How to Choose a Gaming Laptop
The top performers in our review are the ASUS ROG G752VS OC Edition, the Gold Award winner; the Acer Predator 17, the Silver Award winner; and the HP OMEN 17, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on how we tested and ranked the top 10 gaming laptops and how to choose the one that’s best for you.
For years, PC gaming has been dominated by large, customizable gaming desktops, which have room for high-powered components and elaborate cooling systems you can easily access for maintenance and upgrades. However, laptop hardware has improved a lot, and the performance gap between gaming laptops and gaming desktops is narrowing. As such, laptop gaming PCs are a rapidly growing segment of the PC market.
These laptops are different from mainstream systems in a few key ways. Specifically, gaming laptops place more emphasis on dedicated graphics hardware, top-of-the-line processing and an array of unique features. Overall, their capabilities have grown tremendously, allowing the best gaming laptops to play AAA games at high-detail settings with smooth performance, and you can take them with you for gaming on the go.
There are plenty of good gaming laptops to choose from right now, but the simple fact is that if you’re willing to pay more for a system, you can get one that’s more powerful. You can find gaming laptops under $1,000, but you have to make some sacrifices to hit that price point. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you can spend upwards of $4,000 for a custom system built to your own personal specifications and tricked out with a custom paint job and exotic features. There is a point of diminishing returns, after which you pay for flash and sizzle instead of gaming performance.
But there is a middle tier of powerful and capable systems that cost between $1,500 and $3,000. These have the latest graphics hardware, can play AAA games, and can run high framerates at high detail settings and high resolutions – meaning they display in full HD or better. These systems give you the most bang for your buck.
If you want a budget model, be ready to make compromises. When you buy a less expensive model, the biggest sacrifice is in graphics performance because it will use one of last year’s graphics cards. These older cards do okay for most games, but they may not be able to handle new games and new standards. You also give up handy features like gaming-optimized networking and high-speed ports.
Truly Portable Gaming
Not all laptops are built for use on the go. Gaming laptops, with their thick and chunky designs and large screen sizes, have traditionally been far too large for portable use. They’re portable in the sense that you can close the lid, pick them up and move them to another room far easier than a gaming desktop, but they’re generally much too big for laptop bags, and they aren’t really made to be used on battery power. They are essentially portable desktops.
That said, within the last five years, these gaming systems have increasingly and dramatically become more portable, and ultraportable gaming systems have emerged as viable options for serious gamers. Slim ultrabook-style systems cut the weight, reduce the bulk and have long battery life. They are portable when using non-gaming applications and can maybe last an hour or two when playing games away from a power outlet.
VR On the Laptop
The latest systems are equipped with the newest graphics processors – NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 1060 and 1070 cards – and add a new element to the equation: VR capability. With these new cards, laptops can support headsets like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. They put the minimum specs for VR use in a laptop instead of a bulky desktop.
That said, the best of these laptops still can’t match the performance of VR desktops. You can use a gaming laptop, but you have to deal with lower resolutions, potential overheating, and even the sort of stuttering and lag that kept people away from gaming laptops in the past. If you want to game on a laptop and try VR, these new systems can do that. On the other hand, if you want to get the best VR experience available, you still need a high-end gaming desktop.
Check out our gaming laptop reviews to get an in-depth look at each model. If you want to learn more, check out our articles on PC gaming and gaming laptops here.
Gaming Laptops: How We Tested, What We Found
As you look for a gaming laptop, there are a few specifications you want to pay close attention to, namely graphics capabilities, overall performance, design and connectivity.
Graphics & Gaming
Graphics performance is key for any gaming system. A high-end graphics card is actually more important to your gaming experience than a high-end processor. Newer graphics cards create smoother animation, richer textures, better lighting and shading effects, and better physics. Everything that you see in a game is built to be managed by the GPU – the GPU is the workhorse that makes gaming possible, and if you skimp on that, it will limit your game play more than any other aspect of the laptop.
It’s also the component that’s going to hit your wallet the hardest. A newer card can cost hundreds of dollars more than the 900-series cards found in budget systems. Part of this is simply that newer products command a higher price, but the latest cards are also a significant step forward technologically. NVIDIA’s newer cards feature updated chip architecture, more processing cores and faster speeds. You can better your experience with the same card by pairing it with more dedicated video memory (VRAM). As a general rule, buy the best graphics card you can get, with the largest allotment of VRAM available.
Specs & Performance
While graphics capability is the biggest determinant of your gaming experience, overall performance is still important. If you want great gaming performance, you need a great laptop in general. Now, this doesn’t mean you need a high-end CPU – for example, a Core i7 might not be much better than a Core i5 – but it does impact the computer’s performance outside of gaming. If you spend over $1,500 on a laptop, you expect it to be great for all of your computing needs.
You should look for powerful processing hardware, and luckily, most gaming laptops have you covered with the latest Intel Core i7 CPU. They also come equipped with large allotments of RAM, which allows for smoother performance and better multitasking. When in doubt, more RAM is almost always better.
For a better idea of what this hardware does in your day-to-day computing, we looked to tests like Geekbench 3 and Laptop Mag’s Spreadsheet Performance Test. All of the systems we evaluated did quite well, but those marked with A and B grades have the very best performance, and a D grade indicates markedly lower scores.
You also want to keep any eye on storage, paying particular attention to the size and speed of the drives. Larger hard drives give you more room for game installations and media files, but drives with a higher RPM or SSDs load games faster and also boost overall performance.
Design & Construction
The variety in laptop designs is perhaps nowhere as evident as it is in gaming laptops. You can buy a chunky 17-inch laptop that tips the scales at 7 pounds or more, or you can opt for one with a slim, ultraportable design that weigh less than 5 pounds and slips easily into a laptop bag. If portability is important to you, pay attention to thickness and weight. However, you should also be aware that thinner, lighter systems have some different limitations on hardware. Thicker, bulkier systems have more room for hardware and better cooling to get the best performance from that hardware. Neither extreme is necessarily better, but portability often comes at the expense of raw performance.
Battery life is also an issue. All of that hardware uses a lot of juice, and it’s hard for laptop batteries to keep up. A few laptops in our review lasted more than five hours on a single charge, but several hover right around the three-and-half-hour mark. That’s not even for gaming use. Even the longest-lasting gaming rigs only offer an hour or two of gaming away from a power outlet. This is exacerbated by the fact that the easiest way to cut weight in a laptop is to shrink the heaviest component – the battery. Smaller systems have smaller batteries and also try to drive demanding hardware. The result is a delicate balancing act between capability and portability.
The keyboard is another important design feature to consider. Larger laptops have more room for their keyboards and usually include a numeric pad on the right-hand side. If your play style incorporates the keypad, you want to be sure to get a laptop that has one.
Keyboard backlighting is another feature to look for. A lot of gamers pay attention to the aesthetic of their gaming laptops, and so most of these computers have colored backlighting that matches their overall color scheme. Backlighting is usually limited to one color, but laptops with multicolor lights are available.
Connectivity is important, since it’s highly unlikely you’ll use your gaming laptop on its own as you game. You’re far more likely to connect it to other devices, including external monitors, mechanical keyboards, gaming mice, game controllers and audio headsets. There are dozens of products on the market to make your gaming experience more comfortable and give you a competitive edge, but if you don’t have the ports to connect to them, you’re out of luck.
Most peripherals connect through USB, and USB 3.0 is the most popular version of that common port. It has much faster throughput than the older USB 2.0 standard, which is especially helpful when connecting a storage device or any peripheral that needs speedy data transfer. Also, the more ports available the better; a fourth USB port can mean the difference between using all the devices you want and leaving a part of your battle station languishing in a desk drawer.
In addition to standard USB ports, USB Type-C has started to find its way onto most new laptops. This smaller, faster port has enough throughput to match several standard USB 3.0 ports, and it can handle port replicators, adapter dongles and more. A significant number of these laptops also boast Thunderbolt 3 support, which further opens them up for monitors and even external graphics cards.
Finally, there are video outputs. Current graphics cards can support one or two additional monitors beyond the laptop display, and many gamers chose to game on larger monitors when at home. Most laptops feature a single HDMI port, but a few also add support for DisplayPort or Mini DisplayPort for a second external display.
Online gaming is extremely popular, so network connectivity is also important. Most of these laptops feature 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which is the latest standard. It offers the best connectivity and throughput for an uninterrupted connection. Cheaper gaming laptops may opt for older standards like 802.11n, which isn’t as robust. Of those that have AC, most have a single antenna setup, but the better systems have a 2 x 2 antenna array, which gives you better signal clarity and a better connection.
More important for online gaming is Ethernet. Wi-Fi is great for most tech products, but if you want the fastest connection you can get with no interference and few connectivity issues, go wired. Most of the gaming rigs in this review feature Gigabit Ethernet, which boasts up to 1000MB per second speeds, but one has Fast Internet, which tops out at only 100MB per second, throttling you with significantly slower speeds. If you know your gaming habits and think you’ll be fine with just Wi-Fi, there are also systems that don’t even have an Ethernet port.
What Else Is Important in Selecting a Gaming Laptop?
Display quality may not be the end all be all of a gaming system, but it’s still worth paying attention to your options. The size of the display is generally determined by the laptop’s design, but you’ll have some options for resolution. Most gaming laptops have 1920 x 1080 full HD standard, and while that’s sufficient for gaming, it’s not the highest resolution available. You can get better-than-full-HD and even 4K resolution. Keep in mind that higher-resolution displays are more expensive, and it doesn’t make as much of a difference on a small screen as it does on a large monitor or TV.
If high resolution is important to you, it’s worth paying extra to enjoy movies and some higher-resolution games. The flip side of that is that 4K screens often have higher resolution than the graphics hardware can handle while gaming at high frame rates. Sure, you can enjoy a 4K movie, but if you can’t game in 4K on your 4K gaming laptop, you might feel a little ripped off.
Help and support options are also important. These are high-end tech products, and you expect them to work. When they don’t, the manufacturer should offer help. All of the companies we looked at have technical support staff and cover the laptop for the first year after purchase. You can often reach dedicated support personnel through live chat on the manufacturer’s website, as well as by phone, email and in some cases, even social media.
Our colleagues at Laptop Mag evaluated the overall quality of customer support at the companies whose computers we highlight in our review. We present these scores as grades, which indicate how easy it is to reach support staff and get competent technical support that solves your problems. If you think you’ll use support services often, you may want to favor companies with better support grades.
Gaming Laptops: Our Verdict & Recommendations
The Gold Award goes to the ASUS ROG G752VS OC Edition, which has the best gaming performance of any gaming laptop we reviewed, thanks to an NVIDIA GTX 1070 GPU, a potent collection of components and a feature set that belies its relatively reasonable price. If you want the best gaming notebook you can get without shelling out thousands for a custom job, this is the one to get.
The Acer Predator 17 earns our Silver Award thanks to a combination of fantastic performance, a rich feature set and some of the best battery life in our review. While the 17-inch laptop may be too big for true portability, it’s definitely a great gaming rig to use at home or to take to your next LAN party.
The HP OMEN 17 takes our Bronze Award but not just for its impressive gaming capability. It also scores high marks for its VR-ready specs and impressive 4K display, which make it one of the best laptops for gaming we reviewed. Thanks to its reasonable price, it’s also a great value.
If you’re in the market for the best lightweight gaming laptop, you should also look at the ultraportable Razer Blade. Its slim 14-inch design is a far cry from the 17-inch behemoths that dominate the category, but it’s still a rock solid performer. The Razer Blade is the portable gaming laptop to get for gaming on the go.
If you want a compact laptop that boasts VR support, take a look at the Alienware 13 R3 OLED. This 13-inch gaming laptop has all the new hardware you need to dabble in VR, and it has a gorgeous OLED display, which also makes it the only gaming laptop we reviewed with 4K resolution.
For the best budget gaming laptop, check out the Dell Inspiron 15 7000. While most of Dell’s gaming is done under the Alienware brand, this is a Dell Inspiron laptop with gaming-grade hardware and a fancy paint job. It’s a real bargain, selling for less than systems offering similar graphics hardware. It’s not great, and you have to cut some corners to get that low price – slower Ethernet and Wi-Fi, as well as fewer ports and video outputs – but can play most current games for under a grand.