Gaming Laptop Buying Guide: Find the Right Rig
With their powerful components, colorful designs and premium prices, gaming laptops are a different beast than typical mainstream notebooks. And they need to be if you want to play demanding games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Grand Theft Auto V and enjoy smooth gameplay on high frame rates. They're also a different beast when it comes to design, offering chassis with more aggressive lines and multicolor keyboards.
Depending on your budget, your lifestyle and the games you want to play, you could end up spending anywhere from $800 to $4,000 on a system that's likely to weigh between 4 and 8 pounds. To find the right gaming laptop, follow the tips and advice below.
- Don't buy a gaming laptop for low-end titles like World of Warcraft or Candy Crush.
- Avoid touch screens. They're more expensive and drain the battery.
- 17- or 18-inch laptops are the fastest but least portable while 13-, 14- and 15-inchers are easier to carry but often lack high-end components.
- Make sure the keyboard is comfortable. If you can, take a trip to the store and try out the keyboard before you buy.
- Nvidia's 960M graphics card is good enough if you want to play the latest titles at 30 fps, but you'll need to step up to 970M if you want better performance and 980M if you want to game in 4K resolution.
- Avoid laptops with a low-res display (less than 1920 x 1080).
- Get solid state storage. Invest in a SSD for faster game installs and load times.
- Get a laptop with at least an Intel Core i7-6820HK processor, an Nvidia desktop 980 GPU and a HDMI 1.3 port if you want to be able to enjoy virtual reality games with an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.
How Portable Do You Need It?
When it comes to gaming systems, there are different levels of portability, ranging from "too heavy to carry on your back" to "just slightly heavier than a regular laptop." Generally, the more powerful and functional the laptop, the less portable it is.
- Minimal Portability (17 - 18 inches): If you plan to keep your laptop in your home and leave it on your desk or just move it between rooms, a system with a 17- or 18-inch display like the Alienware 17 should be fine. Laptops in this size range are usually the most powerful, because they have plenty of room for heat-generating components. However, they're heavy to carry, a tough fit for most bags, and too power-hungry to use unplugged for very long.
- Medium Portability (15 inches): If you want to use the gaming notebook on your lap and carry it around more often, consider a 15-inch notebook, such as the OriginPC Eon15-X. These systems weigh between 4.6 and 7.2 pounds, while lasting an average of 5 hours and 50 minutes on a charge.
- Best Portability (13 - 14 inches): If you're constantly on the move, you'll want to consider 13- or 14-inch laptops like the Razer Blade, Alienware 13 and Aorus X3 Plus V3. Notebooks in this size range typically weigh under 5 pounds and tend to have longer battery lives with an average endurance of 7 hours and 38 minutes. However, 13- and 14-inch gaming laptops usually don't come with the most powerful CPU or GPU, because they just don't have enough space to dissipate all that heat.
The graphics card or GPU is the keystone of your gaming laptop. It delivers the images on your display by processing the data and transmitting the signal to the monitor. Due to how stressful this process can be when running games, you need a discrete GPU with its own dedicated memory, called VRAM (video memory).
Although there tends to be a more-is-better mantra with gaming PCs, the average gaming enthusiast should be OK with 4GB of VRAM. The majority of gaming laptops ship with Nvidia GPUs, but if you're partial to AMD, there are certain brands that allow you to configure your system accordingly.
Good for Mainstream Gamers
- Nvidia GeForce GTX 960M: Laptops with 960M cards can play taxing games like Metro: Last Light or Witcher 3, but you'll have to turn off the coolest visual eye candy, including water reflections and natural-looking hair.
- Nvidia GeForce GTX 950M: A step below the 960M, the 950M will churn out some solid frame rates in midrange games like Rainbox Six Siege at very modest settings. Serious gamers will probably be disappointed.
- Nvidia GeForce GTX 970M: The middle child of Nvidia's suite of cards, the 970M is capable of producing some impressive frame rates, but isn't quite as good as the 980M. You'll have to adjust the special effects settings or screen resolution downward in top-of-the-line-games.
Hardcore Gamers and VR-Ready
- Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M: This is the card to beat. During our testing, gaming laptops outfitted with a 980M routinely top the category average on high-end games such as Metro: Last Light with the special effects settings and resolution turned all the way up.
- Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 (Desktop Card): Most laptops use mobile graphics cards because they are more power- and heat-efficient. However, a few very large and expensive systems, such as the OriginPC Eon17-SLX and the MSI GT72 Dominator Pro, have the desktop version of the GTX 980, which has enough performance to run an Oculus Rift or an HTC Vive VR Headset.
- SLI: Since two is better than one, some laptops offer two GPUs in Nvidia's Scalable Link Interface (SLI) configuration. The technology allows up to four GPUs to work together, scaling graphics performance for better rendering at extremely high frame rates. Some examples of SLI laptops include the Aorus X7 Pro Sync (which you can strap to your back for 360-degree VR gaming, pictured above) and the MSI GT80 Titan SLI.
Nvidia also makes a 940M card, but we don't recommend purchasing anything below 950M.
MORE: Best Gaming Mice
What's the point of having butter-smooth frame rates and beautiful graphics if your notebook's display looks like crap? To prevent against this unfortunate turn of events, here's a few guidelines to follow.
- Resolution: The minimum resolution for any gaming laptop is 1920 x 1080 — anything less and you're asking for muddy graphics. Laptops with 4K (3840 x 2160) panels are becoming increasingly popular, praised for their striking details and color.
- Touch Screens: Some gaming laptops have started offering touch screens, which is nice if you're going to be playing Candy Crush or Cut the Rope. We've tested a broad swath of touch-screen displays and while they make sense for convertible systems or 2-in-1s, this feature is unnecessary on most gaming PCs.
- Matte or Glossy: How do you like your displays, glossy or matte? This is more a matter of preference than anything else, but there are die-hard fans for both camps. Team Glossy swears by the vibrant colors, but that shiny surface is very susceptible to annoying glare. Fans of a matte panels don't have to worry about distracting reflections, but some users complain about washed out color and detail.
- G-Sync or V-Sync: Several gaming laptops come with panels that support Nvidia's G-Sync or AMD's V-Sync technologies, both of which are designed to eliminate unsightly graphical tears and ghosting. Neither technology works with displays that have resolutions higher than 1920 x 1080. G-Sync delivers a smoother overall experience, but in some games like Diablo III, it's hard to pinpoint the difference.
MORE: Best Gaming Headsets
Audio: Get a Bark as Loud as the Bite
The sound is just as important as the visuals when it comes to gaming. Yes, you probably have a headset that you'll use most of the time. But sometimes you just want to let your laptop's speakers work. The MSI-exclusive, Nahimic audio software is one of our favorites since it offers some of the best surround sound in both headphones and speakers. It also provides several handy presets, Bass Boost and Voice Clarification software. Alienware's Dell Audio software is a close second, while Dolby Home Theater v4, available in Lenovo notebooks, rounds out our top three.
Keyboards and Touchpads
Don't get so hung up on specs that you forget about keyboard quality. You'll be pounding on those keys every time you play a game or surf the Web, so you'll want them to feel comfortable and look great too.
Here's what to look for:
- Key Travel: Ideally, you want the keys delivering firm feedback without being uncomfortable. For key travel, we've determined that the typical depth is between 1.5 and 2 millimeters, with anything closer to, or over, 2mm being ideal.
- Actuation: We also have measured for the optimum amount of force necessary to depress a key and settled at 60 grams, which gives a nice, springy bounce. Keys below the cutoff tend to feel mushy and can potentially slow you down.
- Customization: A good gaming keyboard should offer customizable backlighting — not because it's a necessity, but because it looks freaking cool! In addition to the built-in light show, there should be software that lets you create macros and link them to your lighting profile, as well as the associated game.
We're fans of Razer's Synapse 2.0 software that gives you all of this and lets you create profiles for all your compatible Razer hardware (mice, headsets and keyboards) and allows access via the cloud on any laptop. For creating a kick-ass show on your keyboard, we're fond of both Alienware's FX software and the SteelSeries Engine, which also keeps track on your keystrokes. That comes in handy if you're trying to keep track of your kill rate or some other important input stat.
CPU and RAM: The Brains of the Operation
If the GPU is the heart of a gaming laptop, then the processor and RAM are the brain and hippocampus. Your laptop's processor (CPU) handles everything that doesn't have to do with graphics, such as performing some of a game's physics calculations and controlling its non-playable characters. It also affects the performance of all of your non-gaming applications, including your browser, OS and productivity apps. When picking out your CPU and RAM, keep the following tips in mind.
- Intel only: You probably won't find a gaming laptop with an AMD CPU.
- Choose 6th-Gen Core: The latest generation of Intel CPUs are the chipmaker's 6th- Generation Skylake series that launched in late 2015. All Skylake CPUs have model numbers that begin with a 6 (example: Core i5-6200U), while older, 5th-generation chips have IDs that begin with a 5 (example: Core i5-5200U).
- Core i5 Is Bare Minimum: When you're shopping for your new gaming PC, an Intel Core i5 is the slowest CPU you should consider. Dual-core Core i7 models are a small step up.
- Quad-Core Is Ideal: If you're in the market for a Core i7 processor, look for a quad-core chip instead of dual-core. You'll know that a chip is dual-core by looking at the end of its model number. Quad-core Core i7 CPUs have suffixes ending in HQ or HK. HK chips are the fastest and even allow you to overclock them.
- Clock Speed Matters: Keep the clock speed in mind when picking out a CPU as higher numbers equate to faster speeds. A 3.4-GHz Core i5 processor will be noticeably faster than the same chip with 2.6 GHz. Some of Intel's new Skylake chips can be overclocked, meaning the speed is adjustable via a program like Intel Extreme Tuning Utility.
- 8GB Is Enough: Don't settle for any less than 8GB of RAM. Getting 16GB is a plus, but isn't as important as having a faster CPU or graphics chip.
Storage: SSD or HDD?
When it comes to gaming notebooks, faster is always better, which is why a lot of people love SSDs, particularly the new PCIe cards, which deliver blistering file-transfer speed. That extra boost of speed translates to faster game load times, as well as reducing hitching — that annoying pause when your drive can't produce assets fast enough to keep up with the game.
If an SSD is out of your budget, we highly recommend purchasing, at least, a 1TB hard drive with a 7,200-rpm speed. However instead of an either/or situation, we recommend choosing a configuration that has both an SSD and a hard drive. That way you can load your games and important files on the speedy SSD and have plenty of room left for everything else.
Budget: What You Get for Your Money
So just how much laptop can you get with your budget? While it's true that you get what you pay for, you'd be surprised to learn what $1,000 can get you.
- Under $1,000: While you might see a few notebooks with Intel Core i5 processors at this price range, there are plenty with 6th-generation Intel Core i7 CPUs and at least 8GB of RAM. For the display, you can expect a 1080p display with average color reproduction, accuracy and brightness. It's rare to get an SSD below $1,000, but it's likely your rig will be outfitted with 1TB HDD (usually 5,400-rpm) and an Nvidia GeForce 960M GPU offering between 2 and 4 GB of VRAM. A laptop with these specs can play most titles at a solid frame rate at medium settings, but you can expect some trouble at higher settings. (See our favorite sub-$1,000 gaming laptops here.)
- $1,000 - $2,000: In this price range, there are still a few Core i5's hanging around, but the majority of the configurations will have quad-core Intel Core i7 CPU with 16GB of RAM and a 1080p display. Most notebooks will feature both an SSD and an HDD (with a bump from 5,400 to 7,200 rpm) and an Nvidia 970M GPU with at least 3GB of VRAM. You can play most games on high and clear 30fps, but adding special effects can hamper the experience.
- $2,000 - $3,000: When you're spending this kind of money, you'll definitely get a quad-core Intel Core i7 processor with at least 16GB of RAM. You'll find configurations with the new PCIe SSDs for lightning-fast game installs and loads. Screen-resolution options include 1920 x 1080, 2560 x 1400 and 3840 x 2160. Regarding graphics, you can get a laptop with a single 980M or dual 970M in SLI configuration. Ultra smultra, with these kinds of specs you can play any game at the highest settings without fear of lag or ugly tearing.
- $3,000 or more: This is where things get crazy. With this kind of budget you can get a high-res display, custom paint job, up to four SSDs in RAID configuration and a maximum of 64GB of RAM from manufacturers like OriginPC and Maingear. Depending on the notebook, you can get two 980M in SLI configuration or a desktop 980 GPU with at least 8GB of VRAM. Not only can you play any game without worry of low frame rates, if you have a desktop 980 GPU, you can use VR headsets like the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive.
Brand: What's in a Name?
Now that you have your budget figured out and a baseline idea of what you're looking for, there's one final question to consider. What brand of laptop are you going to buy? We're not going to push you one way or the other, but here are a few things about some of our top brands to think about when conducting your research.
- Alienware: Known for its distinctive spaceship design complete with out-of-this world lighting, Alienware does a solid job of offering value while still delivering high-end specs. However, outside of its predetermined configurations, there isn't much room for customization. The company typically offers a 1-year warranty with on-site service after remote diagnosis.
- Asus: Branded under the company's Republic of Gamers series, the company's laptops have a sleek, stealth fighter design with an impressive set of specs. However, Asus doesn't offer much in the way of customization. As far as the warranty, the Taiwanese tech giant typically offers a 1-year international with accidental damage coverage and a 30-day zero-bright dot protection with 24/7 tech support.
- Lenovo: Lenovo laptops are synonymous with understated design. But beneath the plain-Jane looks lie surprisingly high-quality specs that won't put a dent in your bank account. You can expect 4 to 5 configurations of each model and a 1-year warranty.
- MSI: One of the most innovative companies, MSI is known for its hulking, red-dragon-themed 17-inchers as well as its svelte 15-inch notebooks. MSI isn't afraid to slap four SSDs and a mechanical keyboard with a digital touchpad into a system. MSI gives its customers a 2-year limited warranty.
- OriginPC: OriginPC's default design typically won't turn heads, but they are the go-to-guys when it comes to customization. From custom paint jobs, thermal compounds to a TV Tuner, as long as you have the money, the sky's the limit. OriginPC's standard warranty offers lifetime 24/7 tech support and even offers a dead-pixel warranty in case of a defective display.
- Razer: Like MacBooks for gamers, Razer's all-black laptops are some of the lightest and slimmest on the market. The only configuration options provided are for storage size and display resolution. The company has a 1-year limited warranty for all of its products.