The Ultimate Guide to Buying a Gaming Laptop

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By Lucas Coll

Many PC gamers remember when gaming laptops were, by and large, regarded as a dubious value at best. That’s hardly the case today: Laptops have come a long, long way in recent years, with massive advances in mobile hardware technology – driven in no small part by the smartphone revolution – resulting in an exponential increase in on-chip transistor density.

Those of you familiar with Moore’s Law are already aware of this phenomenon. What it means, in layman’s terms, is that computing hardware (namely, CPUs and GPUs) have grown smaller while becoming more powerful and considerably cheaper relative to their raw processing power. Gaming laptops have benefited heavily from this, and today’s machines can easily offer desktop-like performance when it comes to running the latest AAA games at high settings.

More good news is that if you’re on a budget, you’ve got plenty of options available to you for less than a grand. If you’re willing to pay more, however, then you can enjoy features like 4K displays and hardware specs that rival those of the most elite custom-built desktops. There’s a lot to consider before you spend your hard-earned cash, though, so we’re here to help you make the right choice with this gaming laptop buying guide. Read on:

Lenovo Legion 5

What are the best budget gaming laptops?

If we classify “budget gaming laptops” as anything that costs less than $1,000, you’ve got a decent number of options available to you. You can usually expect to pay at least $700 for a good budget gaming laptop outside of big seasonal sales; at this price point, you’ll get a machine with an Intel Core i5 or Ryzen 5 CPU, an Nvidia GTX 1650-series GPU, 8GB of RAM, and fairly modest storage options (a 256GB SSD is standard).

Those are basic but perfectly respectable specs if you don’t want to spend too much but want to enjoy good performance playing modern games – just don’t expect to run the latest AAA titles at “ultra” settings. Moving into the $700-$1,000 range will net you upgrades such as Intel Core i7 or AMD Ryzen 7 processors, Nvidia GTX 1660-series or Radeon 5000M-series mobile GPUs, and increased storage. Keep your eyes open for machines packing 16GB of RAM here as well. That’s a nice sweet spot for a budget gaming laptop that isn’t too basic.

Tip-toeing up to the $1,000 mark and beyond, you definitely shouldn’t settle for less than the specs stated above (Intel Core i7 and AMD Ryzen 7 CPUs, 512GB SSDs, and 16GB of RAM at least). At around a grand, though, you should look out for an Nvidia GTX 1660 Ti or Radeon 5600M GPU; better yet, you might even be able to score one with a GTX 2060 graphics card around this price if you get lucky.

You can find some very good budget gaming laptops from Acer, Asus, Lenovo, HP, MSI, and Dell, to name a handful of the most popular brands. Buying a refurbished gaming laptop is another solid way to stretch your dollar even further if you’re willing to do that. Just be sure you’re getting one that’s been refurbished by professionals (ideally by the original manufacturer).

Acer Nitro 5 AN515-55-54Q0 with RTX 2060

What are the best gaming laptops, no price restrictions?

If money is no object then the gaming laptop world is your oyster. Core i9 and Ryzen 9 CPUs, Nvidia GeForce RTX 20-series and 30-series GPUs, 16GB-32GB of RAM, and massive1TB solid-state drives are all readily available to you in the $1,000-$2,500 range. The higher-end AMD Radeon 5000-series cards are also a good buy here, but just like with cheap gaming laptops, these are less common than Nvidia’s offerings.

Don’t just limit yourself to the best hardware, though. The top gaming laptops are increasingly sporting value-added features like 4K displays to let you get the most out of those bleeding-edge specs. These also aren’t always as expensive as you might think, which is good news considering the premiums that Ultra HD desktop monitors still command.

High-end gaming laptops include models from brands like Razer and Alienware, as well as premium offerings from aforementioned makers including MSI, Lenovo, and Acer, among others. These machines are definitely enthusiast-tier, and while they’re impressive, you do start to hit diminishing returns on your dollar past a certain price point. However, that more powerful hardware will provide a lot of future-proofing for playing demanding AAA games for years to come.

Razer Blade 15

How do I choose a gaming laptop?

Choosing the right gaming laptop for you is much like any other purchase: It’s going to come down to balancing your needs and wants with your budget. You likely already have a pretty good idea of what you’re willing to spend and what sort of games you like to play, and these will guide your decision more than anything.

We’ll get into the nitty gritty regarding specs later, but know that you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a decent gaming laptop capable of running modern titles reasonably well. For casual games like Fortnite, any budget gaming laptop with a modern GPU will do what you want. If you want to run the latest and greatest titles at “high” to “ultra” settings, and you want to do it for years to come, you’ll need to increase your budget – but don’t get too carried away.

You can’t really upgrade gaming laptops like you can desktops which means you’re pretty much stuck with the hardware you have. Even today’s most cutting-edge GPUs won’t be cutting-edge five years from now. You’re also not going to have that $2,500 gaming laptop forever. How long do you plan to keep it before upgrading to a newer one? Factor that into your purchase decision. Calculating a per-year cost can help you visualize how much value you’re actually getting for your dollar.

It’s easy to get so bogged down in hardware specifications that you overlook design elements that relate to everyday use. How’s the keyboard? Will you carry the laptop from place to place frequently, or will it spend most of its time in one spot? How large and heavy is it? Do you also plan to do lots of work, such as typing, on your gaming laptop? What accessories, if any, do you intend to use? (We recommend buying a gaming mouse, at the very least.) Do you plan to connect the laptop to an external display? What ports does it have for these, and how many?

Acer Predator Triton 300

Look at pictures and read reviews to get a good idea of what actually using the laptop every day might feel like. Customer reviews written by people who own that particular model are especially helpful here. Also decide if you plan to do any maintenance or upgrades (such as adding more RAM or a bigger SSD) to your laptop yourself. YouTube is a useful resource here, as you can find complete tear-down videos if you’re the DIY type.

Consider thermal performance as well; this is something that’s not often listed on a spec sheet. You want a laptop with a good cooling system (ideally a dual-fan setup) so it won’t run uncomfortably or even dangerously hot while under load. Gaming is a demanding task even for full-sized hardware. Those components only run hotter when they’re sized-down and jammed into a tight laptop chassis.

What should I look for in a gaming laptop?

The primary consideration when shopping for a gaming laptop is naturally going to be its hardware capabilities, but don’t focus so heavily on things like GPU and RAM that you overlook other important features. Since hardware is the most important thing, though, it’s a good idea to understand the basics and the current market landscape.

The main components of a gaming laptop are the CPU, graphics card or GPU, and RAM. You’re likely already at least somewhat familiar with these, but if you haven’t gone PC shopping in awhile, you might not be acquainted with the latest and greatest hardware that the top gaming laptops are packing today.

The CPU, or central processing unit, is essentially the “brain” of the computer and does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to running programs (or processes, hence the “processor” moniker), at least outside of gaming. CPU selection is more important if you’re building a PC from scratch, but with pre-built systems such as gaming laptops, processors are typically paired accordingly with GPUs – that is, a gaming laptop isn’t likely to sport a beefy graphics card only to have a woefully under-powered processor.

Since GPU selection is the most important thing when choosing a gaming laptop, we won’t get too far into the weeds regarding CPUs here, but it’s still good to have a basic grasp of what’s out there. A good modern gaming laptop will sport a 10th- or 11th-gen Intel Core i5, i7, or i9 CPU, or, less commonly, an AMD Ryzen 5, 7, or 9 processor. Any of those are pretty much good to go and will be paired with a comparable GPU. Which combo you get will naturally depend on how much you’re spending.

You could call the GPU the “heart” of a gaming laptop, but it’d be more accurate to think of it it as a second brain. The GPU, or graphics processing unit (more commonly called a graphics card), is basically another processor, but one devoted fully to handling demanding graphical tasks such as rendering 3D visuals. A GPU is also useful for things like rendering videos and 3D models, though, so these aren’t employed only by gamers.

For gaming, the GPU is arguably even more important than the CPU, as a sub-par graphics card will bottleneck your system faster than anything. (If you’ve ever built a gaming desktop, you know that the GPU is usually the most expensive part of the entire build.) There are only two names in the graphics card game: Nvidia, which is by far the most common in gaming laptops, and AMD, which has recently been expanding its mobile GPU lineup.

MSI GP66 Leopard with RTX 3070

Some gamers have surprisingly strong feelings about Nvidia vs. AMD, but honestly, either one will suit you fine – just compare benchmarks between cards available in your price bracket and get the best one you can afford. Bear in mind, however, that mobile GPUs are not identical to their full-sized desktop counterparts. When shopping for a gaming laptop and comparing graphics cards, make sure you’re actually looking at the mobile GPU variants.

Modern GPUs include Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 16 series (1650, 1660, and their upgraded “Super” and “Ti” variants), the GTX 20 series (2060, 2070, 2080) and AMD’s Radeon RX 5000M series (5500M, 5600M, 5700M, etc.). Nvidia’s latest GTX 30-series cards are also rolling out in high-end gaming laptops now, so keep your eyes peeled for those if money is no object. Both Nvidia and AMD are in a constant arms race to release the newest, hottest GPUs, so do your research before you buy – a new line could be just around the corner and it might be worth waiting a little longer.

“RAM” stands for “random access memory” (or just “memory” for short) and, as its name implies, works much like your own brain’s short-term memory. In layman’s terms, ongoing tasks and processes are stored in the RAM for quick recall. You could say that your PC’s RAM simply “remembers things” if you want to strain the brain analogies a bit further.

All you really need to know about RAM, however, is that more is better. You won’t find less than 8GB even on budget gaming laptops nowadays, and 16GB is a nice sweet spot on the price-to-performance spectrum. On high-end gaming laptops, 32GB is common, although you’re not likely to see (or need) more than that. Bear in mind that in most cases, you can add more RAM yourself, but if this is something you’d like to do, do some research and make sure a particular laptop you’re eyeing supports such DIY upgrades.

A couple final notes on RAM: The current standard memory type is DDR4, but this is not likely something you’ll have to worry about. A little more important is clock speed. The RAM you’ll most commonly see on gaming laptops has a clock speed of between 2600MHz and 3200MHz. Higher is better, but don’t let this be a deal breaker if you find a laptop that you really like and it fits in your budget. Also know that 8GB of 3200MHz DDR4 RAM is not superior to 16GB of 2600MHz DDR4 RAM – more RAM is always more desirable.

Those are the most essential things under the hood, but the exterior components of the gaming laptop are also important. Most vital among these is the display, and they are not all created equal. IPS, VA, and TN are the three most common panel types used for computer monitors, and IPS and VA (not WVA, which does not actually refer to panel type) are what you’ll typically find on gaming laptops.

IPS displays offer the best viewing angles and highest degree of color accuracy and are generally considered the best of the three common panel types, but fall behind the others with regards to input lag. TN has the poorest picture but the fastest response times. VA falls somewhere in the middle, with superior picture quality to TN but better response times than IPS. However, unless having the lowest possible input lag is vital, we generally recommend IPS displays for their superior picture quality. Otherwise, VA is fine. TN is best avoided.

MSI Creator 17 with 4K Display

Also consider refresh rate. Measured in hertz (Hz), refresh rate determines the maximum frame rate you can play games smoothly at. The general rule is that your frame rate should be set at about half (or less) of your refresh rate. That means that for gaming at 60 frames per second, you want a display with a 120Hz-144Hz refresh rate. Pushing a game’s frame rate higher than what your monitor can handle will cause stuttering and screen-tearing.

Even budget gaming laptops are increasingly sporting 120Hz-144Hz displays, so opt for that if it’s an option. The top gaming laptops often have even higher rates of 240Hz-300Hz (which are paired with the best GPUs that will allow you to actually get the most out of that). Only settle for 60Hz if you’re on a tight budget and/or you only plan to game at 30fps.

We’ll end on a final note about screen resolution: The vast majority of gaming laptops are 1080p (Full HD), but an increasing number of higher-end machines now feature 4K displays. These sail well north of $1,000 (often closer to $2,000), and while they’re nice, bear in mind you’re still playing on a smaller screen and aren’t likely to enjoy that Ultra HD resolution as much as you would on, say, a 30+ inch ultrawide monitor. We suggest prioritizing better internal hardware first and only spending more for a 4K display if the laptop’s other specs justify the price.

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