Best gaming laptops: Know what to look for and which models rate highest

Best gaming laptops: Know what to look for and which models rate highest

Picking a gaming laptop today isn’t as easy as it was five years ago when a “real” gaming laptop meant 12 pounds of back-breaking hardware to haul around.

With major advances in laptop video cards and CPUs, you can now get great gaming performance from laptops ranging from light to super heavy and from super expensive to budget.

The problem these days: too many choices. A luxury problem, to be sure.

Still, you need to know how to navigate this bounty. In this handy-dandy buyer’s guide, we’ll not only name the best gaming laptops currently available, we’ll also highlight what to look for when buying a gaming laptop. (Check back often, as we’ll update this list as new products arrive.)

Best 17-inch gaming laptop

The arrival of Nvidia’s Pascal-based mobile GPUs transformed high-end gaming laptops. These days, getting desktop-equivalent performance is just the natural course of things, and you no longer have to pay through the nose for it, either.

Our current pick for best gaming laptop is the Alienware 17 (available at Dell.com)—with a GTX 1080 mobile GPU and a 17.3-inch 2560x1440, 120Hz G-Sync panel, it starts at $2,500. For that chunk of cash, you’ll get smooth, high-frame-rate gaming at a previously unprecedented level. Our review unit posted frame rates over 150fps with everything maxed out in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and over 100fps in Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Alienware 17 R4 IDG / Adam Patrick Murray

No, it’s not as portable as other gaming laptops sporting Nvidia’s new Max-Q mobile GPUs, but Alienware gives you full 1080 performance at all times, with a better and more consistent frame rate than those lighter notebooks. 

The Alienware 17 has a couple of other drawbacks besides size: Its fans are loud, and its battery life is average. But these things shouldn’t dissuade people in the market for a true desktop replacement.

Best 15-inch gaming laptop

Some gamers might take issue with the Asus ROG Zephyrus GX501. They will consider the laptop’s GeForce GTX 1080 with Max-Q to be compromised—offering performance that’s “just” halfway between a GeForce GTX 1080 and a GTX 1070. (Read our full review.)

But what we see is revolutionary performance for a relatively lightweight machine. This class of performance, frankly, used to require at least 8 to 10 pounds of laptop with the thickness of a phone book. The GX501, on the other hand, is not much thicker than a MacBook Pro 15 and weighs a scant five pounds. Throw in the 120Hz 15-inch G-Sync panel and you have top-notch performance in a laptop you might actually bring with you on a trip.

Not surprisingly, the GX501’s main compromise is battery life. Such is the trade-off when you stuff desktop-caliber hardware into a laptop. At least with the GX501, your gaming rig is a lot more portable.

Best budget gaming laptop

Not long ago, playing a game at higher resolutions and higher graphics settings on a laptop meant shelling out big bucks.

That’s changed in the last year. For less than $1,000, you can get a gaming laptop that will play at 1080p—like Dell’s gaming version of the Inspiron 15 7000 (available at Dell.com) at, which offers a quad-core i5-7300HQ, 8GB RAM, and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti in its $850 base configuration.

It’s a lot of muscle for the price. This system can handle today’s games on High at 1080p (in Rise of the Tomb Raider, this Inspiron ran at over 50fps), and it can definitely play popular titles like League of Legends, Dota 2, Rocket League, CSGO, Team Fortress 2, and Overwatch

Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming Alaina Yee/IDG

There’s one catch, however. The launch version of the Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming had a terrible TN panel with extremely bad viewing angles and washed-out colors—our review is based on this version. Some of these still are available for purchase (through Dell’s outlet site, for instance), but the version we recommend is the current model that features an IPS display.

Best portable gaming laptop

Nvidia’s Pascal GPUs haven’t just put the traditional beefy gaming laptops on par with desktop machines. They’ve also made it so the term “portable gaming laptop” is no longer an oxymoron. Put a GeForce GTX 1060 into a laptop and you have a capable machine that can survive away from a wall socket—and won’t break your back while carrying it, either.

Now, at five pounds, the Alienware 13 (available at Dell.comis a little heavy for its size—but it’s worth toting around those extra ounces. The model we reviewed packs a gorgeous OLED 2560x1440 display, a quad-core i7 processor, and a VR-capable Nvidia GTX 1060 for flawless 1080p gaming. (Yes, you can play at 2560x1440, too, if you crank down some of the settings... or buy an Alienware Amplifier and pop in a beefier video card.) 

Its extra weight comes from its incredibly sturdy and solid chassis, built to withstand hot climates and gamers who react physically to the highs and lows of gameplay. For some, that’ll be a drawback. But it’s hard to hold the Alienware 13’s design against it, especially after experiencing the pure luxury of its OLED screen: Gaming on it makes the best LCD panels seem pixelated and washed out.

While performance is a hair under rival machines like the MSI GS63VR, the difference is almost negligble—just one or two frames less per second in our Tomb Raider and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor benchmarks. If you can splurge on this version of the Alienware 13, we say do it. From its slick design to its performance, battery life, and OLED display, it’s exceptional in every metric we usually examine.

Runner-up

Not all gaming laptops are about insane frame rates and high-end features. There are folks who want a really great gaming experience on the go.

For that, we turn to Gigabyte’s Aero 15 (available at Amazon) , which is not much larger than a Dell XPS 15, and only a bit heavier than MSI’s GS63VR. But the Gigabyte Aero 15 offers better battery life by several hours, and DIY upgrades are easier to perform. Its keyboard also features per-key RGB lighting that gets quite bright. (Read our full review.)

What keeps it out of the top position are a handful of small quibbles: Its maximum screen brightness falls on the lower end of average, and during our review, its keyboard had trouble recognizing certain key combinations. (Firmware updates did help some, but users continue to report problems.) Its off-center trackpad position also takes time to get used to.

Overall, however, the Gigabyte Aero 15 can play the newest games at 1920x1080 with settings at or near Ultra on a 15.6-inch screen. And it won’t break your back while you’re out and about.

Best price-is-no-object gaming laptop

We’d never recommend that a normal person buy Acer’s over-the-top, insanely cool Predator 21X (which costs $9K on Amazon), but if you’re among the filthy rich and looking to surprise your 8-year-old niece on her birthday with a kick-ass Minecraft rig... well, roll in hard right after the face painting and drop this bad boy on her. With a curved 120Hz G-sync panel, two GeForce GTX 1080 GPUs in SLI, a mechanical keyboard, and an overclockable Core i7 chip, it’s nigh-impossible to make a bigger impact than this limited-edition gaming laptop. Is it prudent? Hell no. But if you’re the sort who shops at the House of Bijan (where a tie can cost $1,000), then dropping nine large on a laptop ain’t nothing.

Read on for guidance on how to pick the right gaming laptop for your needs.

How to pick the perfect gaming laptop

msi gs63vr updated IDG/Gordon Ung

The MSI GS63VR features a 4K resolution panel but not enough GPU to really drive it for today’s games.

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?

Screen size

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.

Screen resolution

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.

Razer Blade Pro (2016) Hayden Dingman

Razer was the first manufacturer that we know of to use an offset trackpad as an adhoc gaming “mouse.” 

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. 

960 pro 2 100698545 orig Samsung

With the massive size of today’s games, make sure the SSD in your laptop is large enough.

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.

ddr4 sodimm kit 2 Crucial

The sweet spot for a gaming laptop today is 16GB, with 8GB being a little too little and 32GB being too much.

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.

Intel Kaby Lake Intel

Intel’s chips such as this Kaby Lake dominate laptops today.

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.

geforce gpu Nvidia

The GPU is the genearlly the most important part of any gaming laptop.

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.

how much gpu do you need in your laptop IDG

How much GPU does your laptop need? That’s for you to decide. 3DMark FireStrike Extreme is a good general measurement of graphics performance.

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.

Asus ROG Zephyrus GX501 IDG/Gordon Mah Ung

Asus’ ROG Zephyrus GX501 and its GTX 1080 Max-Q GPU is a breakthrough in performance while being exceptionally thin.

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.

akitio node cabinet primary Gordon Mah Ung/IDG

caption

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.

Battery life

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.

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