If you have a laptop with integrated Intel graphics, you can pretty much forget about playing Skyrim on it with decent quality settings. It will start (we’ve tried), but no amount of tweaking will get it past very low settings – even with the latest Sandy Bridge IGP (HD Graphics 3000).
On the other hand, Skyrim was built to run well on consoles that are now half a decade old so it has relatively modest system requirements. If you have a mid-range dedicated mobile GPU there’s a good chance that you can run it at reasonably high settings.
Official System Requirement Translated to Laptop Graphics
Bethesda’s minimum specs for Skyrim include a dual-core processor running at 2GHz accompanied by 2GB of RAM and a 512MB DX9 video card. That includes pretty much any recent laptop with a dedicated GPU, but you also want it to look pretty. For that, Bethesda recommends a computer with a “quad-core Intel or AMD CPU” (since a quad-core AMD processor is enough, the mobile Intel Core i5/i3 with Hyperthreading should also qualify), 4GB of RAM and a DX9 video card with 1GB of VRAM.
The developer goes on to specify the NVIDIA GTX 260 or Radeon 4890. It’s important to remember that these are the recommended desktop cards. Laptop GPUs with the same name except for a trailing “M” are invariably slower. For example, the GTX 260M is a mobile GPU with 112 CUDA cores, whereas the GTX 260 (without the M) is considerably faster with its 192 cores and higher clocks. The same principle applies to any mobile AMD or NVIDIA GPU. Skyrim will of course be playable on the GTX 260M regardless, but it’s something to keep in mind if you are moving around in the lower end of the scale.
For testing purposes we got the Steam version just to have the game and saves easily accessible on several laptops via the Steam cloud, which apparently doesn’t work or isn’t implemented yet. As a few points of reference we have tested the game on one laptop with an 1st-generation Core i3 CPU and Intel HD Graphics, one mid-range laptop with a 1st-gen Core i5 CPU and a Radeon HD 5650M/6650M (same GPU), as well as the G53SX, which is equipped with a 2nd-generation (Sandy Bridge, current) quad-core Core i7 CPU and a GTX 560M.
They have not been tested with the same settings, but with a somewhat more realistic approach aiming at playable frame rates with any setting, but preferably at the laptop’s native resolution if possible. For the lower-end laptops this is 1366×768 and for the ASUS it’s 1920×1080. The benchmark was a run from point A to B in the Labyrinthian area using FRAPS to measure average frame rates. Lots of snow (and trolls) were present.
On the Core i3/HD graphics combination the game was not playable even at the lowest possible settings and resolution, which was hardly a surprise. The latest generation Sandy Bridge HD Graphics 3000 series is more powerful and might be able to achieve playable frame rates , but whether it looks good is another question entirely.
The mid-range AMD Radeon HD 5650M, which is essentially the same chip as the current HD 6650M, 6630M and several others (but with varying clocks) was a positive surprise. In combination with a previous-generation Core i5 processor it managed to produce more than adequate results at the default “high” setting with AA/AF turned off. It was also fully playable with 8x AA/AF with the occasional dip to about 25 FPS, which is still playable. This AMD GPU is comparable to the GT 500M and GT 400M series from NVIDIA, so common mainstream GPUs like the GT 540M, GT 525M, GT 425M and so on should produce roughly equivalent results. Most of these cards are equipped with DDR3 video RAM, but this is apparently not a problem.
Naturally, the far more powerful GTX 560M has no problems whatsoever running Skyrim at high settings and Full HD (1920×1080) resolution with additional post processing. Also bear in mind that this resolution contains about twice the amount of pixels to process. It can be tweaked further to run at “Ultra” settings if you can forego some antialiasing and anisotropic filtering.
What we are unfortunately missing is a point of reference between the rather useless integrated graphics and the fully capable mid-range cards, such as lower end dedicated GPUs. However, based on Skyrim’s performance with mainstream GPUs, there’s a good chance that the game is playable even on slightly older laptops. A quick visit to System requirements lab might be enlightening, even if it isn’t always entirely accurate.