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

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

Picking a gaming laptop is a lot more fun today than 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 CPUs and graphics technologies, you can now get great gaming performance in sizes from slender to huge, and prices from budget to sky-high. That's where this handy-dandy buyer’s guide come in. We’ll name the best gaming laptops currently available, and we’ll highlight what to look for when buying a gaming laptop. (Check back often, as we’ll update this list as new products arrive.)

Update 10/29/2018: We reviewed the Razer Blade 15, a thinner and lighter gaming laptop that's packed to the gills with performance hardware. It's our new top pick for a 15-inch gaming laptop. We also tested Lenovo's Legion Y530, a budget gaming laptop that's a bargain right now, but its good-enough hardware could get old fast.  

Latest gaming laptop news

  • Razer isn’t exaggerating when it calls its Blade 15 (available on Amazon) the “world’s smallest  15-inch gaming laptop.” While it’s impressive to get a six-core 8th gen Core i7-8750H and GeForce GTX 1070 Max-Q performance into a compact chassis, note that it’s densely packed and feels heavy for its size. If you can deal with the additional weight, the payoff may well be worth it. Read our review

  • The bargain-priced Lenovo Legion Y530 (available via Lenovo) could be a good entry-level gaming laptop if you manage your expectations. It’s impressively portable and has a solid feature set. Unfortunately its middling graphics card struggles to deliver buttery visuals from today’s AAA games, and its performance will only go downhill as more demanding titles come down the pike. Read our review

Best 17-inch gaming laptop

The Alienware 17 R5 is the latest in a long line of well-regarded laptops from this Dell subsidiary, but this one raises the bar. Actually, it throws the bar high up in the air, leaps after it, catches it mid-somersault, and lands cleanly while onlookers stare, agog.

The key difference: an upgrade to Intel’s 8th-gen mobile processors, which pack more CPU cores than previous generations did. Even better, the one in our review unit is Intel’s high-performance Core i9 -8950HK, which turns this already beastly gaming laptop into an utter monster.

The Alienware 17 R5 is available in a variety of configurations, from a $1,560 model with a 6-core Core i7-8750H, an overclocked GeForce GTX 1060, and a 60Hz 1080p display, all the way up to the price-is-no-object-I-want-performance version we tested ($3,810 from Dell). Optional features could push that total even higher, but there’s already plenty to love. This is 10 pounds of gaming-laptop-slash-desktop-replacement-extraordinaire. Read our review.

[$3,810 MSRP as reviewed]

Best 15-inch gaming laptop

Razer isn’t exaggerating when it calls its Blade 15 the “world’s smallest 15-inch gaming laptop.” It’s nearly as small as the popular workhorse Dell XPS 15, yet it offers blistering gaming performance. 

The Razer Blade 15 that we reviewed features a 15.6-inch, 1920x1080 IPS 144Hz factory-calibrated screen, an 8th-gen 6-core Intel Core i7-8750H, 16GB of DDR4/2677 in dual-channel mode, Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1070 Max-Q (optional GTX 1060 Max-Q), and a 512GB Samsung M.2 PCIe SSD.

While it’s impressive to get a six-core 8th gen Core i7-8750H and GeForce GTX 1070 Max-Q performance into a compact chassis, note that it’s densely packed and feels heavy for its size. If you can deal with the additional weight, the payoff may well be worth it. Read our review.

Runner-up

The Dell G7 15 is a mid-size gaming laptop with middle-of-the-road GTX 1060 Max-Q graphics, middling battery life, and—you guessed it—a mid-range price tag. But this system boasts a stellar feature that sets it apart from the crowd: a six-core, benchmark-crushing Core i7 processor that’ll thrill content creators. Indeed, the G7 15’s overall performance is only a step or two behind that of our current top pick among 15-inch gaming laptops, the thinner and lighter MSI GS65 Stealth Thin 8RE—and it costs about $600 less. Despite a dim screen and an occasionally too-hot chassis, this is still a worthy contender.

Best budget gaming laptop

The Dell G3 15 gaming laptop delivers solid performance in a package that’s a little less than an inch thick. The Model 3579 we tested is very affordable, too. 

The G3 15 has its downsides, including a Full-HD display that isn’t as bright as we’d like, frame rates that struggle to reach 60 fps on top-tier games, and a weight exceeding five pounds (although it’s not as massive as some gaming laptops). But when we compared it to the Acer Nitro 5, another budget gaming laptop we like, with an even lower price point, there was no contest. The G3 15 posted stronger benchmarks and battery life. In particular, its GTX 1050 Ti graphics showed the limitations of the Nitro 5's mere GTX 1050. Nothing wrong with the Nitro 5, but if you can afford the G3 15 we tested, it's the better choice. Read our full review.

[$850 as reviewed(Model 3579)]

Best portable gaming laptop

Just a few years ago, if you said you wanted 1080p Very High or Ultra gaming performance in a laptop, you’d be lifting eight pounds of laptop. If you wanted a six-core CPU too, that’d be 12 pounds of laptop with a desktop chip inside. And decent battery life? Fuhgetaboutit.

That you can get the same or better performance with the four-pound MSI GS65 Stealth Thin 8RE ($1,799 at Amazon) is a testament to just how far we’ve gone—and also proof of just how awesome this laptop is.On the outside, it’s sedate black aluminum with bronze edges. On the inside are state-of-the-art, gaming-grade components with enough performance to basically put anything made before it to shame.

The GS65 is basically a complete rework of the ground-breaking GS63VR gaming laptop that made its debut in 2016. The most important upgrade is what’s inside: Intel 6-core Core i7-8750H and 16GB of DDR4/2400 in dual-channel mode; the full-fat Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 6GBl and a 256GB Samsung PM981 NVMe SSD. 

The six-core CPU inside is the real news. You’ve probably seen people dismiss it as “more of the same from Intel,” but those folks are wrong. This latest iteration is a screaming-fast CPU unlike any that we’ve ever seen in a laptop before.

Best price-is-no-object gaming laptop

Spoiler alert: We’ve never tested a gaming laptop as all-around powerful as the Origin PC EON17-X.

This big, badass notebook ($3,712 from Origin) pushes the pedal to the metal with the most potent hardware available, and then Origin PC cranks things to 11 by overclocking both the full-fat GeForce GTX 1080 and the Core i7-8700K processor. Yes, this laptop rocks a desktop processor, and not just any desktop processor—it’s the fastest one currently available. With 6 cores and 12 threads, the EON17-X demolishes CPU benchmarks. It blazes through triple-A games. Hell, it might be able to literally crush its slim, trim Nvidia Max-Q competition.

This big, loud, no-holds-barred system delivers a much different value proposition than most gaming laptops do. If you’re doing heavy-duty work that can take advantage of the desktop Core i7-8700K’s abundant threads and high clock rate, no other laptop we’ve tested is even in the same ballpark as Origin’s beast. If you want a best-in-class gaming experience that pushes frame rates as high as possible in a self-contained, portable (enough) form factor, the EON17-X can’t be beat. Jump on this notebook if you’re looking for a true high-end desktop replacement rather than a powerful laptop that lets you game on the road.

Bottom line: The Origin EON17-X fills a very particular niche very well indeed, and we stand in awe of its brute force. You pay for its power, but Origin PC’s sublime out-of-box experience helps the laptop feel even more luxurious. Just don’t forget your charger and gaming headset at home. Performance this ferocious requires some trade-offs.

Runner-up

The Alienware 17 R5 packs Intel’s debut high-performance Core i9 laptop chip. Friends, the Core i9-8950HK inside turns this already beastly gaming laptop into an utter monster. The version we tested ($3,810 from Dell) pumps out more performance than we’ve ever seen in a gaming laptop with all-mobile parts. It offers over 55 percent more multi-thread performance than its already-potent direct predecessor. CPU benchmarks this fast were practically unthinkable mere months ago. 

Alienware uses the extra headroom to push the GTX 1080 harder than before, too. And remember: The Alienware Command Center lets you overclock the CPU and GPU for even more potential performance.

The old Alienware 17 kicked ass. The new Alienware 17 R5 blows us away. It’s not for everyone, though. All those cores and threads aren’t fully utilized in most games, so if you plan to use your laptop mostly for play, you’d be better off saving your cash and going with a more affordable option, such as Intel’s new Core i7-8750H. 

Being runner-up isn't so bad when you consider the top dog: Origin’s EON17-X, which packs a powerful Core i7-8700K desktop processor. It outguns the Alienware 17 R5 in raw firepower, though it has a somewhat coarser design that’s almost half an inch thicker and half as long-lasting.

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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