How to pick the perfect gaming laptop
The ‘best’ screen for a laptop
When you buy a gaming laptop, one of the most important decisions you’ll need to make regards the screen. After all, what you get on day one is what you’re stuck with until you junk the device. You can, of course, run an external monitor but then, what’s the point of a laptop?
The size of the screen dictates the size of the laptop itself, and thus weight. You can’t, for example, get a 17-inch gaming laptop that’s four pounds, so think long and hard about whether you’re willing to take the weight penalty in exchange for the screen real estate.
If the laptop is going to be your only gaming machine, having a 17-inch screen might be ideal. This is very much a matter of personal preference.
The buzzword today is “4K” and it delivers sharper photo viewing but that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. In fact, for a lot of people, it’s not a must-have. While photos might be sharper, anything not using the panel’s native resolution of 3840x2180 will look softer. That means games running at lower than 4K resolution won’t look quite as sharp unless you exponentially increase the graphics power of the laptop.
If you’re running at 1920x1080 resolution because your GPU can’t hit 60fps at 4K, that feature is moot. For many gamers, 1920x1080 or 2560x1440 is far more optimal.
IPS vs. TN vs. OLED
The panel technology is also a key feature. IPS (in-plane switching) generally produces much greater color accuracy and superior off-axis viewing, but tends to lag in response times, which can lead to blurring. TN (twisted neummatic) panels, on the other hand, can offer far higher refresh rates and usually better response times than IPS, but can look washed out or just blah. A middle-ground technology that’s appearing more often is VA (vertical alignment). VA is sometimes alternately referred to as “wide viewing angle” technology. (Many assume this to spec to be IPS, but it’s not). In our experience, we’ve found VA panels to run the gamut from being worthy competitors to IPS to being worse than the better TN panels. The Gigabyte Aero 15 that we recommend above has a good VA panel.
Generally, if color accuracy is important, go IPS (a trademark of Sharp), and if you want the fastest response times go for a gaming-oriented TN panel. With the variability of VA, we recommend you check feedback from reviewers and users of a particular model.
The wildcard in all this are OLED-based panels. OLED panels have been used in phones for years but have recently migrated to larger screens in laptops. IPS, TN, and VA all use LEDs behind the screen or along the edges. “Black” is produced by a shutter-like mechanism that blocks light from coming through. As you can imagine, there’s usually some light leakage, which means the black tends to be gray. OLED panels, however, don’t rely on edge- or backlighting and instead each pixel pixel generates its own light. To produce black, it just switches the light off. This amounts to truly stunning contrast ratios and vibrant colors. OLEDs also boast fantastic response times too. The negatives include smaller screen sizes (we haven’t seen anything larger than 13 inches yet), higher cost, and lack of support for variable refresh rate.
G-Sync and FreeSync
Okay, we called this section G-Sync and FreeSync, but the reality is, when it comes to beefy gaming laptops, it’s a GeForce GPU world. And that means it’s a G-Sync world. In a nutshell, Nvidia and AMD’s respective variable-refresh-rate technologies help synchronize the monitor and the GPU to greatly reduce screen tearing. Variable refresh rates can make gaming at 40fps far smoother to your eyes than a screen without it.
The first variable-refresh-rate panels for laptops maxed out at 75Hz, which was only marginally better than the standard 60Hz. More recently, we’ve begun to see laptop panels that can push 120Hz. This means smoother and sharper gaming. It even helps smooth out everyday tasks such as scrolling a browser page or Word document.
The downside of high-refresh rate panels is the technology it’s available on: TN. As we said earlier, TN generally looks less vibrant and less accurate than IPS. Off axis is generally inferior too. Which is right for you? If it’s primarily a gaming laptop—go for a high refresh rate and G-Sync (or FreeSync if you can find a laptop that supports it with a Radeon GPU). If you tend to also push pixels in Photoshop or do any color-critical work, skip variable refresh for an IPS panel.
Keyboard and trackpad
A new trend in gaming laptops is the offset trackpad, which is more conducive to gaming than a dead-center trackpad. The concept is sound but anyone who actually cares about PC gaming will just plug in a mouse. The worst thing about that offset trackpad is when you try to use it for non-gaming purposes.
As far as keyboards go, the most important gaming feature is n-key rollover. This means the keyboard physically scans each key separately. If you wanted to, you could press 20 keys and they’d all register as each is independently wired. That probably sounds excessive but keyboards that lack this feature can suffer missed keystrokes, which not only ruins gameplay but also hurts in everyday tasks. Anyone who has used an Adobe product that might require a left-Alt, left-Shift, left-Ctrl plus two more keys to do something may have run into the limitations of non-n-key keyboards.
Other keyboard considerations include LED backlighting (which adds ambiance but does nothing for gameplay) and mechanical keys vs. membrane. Mechanical keys are excellent—but are available on only handful of laptops that usually weigh a ton.
How to pick storage for a gaming laptop
Having your games load from an SSD instead of a hard drive significantly cuts down on load times. But beyond that, we haven’t found it to matter much whether it’s a super-fast NVMe PCIe drive or a slower SATA SSD.
What does matter more today is the size of the SSD rather than the interface it uses. With games now topping 50GBps and some touching 100GBps, a once spacious 256GB SSD will feel too small with just four games installed.
So when spec’ing out that gaming laptop, be mindful of just how much total storage you have. If you go for laptop with a small SSD and large hard drive combo, expect to install your games to the hard drive. If the laptop will have an SSD only, choose a minimum of 512GB with 1TB preferred.
How much RAM do you need in a gaming laptop?
When laptop makers spec out gaming laptops, one of the levers they use to try to convince you to buy their product is upping the amount of RAM. It’s not hard to find gaming laptops with “upgraded” configurations that go from 16GB of DDR4 to 32GB.
While having an adequate amount of RAM is important for gaming, today’s games typically top out at 16GB of RAM and sometimes can run fine with just 8GB of RAM. Anything more than 16GB (our standard recommendation) is usually a waste of money.
You might want to blame laptop and PC makers for cynically using an erroneous spec to manipulate the public, but the blame actually lies with the average buyer. PC makers have told us for years they only over-spec RAM because the public thinks more is better.
Besides the amount of memory, a couple other important, but not critical, questions to ask is what clock speed and what mode. Modern CPUs let you run RAM in sets to increase the memory bandwidth. If one shotgun barrel is good, two is better right? Not necessarily.
If your laptop runs integrated graphics, then yes, having dual-channel memory helps a lot. But true gaming laptops today run beefy discrete graphics cards with their own pool of dedicated, and much faster, GDDR5 RAM.
We’ve seen instances of gaming laptops using a single memory module, which hobbles system bandwidth but actually has very little impact on actual gaming performance.
The same can be said of RAM clock speed. DDR4/2133, which runs at 2,133MHz, is the typical speed today, with PC vendors offering upgrades of DDR/2400. We recommend bypassing the upgrade and instead putting that money into more storage or a fatter GPU.
How to pick a CPU for a gaming laptop
There may be real competition between AMD and Intel when it comes to gaming CPUs in the desktop, but in gaming laptops, the world is still very much 99.9 percent Intel. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as Intel’s laptop CPUs are excellent. Still, there are a few things you need to consider about the CPU for your gaming laptop.
First, the issue of cores is far simpler here than on desktops. There’s no option for 16-core CPUs, and outside of the odd-duck laptops that use 8-core desktop CPUs, your options are limited to quad-cores. With Intel’s current 7th-gen chips, you get four cores with Hyper-Threading for a total of eight threads in the Core i7 chips. Step down to a 7th-gen Core i5, and Intel turns off the Hyper-Threading so it’s four physical cores only.
Although it’s still up for debate, we generally believe that the vast majority of games people play today just don’t need more than four cores. Yes, there are times when having more than four cores can yield better performance, but most gamers will be perfectly fine with a quad-core Core i5 chip.
Unfortunately for the budget-conscious, PC makers typically don’t let you buy a high-end graphics card with a low-end CPU. Most PC makers will configure the midrange CPU with midrange graphics.
Of the current 7th-generation Kaby Lake CPUs, your choices for a gaming laptop are the Core i7-7700HQ, the Core i7-7820HK, and the Core i7-7920HQ. Again, all three are fine, with each step up getting you only marginally more performance. The sweet spot for budget buyers is the Core i7-7700HQ or the Core i7-7820HK.
As for Intel’s 8th-generation CPU, it hasn’t been confirmed but many anticipate the company will introduce 6-core CPUs that consume 45 watts by 2018.
Still, the takeaway for you is to not get too hung up on the CPU for a gaming laptop. Any decent quad-core is more than enough for gaming purposes and your money is better spent on what matters more: the GPU.
How to pick a GPU for a gaming laptop
The single most important piece of hardware in a gaming laptop is undoubtedly the GPU. For AMD fans, the situation is as sad as it is in CPUs: It’s an Nvidia GeForce world. As with CPUs though, the good news is that the dominating products are top-notch.
The hardest part will be deciding just how much GPU you need. Our general guidance is to buy as fast a GPU as you can afford and are willing to heft. Generally, the faster the GPU (or GPUs), the larger and heavier the laptop.
For any serious gaming, it’s easy to ramp up from the entry-level GeForce GTX 1050 to the midrange GeForce GTX 1060, and then to the high-end GeForce GTX 1070 and GTX 1080.
The following chart might help you understand what kind of performance to expect. These results for GeForce cards reflect the graphics section of Furturemark’s Fire Strike test. Although the CPUs vary, this test focuses almost entirely on the GPU.
We generally think the GTX 1050 is a good 1080p GPU if you’re willing to play on medium settings. To hit high in some games, you’ll need to lower the resolution to 720p. The GTX 1050 Ti generally nets you 1080p with some games on high. Step up to a GTX 1060, and you’re in solid ground for 1080p gaming at very high to ultra with frame rates around 60fps.
If you need to feed your high-refresh panel, then the GeForce GTX 1070 is the answer as it can push 120fps in many games at 1080p. Or if you want to just play on a screen that’s got a higher resolution, say, 2560x1440, the GTX 1070 works for that too.
The GTX 1080 is the current top dog and should be considered for 1440p gaming on ultra at greater than 60fps, or to push a wide-aspect-ratio monitor at higher refresh rates. And SLI? Yeah, that yields crazy performance, but the huge caveat is that many games no longer support SLI so it’s mostly a bragging point.
Our chart also includes some older GPUs in the mix to indicate just how much they’ve aged. A GTX 980 is still quite serviceable but the 980M version has clearly lost its luster.
One last thing we we want to point out from our chart: You’ll note the large performance gaps between some of the same GPUs, such as the two GTX 1080 cards or the two GTX 1070 cards. The disparity is the result of the vendors’ respective cooling strategies as well as varying chassis size. In the case of the Razer Blade Pro, it’s a fairly thin laptop for a GTX 1080 card. The MSI GT73VR it bumps against is thick and heavy and allows MSI to clock the GPU up quite a bit.
We see the same with the Alienware 15 R4, which cranks up the GTX 1070 to very high speeds (and you can hear it too) whereas the HP Omen 17 keeps the clocks more conservative and the fans quieter.
Decoding Nvidia’s Max-Q
The only other wrinkle to consider in picking out a GPU is Nvidia’s new “Max-Q” technology. Cynics will say Max-Q is Nvidia’s way to market what should have been a GeForce GTX 1075 as a “GeForce GTX 1080 with Max-Q,” while more forgiving people will see it as an initiative to push thinner, lighter gaming laptops.
In a nutshell, Nvidia has taken its GeForce GTX 1080, GTX 1070, and GTX 1060 and tuned down the clock speeds so they consume less power and generate less heat. Other than that, they are the same GPUs with the same amount of RAM, same memory bandwidth, and same CUDA core count.
We found in testing that a GeForce GTX 1080 with Max-Q would perform between a GeForce GTX 1080 and a GeForce GTX 1070. Occasionally it would match a GTX 1080, but most of the time, it was, well, more like a GeForce GTX “1075.”
We haven’t yet formally reviewed a GeForce GTX 1060 or GTX 1070 with Max-Q but in testing a new Gigabyte Aero 15X with a GTX 1070 with Max-Q puts we found it right where we expected—something akin to a GeForce GTX “1065.”
If you want all-out performance and don’t care about the weight and size, go with a standard GeForce card in a thicker laptop. If you’re looking for something thinner, lighter, and quieter, then take a hard look at Max-Q laptops.
External graphics support
The last category you should think about is the burgeoning support for external graphics in gaming laptops. Customers of Alienware have long enjoyed this with its relatively inexpensive (and proprietary) Graphics Amplifier technology, but many new laptops support external graphics cabinets using Thunderbolt 3.
These cabinets let you plug your laptop into a more powerful discrete GPU to give your laptop more graphics grunt. The Akitio Node (which you can find on Amazon for $300) is one such Thunderbolt 3 cabinet that’s helped usher in lower prices. Although external graphics are primarily desired by users who run on integrated graphics, a gaming laptop with Thunderbolt 3 support could come in handy when the GPU inside gets too old to play the latest games.
The last topic we’ll cover is battery life. The best way to understand battery life on a gaming laptop is to accept that it’ll be horrible for all things gaming.
The minute you crank up a GPU on a gaming laptop to play a game, you’re basically limiting yourself to an hour or an hour and a half of battery runtime. Period. And in some cases, far less than that.
The only reason to consider battery life on a gaming laptop is if you want to use your laptop unplugged for non-gaming purposes. In that respect, you’ll find a lot of variance, with some—such as Gigabyte’s Aero 15—offering decent battery life, albeit with a trade-off in gaming performance.