Buying a laptop can be a big decision, and there are a lot of options to consider. This guide will walk you through the basics, and help you find the best gaming laptop in 2021.1 2 3
It can be hard to know where to start when choosing a new gaming laptop. There are a range of features to consider, including the display, form factor, battery life, and of course, the components powering it all.
Upgrading a gaming laptop with new hardware isn’t usually feasible, so it’s important to plan ahead, and think about how you want to use your system. Prioritizing the features that are most important to you is a great first step.
We’ll be covering all of these subjects in more detail, but let’s start by going over some of the basics.
Choosing the Best Gaming Laptop: Key Features
- Display. Size, resolution, and refresh rate can all impact your gaming experience. Do you want to prioritize a high resolution or high refresh rate screen, or do you plan to use an external monitor?
- CPU and GPU. Compare component specifications like core count and clock speed, and check benchmarks for an at-a-glance comparison between different product lines.
- Memory and storage. Recognize the difference between SSDs and HDDs, and determine how much RAM you need for the way you plan to use your system.
- Design. Lighter laptops may travel better, but more powerful hardware might be a higher priority when playing demanding games at home.
- Ports and inputs. Plan for the number of peripherals you anticipate using, including external storage and audio. Do you need more flexibility, more space, or extra high-speed ports?
Let’s take a closer look at the features you’ll encounter when looking for a gaming laptop, starting with the first thing you see when you open it up: the screen.
The right display can have a significant impact on your gaming experience, but there are more factors to consider than just the size of the screen.
Laptop Display: Key Features
- Resolution. The higher the resolution, the more pixels appear on screen, and that can mean a clearer image. Newer laptops may feature 1440p or 4K screens in place of the 1080p standard, but the hardware required to power games at these resolutions is likely to add cost.
- Refresh rate. A higher refresh rate display can help the action on-screen appear smoother and easier to follow. It achieves this by redrawing the image more times per second. Many gaming laptop displays make use of this technology, with some featuring 120Hz or 144Hz (or even higher) refresh rates.
- Screen size. Laptop form factor and display sizes vary, with 13, 15, and 17 inch screens being the most common configurations. Thinner bezels (the borders around the screen) can allow for larger screens in smaller form factors.
- OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode). Available on some gaming laptops, these screens use pixels that produce their own light rather than relying on a backlight. That means they can achieve deeper black levels and more contrast than most laptop screens, which are often LED-lit liquid crystal displays.
A simple way to enhance the portable PC experience is by connecting a laptop to an external monitor. This allows for the option of a laptop with a portable form factor to use on the go, then coming home to a screen with 4K resolution, 240Hz refresh rate, or an ultrawide aspect ratio.
When considering an external display that has a high resolution or high refresh rate, ensure you’re choosing a CPU and graphics card capable of taking advantage of those features. Compare the components in the laptop you’re considering against the recommended specifications of the games you’re hoping to play, and prioritize your component choice accordingly.
For more detail on how to choose a gaming monitor, see our complete guide.
The CPU, or central processing unit, acts as the “brain” of your laptop. It sends signals to the other components in your system, and processes the instructions sent by all the software running on your machine.
Your choice of CPU can have a significant impact on everything you do, from the frame rates you see in games to the response times of applications, and even the laptop’s battery life.
The most commonly cited CPU specifications are core count and clock speed, but many other attributes come into play, including its potential for overclocking4. The CPU features that matter most to you will vary based on how you use your laptop, so it’s worth knowing the basics.
CPU: Key Features
- Clock speed. Clock speed defines the number of cycles a CPU executes every second (measured in GHz). In general, higher clock speed means a faster CPU, but many other factors come into play. For more detail on CPU clock speed, see our guide.
- Core count. Multiple cores help a CPU multitask, with each core acting like an individual processing unit that can work in parallel to get more done. CPUs that use Intel® Hyper-Threading Technology can run more than one software thread per hardware core, for even more potential performance gains.
- CPU Options. There are CPUs specifically designed for almost every use case, so it’s worth taking the time to select the one that best coincides with how you plan to use your system. If you're looking for higher core counts and clock speeds, the Intel® Core™ H processor family could be a great fit. Unlocked CPUs (like the Intel® Core™ i9-10980HK CPU) can be overclocked4 for additional performance headroom. If you’re prioritizing portability, power-efficient CPUs like Intel’s U-series can help preserve battery life. Read more about different CPU options here.
To maintain consistent in-game performance while streaming or recording gameplay, we recommend at least an Intel® Core™ i7 processor. Higher clock speeds and core counts are particularly important if you’re interested in live streaming gameplay, as capture software often requires significant processing power to encode video.
If you’re looking to dig deeper into CPU specs and the different options, see our guide on how to choose a gaming CPU.
A laptop’s GPU, or Graphics Processing Unit, creates the pixels that form the images on your screen when gaming. Along with your CPU, it’s the key to enjoying smooth frame rates and high-resolution gameplay.
If you’re looking to game in 1440p or 4K, a capable CPU and GPU is a must. Higher resolutions mean more pixels on-screen: running a game at 4K resolution, for example, pushes four times the number of pixels as standard 1080p.
GPU: Key Features
- Frame rate and resolution. Make sure your gaming laptop’s GPU and CPU can hit consistent frame rates while rendering the proper resolution of your screen or external display. Compare the CPU and GPU in the laptop you’re considering to the system requirements of the games you are hoping to play to get a sense of how they will perform.
- Display refresh rate. If you’ve invested in a 144Hz screen, you’ll want a GPU that can consistently achieve 144 FPS (or higher) to get the full benefit of the higher refresh rate.
- Ray tracing. If you’re planning to enable hardware-intensive rendering techniques like ray tracing technology, check the relevant benchmarks to judge how it will impact performance beforehand.
Solid-state drives (SSDs) outperform older mechanical drives (HDDs) in most areas that impact gaming. SSDs use a type of flash memory (NAND) to electronically read and write blocks of data without any moving parts. HDDs, on the other hand, use mechanical platters spun by a motor, accessed with a moving drive head.
One key advantage of SSDs over HDDs is high random read/write speeds, which means they can quickly access data stored in different places on the drive. They generally load programs and files faster than a comparably sized HDD, and can help cut down on system startup times.
Because SSDs don’t use moving parts, and have processes to equalize wear across memory blocks, they also have a longer lifespan than traditional HDDs.
SSDs usually cost more per gigabyte than a comparatively sized HDD due to higher manufacturing costs. For this reason, some systems feature both an SSD and a high-capacity HDD for storing large files, though increasingly, modern laptops are relying solely on SSDs.
Laptop Storage: Key Features
- NVMe SSD. These drives use the high-speed PCIe bus rather than the older SATA interface, allowing for comparatively fast random read/write speeds, and higher throughput.
- SATA SSD. These drives use the same SATA connectors as traditional HDDs. They’re typically faster and more durable than an HDD, but slower than newer NVMe drives.
- Intel® Optane™ memory technology. Intel® Optane™ memory is a compact NVMe based solution that pairs new storage technology with intelligent memory that archives frequently used programs and files for rapid retrieval. This technology is designed to load key applications and data quickly, making it an excellent option for use as a boot drive.
- External storage. When facing limited onboard storage, external hard drives or SSDs can provide affordable additional space.
Random Access Memory, or RAM, is memory that temporarily stores data for rapid retrieval by your CPU. Unlike an SSD or HDD, it doesn’t permanently store data, and resets whenever it loses power, but it also makes that frequently used data available more quickly than a storage drive.
Additional RAM allows a PC to run more processes simultaneously, and enables a system to more rapidly switch between programs while also running background services.
How much RAM you need in your laptop depends on how you plan to use the system.
- 2-4GB of RAM can be enough for browsing the internet, lightweight work applications, or older games.
- 8GB of RAM can be enough for mid-range gaming and most work applications. Many modern PC games list 8GB of RAM or more as a minimum system requirement.
- 16GB of RAM allows a system to run newer and more resource intensive games at higher settings, multiple background apps (like voice chat or video highlight recording), and streaming software.
- 32GB of RAM is ideal for resource intensive multitasking, including gaming, content creation, and anyone who frequently utilizes memory-intensive processes like video editing or rendering.
Though the amount of RAM available to your system is arguably the most important metric for the average user, there are other RAM features that are worth considering as well.
RAM: Key Features:
- Speed. Measured in MHz (or millions of cycles per second), RAM frequency measures the speed at which your RAM can access memory when it receives a request from the CPU.
- Upgradeability. Some gaming laptop designs allow access to the internal SO-DIMM slots where RAM is installed. This is still fairly uncommon however, so consider how much RAM might be required for your preferred experience. Adding more later may not be practical.
- SO-DIMM. Note that laptop and desktop RAM are not interchangeable. Laptop RAM is often smaller, has a different pin configuration, and fits into SO-DIMM (small outline dual in-line memory module) slots rather than the DIMM slots you would find on most desktop motherboards.
Gaming laptops come in all shapes and sizes. Entry-level options may strive to balance portability and performance, while more powerful gaming laptops have traditionally taken up more room. In recent years, however, that tradeoff has become less universal. Premium laptops with advanced thermal designs can stay relatively thin and light while still utilizing high-performance components.
Consider the tradeoff between power, price, portability, as well as available ports and performance-enhancing extras when thinking about laptop design.
Design: Key Features
- Build quality. Aluminum casing can allow for sleeker and more durable designs than traditional plastic.
- Bezels. Look for thin bezels to reduce the overall size of the device. By reducing the size of the screen’s borders, manufacturers can make the laptop smaller while preserving a similar screen size.
- Weight. A thinner and lighter design means more portability. However, thicker and heavier gaming laptops — also known as musclebooks — often include features that are beneficial to a stationary home setup, such as more input and output options (I/O), or particularly powerful cooling solutions.
- Aesthetics. Premium laptops may sport a brushed metal finish, user-controlled RGB lighting, and other eye-catching design features that are worth considering.
- Luxury extras. Though less common, high-end gaming laptops may include multiple screens, ultrawide aspect ratios, overclockable designs, upgradeable hardware, or even keyboards with mechanical switches.
- Wireless Connectivity. Most laptops incorporate wireless cards that allow connection to hotspots and home routers on the 2.4GHz or 5GHz bands. For access to the fastest wireless internet speeds, look for Wi-Fi 6 enabled components. Another common wireless feature to look out for is Bluetooth, which uses the 2.4GHz band to connect peripherals like headsets or controllers to a system.
More ports mean more options for expanding a laptop’s functionality. Some gaming laptops may cut down the number of ports available in order to achieve a smaller form factor, so keep this trade-off in mind when comparing.
Laptop Ports: Key Features
- Display. Connect external monitors or HDTVs using these ports, the most common of which are HDMI and DisplayPort.
- Thunderbolt™ 3 technology. This versatile connection technology can transmit video and audio to monitors using the DisplayPort standard. It can also transfer data four times faster than USB 3.1, and even supply power. This connection can be especially useful for multiple monitor setups, or for transferring large amounts of data to external drives. Not all laptops support Thunderbolt™ 3 technology, so double-check if you want to take advantage of it.
- USB. USB ports can be used to connect mice, headsets, external hard drives, and countless other peripherals. Revision numbers like 2.0, 3.0, or 3.1 reflect the port’s data transfer speed, while classifications like “Type-A” and “Type-C” refer to the shape of the connector.
- Audio. Most laptops have a 3.5mm headphone jack, as well as USB ports for compatible headsets and speakers.
- Ethernet. An RJ-45 Ethernet jack can provide a fast, stable connection for your system, and can be a great alternative to relying on Wi-Fi when at home. If the laptop doesn’t have an Ethernet port, a USB-to-ethernet adapter can potentially be used.
- SD. An SD card slot lets you easily expand storage with SDXC cards, and allows for quick data transfer between devices that support this form factor. This can be particularly useful in fields that require frequent media transfer, such as photography and videography.
If the laptop you want has limited ports available, consider using a multiport USB hub or a docking station. If you’re struggling to connect a mouse, headset, webcam, external hard drive, or other peripherals to a slim laptop with only two USB ports, these options can provide new connection options.
For more ideas on how to build out a laptop-centered gaming station, see our Ultimate Laptop Setup Guide.
Improvements in cooling have allowed laptop manufacturers to upend the old stereotype of thick, unwieldy gaming laptops. Today, some of the most powerful systems on the market are thin laptops with meticulously engineered cooling systems.
Though their internal workings are complex, the fundamentals of cooling systems in laptops still mostly consist of vents, fans, cooling pipes, and heatsinks. That said, huge progress has been made in how these cooling tools are designed and implemented, allowing for the smaller form factors we see in modern gaming laptops.
Comparing one system’s cooling to another can be difficult from the manufacturer’s description alone, so it’s worth checking reviews to learn about real-world performance, and how it might relate to your usage needs.
Check out our guide to PC cooling to learn more.
Taking full advantage of a laptop’s input and output options can enable a desktop-like gaming experience at home. Connect a gaming mouse, a more responsive keyboard, or premium audio to create a fully featured gaming station with a laptop at the center.
Laptop Inputs: Key Features
- Mechanical keyboard. Though most gaming laptops don’t use mechanical switches, you can easily connect an external keyboard via USB to enjoy a full-sized keyboard layout with the switches and aesthetics you prefer.
- Gaming mouse. Laptop touchpads have come a long way, and are specifically designed for comfortable daily use. When gaming however, it might be preferable to connect a mouse with additional input options for more precise, customizable movement.
- Headset and audio. Providing a built-in mic and adjustable balance between game audio and voice chat, a gaming headset can be very useful for modern multiplayer games. Many feature both stereo and digital surround sound configurations. They usually connect via a USB port, Bluetooth, or 3.5mm audio jacks.
- Speakers. Upgrade from your laptop’s built-in speakers and create a rich sound stage with desktop speakers or a soundbar. Connect traditional speakers via USB or audio cable, or use a lightweight Bluetooth speaker or soundbar for a more immersive audio experience.
Which Laptop Is Right for You?
When choosing a laptop, what matters most is how you plan to use it.
If you plan to game on an external monitor, it might make sense to prioritize the CPU and GPU rather than a feature-rich built-in display. If you edit video or create content, 32GB of RAM, a solid CPU, and a high-resolution display might be more important than the latest GPU architecture.
It’s not just about comparing one gaming laptop’s components or form factor to another: It’s about identifying the features that you value most, and finding the machine that has everything you’re looking for.