft machine, the basic rules never change. First, get the fastest processor you can, within your budget. Second, go for the fastest graphics card you can afford. Shop around, but I doubt you’ll find anything under £300, unless you are willing to buy a refurbished or second-hand laptop.

Minecraft platforms

It’s actually quite easy to run Minecraft. There are versions for most platforms including Apple iOS and Google Android tablets, and for Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation games consoles. There’s also a free trial beta version that runs as a “modern” app in Windows 10. All these are great. The drawback is that they don’t support “mods” or modding platforms such as Pixelmon.

The main version of Minecraft runs in a Java virtual machine, which enables the same program to run on Microsoft Windows, MacOS and Linux (which you can install on an Intel-based Chromebook). This is the version that supports “mods” and Pixelmon. Unfortunately, it consumes a lot of resources, which means you need a reasonably powerful PC to get good results.

It’s therefore best to run full Minecraft on a desktop tower if possible. Tower PCs have lots of space inside, and cooling fans, so they can use hot, fast processors. They also have expansion slots so you can add a graphics card that wasn’t supplied as standard.

Laptops are cramped for space, so manufacturers install slower processors that run cooler. And because Windows laptop manufacturers compete heavily on price, they rarely fit dedicated graphics cards. Instead, they rely on the “integrated graphics” that come with the processor. These also use the computer’s main memory for graphics, instead of having their own fast memory chips.

The good news is that integrated graphics have improved a lot in the past 5-10 years. To benefit, go for the newest processor you can afford.

Either way, aim to buy at least 4GB of memory – preferably 8GB – and at least 64GB of storage for Minecraft. This eliminates most of the laptops in the £150-£250 price bracket. Also, buy a good USB mouse.

Intel chip choice

Intel makes two main ranges of processors. Low-end laptops use low power Atom designs, which are branded Atom, Celeron and Pentium. These are fine for most purposes, including running full-screen videos and Microsoft Office. However, more powerful Core processor are needed for tougher jobs, such as video editing and gaming.

So far, Intel has released seven generations of its Core range, and the generation is shown by the first number in the processor name. In other words, a seventh-gen chip will have a number in the form i5-7xxx while a sixth-gen chip will be i5-6xxx. If you’re relying on built-in graphics, aim for a sixth- or seventh-gen processor.

The three main lines of Core chips are designated, BMW style, the Core i3, i5 and i7. The i7 is out of your price range, while the Core i3 is a little underpowered, and lacks the “burst mode” (short speed boost) feature of the i5 and i7. The Core i3-6100U is unusually fast for an i3 chip, but may not save much cash compared with the superior Core i5-6200U.

Some gamers prefer AMD processors because they have more cores and are easier to overclock. In general, however, they are slower and run hotter than Intel processors.

You can compare processor speeds at NotebookCheck’s Comparison of Mobile Processors (CPU Benchmarks). Ignore the numbers and use search (Ctrl-F) to find each chip’s rank in the table.

Possible laptops

There are lots of laptops for just under £300 – it’s a popular price point – but it requires compromises. For example, the Asus VivoBook A540 at Currys PC World (£299) has a Core i3-5005U but only 4GB of memory, while the equivalent Asus X540SA at John Lewis (£299.95) has 8GB of memory but a much slower Intel Pentium N3700 processor. Unless you can find something in the sales, you should aim to pay a little more.

Your best bet could be the 15.6in Lenovo IdeaPad 310 laptop with a 1920 x 1080-pixel Full HD screen, Core i5-6260U processor, 8GB of memory and 1TB hard drive. This is available from both John Lewis and Currys PC World for £379, but John Lewis includes a 3-year guarantee.

You could get the same laptop with a Core i3-6100U processor, a lower-resolution 1366 x 768-pixel screen and a two-year guarantee for £349.95. However, it’s not such good value, and only saves £40. You could drop further down to an IdeaPad 305 with 4GB of memory and a fifth-gen Core i3-5005U for £329.95, but you’d be losing even more power and £50 worth of memory to save £20. The Asus VivoBook A540 has the same spec for £299.

Incidentally, Lenovo sells these machines direct. The Core i3-6100U version costs £349.99, with Core i5-7200U models at £449.99 and £479.99, and a Core i7-7500U for £579.99. The 2.5GHz i5-7200U laptop (£449.99) is faster than the 1.8GHz i5-6260U model that John Lewis stocks (£379), but probably not worth the extra £70.

If you can make it to a shop, you can compare the IdeaPad 310 with the HP 15-ay167sa, Asus and other machines, to see how you like the screen, keyboard and general build quality. The HP 15-ay167sa has the latest Core i5-7200U processor but a lower screen resolution (1366 x 768) for £399.

Dedicated graphics?

The improvements in Intel integrated graphics have pushed dedicated graphics cards out of low-end laptops, so they are now rather hard to find. However, eBuyer is offering an Acer Aspire E5-573G with a Core i3-5005U and Nvidia GeForce 940M graphics for £409.98, while Laptops Direct has an Asus X556UB-DM262T with a Core i3-6100U and GeForce GTX 940M graphics for £479.97. The main appeal of this machine is that it has a 128GB SSD instead of a traditional hard drive, but it’s way over budget.

Minecraft settings

As mentioned, Minecraft will run on almost anything. However, high graphics settings will bring most mainstream laptops to their knees. OptiFine and other optimisations can help. However, your son needs to understand that the settings he chooses for graphics, lighting, textures, render distance, and screen size – plus the number of mods and plug-ins installed – can all slow the frame-rate. If the graphics start to judder and lag, he will need to dial back the fancy effects until he gets a good playing experience. Hitting F3 shows the frame rate. I’d aim for at least 50-60 frames per second with Minecraft full screen. As usual, more is better.

Have you got another question for Jack? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com

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