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, explore virtual worlds with either the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift 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 $5,000 on a system that's likely to weigh between 4 and 20 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. These games can easily be supported by an integrated graphics card.
- Avoid touch screens. They're more expensive and drain the battery.
- 17- or 18-inch laptops are typically more powerful, but the least portable while 13-, 14- and 15-inchers are easier to carry but often lack higher-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.
- Ditch the M. Thanks to Nvidia's 10-series GPUs, mobile chips are a thing of the past. These new GPUs are faster, more powerful and are VR-ready.
- Avoid laptops with a low-res display (less than 1920 x 1080).
- Get solid state storage. Invest in an SSD for faster game installs and load times.
- Get a laptop with at least an Intel Core i7-6700HQ processor, a Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 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 "lift with your knees" to "regular laptop." Generally, the more powerful 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-S.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. 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 1060: Laptops with 1060 cards can play taxing games like Mass Effect: Andromeda or Witcher 3 without sacrificing some of the cooler visual eye candy, including water reflections and natural-looking hair at 1920 x 1080. You might have to tweak the settings a bit at 4K, but not too much. Even better, you can hook up your Rift or Vive headset up for a mobile plug-and-play VR experience.
- Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050/1050 Ti - A step below the 1060, the GTX 1050 will churn out some solid framerates in mid-range games like Battlefield 1 at very modest settings. The 1050 Ti is slightly more powerful and capable in some cases of supporting Oculus Rift and its various titles. However, serious gamers looking for a high-performance system will probably be disappointed.
- Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070: The middle child of Nvidia's suite of cards, the 1070 GPU is also VR-ready and capable of producing some impressive frame rates, but isn't quite as good as the 1080. You can expect some serious smooth graphics at 1080p and 4K on top-of-the-line-games such as Htiman.
Hardcore Gamers and VR-Ready
- Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080: This is the card to beat. During our testing, gaming laptops outfitted with a 1080 GPU routinely top the category average on high-end games such as Rise of the Tomb Raider and Grand Theft Auto V with the special effects settings and resolution turned all the way up. And of course, Nvidia 1080 can easily support all your virtual-reality adventures. Just be prepared to shell out a pretty penny, since 1080s are only found in high-end systems like the Razer Blade Pro or the Acer Predator 17X.
- 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 Acer Predator 21 X and the MSI GT83 Titan SLI.
Nvidia Max-Q Design - Nvidia has teamed with laptop manufacturers to create Max-Q, a new design specification which focuses on efficiency rather than performance. Essentially downclocking Nvidia GPUs can place a powerful 1080 GPU into the 0.5-inch thick Asus ROG Zephyrus. With less power being consumed, the system is producing less heat, which means the fans aren't being used as much. That means you get a system that's cooler and quieter than your typical gaming laptop and nearly as powerful. Max-Q designed GPUs will include the 1060, 1070 and 1080 GPUs.
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 are 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 QHD (2560 x 1440) or 4K (3840 x 2160) panels are becoming increasingly popular, praised for their striking details and color. There are some gamers that swear by 1366 x 768 because of the increased frame rates, but I implore you to love yourself more and aim a bit higher.
- 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 panel don't have to worry about distracting reflections, but some users complain about washed out color and detail.
- OLED: Described as the future of display, an OLED (organic light-emitting diode) panel is comprised of a film of organic compounds that produce light when an electric current is introduced. The technology allows for thinner, more power-efficient panels that deliver incredibly rich color and contrast. The Alienware 13 R3 OLED is currently the only laptop to feature this technology.
- G-Sync or FreeSync: Several gaming laptops come with panels that support Nvidia's G-Sync or AMD's FreeSync technologies, both of which are designed to eliminate unsightly graphical tears and ghosting 0n monitors ranging from 1080p to 4K. While 60Hz is the current minimum refresh rate, there are an increasing number of monitors that offer 120Hz, which offers even faster rendering without introducing stutter.
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.
- Anti-Ghosting - This is an important feature for gamers that need to press several buttons simultaneously to unleash that kick-ass power move. Anti-ghosting essentially means that you can press a number of keys at once and have them all register.
I've noticed more companies are starting to embrace the loud, clicky joy that is the mechanical keyboard. Known for their marvelous springy feedback and trademark clicking sound, these keyboards offer some of the best typing you're going to get on a laptop. In addition to the MSI GT83VR Titan, you can also get a mechanical keyboard on the Lenovo Ideapad Y900.
When it comes to customization software, I'm a huge fan of Razer's Synapse 2.0 app. It lets you create profiles for all your compatible Razer hardware (mice, headsets and keyboards) in addition to turning your keyboard into one hell of a light show. And if that isn't enough you can access your creations via the cloud on any laptop. For creating a kick-ass show on your keyboard, I'm 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 at least 6th-Gen Core: The latest generation of Intel CPUs are the chipmaker's 7th Generation "Kaby Lake" series that launched in late 2016. All Kaby Lake CPUs have model numbers that begin with a 7 (ex: Core i5-7200U) while older, 6th generation chips have IDs that begin with a 6 (ex: Core i5-6200U).
- 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 7th-generation Intel Core i7 CPUs and at least 8GB of RAM. Display-wise you can expect a 1080p display with average color reproduction, accuracy and brightness. Now that SSDs are becoming more commonplace, you can get a solid SSD at below $1,000. However, it's unlikely that it'll be a slower configuration instead of a high-speed PCIe device. Your rig will probably be outfitted with 1TB HDD (usually 5,400-rpm) and a Nvidia GeForce 1050 or 1050 Ti GPU with between 2-4 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 configurations. (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 a Nvidia GTX 1060 or 1070 GPU with at least 6GB of VRAM. You can play most games on high and clear 60fps, but adding special effects can hamper the experience on 4K resolution.
- $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 1080 or dual 1070M in SLI configuration. You can also snag one of the new lightweight Max-Q laptops at this price range. 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 1080 GPUs in SLI configuration with each card sporting 8GB of VRAM. Not only can you play any game without worry of low frame rates, 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.
- Gigabyte/Aorus - Gigabyte and its high-end subsidiary Aorus offer a diverse lineup of gaming systems. Where Aorus laptops are svelte, lightweight powerhouses with high-end specs while Gigabyte systems tend to be bulkier, more colorful and less expensive. All Aorus laptops and selected Gigabyte systems have two-year limited warranties while the remaining systems only come with 1 year.
- HP - You wouldn't immediately associate HP with gaming laptops, but the company has been making steady strides in the industry with its Omen series. HP's gaming laptops come standard with one-year limited warranties that include free shipping when your system needs service.
- Acer - Acer has a well-rounded lineup with a mix of budget notebooks like the Aspire VX 15 and purely aspirational machines like the Predator 21 X, as well as everything in between. The company backs its gaming laptops with a one-year limited warranty that requires you to pay for the cost of shipping it to the company for service.