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 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.
Gaming systems have higher-end components than run-of-the-mill consumer laptops, so their prices consequently will be higher, but the range across the category is huge: from under a grand to $5,000 and up. The budget gaming laptops start at around $700 and can go up to about $1,250. For that, you get a system that can play games at full HD resolution (1080p) with the settings turned down in most titles, or at maximum quality settings in simpler games. Storage may be a hard drive, or a modest-capacity solid-state drive (SSD). An SSD is always preferable.
Want something better? Midrange systems give you smoother gameplay at high or maximum settings on a better-quality 1080p screen (often in concert with a special high-refresh screen; more on that in a moment), and should add support for VR headsets. These models will range in price from around $1,250 to $2,000
High-end systems, meanwhile, should guarantee you smooth gameplay at 1080p with graphics details maxed out, often with a high-refresh screen. They even 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 PCI Express solid-state drives, and they are priced above $2,000, often closer to $3,000.
Some laptops in this class support QHD (2,560-by-1,440-pixel) or 4K screens, a hard drive to supplement the SSD, and ultra-efficient cooling fans as optional extras. Thanks to modern advancements, an increasing number of these are even fairly thin and portable. With laptops in this tier, you’ll either pay a premium for high-end performance in a thin chassis, or for pay for the most possible power in a chunkier build.
At the very highest end of the market, a handful of elite boutique models will support dual graphics chips. (Such rare-bird machines will be massive and expensive, with minimal battery life.)
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 a discrete graphics chip from Nvidia or (much less commonly) AMD.
The dominant player in the field right now is Nvidia, which currently produces discrete mobile GPUs based on both its “Turing” and “Ampere” microarchitecture. Ampere GPUs sell under the RTX 30-Series name (ie, the RTX 3080) and launched on laptops in early 2021, meaning they have not yet appeared in many laptops lines, and when they do it’s often in the most premium offerings only. That means you’ll mostly find Turing GPUs, like the RTX 2060 and RTX 2070, in most laptops that launched in 2020, and in midrange gaming laptops releasing in 2021. At this stage, the 10-Series “Pascal” architecture has been phased out in new laptops, though you may still find some old systems with these GPUs in stock at online retailers. Generally though, this means any laptop you’re looking at with a 10-Series GPU (for example, a GeForce GTX 1070 or GTX 1080) is not the latest release, and the clock is now running down on the RTX 20-Series GPUs, though they will remain around longer as a midrange option.
The Turing platform debuted with desktop graphics cards in September 2018 and made its way into laptops by early 2019. To push the performance at the top end of its stack even further, in April 2020 Nvidia also announced it would be using the same strategy on laptop as it did on desktop with the mobile GeForce RTX Super series. The GeForce RTX 2070 Super and RTX 2080 Super, upticked versions of the base GPUs, will deliver even higher frame rates on the most premium laptops available. These essentially replace the originals in the 20-Series moving forward. In a similar timing window, the 30-Series Ampere platform launched on desktop in 2020, and then released on laptops in 2021. Unlike prior generations, the top-end Turing and Ampere GPUs available on laptops carry an “RTX” designation rather than “GTX,” a nod to the ray-tracing technology that the platform offers for enhanced in-game visuals (with games that support it).
That’s how we arrive at the GeForce RTX 2080 (Turing) and RTX 3080 (Ampere) names for both laptops and desktops, where in the past the top-of-the-line option was the GTX 1080. With Turing, we found that the laptop GPus pretty closely matched their desktop counterparts, while there was a noticeable gap between the two with Pascal. Unfortunately, it’s back to being a bit complicated with Ampere: RTX 30-Series GPUs on desktop perform markedly better than their laptop counterparts, and there’s also some sizable variance between the same GPU on one laptop and another. To see our findings on this topic, read our mobile Ampere testing article.
To make things slightly more confusing, not all Turing-based GPUs use the RTX moniker. The laptop versions of the GeForce GTX 1650 and 1660 Ti GPUs launched in 2019, and the GTX 1650 Ti debuted in 2020, filling out the bottom of the hierarchy. These are based on the same generation of architecture as the RTX GPUs, but they lack the cores for ray tracing and are less expensive. These are now the entry-level options for Nvidia laptops, with the GeForce GTX 1660 Ti an attractive compromise choice (usually in the tier just below high-end GPUs) if you can’t spring for an RTX GPU. The GTX 1650 Ti, meanwhile, has been utilized in smaller gaming laptops, like the Razer Blade Stealth 13, and non-gaming laptops that can benefit from some graphics oomph, like the Dell XPS 15. This is especially relevant in the budget gaming laptop category, and less so in midrange and high-end laptops, which are likely to utilize the RTX 2060 and up.
Nvidia is still the main player in graphics, and the majority of laptops use its technology, but chief rival AMD is seeing an increase in adoption. A rising number of gaming laptops offer Radeon RX 5000 Series GPUs, and some creative professional laptops include the latest Radeon Pro GPUs. The most popular example of this is the 16-inch Apple MacBook Pro, which uses the Radeon Pro 5500M. All of these GPU series are often offered as an alternative to an Nvidia-based SKU, sometimes paired with an Intel processor, though we’re also seeing more frequent examples of AMD graphics combined with AMD processors than before. (Dell and MSI, for example, were offering a few AMD-on-AMD CPU/GPU machines.)
All of 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 RTX 2080 and 3080 generally produce higher frame rates and higher-quality graphics than a GeForce RTX 2060 or RTX 2070. A single high-end RTX-class 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 powering VR play. Additionally, the 30-Series Ampere GPUs (particularly the RTX 3080) have made smooth 4K gaming much more plausible than before, even with some RTX enabled in some titles. The most demanding games may not hit 60fps at 4K with ray tracing on depending on the laptop, but it’s much more plausible to do either on their own with these top-end options.
In the past, the power of an RTX 2080 or RTX 3080 would look like overkill for smooth gaming in HD, but several new factors can absorb that extra potential. A 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. 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, 144Hz, or 240Hz screen. (A typical display on a laptop is a 60Hz panel.)
Many more expensive systems now feature these high-refresh-rate screens (144Hz is emerging as the most common, but we’re also seeing some 240Hz and even 300Hz options in pricey models), so they can display more than 60 frames per second (up to 144fps, in the case of 144Hz screens). This makes gameplay look smoother, but only high-end GPUs can push those limits, in many cases. Additionally, the aforementioned ray-tracing techniques (think real-time lighting and reflection effects) are demanding to run, and as more video games implement the technology, the more you’ll wish you could flip them on. (For now, they’re a factor in just a smattering of AAA games, such as Battlefield V and Metro: Exodus.)
As such, there are multiple reasons to opt for a GeForce RTX 2070, RTX 3070, or RTX 3080, even if playing games at a full HD (1080p) resolution doesn’t look too demanding to you on paper. We’ll spare you too many details here, but Nvidia is also implementing a rendering technique called DLSS to help ray tracing to run smoothly on less powerful hardware like the RTX 2060 with limited downsides, so you’re not totally out of luck if you can’t afford the top-end chips. DLSS support, though, applies to just a small subset of games for now.
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 rewrite the image onscreen at a variable rate that depends on the output of the GPU (rather than the fixed rate of the screen). Look for support for one of those technologies if you’re a stickler for perfectly rendered visuals. These technologies, collectively known as “adaptive sync,” are becoming more common, but they tend to show up in pricier machines, with G-Sync much, much more common.
The processor is the heart of a PC, and in almost any gaming laptop that released back in 2019, you’ll find a four-, six-, or eight-core 8th or 9th Generation Intel Core i5 or Core i7 CPU based on the “Coffee Lake” architecture. Some of those may still be available on online retailers, but following spring 2020, most shifted to Intel’s 10th Generation Core H-Series processors (also dubbed “Comet Lake-H”). You’ll still see many of these in laptops available in 2021, even though they’re technically no longer the latest and greatest chips: Intel launched its 11th Generation “Tiger Lake-H” processors in early 2021. These “only” include four cores and eight threads, but thanks to improvements in Intel’s 10nm process, that shouldn’t always equal lower performance, especially on less multi-threaded tasks. They also have the advantage of using less power and running cooler. We’ve only reviewed on laptop with this chip so far, the Asus TUF Dash F15, so don’t want to draw too many sweeping conclusions on them just yet.
In general, more cores and higher clock speeds bring better overall efficiency and much-improved performance on multithreaded tasks like media projects, but it’s less vital for gaming, making the four-core “Tiger Lake H35” family a good fit going forward. Gaming generally doesn’t usually doesn’t see as much of a boost from more threads, but the six-core Comet Lake-H processors were indeed an improvement on their predecessors nonetheless. The six-core/12-thread Core i7-10750H, in particular, has become the go-to for gaming laptops (and in the most premium gaming laptops, the Core i7-10875H). We expect the i7-11375H used in the TUF Dash F15, and the rest of the Tiger Lake-H chips, to be used in more portable gaming laptops going forward.
Theoretically, you may find a gaming laptop with an Intel Core i3 processor, 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 RTX 2070 GPU instead of an RTX 2060. 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 H, HQ, and HK processors in higher-end gaming laptops. The H-series processors are higher-power, and tend to show up in more expensive gaming laptops, while lower-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. (Intel has started using a “G” suffix on its U-Series chips in the 11th generation to denote the improved integrated graphics, but they are functionally still U-Series processors). U-series chips are uncommon in true gaming laptops, but they are out there. H is better. The most expensive, biggest gaming laptops out there will even offer Core i9 H-Series processors, which are also superior for media tasks.
On the AMD side, times are changing. Previously the mobile versions of the company’s Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 processors played second fiddle to Intel’s offerings. They have their own performance advantages in desktops and laptops, but they have traditionally been far less common in gaming laptops than Intel’s offerings. In 2020, though, AMD launched its new generation of mobile processors based on the Zen 2 architecture, which has been hugely successful on desktop. The first CPU from this new line we tested was the Ryzen 9 4900HS (inside the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14), and it’s seriously impressive, as we continued to see on other laptops through the year. Compared to Intel’s equivalents, these chips performed better on media tasks and offered comparable gaming performance at a lower cost. AMD offers lesser Ryzen 7 and Ryzen 5 chips, too, in this new-for-2020 family, which is also known by its code-name, “Renoir.”
AMD didn’t rest on its laurels entering 2021, either, starting the year by announcing the Ryzen 5000 series chips, based on new Zen 3 architecture. We’ve only tested one Ryzen 5000 CPU so far, the blisteringly fast Ryzen 9 5980HS in the compact Asus ROG Flow X13, but it’s a strong signal of even better performance as they seize CPU dominance from Intel on laptop and desktop.
In terms of display size, a 15-inch screen is the sweet spot for a gaming laptop. You can buy models with larger 17-inch displays, but this will almost certainly jack up the weight to well beyond 5 pounds. We’ve seen 10-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-pixel) native-resolution screen, which is the default minimum at this point.
Larger displays are capable of giving you higher-than-1080p resolutions, but choose wisely, as a resolution of QHD (uncommon), QHD+ (3,200 by 1,800 pixels, and even less common), 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. As mentioned, look for increasingly common G-Sync or high-refresh-rate screens (as discussed above in the GPU section) if you want smoother visuals.
Because they require the most potent GPUs for smooth gameplay at native resolution, 4K gaming laptops are still an 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 (particularly if you can also get a high refresh rate screen). Even though the RTX 3070 and RTX 3080 can handle 4K gaming much more reasonably than any before, we still don’t think it’s worth the cost to seek out 4K gaming in laptops. The screens sure do look nice, though, especially since they’re often paired with OLED technology.
In an effort to produce sleeker, more portable gaming laptops, Nvidia launched an initiative in 2017 named Max-Q Design, 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 GeForce RTX 2080 and RTX 2070, less heat is produced, meaning less room is needed for cooling and heat dissipation, resulting in thinner laptops. The tradeoff is moderately reduced performance, since the thermals are limited, but even then, Max-Q GPUs became commonplace for Turing-based laptops by the end of 2020.
Ampere has complicated Max-Q, though. You can read more in the previously mentioned Ampere testing article, but the short version is this: Nvidia isn’t mandating that vendors publicly list whether or not the GPU is tuned down for Max-Q, and the meaning of the Max-Q branding itself is also shifting. It’s less clear how diminished the performance a given Max-Q laptop will be, in addition to the variation between the same GPU on two different laptops, muddying the waters. If you’re shopping for a high-end laptop, or just want to see more details on the performance differences, we recommend you read that testing Ampere piece.
You should definitely give preference to a system with a solid-state drive as the boot drive, 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 (256GB) SSD with a roomy (1TB or greater) spinning secondary 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. Adding more SSD capacity can make the price rise very quickly. Still, recognize how big modern game downloads can be (in the tens of gigabytes) and shop accordingly. A too-small SSD can mean you’re forever shuffling games on and off the drive.
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. For an investment-grade gaming laptop, 16GB is the ideal target; for most folks who aren’t extreme streamers or multitaskers, more than that is overkill.
If you’re shopping for a gaming system on a limited budget (in this case, between roughly $700 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. Fortunately, even the less powerful GPU options these days are quite capable.
Before the launch of Turing, budget systems were equipped with true lower-tier Nvidia Pascal GPUs like the GeForce GTX 1050 and GTX 1050 Ti, with the GeForce GTX 1060 as the top “inexpensive” option. Current Turing graphics options (the GTX 1650 and GTX 1660 Ti, and most recently the GTX 1650 Ti) have stepped into the value shoes of those chips and have supplanted them. The GeForce RTX 2060 is the entry option for 20-Series GPUs, and while it’s definitely less expensive than a GeForce RTX 2070 or RTX 2080, it’s no budget-grade GPU.
With the GTX 1650 and GTX 1650 Ti, or an older GTX 1050 or GTX 1050 Ti, you’ll be able to play smoothly at 1080p, just not at the very highest settings in newer games. That’s less of a worry for the GeForce GTX 1660 Ti or GeForce RTX 2060 if you go that route, as they are impressively capable in 1080p/full HD, but even there you’ll have to accept dialing down a few settings for 60fps gaming in some titles. Virtual-reality gaming may be a stretch in this price range, but the GTX 1060 and GTX 1660 Ti are the current least-expensive VR-capable mobile GPUs, 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 is 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, anything based on Radeon RX 560, RX 570, and RX 580 paired with one of several AMD FX or Ryzen CPUs is a decidedly last-generation model. The few new ones we have seen so far may use the Radeon RX 5500M paired with an Intel CPU, but on the whole budget-minded all-AMD gaming laptops are something we expect to ramp up more as the year goes on. (One rare example is the good MSI Bravo 15.)
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 SSDs is narrowing, but hard drives hang on more stubbornly here than in other gaming-laptop classes. A 1TB hard drive with maybe a small boot-drive SSD alongside is common in budget laptops, but watch for models that are hard-drive-only; we strongly prefer an SSD boot drive, even in this price range. The display will almost certainly be 1080p, as 1,366-by-768-pixel panels are 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.
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 Type-C and Thunderbolt 3 are beneficial now, and will only be more so down the road, but look for at least two ordinary-shaped (aka, “Type-A”) USB 3.0 ports so you can plug in an external mouse and a hard drive for your saved media files.
If you want to attach a VR headset to your GeForce GTX 1660 Ti-or-better rig, look for the right loadout of ports to accommodate it. You’ll need a well-placed HDMI or DisplayPort video out (it depends on the VR headset which one you’ll need) and enough USB ports for the hydra-head of cabling. Other video ports, like DisplayPort or mini-DisplayPort, will be helpful if you want to play games on an external display, but they aren’t absolutely necessary if your laptop’s screen is large enough.Source