While the desktop remains supreme among many PC gamers, sometimes you just need something a bit more portable. A gaming laptop is a rig on the go, with the power to play games in a size you can take with you.
But when you’re buying a gaming laptop, you’re not just looking at specs. You’re looking at a whole computer, including a built-in keyboard and display. Here, we explain all of the decisions you’ll have to make when buying a gaming laptop so you can get the best one for your needs and budget.
- Get a good GPU: Most games are GPU-dependent, and you can’t upgrade these in laptops. A good GPU will ensure your laptop plays games at high settings for a few years.
- Consider upgrading later: Many, though not all, gaming laptops let you upgrade your RAM and storage.
- Pick resolution or speed: The fastest displays, going up to 360 Hz, only come at 1920 x 1080 resolution right now, so a 4K screen will be slower.
- Get a good keyboard: You don’t want to play your games on something mushy or stiff.
- Battery life will probably be bad: Very few gaming notebooks get 8 hours or more on a charge, and you need the power supply to get the best performance anyway.
What GPU do you need?
While some games use the CPU, the majority of games are still GPU-bound, so this is one of the biggest decisions you make when buying a gaming notebook. At the moment, the majority of gaming notebooks come with Nvidia GeForce GTX or RTX GPUs.
The latest graphics cards on the Nvidia series are the newest RTX 30-series cards, from the RTX 3060 Max-Q through the RTX 3080. On the AMD front, there's the Radeon RX 5000M series, which consists of the RX 5500M for budget systems, and the RX 5600M and RX 5700M for more performance. We are, however, expecting a new range of AMD discrete GPUs to hit laptops later this year.
The RTX models command a premium. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a deal on a current-generation gaming laptop, keep an eye on our Best Tech Deals page.
- Entry-level gaming: If you don’t need to play on the highest settings, you can go for a GTX 1650 or RX 5500M, which will let you play most games, albeit on middling settings. An GTX 1660 Ti will give you a bit more power, and we generally think it’s noticeable and worth the investment. A laptop with these cards will roughly cost you between $800 (£700) and $1,100 (£900).
- Mainstream Gaming: Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 2060 is a good middle-of-the-road card that will let you play most games on high settings, though as the year goes on the RTX 3060 and RTX 3070 will take its place in the mid-range. It’s also considered the minimum standard for virtual reality, so it’s the lowest you should go for your Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. On the AMD side, the RX 5600M isn't as strong as a performer, but will get the job done. Expect laptops with these cards to fall between $1,100 (£1,000) and $1,500 (£1,350).
- VR and the Highest Settings: An RTX 2070 will let you play through just about anything on high settings, while the RTX 2080 or RTX 2080 Ti are the most powerful 20-series cards out there and will allow for smoother VR and special effects. As the year goes on, the RTX 3070 and RTX 3080 will push the most pixels. These are the cards that will let you start pumping up effects like Nvidia Gameworks. Laptops like this can start in the high K $/£ range, and, depending on what other specs you need, go over $3,000 (£2,700). But with the new RTX series, you can play ray-traced video games and get faster frame rates. An RTX 2070 or RTX 2080 may even be enough for you to play games in 4K.
What other specs should I look for?
While the GPU is important, you’ll also want to be on the lookout for a good CPU, enough RAM and lots of storage space.
- CPU: Depending on your budget, you can get a very powerful Core i7 CPU or even one that you can overclock such as the Intel Core i9-9980HK. You can also find laptops with desktop CPUs. However, most games benefit more from a quality GPU than a CPU so you can definitely get by with a Core i5 processor.
If you see something older than the most current Intel 10th Gen Core (model numbers begin with 10) or with less power, consider saving a bit. CPUs usually aren’t upgradeable, so you’re making this choice once. Intel launched its 11th Gen Intel Core H35 at CES 2021, while a 45W part will come later in the year.
- RAM: Gaming can be RAM intensive, and 8GB is what we recommend for even average productivity tasks. If you can, you should go for 16GB on a gaming PC. A laptop with a GTX 1650 or 1660 Ti usually comes with 8GB. Once you get to a GTX 2060 or higher, some will come with 16GB of RAM. If you can’t get your laptop with 16GB of RAM now, consider upgrading it in the near future. Memory is upgradeable in many gaming laptops, so this is an area that you can consider boosting later if you’re handy with a screwdriver.
- Storage: Hard drive or SSD? Why not both? Some budget gaming laptops will come with only a hard drive (usually 1TB), but the majority of gaming notebooks also include a small SSD to serve as a boot drive. It’s not uncommon to see a 128GB SSD and 1TB HDD working in tandem. If you can get a larger SSD you may see decreased loading times, but that will also cost you quite a bit more money. Make sure you get a faster, 7,200-rpm HDD as opposed to a 5,400-rpm HDD.
Like memory, storage is often upgradeable in gaming notebooks. So if you need more space, you can toss in a 2TB or larger HDD.
What should I look for in a display?
Displays are often overlooked but are hugely important. If you’re not connecting a laptop to a monitor, the built-in screen will be how you see all of your games.
- Size: Most gaming laptops have 15 or 17-inch screens, though there are a few huge systems that have 18-inch panels and a handful of 14-inch systems. What size you like is matter of personal preference, but remember that the larger the screen, the bigger and heavier the laptop.
- Resolution: Never get anything less than a 1920 x 1080 display. It’s rare to find one with a lesser resolution, but if you do, run. 4K (3840 x 2160) screens are an option on some gaming laptops, but you still may need to turn down some settings, especially if you enable ray tracing.
- Refresh rate: Most laptops you’ll see will have 1080p resolution and a 60Hz display. And for many gamers, that’s absolutely enough. Higher resolution displays (2560 x 1440, 3840 x 2160) are pretty, but top out at 60Hz. That’s why for some gamers, 1080p may be the best option. Some vendors offer FHD displays with a faster, 144 Hz, 240 Hz or even 360 Hz refresh rate for smoother gaming. Of course, you need a great GPU and to play on settings that emphasize frame rate over graphical fidelity to take advantage.
- Nvidia G-Sync and AMD FreeSync: Some gaming notebooks, particularly on the high-end, support technologies that sync the display with the graphics cards, which eliminates screen tearing and ghosting.
- Avoid touch screens: While not inherently bad, touch screens are unnecessary on gaming notebooks (some 2-in-1 models notwithstanding). They kill battery life and can make the display overly glossy.
What should I look for in a keyboard?
If you get an entry-level gaming keyboard, you’re going to get chiclet keys with LED backlighting. But there’s so much more to consider:
- Key Travel: This is how far down you can press a key. In general, we prefer keys with over 1.5 millimeters of key travel, and if you hit 2mm, that’s even better. This can keep you from “bottoming out,” or hitting the keyboard’s frame. When you get to some really expensive laptops, you can even find mechanical keys.
- Actuation: This is how much force you need to apply to a key to press it down. We usually like it between 65 and 70 grams, which is enough to provide resistance without feeling soft.
- Macro Keys: It’s more difficult to find macro keys on gaming notebooks than on desktop keyboards, but it’s not impossible. A good set of programmable macro keys will let you easily complete the most common tasks you complete in games. There’s usually custom software by the laptop manufacturer for this.
- Anti-ghosting and n-key rollover: These are two features that will keep you performing at your best in games. Anti-ghosting means that when you mash on several keys for combos or perform several actions, they will all register. Additionally, n-key rollover means that each key is independent of the others and will be registered no matter which other keys are being pressed.
- Backlighting: While budget gaming laptops will provide backlighting, it’s either just red or white. The best keyboards have RGB backlighting. Some do it by zone (or section of the keyboard), while others allow customization on a per key basis. Some even let you change the lighting depending on the game.
What do specific brands offer?
Each gaming laptop brand has a bit of special sauce. Some have specific hardware designs that stand out while others focus on custom software.
Here are a few to note:
Alienware (Dell) - Alienware has gotten into the thin-and-light game with the Alienware m17, but also made its own desktop-class powerhouse wit the Alienware Area-51m. Dell also makes its own entry-levle machines.
Asus - Asus’s Republic of Gamers brand has some slick designs. Its ROG Gaming Center software shares device information including temperature, storage and RAM usage, while the Armoury Crate program allows you to customize RGB backlighting. Asus also makes the Zephyrus G14, the best AMD laptop we've seen.
Acer - Acer is known for having affordable hardware, though it has wowed us with innovation like its ridiculous Predator 21X featuring a curved display and mechanical keyboard. The PredatorSense app lets you monitor your CPU and GPU usage and customize fan speeds.
HP - HP’s Omen lineup has a classier design as of late, but maintains a gamer aesthetic. Its app is the Omen Command Center, which details GPU and CPU use, RAM utilization and a network booster that lets you prioritize bandwidth.
Gigabyte & Aorus - Gigabyte and its sub-brand, Aorus, offer some variety. Gigabytes tend to be lower-end with more color options, while the Aorus models are sleek and thin. Whichever one you go with, you’ll get Fusion software for RGB customization. Aorus machines have Command and Control for easy overclocking.
Lenovo - Lenovo’s gaming lineup is called Legion, and has been recently redesigned to be more minimalist. Rather than creating new software, the company altered its Vantage app to focus on CPU, GPU, RAM and HDD info, as well as a button to boost fan speeds.
MSI - MSI’s gaming laptops are often big, black and red, though the company’s recent Stealth Thin showed it can do something more subdued as well. Of course, you’ll always notice the trademark dragon logo. MSI includes its Dragon Center software, which recently went through a redesign. It allows for system monitoring, multiple performance profiles, controlling the fans and customizing keyboard backlighting.
Razer - Did someone say Chroma? Razer’s design is some of the best in the business, and it's known for its RGB lighting. Razer Synapse lets you record macros and set lighting on both laptops and accessories.
How About Battery Life?
The short answer is not to count on your gaming notebook being super portable.
If you’re using your laptop to play games, you need to keep your laptop plugged in to get the full performance out of your GPU. And if you don’t, you’ll be lucky if your laptop lasts an hour gaming. In our testing experience, most gaming laptops last only a few hours on a charge when performing other tasks, but never as long as ultraportables without discrete GPUs. If you need something to last 8 hours while you work, it won’t be a gaming notebook.
Some do last long, but that’s often at the expense of the display, and you don’t want to play all your games on a dark, dim or inaccurate screen.
When buying a gaming notebook, get one that will last you for a few years. If you can afford it, get a mid-range to high-end GPU, though obviously a better card will offer better performance. That choice is more important than RAM and the CPU, though you should pay attention to those as well. Storage is the most likely to be upgradeable, but more is better, as games take up a lot of space. Decide if you prefer high resolutions or faster displays and consider what software will be helpful to you, but realize that you won’t get great battery life. How all of those work together determines just how well a gaming notebook does on the Tom’s Hardware test bench.