Purists will argue that you need a PC to truly play games, especially if you’re a fan of pushing the levels of graphics quality beyond the capabilities of a mere gaming console. In this regard, the gaming desktop is still king, particularly when it comes to having the kind of components and horsepower needed to run 4K games smoothly and support virtual reality (VR) setups. But if you want or need something you can tote around the house or over to your friend’s place, we’re here to help you choose the right gaming laptop.
How Much Should You Spend on a Gaming Laptop?
Gaming systems have higher-end components than run-of-the-mill consumer laptops, so their prices consequently will be higher, but the range across the category is huge: from under a grand to $4,000 and up. Budget gaming laptops start at around $750 and can go up to about $1,250. For that, you get a system that can play games at full HD resolution (1080p) with the settings turned down in most titles, or at maximum quality settings in simpler games. Storage may be a hard drive, or a modest-capacity solid-state drive (SSD). An SSD is always preferable.
Want something better? Midrange systems give you smoother gameplay at high or maximum settings on a better-quality 1080p screen (often in concert with a special high-refresh screen; more on that in a moment), and should add support for VR headsets. These models will range in price from around $1,250 to $2,000.
High-end systems, meanwhile, should guarantee you smooth gameplay at 1080p with graphics details maxed out, often with a high-refresh screen. They even might let you play at 4K resolution, if the screen supports it. A high-end model should also be able to power a VR headset and support additional external monitors. These machines tend to come with speedy storage components such as PCI Express solid-state drives, and they are priced above $2,000, often closer to $3,000.
Some laptops in this class support QHD (2,560-by-1,440-pixel) or 4K screens, a hard drive to supplement the SSD, and ultra-efficient cooling fans as optional extras. Thanks to modern advancements, an increasing number of these are even fairly thin and portable. With laptops in this tier, you’ll either pay a premium for high-end performance in a thin chassis, or for pay for the most possible power in a chunkier build.
Put the GPU First: Graphics Are Key
The main attribute that makes or breaks a gaming laptop is its graphics processing unit (GPU). We don’t consider a laptop to be a gaming laptop unless it has a discrete graphics chip from Nvidia or (less commonly) AMD. A quick crash course for the uninitiated: In general, the higher the number in a GPU series, the more powerful it is. For example, an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 will produce higher frame rates and higher-quality graphics than an RTX 3070, and so on down the stack.
Nvidia is the dominant player in the field right now, currently producing discrete mobile GPUs based its “Ampere” microarchitecture. Ampere GPUs sell under the GeForce RTX 30-Series name (i.e., the RTX 3070 or RTX 3080) and launched on laptops in early 2021. This platform supplanted the previous “Turing” generation, though you will still find these 20-Series GPUs (for example, the RTX 2070) at online retailers in some laptops that released last year. Unlike prior generations, the top-end Turing and Ampere GPUs available on laptops carry an “RTX” designation rather than “GTX,” a nod to the ray-tracing technology that the platform offers for enhanced in-game visuals (with games that support it).
That’s how we arrive at the GeForce RTX 2080 (Turing) and RTX 3080 (Ampere) names for both laptops and desktops. With Turing, we found that the laptop GPUs pretty closely matched their desktop counterparts, while there was a noticeable gap between the two with Pascal. Unfortunately, it’s back to being a bit complicated with Ampere: RTX 30-Series GPUs on desktops perform markedly better than their laptop counterparts, and there’s can also be some sizable performance variance between the same GPU on one laptop versus another. (To see our findings on this topic, read our mobile Ampere testing article.)
At the bottom of the Ampere stack are the GeForce RTX 3050 and RTX 3050 Ti, the most recent additions to the lineup, which launched in spring 2021. Compared with the premium RTX 3070 and RTX 3080, these two GPUs are available in more budget-friendly gaming laptops (or in the base configurations of more premium machines), bringing Ampere architecture and, crucially, ray-tracing to entry-level machines. The RTX 3060 occupies the midrange space between these two entry-level and high-end GPU pairs.
Below the RTX 3050, things are slightly more complicated. Before the RTX 3050 and RTX 3050 Ti launched, three Turing-based GPUs occupied the space below the RTX 3060 for true budget systems. The GTX 1650 and GTX 1660 Ti GPUs launched in 2019, and the GTX 1650 Ti debuted in 2020, offering good HD gaming performance without any RTX benefits, like ray-tracing. They are based on the same generation of architecture as the RTX GPUs, but they lack the cores for ray tracing and are less expensive, making them good fits for budget machines.
These remain relevant for the time being despite the new GPUs, especially in the lowest-end gaming laptops, though the RTX 3050 and RTX 3050 Ti will begin to replace them in many cases. You will also see, for example, the GTX 1650 Ti utilized in small gaming laptops like the Razer Blade Stealth 13, and in non-gaming laptops that can benefit from some graphics oomph, like the Dell XPS 15.
Nvidia is still the main player in graphics, but chief rival AMD is seeing an increase in adoption. A rising number of gaming laptops offer Radeon RX 5000 Series GPUs. Radeon GPUs are sometimes paired with an Intel processor, though we’re also seeing more frequent examples of AMD graphics combined with AMD processors than before. (Dell and MSI, for example, were offering a few AMD-on-AMD CPU/GPU machines.) In addition, AMD at Computex 2021 introduced a new line of mobile GPUs in the form of the Radeon RX 6800M, RX 6700M, and RX 6600M that should start to filter out into high-end and midrange gaming laptops in the second half of 2021.
Even with all the above complexity, there are still some basic conclusions to be drawn about graphics performance. A single high-end RTX-class discrete GPU will let you play the latest AAA gaming titles on a 1080p screen with all the bells and whistles turned on, and be fine for powering VR play. Additionally, the 30-Series Ampere GPUs (particularly the RTX 3080) have made smooth 1440p and 4K gaming much more plausible than before, even with ray-tracing enabled in some titles. The most demanding games may not hit 60fps at 4K with ray tracing on depending on the laptop, but it’s much more plausible to do either on their own with these top-end options.
In the past, the power of an RTX 2080 or RTX 3080 would look like overkill for smooth gaming at 1080p, but several new factors can absorb that extra potential. A trend among high-end machines is a high-refresh-rate screen built into the laptop, which allows for display of lofty frame rates in full to smooth out the perceived gameplay. You’ll need a powerful graphics chip to leverage the benefits of a high-refresh panel with demanding games. You’ll be able to identify machines like these by marketing lingo touting, say, a 120Hz, 144Hz, or 240Hz screen. (A typical display on a laptop is a 60Hz panel, but most gaming models will have a 100Hz-plus display at this point.)
A 144Hz panel is emerging as the most common, but we’re also seeing some 240Hz and even 360Hz options in pricey models), so they can display more than 60 frames per second (for example, up to 144fps, in the case of 144Hz screens). This makes gameplay look smoother, but only high-end GPUs can push those limits, in many cases. Additionally, the aforementioned ray-tracing techniques (think real-time lighting and reflection effects) are demanding to run, and as more video games implement the technology, the more you’ll wish you could flip them on. (For now, they’re a factor in just a smattering of AAA games, such as Battlefield V and Metro: Exodus.)
As such, there are multiple reasons to opt for an RTX 2070 or RTX 2080 (while you can still find them offered), RTX 3070, or RTX 3080, even if playing games at a full HD (1080p) resolution doesn’t look too demanding to you on paper. We’ll spare you too many details here, but Nvidia is also implementing a rendering technique called DLSS to help ray tracing to run smoothly on less powerful hardware like the RTX 3050 with limited downsides, so you’re not totally out of luck if you can’t afford the top-end chips. DLSS support, though, applies to just a small subset of games for now.
Nvidia’s G-Sync and AMD’s FreeSync technologies are more down-to-earth. They help increase the quality of the gaming experience and smooth out frame rates by letting the laptop screen rewrite the image onscreen at a variable rate that depends on the output of the GPU (rather than the fixed rate of the screen). Look for support for one of those technologies if you’re a stickler for perfectly rendered visuals. These technologies, collectively known as “adaptive sync,” are becoming more common, but they tend to show up in pricier machines, with G-Sync much more common.
How to Pick a CPU in a Gaming Laptop
The processor is the heart of a PC, and in most gaming laptops that released back in 2020, you’ll likely find Intel’s 10th Generation Core H-Series processors (also dubbed “Comet Lake-H”). You’ll still see plenty of these processors available in 2021 (as well as the occasional older chip), even though they’re technically no longer the latest and greatest offerings. Intel launched its first 11th Generation “Tiger Lake-H” processors in early 2021 (often dubbed the “H35” class), with some newer, higher-powered chips debuting in May. The first ones “only” included four cores and eight threads, but thanks to improvements in Intel’s manufacturing technology, that shouldn’t always equal lower performance, especially on less multi-threaded tasks. They also have the advantage of using less power and running cooler.
Even better for gamers, that second wave of Tiger Lake-H chips are hitting a range of gaming systems in the second half of 2021. They include enthusiast Core i9 CPUs, Core i7 processors for thin-and-light gaming laptops, and fresh Core i5 chips for budget machines. Unlike the processors from the initial wave, these more potent chips have at minimum six cores and 12 threads, and the Core i7 and i9 units boast eight cores and 16 threads. We haven’t reviewed any laptops with these chips just yet, but should have performance numbers soon.
In general, more cores and higher clock speeds bring better overall efficiency and much-improved performance on multithreaded tasks like media projects, but it’s less vital for gaming, making the four-core Tiger Lake H35 family a good fit going forward. Gaming doesn’t usually see as much of a boost from more threads as many media tasks do, but they certainly don’t hurt. The six-core/12-thread Core i7-10750H, in particular, became the go-to for midrange to high-end gaming laptops in 2020 (and in most premium gaming laptops, the Core i7-10875H), while we expect the recently announced Core i7-11800H to become very popular through the rest of 2021.
Theoretically, you may find a gaming laptop with an Intel Core i3 processor, but those are uncommon: Systems with Intel Core i3 and comparable entry-level AMD processors are certainly capable of playing many games, but why limit yourself from square one? That said, if you have to make the choice between a high-end CPU and a high-end GPU, go for the graphics. For example, we’d recommend getting a Core i5 CPU over a Core i7 if the money saved could then go toward an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 GPU instead of an RTX 3060. Spending the money on the GPU makes more sense than spending it on the CPU if gaming is your main concern.
Look for Intel Core i5 processors in midrange systems, with Core i7 H, HQ, and HK processors in higher-end gaming laptops. The H-series processors are higher-power, and tend to show up in more expensive gaming laptops, while lower-power U-series chips are designed for thinner, more portable machines. They are quite different, in terms of thermal profile, as well as overall performance potential; a U-series Core i7 processor may not even have the same number of processing cores as an H-series Core i7 chip. (Intel has started using a “G” suffix on its U-Series chips in its 11th generation to denote the improved integrated graphics, but they are functionally still U-Series processors). U-series chips are uncommon in true gaming laptops, but they are out there. H is better. The most expensive, biggest gaming laptops out there will even offer Core i9 H-Series processors, which are also superior for media tasks.
On the AMD side, times are changing. Previously the mobile versions of the company’s Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 processors played second fiddle to Intel’s offerings. They have their own performance advantages in desktops and laptops, but they have traditionally been far less common in gaming laptops than Intel’s offerings. In 2020, though, AMD launched its new generation of mobile processors based on the Zen 2 architecture, which has been hugely successful on desktop. The first CPU from this new line we tested was the Ryzen 9 4900HS (inside the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14), and it’s seriously impressive, as we continued to see on other laptops through the year. Compared to Intel’s equivalents, these chips performed better on media tasks and offered comparable gaming performance at a lower cost. AMD offers lesser Ryzen 7 and Ryzen 5 chips, too, in this new-for-2020 family, which is also known by its code-name, “Renoir.”
AMD didn’t rest on its laurels entering 2021, either, starting the year by announcing the Ryzen 5000 series chips, based on new Zen 3 architecture. In the few systems we’ve tested with a Ryzen 5000 CPU so far, they’ve been blisteringly fast, giving a strong signal of even better performance as AMD fights for CPU dominance with Intel on laptop and desktop. More and more gaming laptops, particularly more compact offerings, are opting for AMD’s solutions, though they are still widely outnumbered by Intel Core gaming laptops.
Display Size: Do You Need a 17-Inch Gaming Laptop?
In terms of display size, a 15-inch screen is the sweet spot for a gaming laptop. You can buy models with larger 17-inch displays, but this will almost certainly jack up the weight to well beyond 5 pounds and put portability in question. In terms of resolution, however, it’s less of a question: A full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) native-resolution screen is the default minimum at this point, whatever the screen size.
Larger displays are capable of giving you higher-than-1080p resolutions, but choose wisely, as a resolution of QHD (uncommon), QHD+ (3,200 by 1,800 pixels, and even less common), or 4K (3,840 by 2,160 pixels, a bit more common) will boost the final cost twice: first for the panel, and second for the higher-quality graphics chip you’ll need to drive it to its full potential. As mentioned, look for increasingly common G-Sync or high-refresh-rate screens (as discussed above in the GPU section) if you want smoother visuals.
Because they require the most potent GPUs for smooth gameplay at native resolution, gaming laptops with a 4K screen (3,840 by 2,160 pixels) are still an exception, and still expensive. And keep this in mind: Only the most powerful graphics cards can render complex game animations at playable frame rates across the full screen at 4K, so a 1080p screen may actually be a better use of your money if all you do is play games (particularly if you can also get a high refresh rate screen). Even though the RTX 3070 and RTX 3080 can handle 4K gaming much more reasonably than any laptop GPUs before them, we still don’t think it’s worth the cost to seek out 4K gaming in laptops. The screens sure do look nice, though, especially since they’re often paired with OLED technology.
Is Max-Q Right for You?
In an effort to produce sleeker, more portable gaming laptops, Nvidia launched an initiative in 2017 named Max-Q Design, a term borrowed from the aeronautics industry. In that scenario, it describes the maximum amount of aerodynamic stress an aircraft can sustain. Here, it refers to a combination of hardware and software modifications that allow higher-end graphics cards to fit into thinner chassis than traditionally possible. By limiting the power ceiling of GPUs like the GeForce RTX 2080 and RTX 2070, less heat is produced, meaning less room is needed for cooling and heat dissipation, resulting in thinner laptops. The tradeoff is moderately reduced performance, since the thermals are limited, but even then, Max-Q GPUs became commonplace for Turing-based laptops by the end of 2020.
The GeForce RTX 30-Series and Ampere have complicated Max-Q, though. You can read more in the previously mentioned Ampere testing article, but the short version is this: Nvidia isn’t mandating that vendors publicly list whether or not the GPU is tuned down for Max-Q, and the meaning of the Max-Q branding itself is also shifting. It’s less clear how diminished the performance a given Max-Q laptop will be, in addition to the variation between the same GPU on two different laptops, muddying the waters. If you’re shopping for a high-end laptop, or just want to see more details on the performance differences, we recommend you read that Ampere testing piece for more on the nuances. Bottom line, though: Looking at reviews and independent testing results matters now more than ever.
Gaming Laptop Storage: Stick With an SSD
You should definitely give preference to a system with a solid-state drive as the boot drive, since prices have fallen considerably over the past few years. SSDs speed up boot time, wake-from-sleep time, and the time it takes to launch a game and load a new level.
Go ahead and get a gaming laptop with an SSD, but make sure you configure correctly. A small-capacity (256GB) SSD with a roomy (1TB or greater) spinning secondary hard drive is a good start if you also download the occasional video from the internet. (Only thicker gaming laptops will tend to support dual-drive arrangements like this.) Higher-capacity SSDs (512GB or more) are available, but choosing one will increase the purchase price of your gaming rig by a bunch.
SSDs are very fast, but in terms of capacity, your money goes much further with hard drives. Adding more SSD capacity can make the price rise very quickly. Still, recognize how big modern game downloads can be (in the tens of gigabytes) and shop accordingly. A too-small SSD can mean you’re forever shuffling games on and off the drive.
Remember: Get Enough Memory (But Not Too Much)
Before we forget, let’s talk memory. In a gaming laptop, look for at least 8GB of RAM. (In practice, no self-respecting model will come with less.) That will give you some breathing room when switching back and forth between your gameplay window and your messaging app, but we’d save researching game tips for when you’re not playing, as each successive browser window you open eats into your RAM allotment.
For a high-end system, we recommend 16GB, so you can have more than one gaming session, your messaging app, several websites, a webcam program, and your video streaming program open simultaneously. A midrange gaming laptop should function fine with 8GB of memory, but be aware that many new laptops are not upgradable. You may be stuck with the amount of memory you order. For an investment-grade gaming laptop, 16GB is the ideal target; for most folks who aren’t extreme streamers or multitaskers, more than that is overkill.
Buying the Best Cheap Gaming Laptop
If you’re shopping for a gaming system on a limited budget (in this case, between roughly $700 and $1,200), you’re going to need to make some sacrifices. Maximizing power while staying within a limited price range is the goal, but you’ll have to accept that some of the components won’t be comparable with the more expensive laptops you’ll see while browsing. That said, $1,200 is a reasonable ceiling for what some buyers are ready to spend on a gaming laptop, and you can still get a solid system for that much or less. (Check out our side roundup of the best cheap gaming laptops.)
The main drop-off will be the graphics, since the dedicated graphics chip is one of the most expensive components in a machine and the major factor in a computer’s gaming prowess. The graphics chip almost single-handedly defines the class of laptop you’re dealing with, so it’s important to pay attention to that part when browsing options. Fortunately, even the less powerful GPU options these days are quite capable.
Budget systems in 2020 were equipped almost exclusively with budget-friendly Nvidia “Turing” GPUs like the GTX 1650, GTX 1650 Ti, and GTX 1660 Ti. As we mentioned earlier, in spring 2021, alongside Intel’s new Tiger Lake-H chips, Nvidia announced the GeForce RTX 3050 and 3050 Ti, two new GPUs that will be available in laptops starting as low as $799. These are now the entry option for RTX 30-Series GPUs, and for the advanced ray-tracing lighting technology that the “RTX” name denotes, bringing it to budget gamers for the first time. The GTX 16-Series will remain available in some new budget laptops as a starting option, and in 2020 models that are still being sold online, but the two new RTX 30-Series GPUs will become the go-to in cheaper systems as 2021 goes on.
With the GTX 1650 and GTX 1650 Ti, you’ll be able to play smoothly at 1080p, just not at the very highest settings in newer games. That’s less of a worry for the GeForce GTX 1660 Ti if you go that route, as it’s impressively capable in 1080p/full HD for the price, but even there you’ll have to accept dialing down a few settings for 60fps gaming in some titles. That is much less the case for the RTX 3060, which now sits between the RTX 3050/RTX 3050 TI and the high-end RTX 3070/3080. Virtual-reality gaming may be a stretch in this price range, but the GTX 1660 Ti is the current least-expensive VR-capable mobile GPU, so some laptops at the higher end of this price range will (just) get you in the door.
Processors are the next biggest difference. You’ll likely get a capable Core i5 instead of a faster Core i7. Still, some of the benefits of an i7 machine aren’t a major factor for gaming, but instead benefit video editing and other creative uses, so an i5 will do the job. The newest generation of these chips is fast and efficient at a base level, and won’t be too much of a bottleneck for gaming.
AMD GPUs are much less common in budget gaming laptops than Nvidia ones. The few new ones we have seen in the last year mainly use the Radeon RX 5500M or 5600M paired with an Intel CPU, but on the whole, budget-minded all-AMD gaming laptops are something we expect to ramp up more as the year goes on. (One rare example is the good MSI Bravo 15.)
Outside of the graphics card and processor, the other components should actually be closer to more expensive machines than you’d expect. As far as storage is concerned, the price margin between hard drives and SSDs is narrowing, but hard drives hang on more stubbornly here than in other gaming-laptop classes. A 1TB hard drive with maybe a small boot-drive SSD alongside is common in budget laptops, but watch for models that are hard-drive-only; we strongly prefer an SSD boot drive, even in this price range. The display will almost certainly be 1080p, as 1,366-by-768-pixel panels are now reserved only for cheap non-gaming systems. The RAM will likely top off at 8GB in budget laptops, but you will find some (more ideal) 16GB laptops in this range.
What Else Do You Need to Up Your Game?
Given that high-end components tend to drain battery life, don’t plan on taking any of these gaming rigs too far from a wall socket very often. Cutting-edge ports like USB Type-C and Thunderbolt 3 are beneficial now, and will only be more so down the road, but look for at least two ordinary-shaped (aka, “Type-A”) USB 3.0 ports so you can plug in an external mouse and a hard drive for your saved media files.
If you want to attach a VR headset to your GeForce GTX 1660 Ti-or-better rig, look for the right loadout of ports to accommodate it. You’ll need a well-placed HDMI or DisplayPort video out (it depends on the headset which one you’ll need) and enough USB ports for a possible hydra-head of cabling. Other video ports, like DisplayPort or mini-DisplayPort (sometimes implemented over a USB-C port), will be helpful if you want to play games on an external display, but they aren’t absolutely necessary if your laptop’s screen is large enough.
So, Which Gaming Laptop Should I Buy?
Our list of picks is ever-evolving as we test new models. We have organized our choices into our current favorites in the budget (under about $1,200), midrange (between budget and $2,000), and high-end ($2,000 and up) categories at each of the two major gaming-laptop screen sizes (15-inch and 17-inch). Smaller gaming laptops fall into the “ultraportable gaming” class, and we’ve also designated a few additional favorites for areas such as overall value and unusual designs (such as twin-screen models). On occasion, we may designate a model in a different price class than what we tested it at, if the base model starts at a lower price.
Also note that the budget class has seen some price inflation in 2021, given the silicon shortages and supply-chain issues that have plagued the industry since the pandemic began. Before, we’d have set a hard limit of $999 for budget gaming machines, but we are seeing prices rises at the lower end of this market. So we’ve lifted the price ceiling for that class of gaming machines.