While the desktop remains supreme among many PC gamers, sometimes you just need something a bit more portable. A gaming laptop is a rig on the go, with the power to play games in a size you can take with you.
But when you’re buying a gaming laptop, you’re not just looking at specs. You’re looking at a whole computer, including a built-in keyboard and display. Here, we explain all of the decisions you’ll have to make when buying a gaming laptop so you can get the best one for your needs and budget.
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- Get a good GPU:Most games are GPU-dependent, and you can’t upgrade these in laptops. A good GPU will ensure your laptop plays games at high settings for a few years.
- Consider upgrading later:Many, though not all, gaming laptops let you upgrade your RAM and storage.
- Pick resolution or speed:The fastest displays, going up to 360 Hz, only come at 1920 x 1080 resolution right now, so a 4K screen will be slower.
- Get a good keyboard:You don’t want to play your games on something mushy or stiff.
- Battery life will probably be bad:Very few gaming notebooks get 8 hours or more on a charge, and you need the power supply to get the best performance anyway.
What GPU do you need?
While some games use the CPU, the majority of games are still GPU-bound, so this is one of the biggest decisions you make when buying a gaming notebook. At the moment, the majority of gaming notebooks come with Nvidia GeForce GTX or RTX GPUs.
The RTX models command a premium. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a deal on a current-generation gaming laptop, keep an eye on our Best Tech Deals page.
1. Entry-level gaming
If you don’t need to play on the highest settings, you can go for a GTX 3050 or RX 5500M, which will let you play most games, albeit on middling settings. An GTX 3060 will give you a bit more power, and we generally think it’s noticeable and worth the investment. A laptop with these cards will roughly cost you between $800 and $1,100, though recently we’ve seen them being slightly more expensive, likely due to the component shortage.
2. Mainstream Gaming
Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3060 is a good middle-of-the-road card that will let you play most games on high settings, though the RTX 3070 or 3070 Ti will give you a meaningfulb ump On the AMD side, the RX 6700M isn’t as strong as a performer, but will get the job done. Expect laptops with these cards to fall between $1,100 and $1,500, but again, the component shortage is still going on.
3. VR and the Highest Settings
An RTX 3070 will let you play through just about anything on high settings, while the RTX 3080 or RTX 3080 Ti are the most powerful 30-series cards out there and will allow for smoother VR and special effects. These are the cards that will let you start pumping up effects like Nvidia Gameworks. Laptops like this can start around $2,000, and, depending on what other specs you need, go over $3,000. But with the new RTX series, you can play ray-traced video games and get faster frame rates. An RTX 3070 or RTX 3080 Ti may even be enough for you to play games in 4K, depending on the settings that you use.
What Other Specs Should I Look For?
While the GPU is important, you’ll also want to be on the lookout for a good CPU, enough RAM and lots of storage space.
Depending on your budget, you can get a very powerful Core i7 CPU or even one that you can overclock such as the Intel Core i9-12900HK. You can also find laptops with desktop CPUs. However, most games benefit more from a quality GPU than a CPU so you can definitely get by with a Core i5 processor.
If you see something older than the most current Intel 12th Gen Core (model numbers begin with 12) or with less power, consider saving a bit. CPUs usually aren’t upgradeable, so you’re making this choice once. Intel launched its 12th Gen Core parts for mobile this year, so they’re the most recent.
Gaming can be RAM intensive, and 8GB is what we recommend for even average productivity tasks. If you can, you should go for 16GB on a gaming PC. A laptop with a GTX 3050 or 3050 Ti usually comes with 8GB. Once you get to a GTX 3060 or higher, some will come with 16GB of RAM. If you can’t get your laptop with 16GB of RAM now, consider upgrading it in the near future. Memory is upgradeable in many gaming laptops, so this is an area that you can consider boosting later if you’re handy with a screwdriver.
Hard drive or SSD? Why not both? Some budget gaming laptops will come with only a hard drive (usually 1TB), but the majority of gaming notebooks also include a small SSD to serve as a boot drive. It’s not uncommon to see a 128GB SSD and 1TB HDD working in tandem. If you can get a larger SSD you may see decreased loading times, but that will also cost you quite a bit more money. Make sure you get a faster, 7,200-rpm HDD as opposed to a 5,400-rpm HDD.
Like memory, storage is often upgradeable in gaming notebooks. So if you need more space, you can toss in a 2TB or larger HDD.
How About Battery Life?
The short answer is not to count on your gaming notebook being super portable.
If you’re using your laptop to play games, you need to keep your laptop plugged in to get the full performance out of your GPU. And if you don’t, you’ll be lucky if your laptop lasts an hour gaming. In our testing experience, most gaming laptops last only a few hours on a charge when performing other tasks, but never as long as ultraportables without discrete GPUs. If you need something to last 8 hours while you work, it won’t be a gaming notebook.
Some do last long, but that’s often at the expense of the display, and you don’t want to play all your games on a dark, dim or inaccurate screen.
Thankfully, an increasing number of gaming laptops work with both barrel chargers and USB Type-C. The latter won’t deliver enough power for gaming, but can top you off if you’re doing productivity work.
Saving Money on a Gaming Laptop
When you’re shopping for a gaming laptop under 500, you may find savings by checking out the latest Best Buy promo codes, Newegg promo codes, Corsair coupon codes, Dell coupon codes, HP coupon codes, Lenovo coupon codes or Razer promo codes.
When buying a gaming notebook, get one that will last you for a few years. If you can afford it, get a mid-range to high-end GPU, though obviously a better card will offer better performance. That choice is more important than RAM and the CPU, though you should pay attention to those as well. Storage is the most likely to be upgradeable, but more is better, as games take up a lot of space. Decide if you prefer high resolutions or faster displays and consider what software will be helpful to you, but realize that you won’t get great battery life. How all of those work together determines just how well a gaming notebook does on the Tom’s Hardware test bench.