Very interesting read, I feel like I'm going through the same "transformation".
I've been a console guy for years, I started on the ps2 and then my brothers got a gamecube. After that I got a 360 and just recently bought my second (MW3 edition). I decided I wanted to play more than just COD and the occasional Halo match, and I was interested in BF3 for PC. Lucky me, my dad said he would get my a laptop through work since I was heading to college.
So now I have an HP Elitebook 8560p, with an i7 2620M, 8 GB of RAM, and a Radeon HD 6470M. Like you, I thought I could do anything with an i7. I bought BFBC2, and was slightly disappointed. That was when I joined OCN, I wanted to learn how to upgrade the graphics card in my notebook. Well silly me, the 6470M is integrated into the motherboard, even though it is considered a dedicated GPU and has its own vram. I'm trying to sell it and buy an 8560w without too much of a loss.
So I started toying with MSI Afterburner and have gone from a stock 750/900 to 900/1100. At 720p and medium detail, I run BFBC2 at ~40 FPS, Borderlands is just about the same, and I played the Half-Life series maxed out, except for Episodes 1 and 2, I turned down the resolution and the lighting/shadows. With the exception of BF3, I feel my experience is at least on par with the 360.
I'm at the stage where I realize gaming laptops just can't provide the experience I want, and I have the knowledge/desire to build my own PC. Big thanks to everyone here on OCN for that one
Anyway, I'll have about $1k to get started with this summer. I'm considering saving that and having about $2k for a real nice build for the summer of 2013, but I don't know if I want to wait that long.