Your current desktop or laptop is getting on in years, and you’re thinking about switching it up and going mobile with a gaming laptop for your next major purchase. But there are questions about this process that make you hesitate: What is the best gaming laptop for my needs? How about features and specs? And what about gaming laptop performance — does the mobile form factor mean I have to make compromises?
This is a big investment in hardware that you’ll be using for at least a year or two, so we’re here to help you make the right decision. This piece is a crash course in everything you need to know when choosing your next high-performance gaming laptop.
The Gaming Laptop Experience
There is a diverse array of factors to consider when choosing a gaming laptop. Depending on how you’ll be using your system, you may find that some features are absolutely essential, while others less so.
By taking time to consider your top priorities for your new system, you can be confident in your purchase. Here’s a quick rundown of what to look for in your new gaming laptop.
Screen & Display
A high-quality display is a defining characteristic of the gaming laptop experience. Most high-end notebooks feature 15- or 17-inch displays. Look for thin bezels to reduce the overall size of the device.
Still, there are other factors to consider besides the size of the display. Look for a laptop with a high display refresh rate if you play competitive or fast-paced games, especially first-person shooters.
A higher refresh rate monitor can display a greater number of frames per second (FPS), which means the action on screen is smoother and easier to understand since less time elapses between each frame being rendered.
However, your laptop will need plenty of horsepower to hit these high frame rates: FPS is determined in part by how well your GPU and CPU work together, which means that your choice of system can have a big impact on your overall gaming experience.
All that said, if you’re planning to plug your gaming laptop into a larger display for regular use at home, the screen itself might not be such a critical factor in your decision. If that’s the case, you can divert part of your budget towards ensuring that your laptop instead has powerful enough hardware to drive a standalone desktop display. Check out our tips for selecting a gaming monitor here.
Build Quality, Features & Feel
Gaming laptops come in all shapes and sizes. For entry-level gaming laptops, you’ll usually get a good balance of size, build type, and performance. But there are additional factors to consider, like the tradeoff between power and portability, available input devices, and other performance-enhancing extras. Here’s what to look out for:
- Weight: A thinner and lighter design means more portability. Thicker and heavier gaming laptops — also known as musclebooks — often include features that are beneficial to being stationary, such as more input and output options (I/O). This can include display options, additional USB ports, and audio input.
- Construction: Many gaming laptops feature aluminum casing, which allows for more sleek and durable designs than the standard plastic.
- Inputs: Mechanical keyboards have become increasingly popular among hardcore and professional gamers for their satisfying inputs, and tactile and responsive “feel.” In addition, features like touchscreen trackpads and HD webcams are increasingly common for gaming laptops.
- Cooling: The highest-end gaming laptops boast superior cooling systems, which can help guard against performance throttling. Larger laptops are usually better equipped to dissipate heat over long gaming sessions.
- Aesthetics & Extras: For those who like extras, the major gaming laptop brands all offer premium features like user-controller RGB lighting and Tobii*eye-tracking tech.
Great Hardware Means Great Performance
The top gaming laptops can offer desktop-caliber performance in a portable package, which raises a critical consideration when choosing your next gaming notebook: The hardware.
Here’s a rundown of what to look for when making your pick. Each element is important, so aim to invest in a balanced build based on your needs.
- CPU: In recent years, we’ve started to see a new generation of mobile CPUs that offer faster frequencies and increased core counts, giving you the best of both worlds when it comes to performance and portability in your gaming laptop. In turn, this allows for some key optimizations for both gaming and general stability: A strong CPU can impact everything from frame rate during gameplay to performance on battery.
If you want to stream or record while playing on your gaming laptop, for example, a high-end CPU should definitely be on your radar. Capture software requires a fair bit of processing power, especially if you’re looking to stream on Twitch* or YouTube*. That means a powerful CPU is essential if you want to maintain consistent in-game performance while also encoding video for recording or streaming.
- GPU: For smaller-form-factor gaming notebooks, many offer slimmed-down GPUs that are nearly on par with desktop performance. Or, if you’re looking for actual desktop components in your gaming laptop, you can opt for the bigger musclebooks.
Many gaming laptops feature 4K displays, but running a game at this resolution pushes double the number of pixels as 1080p. So if you’re aiming to play the latest titles at 4K resolution — especially at high or ultra graphics settings — then you’ll want to make sure your gaming laptop comes equipped with a top-of-the-line GPU and CPU.
- RAM: 8GB of RAM is the minimum recommendation for a gaming laptop, while 16GB has become increasingly standard for high-end mobile systems. Additionally, memory is one of the few laptop components that can be upgraded by the end-user, depending on how the system is designed. If you’d like the headroom to upgrade your RAM down the line, be sure to select a system that offers this option.
- Storage: With the increasing affordability of NAND-based storage devices and new interfaces like NVMe*, a high-speed solid-state drive (SSD) is a great choice for gaming and media storage. (Plus, not using a mechanical hard drive means fewer moving parts, and fewer chances for hardware failure.) Look for at least 256GB of SSD capacity in your next gaming laptop. If you need more room for media beyond this, an external hard drive is an easy and inexpensive way to provide some extra space.
What Are Some Good Gaming Laptops?
Unlike with a gaming PC, you can’t purchase components á la carte and DIY your gaming laptop. Fortunately, there are a host of excellent brands from which to choose.
Here are some models to look at as you start your search for the best gaming laptop. Alternatively, consider weighing your options between gaming with a laptop vs. a desktop.