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
Gigabyte’s AERO 15
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
MSI G565 gaming laptop
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. Some good places to look would be reviews on Newegg.com or the forums on Tom’s Hardware.
Here are the most common needs of laptop gamers.
- 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
- Newegg studios Razer Social
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.