PC gaming is more popular than ever, as many gamers of yesteryear are reaching the age where they have jobs, disposable incomes, and higher expectations. They want to be able to keep up with intense new games while taking advantage of high framerates, resolutions, and quality. And while building or buying a full-blown gaming desktop seems to be the more popular option, there are many gamers or would-be gamers that choose to opt into a gaming laptop instead.
There are many reasons to pick up a gaming laptop instead of a full rig, especially nowadays. In the past, as recently as only a few years ago, buying a laptop specifically for games was generally frowned upon. No matter what was advertised, those systems just couldn’t keep up with desktops, and they weren’t nearly as customizable. While laptops are definitely still less customizable than desktops today, they’re more changeable than ever before, and their quality is finally up to snuff.
If you’ve got the cash, there are even some gaming laptops that come with full and interchangeable graphics cards, which is some really groundbreaking tech. Before you dive into the ever-expanding pool of laptops to choose from, we’ve written a handy guide to help you outline your needs and decide what’s best for you.
Step One: Pick your favorite games
The step, as well as step two, operates under the assumption that your primary purchasing goal is to find a laptop that plays games. So, there’s no need to ask “Do I want to play games?” when figuring out your goals. That makes things easier, and we can move onto the specifics instead. The better question to ask first then becomes, “What do I want to play?”
Some games just aren’t very graphically intense. This doesn’t mean the games are bad, it just means they weren’t made to be works of art, they were made to be fun to play. Counter-Strike, Overwatch, League of Legends, Hearthstone, World of Warcraft, Rocket League, and Minecraft all fall under this category. Actually, there are even some beautiful games out there that simply use a style that isn’t very intense, such as pixel art or retro style games. There’s Stardew Valley, Undertale, Hollow Knight, Starbound, and Dead Cells. If you plan on using your laptop to play these games regularly, and you know for a fact that you won’t want to play something incredibly intense, like, say, Control or Cyberpunk 2077, you can probably skimp on your budget. Why? Because laptop prices skyrocket the better their GPU is. Just like desktops, the graphics card is one of the most expensive, and important, components. If you can weaken your GPU, you’ll save a lot of money. And there are some really solid options out there for gaming laptops without top-of-the-line GPUs.
That being said, if you plan on playing newer, graphically intense games, like the aforementioned Control and Cyberpunk, you’ll need to prepare yourself to dip into your wallet a little deeper. A lot deeper, depending on how impressive you want your machine to be. There are laptops out there that can handle that kind of load, and they can handle it well, but the high performance comes with higher costs.
There’s one final caveat to mention in this regard. It’s much harder to track or pin down, so we’re not going to list many examples, but some games are designed with one graphical architecture in mind. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, as an example, runs a bit better on Nvidia graphics cards than it does on AMD, because it was created using Nvidia tech. Borderlands 3, on the other hand, was made for AMD, so it’s been known to have some issues with Nvidia GPUs. Keep in mind how your favorite games were created, and do a little bit of research, because deciding on a laptop GPU might be how you choose between one laptop or another.
Step Two: Identify your other needs
As we said in the first step, we already know you want to play games, so that lets us get more specific here. Now, you’ll need to figure out what else you’ll be doing on your gaming laptop. Do you want to stream? That’s going to require some beefy hardware on top of a decent GPU. What about process photos or render 3D models? You’ll need tons of RAM for that. Will you want to watch 4K videos and movies? You’ll need a snazzy display to go along with it.
But if you just want to play games and check your email, a nice GPU is all you’ll really need. And if your favorite games, or at least the games you intend to play, aren’t too intense, you can trim down your budget in almost every area imaginable. Either way, the list of examples is long. We’ll include some of the more common ones below for your convenience, including those we already listed. If your hobby, work, or whatever else isn’t listed here, and you’re not sure what all it will require from your new laptop, just make sure you do a little bit of research before you buy. In most cases, someone out there on the internet has had the same question as you, and it’s been answered already.
Here are the most common needs of laptop gamers.
- Checking email: You won’t need much
- Rendering video: You’ll need a high-end CPU (Intel i7 or i9, AMD Ryzen 5 or 7) and GPU (Nvidia RTX 2070 or 2080)
- Processing and editing photos: You’ll need a high-end CPU
- Rendering 3D models: You’ll need a high-end CPU, GPU, and more RAM than usual
- Stream or watch 4K videos: You’ll need a better GPU (at least an RTX 2060 or AMD equivalent)
- Play games in VR: You’ll need a high-end GPU and CPU, and at least 16 GB RAM
- Online work: If you work online for much of your job, and you plan on opening a ton of browser tabs at once and managing several moving parts, you’ll need some extra RAM. At least 16 GB, but don’t be afraid to up the ante to 32 GB if you can afford it. This will allow you to play games while leaving those very important tabs open, if that’s what you need to do. I’ve learned this one from very painful experience.
- Video chatting with friends: You’ll need a high quality GPU and, if possible, a nice included webcam. Some laptops have 4k webcams built in.
- Listening to high quality audio or mixing your own audio: High-end CPU and, if possible, some bonus audio jacks (3-pin XLR, RCA, etc) and good built-in speakers
- Lots of peripherals: If you want to use a cabled keyboard, mouse, and external monitor, you’ll need a laptop with tons of jacks and ports
Step Three: Outline your budget
The most painful part of any big purchase (and a gaming laptop definitely qualifies as a big purchase) is setting your budget. Even if you want to play VR games in 4K at 120 FPS, none of that’s going to matter if you only have $800 to spend. This is a hard thing to do, because oftentimes it means cutting out things you really want, so make sure you prioritize what you need or want the most, so if you have to make cuts, they won’t hurt quite as bad. Don’t worry, we’ve all been there.
Generally, gaming hardware can be split into three tiers, and the same goes for laptops, too. There’s the top-tier, otherwise known as high-end or enthusiast, the middle tier, which usually just goes by mid-tier, and then there’s low-end, which is kindly called the budget-friendly end of the spectrum. Gaming laptops tend to err on the more expensive side when compared to their desktop counterparts, simply because you’re paying for all that powerful gaming action in a portable little package. Shrinking stuff down, as it turns out, is hard to do, and therefore costs more money. The price tiers, therefore, are shifted a little higher in general with laptops than with equivalent desktops. For example, an entire budget-friendly gaming desktop may sit around $600 USD, while a budget-friendly gaming laptop of the same power will sit near $800.
Here’s a rough estimation to use as a guideline. Obviously, these tiers aren’t exact, and you’ll always be able to find some that are stuck in the middle of two tiers, and that’ll change even more when you take all your needs and wants into consideration.
Step Four: Go shoppin’
Now it’s time to pick out your favorite gaming laptop. Using the parameters set by the rest of this guide, it should be fairly easy for you. We’ve included a couple of options from the more popular gaming laptop manufacturers to choose from below, each offering something different than the last. Go nuts.
The Zephyrus is one of the best-looking gaming laptops on the market, and its design is catered towards enthusiasts. Its trackpad is fused with the numpad on the right, which immediately tells you that the laptop almost expects you to bring a gaming mouse into the equation, but leaves the option up to you. Its low profile keyboard is moved up to almost the very front edge of the lower case, meaning you don’t have to rest your sweaty palms and wrists on your computer when you’re playing intense games. It also lets you use a wrist rest much more easily if that’s your thing, or you can just plug in your own keyboard.
The guts of the laptop are really where it shines. With an RTX 2080 graphics card, 32 GB of RAM, 1 TB of storage space, and a 9th gen Intel i7 processor, this beast of a machine can handle any game at ultra graphics and high framerates. This is the top of the line.
The Aero 15 has a lot of the same internal specs as the Zephyrus, but it comes with tweaks that may make it better-suited for a specific audience over another. It has the RTX 2080 graphics, 32 GB of high-speed RAM, and the exact same processor. Where it differs, however, is in its design. Gigabyte built this laptop with an OLED screen, which, in simple terms, means the display has a lower response time, vibrant picture, and very deep blacks.
OLED screens actually turn off pixels when those pixels are meant to represent the color black, which is why OLED screens are known to produce a “true black” in darker imagery. This is useful for photography buffs, those that want to stream high quality shows to their laptop, or video producers. The drawbacks of OLED screens are limited, but the largest one is that they can be more prone to screen burn. Due to the higher-tech screen, though, its maximum refresh rate is 60 Hz, which may be too low for some gamers.
ASUS ROG Strix II: $2,099.99 (Free copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare with purchase)
The Strix II is one of the most solid and reliable middle-tier gaming laptops on the market. It clocks in over $1,000 under high-end, but it still boasts some pretty incredibly firepower. ASUS went for a more traditional design with this one, featuring a full trackpad and numpad, but its bright and smooth RGB exterior and very narrow display bezel still scream “gaming laptop” over anything else.
This PC has a 17-inch screen, which is on the wider end for laptops, and it comes equipped with an RTX 2070 graphics card. That means it can still hit some new, cutting-edge ray-tracing features, but you’ll have trouble getting past 60 fps on ultra settings in newer games, like Modern Warfare. 60 fps on ultra is still the standard for smooth gaming, though, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and for the price, that’s a pretty great bargain.
This PC has an 8th-gen Intel i7 processor, which means it’s up to the same standard as the Zephyrus, just using the older model. This PC doesn’t come equipped with a lot of space, though, capping at a 512 GB SSD, so if you plan on doing heavy video or music editing, you may need external storage. The Wi-Fi in particular is strong on ASUS laptops, which is a great thing for those of you who don’t have regular access to LAN.
MSi GL Series GL73: $1,499.00 (Free copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare with purchase)
MSI’s GL73 cuts costs by downgrading the GPU, as it comes equipped with an RTX 2060 rather than a 2070. It can still run most games at high framerates, but you may struggle to run brand-new games, especially graphically intense ones (like Control), while maintaining those high framerates. What it lacks in graphical power, though, it impresses in nearly every other field. It has a wide 17-inch display that runs at 144 Hz, a 9th-gen Intel i7 CPU, 16 GB of high-speed RAM, and it can run both Mini DisplayPort and HDMI for its display. In other words, it can do pretty much everything very well, including live-streaming and multitasking.
As this computer cut back on the GPU to bring the cost down, but still maintains high-end tech, it’s perfect for someone who wants to do more than game, like work or streaming (or both if you’ve had a lucrative streaming career), or someone who only plays a handful of games that aren’t too intense. League of Legends, Rainbow Six Siege, and Overwatch, for instance, are all competitive titles that would run very well on this laptop.
MSi GL Series GL65: $799.00 (Free MSi backpack with purchase)
MSi takes what the GL73 was all about, and shrinks it down for this very impressive budget machine. You’ll find that some more cuts have been made, as you’d expect for nearly half the price. The processor, for example, is a 9th-gen i5, and the screen is a 15-inch instead of 17. With a GTX 1650 GPU, though, the graphical integrity of the laptop holds up with mostly the same market of games as the GL73. But with a weaker processor, you won’t be able to multitask quite as well. This laptop would be great for someone who needs to get a lot of work done on their gaming rig, but it wouldn’t be great for running a livestream.
The good news is, though, that while this laptop can’t run games like Control at 60 fps and ultra settings, it can still run most any game, even if you have to dial down the juice a bit. It will enable you to take part in today’s best games, but you may have to settle for Medium rather than Ultra on something like Cyberpunk 2077. At $800, though, that’s a great deal, especially if this is your first gaming laptop ever. It lets you dip your toes in without breaking the bank, and MSi is known for its reliability and high quality, too.
The VivoBook is the least “gaming laptop” of all the gaming laptops on this list. That is to say, it probably wasn’t made with gaming in mind, but it gets the job done while maintaining a more standard, business-like look. It has a GTX 1050 GPU, which isn’t incredibly by any means, but you can still run games like Siege, League, or Fortnite just fine, and with its Ryzen 5 CPU, this laptop can still work like a horse.
In other words, while this laptop won’t do anything spectacular, it has neat features like a backlit keyboard, fingerprint scanning, and a PCIe solid state drive, and it will function very reliably as a more high-end work laptop, with some capacity for gaming built-in.