Everyone’s heard of Apple computers, but what about potato computers? No, this isn’t a competing PC brand. Potato PCs are the weakest gaming PCs of their generation, but they’ve developed an endearing culture of plucky budget-conscious gaming around them.
All PCs Are “Gaming” PCs
Gaming can be awesome even on modest hardware. All PCs are gaming PCs. In other words, whatever computer you have in front of you is capable of playing some subset of all the PC games that are out there.
On top of this, most PC games have settings that let you scale them from low-end visuals all the way to “ultra” quality settings designed for computers that did not yet exist when the game was released. This is where the idea of a “potato” PC comes from, although you probably won’t find a single definition that everyone agrees is complete.
The Fuzzy Definition of “Potato”
Whether a computer qualifies as a potato PC or not is a matter of minor debate. For some, it seems to refer to a generation of PCs that were left behind when computer graphics moved on to technologies such as unified shader processors and complex lighting and texture engines. Think about the transition from the GPUs such as the old Voodoo cards compared to the 6000-series NVIDIA GPUs. It’s not just that these newer chips were simply faster than the old ones—they could perform tricks that were simply impossible on older machines.
The other viewpoint comes from “potato settings,” which refers to the lowest detail settings offered by a video game. Now, this is obviously a rolling window, since the lowest visual settings of a game in 2021 may look better than the “ultra” settings of games from a few years ago. So a computer becomes a potato PC when games are only playable on their lowest settings.
Then there’s the matter of PCs that were never meant to be used for gaming: For example, basic office desktop computers or entry-level laptops that have relatively weak CPUs and low-end integrated GPUs.
So clearly there’s no one universal type of potato PC, but you’ll know it when you see it.
We’ve gotten this far into the discussion without addressing the potato in the room. Why “potato” in the first place?
This is another question that has more than one answer, but we think the most likely one is related to how game worlds and characters from games like The Elder Scrolls Oblivion look when visual settings are turned all the way down. With low-polygon counts and extremely low texture detail, you’re looking at game characters and environments that look like they’ve been made from peeled potatoes!
Modding Games to Potato
While plenty of people have “potato” PCs, there’s also a certain allure and charm to playing a game on a system that can barely keep up with the least intense instance of a title. In fact, you’ll find that potato PC owners have formed a community of their own. All those college kids using cheap laptops who want to play games instead of paying attention in class have the potato spirit. Bored employees who host LANs on their office computers while the boss is away are practicing the art of potato.
Most interesting of all, there have been some amazing projects to modify games so that they can run on systems below their minimum specifications. One of the most famous is probably a modification to allow Doom 3 to run on a Voodoo card. It’s ugly, but it works!
There have also been some examples of “official” potato modding. The Nintendo Switch version of The Witcher 3 runs at below minimum settings compared to the PC version. Yes, the Switch is not a PC, but this version of the game certainly exemplifies potato settings. It still looks great though.
Finding Games for Your Potato
So if you’re stuck with a potato PC for a while or you happen to have a potato PC and would like to see what it can do just for fun, where can you find games?
Our first stop would be GOG, where you can buy thousands of classic games that have been fixed up to run on modern operating systems. Any modern computer should run these classics without breaking a sweat and they haven’t lost any of what made them great in the first place.
Steam is also a good place to find older games that fall within your beloved potato’s minimum specification. You may have to do some modding and check out the community forums to keep them running, but classic titles like Deus Ex or Half-Life will run on anything these days.
Then there are the myriad eSports titles, which are purposefully designed to run well on the lowest-end machines that still manage to switch on. Whichever option you choose, there’s no reason even the humblest potato computer can’t be a satisfying gaming system.