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 smoothly run 4K games 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. Entry-level 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. Midrange systems give you smoother gameplay at high settings on a higher-quality 1080p screen, support for VR headsets, and range in price from around $1,250 to $2,500. High-end systems have guaranteed smooth gameplay at 1080p with graphics details maxed out, let you play at 4K resolutions or in VR, support additional monitors, add speedy components like 512GB PCIe solid-state drives (SSDs), and are priced above $2,500. Many also add dual graphics processors, 3K to 4K screens, large-capacity SSDs, and ultra-efficient cooling fans as optional extras.
Graphics are Key
The main attribute that makes or breaks a gaming laptop is its graphics processing unit (GPU). The dominant player in the field right now is Nvidia, which produces discrete cards based on its 10-Series Pascal microarchitecture that offer performance close to what you could expect from a desktop PC equipped with the same-named card. Laptops using cards from the previous-generation GTX 900 series are still available for purchase, however, and likely will be until supplies run out within the next few months. Nvidia's chief rival, AMD, has not yet released the mobile versions of its new Polaris GPUs, so laptops based on AMD graphics are currently using older technology (represented by the Radeon R9 moniker) destined to be replaced in the near future.
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. 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 will let you run the latest games more comfortably on 4K and 5K displays, or let you hook up multiple monitors to your laptop. Nvdia's G-Sync and AMD's FreeSync technologies will help increase quality and smooth frame rates in your games, so look for those if you're a stickler for perfectly rendered animation.
Picking a Processor
The processor is the heart of a PC, and in most gaming laptops you'll find a quad-core 7th Generation Intel Core i5 or Core i7 CPU based on the Kaby Lake chipset. (8th Generation Intel chips are just starting to make their way onto laptops.) Theoretically, you may find a gaming laptop with an Intel Core i3 or one of AMD's CPUs installed, but those are rare: 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? 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 1070 GPU instead of a GTX 1060. Spending the money on the GPU makes more sense than spending it on the CPU. Look for Core i5 processors in midrange systems, with Core i7 U, HQ, and HK processors in higher-end gaming laptops. AMD's Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 processors show promise in desktop form, but laptop versions haven't been released yet.
Display: How Big to Go
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 QHD+ (3,200-by-1,800) resolution will boost the final cost twice: first for the panel, and second for the higher-quality graphics card needed to drive it. Because they usually require dual GPUs for the smoothest gameplay at native resolution, 4K (3,840-by-2,160-resolution) gaming laptops are becoming more common, but they're still expensive. And keep in mind that because only the most powerful graphics cards are able to render complex animation 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 game.
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 (128GB to 256GB) SSD with a large (500GB to 1TB) spinning hard drive is a good start if you also download the occasional video from the Internet. Bigger SSDs (512GB or more) are available, but choosing one will increase the purchase price of your gaming rig exponentially.
Remember the Memory
Before we forget, let's talk memory. Look for a gaming laptop with at least 8GB of RAM. That will give you some breathing room when switching back and forth between your gameplay window and your messaging app, but we'd save game tip research 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, roughly between $800 and $1,200), you're going to need to be OK with some concessions off the bat. 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 to the more expensive laptops you'll see while browsing. The main drop-off will be the graphics, since they're one of the single most expensive components in a machine and the major factor in a computer's gaming prowess. The cheaper systems are equipped with the lower-tier cards like the GTX 1050 Ti or 1060, but these modern budget cards are shockingly effective, and you'll be able to play smoothly in HD, just not at the very highest settings in newer games. Processors are the next biggest difference—you'll likely get a capable Core i5 instead of a faster Core i7—while the other components will be closer to more expensive machines. 1TB of storage and maybe even a small SSD alongside are common in budget laptops, the display will almost certainly be 1080p, and memory will likely be 8GB (while pricier laptops likely include 16GB).
What Else Do You Need?
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. 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.
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