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how to buy a gaming laptop

Why buy a stationary desktop computer when you could take your gaming on the go?

If you want to play rounds of DOTA 2, Fortnite, or Call Of Duty anywhere, anytime, you need to find the right portable gaming rig.

But what exactly is a gaming laptop and how does it differ from a home or office machine?

There’s more to this decision than just picking a dedicated graphics card and getting more RAM!

Below we explain the ins and outs of selecting the right model for high end, modern gaming so you can play any title at high settings without dropping frame rates or experiencing low performance.

But what if you just want to play Minecraft or old classic games where you’ve still got the install discs saved from 20 years ago? In that case, there’s no need for many extra features, and you can save a bundle by shopping smart.

No matter what kind of games you want to play, we’ve got you covered with a comprehensive buying guide that covers every possible feature and component.

Not looking for a wall of text and just want to know a few specs to look out for instead? We’ve still got you covered with our cheat sheet, which lists the top 10 features you need for a gaming laptop.

In this guide you’ll learn

Want to become a laptop gaming guru so you can choose a device without having to rely on the dubious help from big box store employees? Here’s what you’re going to learn in our guide:

Part I. Quick Tips Cheat Sheet

For the one that is in a hurry

This quick listing of 10 essential tips shows you everything you need in one glance. Whether you want a cheap machine or a cutting edge computer, these rules will show you exactly what to buy!

Part II. In-Depth Buying Guide

For the one who needs to fully understand the process.

We go more in-depth by explaining which components will impact your performance. When you know your basic specs, we can then help you choose between extra features like display sizes, body types, and keyboard backlighting

Part III. Laptop Buying FAQs

For the one that is still wondering

We drill down and show you exactly how much you should expect to spend, explain what can be upgraded in a gaming laptop, and cover the best models available today.

Part I.

Quick Tips Cheat Sheet

Don’t have time for a full lesson in everything there is to know about graphics cards and CPU types?

What to look for in a gaming laptop

10 simple rules for picking a gaming laptop

1.

In terms of OS, Microsoft Windows is almost certainly the way to go, unless you specifically just want Chrome app games. Plenty of new Battle Royale titles and classic old console games can be found at the Google Play store.

2.

You can’t expect the same battery life as with an office laptop. Due to the high power requirements of the graphics card and advanced CPUs, you will probably max out at 2 – 4 hours of life when you aren’t plugged in.

3.

Most gaming laptops are going to be heavier than their work counterparts. While there are a few thin and light Max-Q designs, in most cases you can expect a gaming laptop to start at 6 pounds and go as high as 15!

4.

A solid 8GB of RAM is the absolute bare minimum of physical memory for gaming, 16GB will offer a better overall experience and 32GB is future proofed against upcoming game updates.

5.

HDDs offer more room to install extra games, but ideally you want a solid state drive instead to avoid long load times. The trade off for less space is worth the increased speed.

6.

A dedicated graphics card is critical and should be your top priority when looking at specs. The GTX 1050 Ti version should be your absolute bottom line, with a 1060 or 1070 preferred if you can afford them.

7.

Since you can’t upgrade the laptop’s CPU like with a desktop, go for the best processor you can afford. At minimum, an Intel Core i5 of 7th or 8th gen is recommended for a smooth gaming experience. If you have extra money to spend, go with a Core i7 instead.

8.

Take careful note of the ports on any model, especially if you prefer to use an external gaming mouse or want to hook up to an HDMI monitor. Make sure to check for an Ethernet port if you use a wired connection at LAN parties!

9.

Going with a gaming-focused brand offers more flashy body style and designs, but you can often get the same specs and save money by going with less ostentatious models from other brands.

10.

Gaming laptops typically offer more backlighting keyboard options than standard laptops. If you look around a bit, you can go from standard white backlighting to per-key RGB backlighting for a truly impressive lightshow while playing!

Part II.

In-Depth Buying Guide

1. Performance

From modern AAA titles to a horde of indie Steam titles, there’s no question that games of all varieties will tax your system’s resources.

That’s why your primary concern when buying a gaming rig should be performance over all other features. Below we’ll show you exactly how much RAM you need, along with the best type of CPU and GPU to pick so you always have slick visuals and fast speeds.

Choosing RAM

RamWhen buying an office or home-use laptop you have some wiggle room on the amount of RAM. That is absolutely not the case when looking for a portable gaming computer.

Your bare minimum amount should be 8GB, and you shouldn’t be willing to go below that number for any reason. Most games these days will only barely run on 4GB and your overall performance will be so low that you might as well not play any games at all.

The pace of technology is always marching forward, and in some cases 8GB is now the minimum while 16GB is recommended for the best gameplay. If you want to keep playing games at high settings with stable frame rates, that’s the better choice at this point.

In general, 32GB is overkill, but it does future proof your machine so you can always run the newest and best games.

In the absolute highest end machines, you can even find 64GB of RAM, which is only necessary for those with plenty of money to spend who want a cutting edge machine.

No matter the amount of RAM, take a moment to check whether a laptop model sports DDR3 or DDR4 memory.

While DDR4 typically offers better performance, DDR3 uses less power so you’ll get better battery life. 

Choosing CPU

ProcessorWhile RAM and the graphics card are often the focus of marketing for any given gaming rig, the processor is equally important.

For speedy Windows updates to faster game install speeds, you want the best CPU you can afford when buying a gaming laptop.

Your bottom end pick should be an Intel Core i5, as this is the bare minimum you’ll need for decent gaming performance. In most cases, the i5-8300H will offer smooth gameplay.

For better overall speeds and fewer frame rate slow downs, we recommend going with an Intel Core i7 CPU instead, however. A 6 core, i7-8750H should be the processor to aim for to future proof your machine.

When money is no object, the i9 lineup is also available in very high end gaming laptops, although these aren’t currently necessary as the 8th gen i7s will run any games on the market.

Choosing A Graphics Card

More than any other component, the GPU should be where you focus your money when picking up a new gaming laptop.

While you can potentially deal with less RAM or a lower end CPU, if you go with a weak graphics card you will immediately notice a loss of frame rate at higher graphic settings.

Your bottom option right now should the NVIDIA GTX 1050 Ti edition. This card will handle nearly any game on medium to high settings, although it will struggle with newer titles on ultra.

If you demand graphical performance, we recommend going with either the GTX 1060 or GTX 1070 instead.

Your battery life will go down with those models, but you can be certain you’ll run any game on max settings without any problem. Those cards are also VR-capable, so you’re ready to go if you decide to pick up a Rift or Vive headset.

At the top end is the GTX 1080, which most gamers won’t need at this point in time. The only reason to go that route is to ensure you don’t need to upgrade down the line.

Note that the brand new RTX series of cards from NVIDIA aren’t available in mobile form — yet — but will be making their entrance into the laptop landscape soon. Be on the lookout for a new class of graphics to outmatch the 10 series in early 2019!

Choosing An SSD

At this point in time, we don’t recommend picking any laptop with a hard disk drive at all.

Data retrieval speeds are becoming much more of an issue as time goes on, and gamers are being particularly hit hard.

Games these days use very large files and load times are increasingly exponentially for those who are still utilizing the aging hard disk drive technology.

At a minimum, you should be picking a machine with a 256GB SSD. That offers the speed you need, but doesn’t provide a ton of room for installing more than a handful of newer games.

A more spacious 512GB SSD will work better for gamers who like to have a variety of games available at any one time.

Models with that size of solid state drive are typically much more expensive however. If you want additional space but need to save money, there are two options. You can look for:

  1. A gaming laptop with a hybrid SSHD that is still faster than an HDD
  2. A gaming laptop with both a small 128GB SSD for booting Windows with a larger 1TB HDD for storing files.

2. Size And Form Factor

Smaller is typically better for most electronics, but that’s not the case for a gaming rig. On the gaming front you want to strike a good balance between screen size and a lightweight design.

Screen Size

For most users, we recommend going with a 15 inch display for the best median point between size and weight.

standard laptop screen size.001

You want plenty of display area to see your game so you don’t miss anything, but you also want to avoid the bulk of a super heavy desktop.   

If you pick a smaller size, there is less room for the manufacturer to fit additional components inside the chassis. That means you will typically get less RAM and fewer ports if you go down to 13 inches or lower.

For those who prefer more screen area, there are plenty of larger 17 inch models available as full desktop replacements. The weight very quickly goes up and you lose portability, however.

Body Style

While you can find a handful of hybrid 2-in-1 laptops with dedicated graphics cards, that style isn’t currently intended for gaming.In most cases, a standard clamshell design will be your main option.

popular laptop form

In most cases, you won’t find super slim ultrabooks meant for gaming either. This is slowly changing however, due to a new design called Max-Q.

This design changes the size and placement of the portable computer’s graphics card. The end result is that you lose out on a small amount of graphical processing power, but get a significantly thinner profile than with a normal gaming laptop.

Aside from thickness and hinge style, gaming laptops have many more options than their standard office counterparts in terms of visual flair.

While the price will usually go up, be on the lookout for glowing green or red USB ports and exhaust ports, as well as etched designs on the lid.

For durability and aesthetics, keep an eye out for any gaming laptop with a fully metallic body rather than a plastic shell.

 

Keyboard Options

Gaming laptops have more to consider than just deciding between compact or full 10 key options.

When buying a portable computer for playing online games, you particularly want to pay attention to models with low key travel and anti-ghosting features.

Gamers need precision so you don’t accidentally hit the wrong macro while playing a MMORPG or tap the wrong key during an online deathmatch.

These two features ensure every keystroke is registered, and the keys don’t stay depressed longer than they should.

Visual aesthetics again play a big role here, as many gaming models can be found with either five section RGB or even per key RGB enabled.

These options let you choose the color of the backlighting in different areas of the keyboard, which again help with precision.

For instance, you can change the color of the WASD keys to light up differently than the CTRL or Shift keys. While that not only looks cool, it helps you maintain more precision key control when playing in the dark.

Ports And Connectivity

While most buyers look at the performance of the CPU and GPU, for the best gaming experience you need to pay careful attention to the ports as well.

High end gaming is often enhanced with extra peripherals, and you need a way to connect those devices to your computer.

Not everyone will want to use the built-in keyboard and touchpad for input. In some cases plugging in an external device is practically mandatory.

A gaming mouse with multiple DPI settings and a handful of extra macro buttons can be the difference between victory and defeat in a battle royale game, for instance.

Your specific needs will vary depending on which kinds of peripherals you intend to use. Be on the lookout for these types of ports:

  • Ethernet for a wired connection at LAN parties
  • HDMI for hooking up to a high definition external display
  • VGA for connecting to older monitor types
  • USB 3.0 for best speed — you’ll want a minimum of 2 ports, but 3 is better
  • USB-C if you want a universal single port and don’t mind using adapters

3. Other Features

You’ve decided on your ideal graphics card, processor type, display size, and amount of RAM. There are still a few other features to consider however, and we can help you make sure to pick only the best options!

Battery Life

This is one of the only areas where a standard home or office laptop will beat out the gaming models.

There’s no way to sugar coat it — battery life in gaming models is awful.

With cutting edge graphics cards and huge amounts of RAM, you can seriously get less than an hour of battery life.

Keep in mind that the estimated battery life listed by manufacturers is never for gaming — its always for video streaming with the screen brightness turned down.

The absolute best case scenario will be in 3 – 4 hour range, and models that can actually support that amount of battery typically skyrocket in price.

In most cases, just expect to stay plugged in at all times while gaming.

In fact, some laptops actively throttle GPU and CPU speeds while using the battery to conserve power. You won’t get the same speeds gaming when you aren’t plugged into an outlet.

There are a few ways to get better battery life however, by picking models with these specs:

  • DDR3 RAM
  • No touch screen
  • Smaller display size (such as 14 inches)
  • 8th gen processor

Cooling Options

Graphics cards and high end CPUs generate significant quantities of heat, which is bad news for the longevity of your laptop.

That’s why you need to pay careful attention to the cooling options if you want your gaming laptop to last more than a year.

Some models will include a side button to manually flush hot air when the machine starts to overheat. Several manufacturers also include built-in software for monitoring and controlling temperatures in their gaming models.

Since most gamers don’t need optical drives anymore, be on the lookout for models that use the swappable FrostCore technology. These laptops feature a drive slot where you can slide in an extra cooling fan when necessary for marathon gaming sessions.

Those options aren’t always necessary, however.  If you want to save money, you can skip those fancy built-in options and instead pick up an aftermarket cooling pad.

 

Screen Types And Resolutions

First off, touch screens are significantly less prevalent in gaming models, but they are available for those who want to play gaming apps. The major downside there is that they eat up more battery power.

In most cases, you can expect an HD non-touch display, but you have two main options to consider in the screen panel:

  • IPS
  • TN

There’s a lot of debate among gamers as to which is better. IPS panels offer better viewing angles and smoother colors.

TN models feature faster response times, however. That means you get smoother picture during fast movement (like when playing an online shooter).

Either way, your bare minimum resolution for gaming should always be 1920 x 1080. Anything less than that isn’t sufficient for modern games.

Going all the way up to 4k isn’t necessary for most gamers, and is only recommended for serious videophiles with plenty of money to spend.

Be sure to also remain on the lookout for for any gaming laptop with a monitor labeled as G-Sync enabled.

Why do you need this feature? G-Sync handles the issue of screen tearing by forcing your monitor to match the refresh rate of your graphics card and gives a much better viewing experience.

Gaming Brands And Warranties

When you’re spending a grand or more on a computer, peace of mind is important.

Build quality and tech support are overlooked features when investing in a gaming laptop, and you want to know your machine is covered if something goes wrong.

  • MSI – Easily one of the most recognizable gaming laptop brands right now, MSI models are typically quite expensive, but worth the price with very high customer reviews. Warranties are usually 2 – 3 years.
  • Asus – The ROG series is known for being comparatively thin and light, but usually only offers a 30 day return policy with a 1 year limited warranty on some parts.
  • Acer – The Predator, Helios, and Nitro line of laptops offer plenty of bang for buck with lower costs. Warranties are usually only for 1 year, and you’ll need to pay shipping.
  • Alienware – These models tend to be quite heavy but have extremely distinctive visual designs. Upgraded warranties are readily available for online tech support and even in-home repair.
  • Lenovo – These gaming models typically look like normal office computers from the outside and come with 90 day to 1 year warranties.
  • HP – The Omen and Pavilion lines both come in gaming variants with 1 year warranties where shipping is typically covered. Extended warranties that cover parts for longer periods of time are also available.
  • CUK – Computer Upgrade King models are opened and upgraded before they are shipped to you, offering higher end specs than their base models. You usually get a 3 year limited warranty with these models.
  • Gigabyte – Like with CUK, these models are upgraded ahead of time and typically feature a 1 year warranty,
  • Eluktronics – For an offbeat brand, you’ll find very high user reviews for gaming laptops here, although the warranty is only for 1 year.
  • Sager – This brand has both bulky models with high end graphics cards and thin ‘n light models, with a 1 year limited warranty coming standard.

Part III.

Laptop buying FAQs

1. How Much Should I Spend On A Gaming Laptop?

By browsing between brands and keeping an eye out for sales and price drops as new models arrive, it hasn’t hard to spend less than you’d expect on a great gaming rig.

That being said, there are some clear differences between price points where you see new features become standard.

For most users, you can get good performance at high settings by spending between $800 – $1,200. If you demand extra features or bleeding edge performance though, you may want to consider bumping up to a higher tier.

With the exception of certain limited time killer deals, in most cases your minimum to spend on a decent gaming rig is going to be $700 – $800. At this price point you should get:

  • 8GB of RAM
  • Intel Core i5 CPU
  • 256GB SSD
  • GTX 1050 graphics card
 

When bumping up to the $800 – $1,200 range, you should instead expect these basic specs:

  • 8 – 16GB of RAM
  • 7th gen Intel Core i7 CPU
  • 256GB SSD or an 128GB SSD + 1TB HDD
  • GTX 1050 Ti – GTX 1060 graphics card
  • More cooling or backlighting options
 

If you spend in the $1,200 – $1,500 range, these should be your bare minimum expectations:

  • 16GB of RAM
  • 8th gen Intel Core i7 CPU
  • GTX 1060 – 1070 graphics card
  • 512GB SSD, or a smaller SSD with an extra HDD for storage
  • Extra features such as G-Sync, higher resolution screens, or per key RGB lighting
  • VR-ready

By increasing to the $1,500 – $2,000 range, be on the lookout for these hardware specs:

  • 32GB of RAM
  • Intel Core i7-8750H CPU, or in some cases even an i9 instead
  • 512GB SSD + extra HDD storage space
  • GTX 1070 graphics card
  • VR-Ready

For the absolute best in cutting edge, future-proof gaming quality, you should look at the $2,000 – $3,000 range. At this price you should be able to find:

  • 64GB of RAM
  • Intel Core i9 CPU
  • GTX 1080 graphics card
  • Multiple SSDs for speed and storage space
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2. How Do I Know If My Gaming Laptop Is VR Ready?

The hardware requirements for various VR systems can vary, but in general you want the best possible GPU and CPU you can afford.

If you skimp on those two components, your VR experience will nosedive sharply. Choppy, stuttering visuals while playing VR can lead to extreme nausea, so in most cases you want these minimum specs to avoid that problem:

  • 16GB RAM
  • NVIDIA GTX 1060 graphics card
  • Intel Core i5 processor
 

3. Can I Upgrade My Gaming Laptop?

The big draw of a PC over a console is in the ability to upgrade hardware as new components hit the market.

You lose much of that functionality with a laptop however, as the thin profiles make it more difficult to replace parts. With only a few minor exceptions, you typically can’t replace the CPU or GPU in a laptop at all.

In general, the only component you can reliably upgrade in a gaming laptop is the RAM. When picking a new portable computer, take a look at the memory specs to find out:

  • The number of RAM slots
  • If one is soldered directly to the motherboard or both are able to be removed
  • The maximum amount of RAM the motherboard can handle
 

For instance, some models can take a maximum of 64GB of RAM between two sticks — meaning you’d need to buy two expensive 32GB sticks of RAM to upgrade to the max amount.

4. What Is The Single Best Gaming Laptop?

Obviously as new models arrive, the answer to this question will always change over time.

There are a few specific product lines known for offering the very best of the best in terms of gaming performance, however.

Right now, king of the hill is easily the MSI Titan series. These gaming behemoths usually feature GTX 1080 graphics cards, massive 1TB SSDs, and 32 – 64GB of RAM.

In addition, you get all the bells and whistles of per key RGB lighting and a high resolution 4k screen.

You will pay a premium for the extremely high end components though — expect to drop between $3,000 – $4,400 depending on which features you pick!

Getting the best performance means ditching the lightweight design as well. The Titan line tends to be very heavy some some models weighing up to 14 pounds!

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Enjoy Your New Gaming Laptop!

 What is a good gaming laptop? It’s any machine that lets you play your favorite games without lag and without breaking your bank account!

Whether you stuck to the quick tips cheat sheet or devoured every detail in the in-depth buying guide, you should now have a very clear picture of what you need.

From casual Fortnite players to die-hard RTS, 4X, and RPG fans, you should now be capable of picking a gaming laptop with confidence.

Have any other questions or wondering about any features or models we didn’t cover? Drop us a comment and we can make sure you make the right choice!

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Ty Arthur

Ty Arthur

After more than a decade of searching for the perfect gaming rig, Ty knows a thing or two about picking the right hardware. He'd like to share that knowledge with all of you through his work at NetbookNews.com, whether you need a business machine, college laptop, or killer gaming computer.

Resources:
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