Finding the Right Portable Gaming Rig
Purists will argue that you need a PC to truly play games, especially if you’re a fan of pushing the levels of graphics quality beyond the capabilities of a mobile phone or a mere gaming console. In this regard, the gaming desktop is still king, particularly when it comes to having the kind of components and horsepower needed to run 4K games smoothly and support virtual reality (VR) setups, such as the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. But if you want or need something you can tote around the house or over to your friend’s place, we’re here to help you choose the right gaming laptop.
How Much Should You Spend?
Gaming systems have higher-end components than run-of-the-mill consumer laptops, so their prices will be consequently higher, but the range across the category is huge: from under a grand to $ 5,000 and up. The best budget gaming laptops start at $ 800 and can go up to about $ 1,250. For that, you get a system that can play games at 1,366-by-768 resolution on high graphics quality settings, or at a full HD (1080p) resolution with the details turned down some. Storage may be a hard drive, or a modest-capacity solid-state drive (SSD).
Want something better? Midrange systems give you smoother gameplay at high settings on a higher-quality 1080p screen, and should add support for VR headsets. These models will range in price from around $ 1,250 to $ 2,500.
High-end systems, meanwhile, should guarantee you smooth gameplay at 1080p with graphics details maxed out, and might let you play at 4K resolution (if the screen supports it). A high-end model should also be able to power a VR headset and support additional external monitors. These machines tend to come with speedy storage components such as 512GB PCI Express solid-state drives, and they are priced above $ 2,500. Some support 3K to 4K screens, a hard drive to supplement the SSD, and ultra-efficient cooling fans as optional extras. A few elite boutique models will support dual graphics chips. (Such rare-bird machines will be massive and expensive, with minimal battery life.)
Put the GPU First: Graphics Are Key
The main attribute that makes or breaks a gaming laptop is its graphics processing unit (GPU). We don’t consider a laptop to be a gaming laptop unless it has one of these discrete graphics chips from Nvidia or AMD.
The dominant player in the field right now is Nvidia, which produces discrete mobile GPUs based on its 10-Series Pascal microarchitecture. These mobile chips offer performance close to what you could expect from a desktop-PC graphics card equipped with the same-named GPU. It’s worth noting that Nvidia launched desktop cards with its newest architecture, Turing, in September 2018. These “RTX” cards were finally announced for laptops at CES 2019, and will begin releasing this year. For now, though, Pascal still rules the roost. Nvidia’s chief rival, AMD, sees far fewer laptops use its graphics technology. A handful of laptops now offer AMD’s latest Radeon RX cards, often as an alternative to an Nvidia-based SKU or, more rarely, alongside an Intel processor.
That said, there are still some basic conclusions to be drawn about graphics performance. In general, the higher the model number within a product line, the higher the 3D performance. So an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 generally produces higher frame rates and higher-quality graphics than an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 or GTX 1070. A single high-end discrete GPU will let you play the latest AAA gaming titles on a 1080p screen with all the bells and whistles turned on, and be fine for entry-level VR play. Adding a second GPU (a rare and expensive option) will let you run the latest games more comfortably on 4K and 5K displays, or let you hook up multiple monitors to your laptop.
Nvidia’s G-Sync and AMD’s FreeSync technologies are more down-to-earth. They help increase the quality of the gaming experience and smooth out frame rates by letting the laptop screen refresh at a variable rate that depends on the output of the GPU. Look for support for one of those technologies if you’re a stickler for perfectly rendered visuals. They tend to be in pricier machines, though, and G-Sync is far more common.
Picking a Processor
The processor is the heart of a PC, and in many current gaming laptops you’ll find a quad-core 7th Generation Intel Core i5 or Core i7 CPU based on the Kaby Lake chipset. Intel’s new 8th Generation “Coffee Lake” CPUs launched a few months back in laptops, however, so you can expect them to become the norm going forward. Many of the Coffee Lake chips you’ll see in gaming laptops include two more cores (six, instead of four), bringing more overall speed and much-improved performance on multithreaded tasks, but the upside for gaming is relatively minimal.
Theoretically, you may find a gaming laptop with an Intel Core i3 or one of AMD’s CPUs installed, but those are uncommon: Systems with Intel Core i3 and comparable entry-level AMD processors are certainly capable of playing many games, but why limit yourself from square one? That said, if you have to make the choice between a high-end CPU and a high-end GPU, go for the graphics. For example, we’d recommend getting a Core i5 CPU over a Core i7 if the money saved could then go toward an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 GPU instead of a GTX 1050. Spending the money on the GPU makes more sense than spending it on the CPU if gaming is your main concern.
Look for Intel Core i5 processors in midrange systems, with Core i7 U, HQ, and HK processors in higher-end gaming laptops. The H-series processors are higher-power, and tend to show up in bigger, thicker laptop models, while the low-power U-series chips are designed for thinner, more portable machines. They are quite different, in terms of thermal profile, as well as overall performance potential; a U-series Core i7 processor may not even have the same number of processing cores as an H-series Core i7 chip.
Display Size: Do You Need a 17-Inch Gaming Laptop?
In terms of display size, a 15-inch screen is the sweet spot for a gaming laptop. You can buy larger 17-inch displays, but this can jack up the weight to way beyond 5 pounds. We’ve seen 12-pound “portables” in the gaming sector that will definitely weigh down your backpack. We recommend at least a full HD (1,920-by-1,080-resolution) screen. Larger displays are capable of giving you higher-than-1080p resolutions, but choose wisely, as a resolution of QHD+ (3,200 by 1,800 pixels, and uncommon) or 4K (3,840 by 2,160 pixels, a bit more common) will boost the final cost twice: first for the panel, and second for the higher-quality graphics chip you’ll need to drive it to its full potential.
Because they usually require dual GPUs for the smoothest gameplay at native resolution, 4K gaming laptops are still the exception, and still expensive. And keep this in mind: Only the most powerful graphics cards can render complex game animations at playable frame rates across the full screen at 4K, so a 1080p screen may actually be a better use of your money if all you do is play games.
Is Max-Q Right for You?
In an effort to produce sleeker, more portable gaming laptops, Nvidia launched an initiative in 2017 named Max-Q, a term borrowed from the aeronautics industry. In that scenario, it describes the maximum amount of aerodynamic stress an aircraft can sustain. Here, it refers to a combination of hardware and software modifications that allow higher-end graphics cards to fit into thinner chassis than traditionally possible. By limiting the power ceiling of cards like the GTX 1080 and GTX 1070, less heat is produced, meaning less room is needed for cooling and heat dissipation.
So far, the best Max-Q machines have been slim and much more travel-friendly than the average gaming laptop, while still allowing for gaming at 60fps or higher on high settings. There are, of course, tradeoffs: The Max-Q-tuned graphics cards are a bit less capable than the standard versions, pushing fewer frames per second while gaming. Also, these laptops tend to be a bit pricier. We’re seeing more and more of them, though, and they look likely to become the norm as we move into 2019’s GeForce RTX-based laptop releases. If you value portability and visual appeal, though, Max-Q is the most consistent method so far for relatively thin and light gaming laptops with top-tier power.
Stick With an SSD
You should definitely consider a system with an SSD, since prices have fallen considerably over the past few years. SSDs speed up boot time, wake-from-sleep time, and the time it takes to launch a game and load a new level. Go ahead and get a gaming laptop with an SSD, but make sure you configure correctly. A small-capacity (128GB to 256GB) SSD with a roomy (1TB or greater) spinning hard drive is a good start if you also download the occasional video from the internet. (Only thicker gaming laptops will tend to support dual-drive arrangements like this.) Higher-capacity SSDs (512GB or more) are available, but choosing one will increase the purchase price of your gaming rig by a bunch. SSDs are very fast, but in terms of capacity, your money goes much further with hard drives.
Remember the Memory
Before we forget, let’s talk memory. In a gaming laptop, look for at least 8GB of RAM. (In practice, no self-respecting model will come with less.) That will give you some breathing room when switching back and forth between your gameplay window and your messaging app, but we’d save researching game tips for when you’re not playing, as each successive browser window you open eats into your RAM allotment.
For a high-end system, we recommend 16GB, so you can have more than one gaming session, your messaging app, several websites, a webcam program, and your video streaming program open simultaneously. A midrange gaming laptop should function fine with 8GB of memory, but be aware that many new laptops are not upgradable. You may be stuck with the amount of memory you order.
Buying the Best Cheap Gaming Laptop
If you’re shopping for a gaming system on a limited budget (in this case, between roughly $ 800 and $ 1,200), you’re going to need to make some sacrifices. Maximizing power while staying within a limited price range is the goal, but you’ll have to accept that some of the components won’t be comparable with the more expensive laptops you’ll see while browsing. That said, $ 1,200 is a reasonable ceiling for what some buyers are ready to spend on a gaming laptop, and you can still get a solid system for that much or less. (Check out our side roundup of the best cheap gaming laptops.)
The main drop-off will be the graphics, since the dedicated graphics chip is one of the most expensive components in a machine and the major factor in a computer’s gaming prowess. The graphics chip almost single-handedly defines the class of laptop you’re dealing with, so it’s important to pay attention to that part when browsing options.
Cheaper gaming systems today are equipped with lower-tier cards like the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050, GTX 1050 Ti, or GTX 1060, but these modern budget cards are surprisingly effective. You’ll be able to play smoothly in HD, just not at the very highest settings in newer games. These may be budget systems, but this generation of entry-level graphics chips is fairly capable, so don’t be too worried that you won’t be able to play most games moderately well. Virtual-reality gaming may be a stretch in this price range, but the GTX 1060 is the least expensive VR-capable card, so some laptops at the higher end of this price range will (just) get you in the door.
Processors are the next biggest difference. You’ll likely get a capable Core i5 instead of a faster Core i7. Still, some of the benefits of an i7 machine aren’t a major factor for gaming, but instead benefit video editing and other creative uses, so an i5 will do the job. The newest generation of these chips are fast and efficient at a base level, and won’t be too much of a bottleneck for gaming. On the AMD side of the fence, in the rare gaming laptops you’ll find based wholly on AMD core technology, gamers will see mostly graphics solutions based on the now-aging Radeon RX 560, RX 570, and RX 580 paired with one of several AMD FX or Ryzen CPUs. Outside of the graphics card and processor, the other components should actually be closer to more expensive machines than you’d expect.
As far as storage is concerned, the price margin between hard drives and solid-state drives is narrowing. A 1TB hard drive with maybe a small boot-drive SSD alongside is common in budget laptops. The display will almost certainly be 1080p (1,920-by-1,080-pixel resolution), as 720p is now reserved only for cheap non-gaming systems and increasingly uncommon. The RAM will likely top off at 8GB in budget laptops, but you will find some (more ideal) 16GB laptops in this range.
What Else Do You Need to Up Your Game?
Given that high-end components tend to drain battery life, don’t plan on taking any of these gaming rigs too far from a wall socket very often. Cutting-edge ports like USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 are beneficial now, and will only be more so down the road, but look for at least two USB 3.0 ports so you can plug in an external mouse and a hard drive for your saved media files. If you mean to attach a VR headset to your GeForce GTX 1060-or-better rig, look for the right loadout of ports to accommodate it; you’ll need a well-placed video out and enough USB ports for the hydra-head of cabling. Other video ports, like HDMI or mini-DisplayPort, will be helpful if you want to play games on an external display, but aren’t absolutely necessary if your laptop’s screen is large enough.
Last but not least, if you’re a professional gamer looking to buy a gaming laptop that can keep you competitive, be prepared to brown-bag your lunches for a while. That kind of high-end performance can only come from top-of-the-line components, especially in a portable package, and they don’t come cheap. Plus, an emerging trend among high-end machines is a high-refresh-rate screen built into the laptop, which allows for display of lofty frame rates in full to smooth out the perceived gameplay. Note, though, that you’ll need a powerful graphics chip to leverage the benefits of a high-refresh panel with demanding games. You’ll be able to identify machines like these by marketing lingo touting, say, a 120Hz or 144Hz screen. (A typical display on a laptop is a 60Hz panel.)
Best Gaming Laptops Featured in This Roundup:
Pros: Top-end gaming performance. Slick chassis with sharp lighting. Oodles of storage and ports. 1440p G-Sync display. Configurable, with less expensive models a strong value.
Cons: As-tested configuration is expensive. Tobii eye tracking adds to cost, but doesn’t add much functionality.
Bottom Line: The Alienware 17 R5 gaming laptop delivers serious power in a big, but nicely built, package. The model we reviewed is expensive, but the configuration choices offer well-priced options for different budgets.
Pros: Aggressive price. Slim, sturdy build is nice for the money. No garish gamer aesthetic. Super-slim bezels. HD gaming capable. Above-average keyboard.
Cons: GTX 1050’s performance ceiling with demanding games is limited. Smallish 256GB SSD in this model.
Bottom Line: Lenovo’s Legion Y530 tops today’s class of budget gaming laptops with a sleek, distinctive build, alongside solid performance and a full feature set.
Pros: Slim, sleek design. Proficient HD gaming performance. 120Hz panel. Plenty of storage and ports.
Cons: Trades some power for portability with capped Max-Q GTX 1070.
Bottom Line: The Origin PC EVO15-S gaming laptop delivers exceptional power in a truly thin chassis thanks to its Max-Q GTX 1070 graphics card. Add in a sleek quality build, solid battery life, and an impressive array of features, and we have a winner.
Pros: Best-in-class overall performance. Slick, thin design, now with a larger (15.6-inch) screen. Superior high-refresh display. Per-key RGB backlighting. Solid battery life.
Cons: A bit pricey for the parts. Design of speaker grilles mars sleek build.
Bottom Line: The 2018 Razer Blade redefines the category it inspired: the super-slim, powerful gaming laptop. The best thin design in the business now packs a roomier 15.6-inch display and cutting-edge components.
Pros: On-point performance for the price. Solid construction. 144Hz display. Touchpad and keyboard are superior to other gaming laptops in its class.
Cons: Battery life is brief. Color scheme follows the crowd.
Bottom Line: With its part-metal build and GeForce GTX 1060 graphics, the Acer Predator Helios 300 is a compelling midrange gaming laptop in a premium suit.
Pros: Slim design. 144Hz display. Strong HD gaming performance. Good battery life for a gaming laptop.
Cons: Build quality doesn’t feel quite as premium as some competitors. Chunky top and bottom screen bezels. Ho-hum touchpad.
Bottom Line: The Alienware m15 makes good on its slim form with lots of gaming grunt and long battery life. It’s a very solid 15-inch gaming laptop, though a few bits-bezels, body materials-need sprucing up.
Pros: Thin, light, and attractive design. Fast new Intel Core i7 “Coffee Lake” processor. Very strong HD gaming performance. Long battery life. Lots of game-centric software features.
Cons: Construction doesn’t feel especially premium. So-so keyboard. A little short on storage.
Bottom Line: The MSI GS65 Stealth Thin is a slim Max-Q gaming laptop with fast performance, slick looks, and a long battery life. Only the less-than-stellar build quality keeps it from earning our top recommendation.
Pros: Super-slim design with powerful components. Sturdier build than predecessor. Capable of 60fps maximum-quality gaming, if only just. Narrow screen bezels. 144Hz display refresh rate. Multiple USB-C ports.
Cons: Short battery life undermines portable form. Keyboard and touchpad design take getting used to. No G-Sync support. GPU can’t leverage 144Hz screen in many games.
Bottom Line: The Zephyrus S is among the most portable gaming laptops you can buy, but short battery life means you can’t stray far from an outlet. On the charger, though, it’s an attractive and capable high-end machine.
Pros: Ferocious graphics and media-processing performance. Excellent 120Hz G-Sync display. Per-key RGB mechanical keyboard. Plenty of ports. Loud speakers.
Cons: Expensive. Requires two giant power adapters. Awkward three-column numpad layout. No dedicated gaming macro keys. Brief battery life.
Bottom Line: A monster in every way, the MSI GT75 Titan is an epic gaming machine with a high-refresh-rate screen, a comfy mechanical RGB keyboard, and chart-topping graphics grunt. Our key quibbles: high price and sheer bulk.
Pros: Low price. Satisfactory screen. SSD boot drive in a budget gaming laptop. Easy to add a second SSD or hard drive. Right on the edge of playable 1080p performance at high detail settings.
Cons: 256GB SSD won’t hold many games. Hard-to-read keyboard legends. Balky touchpad. Marginal battery life.
Bottom Line: If you think making an under-$ 1,000 gaming laptop is tough, try an under-$ 700 one: The AMD-based Acer Nitro 5 grabs the bottom rung of the 1080p gaming ladder and delivers decent value.