If you’re a big-picture sort of person, you need a laptop to match. You yearn for a notebook (the word “laptop” is a bit of a misnomer for these bulky thigh-crushers) that not only capably replaces a desktop PC, but also gives you an easy-on-the-eyes, panoramic view of your workspace or playing field. That means a 17-inch model, one with the largest popular screen size in the portable universe.
Almost all 17-inch laptops feature displays that, technically, measure 17.3 inches on the diagonal (just as so-called 15-inch laptops usually measure 15.6 inches corner to corner). That’s enough for a magnified view of full HD or 1080p resolution (1,920 by 1,080 pixels), or a comfortable view of higher resolutions such as 4K (3,840 by 2,160), which can make you squint on a smaller screen.
Should You Really Go This Large, Though?
On the negative side, this screen size dictates a bulky machine—one that’s often too big for a briefcase, requiring a special laptop bag, backpack, or roller bag, and too heavy for more than occasional transport between home and office or cubicle and conference room.
The lightest 17-inch laptops, with one major exception, weigh in at just under seven pounds. (The outlier, the LG Gram 17, is an extraordinary case that comes in at under 3 pounds.) The heaviest, which are invariably gaming models, tip the scales at a back-breaking 10 pounds or more, and in some cases, that’s not counting two ponderous AC power bricks. Airline tray table? Forget it. More like checked baggage.
Nor should you expect long battery life from a plus-size notebook. These machines are designed to run on AC power most of the time. If yours can endure unplugged for more than four hours, consider yourself lucky. (Just take a look at the tested runtimes of our favorites in our spec comparison table.)
So, are these tradeoffs too much to suffer merely for a pleasing view? Are luggables just the large-print books of the laptop world?
No—they’re also the performance leaders. Their chassis accommodate the most powerful processors and graphics cards, the strongest cooling systems, the most memory, and multiple solid-state drives (SSDs) or hard drives for ample storage. They have plenty of room for all the ports you might need, as well as spacious, near-desktop-class keyboards with full keypads for numeric data entry.
Jumbo laptops aren’t for frequent fliers, but they fill a big niche. Let’s look at what they can do, and what to look for as you shop for one.
Work or Play: Which Is Your Main Aim?
A few 17-inch laptops are general-purpose PCs for people who want an occasionally portable system with a large screen. Most, however, fall into one of two camps with diametrically opposed, but equally hardcore, audiences: mobile workstations, and serious gaming laptops.
Both types can handle what many PC users think of as work: office productivity and email using Word, Excel, Outlook, Chrome, Slack, and so on. But mobile workstations, as seen in our special guide, laugh at such modest apps. Instead, they carry independent software vendor (ISV) certifications of compatibility and smooth operation with programs for way tougher computing jobs: computer-aided design (CAD) and advanced 3D modeling and rendering, crunching through huge scientific or engineering datasets, or delving into video editing and the creation of worlds for virtual reality. And they rely on state-of-the-art CPU and GPU power to do so.
With the exception that CPU muscle is a little less important while GPU strength is paramount, much the same applies to gaming rigs (also the stars of their own buying guide and roundup of ours that’s worth checking out). They’re designed to play the latest and greatest titles at high speeds—at least 60 frames per second, double the rate recognized as providing minimally smooth gameplay—with all the visual details and eye candy turned up to 11. Onscreen stuttering or tearing just won’t cut it. Lag can be fatal during a fragfest.
Whichever class of 17-inch machine you are considering, you’re likely drawn to it by the one big thing the two main types have in common: the screen. Let’s look at that.
The Display Panel: What to Look For
In the 17-inch class, workstation and gaming laptops alike benefit from choosing the right screen type. A solid baseline pick would be an in-plane switching (IPS) or indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO) panel, which gives you the sharpest colors and contrast, as well as the widest off-center viewing angles. Touch screens aren’t very popular in either class, with both gamers and workstation pros preferring the pixel-by-pixel control of a mouse.
Gamers often choose displays capped at 1080p resolution for high frame rates’ sake; fast gaming at 4K resolution requires a costly, top-of-the-line graphics processor (GPU) like Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 2080 Super, GeForce RTX 3070, or GeForce RTX 3080. By contrast, some workstation users enjoy the highest-resolution screen possible to mimic the desktop experience of multiple monitors or for editing 4K video. Some mobile workstations also excel at precisely matching what’s seen on screen to your finished work’s destined output, offering a choice of the web’s sRGB, print’s Adobe RGB, or cinema’s DCI-P3 palettes or color spaces. A few recent models from makers such as Asus and Gigabyte also come with validations by Pantone for color accuracy.
Most standard laptop LCDs have a refresh rate of 60Hz, redrawing the image on screen 60 times per second. That’s fine for the human eye—television is 30Hz and most movies 24Hz—and for 90-plus percent of applications and users. But it’s not enough for fanatic gamers who’ve invested in graphics chips that can crank out more than 60 frames per second. Hence the availability of gaming laptops with so-called “high refresh” 120Hz, 144Hz, 240Hz or even 300Hz displays. (See more about whether you really need a high-refresh display.) Shoppers in this stratosphere will also find some screens that support Nvidia’s G-Sync technology, able to synchronize the refresh rate of the display on the fly to the GPU’s output for smoother appearances.
The Heart Under the Hood: CPU, Memory, and Storage
When it comes to CPUs, Intel parts teamed with discrete GeForce, Quadro, Radeon, or Radeon Pro graphics processors lead the popularity contest over AMD’s mobile Ryzen 5 and 7 chips with their integrated graphics. The most popular option for 17-inch gaming notebooks is Intel’s Core i7, in 10th or 11th Generation guise (indicated by model numbers in the 10,000s or 11,000s, respectively) with at least six processing cores. These are dubbed Intel’s H-Series chips, to distinguish them from the lighter-hitting U-Series CPUs that show up in thinner, lighter laptops. The mighty—and mighty costly—Core i9 chips occupy the top of the market. (Read much more on choosing the right laptop CPU.) Intel’s 11th Generation H-Series (“Tiger Lake-H”) CPUs should increasingly dominate the market, here in mid-2021, in the newest models.
For mobile workstations, the Core i7 and Core i9 are joined by Intel’s Xeon processors, which offer support for server-style error correcting code (ECC) memory. Though outside the mainstream for ISV apps, ECC’s ability to detect and fix single-bit memory errors is a plus for scientific, architectural, or financial computing jobs intolerant of even the slightest data corruption.
Regular, non-ECC RAM will serve just fine for most buyers, though. An allotment of 8GB of memory is the bare minimum for a gaming laptop, with 16GB preferable. (More than that’s not really necessary, unless you have buckets of money to burn.) Workstations have a heartier appetite for RAM, with 16GB a practical minimum and 32GB not uncommon; many models support a whopping 64GB or 128GB. In the case of a workstation portable, you’ll want to look into the specific RAM requirements of the applications you plan to run to gauge how much you should splurge on memory.
As for storage, look for one or two M.2 solid-state drives, often joined by one or two 2.5-inch hard drives—the SSD for the operating system and favorite applications, the roomier hard drive for games and data. Most performance-conscious portables use slightly quicker PCI Express (PCIe) rather than SATA solid-state drives. In connection with PCIe SSDs, you’ll often see the acronym “NVMe” (for Non-Volatile Memory Express) bandied around, as well as a few proprietary monikers, such as HP mobile workstations’ Z Turbo Drives. Both indicate the fastest SSDs. (See our guide to the best PCI Express NVMe SSDs.)
Half a terabyte of storage (for an SSD-only system) is the smallest amount you should accept; 1TB or 1.5TB is more mainstream, and some workstations boast up to 3TB or 4TB of capacity. If money is a limiter, a smaller SSD (say 256GB or 500GB) as the boot drive, paired with a roomy hard drive, is a good compromise. A 17-inch laptop is the kind most likely to have room for both. Some 17-inchers may have an empty bay to let you install an aftermarket 2.5-inch drive or an M.2 SSD yourself. This can be an economical option.
Choosing a GPU: Again, the Work/Play Divide
Mobile workstations’ graphics cards are divided between Nvidia’s Quadro, Quadro RTX, and RTX A-series (much more common) and AMD’s Radeon Pro (much less common) brands. Their silicon is optimized for different operations than the companies’ respective GeForce and Radeon parts for gaming laptops, as well as for hard-charging, constantly-on rendering or calculations.
On the gaming side of the fence, too, Nvidia enjoys a big market lead in mobile GPUs. Its “Ampere” architecture defines its current GeForce RTX 30 Series offerings, seen first in desktop video cards like the GeForce RTX 3080. At the higher end of the gaming-laptop market, these GPUs, indicated by “GeForce RTX” instead of “GeForce GTX,” are replacing chips based on the “Turing” architecture of Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 20 series, though you’ll still see some laptops based on these for sale.
The basic story for both workstations and gaming rigs is a familiar one, though: Higher model numbers and higher prices bring you more speed and higher frame rates. They also gain you support for features such as virtual reality (VR), though midrange and high-end gaming-laptop GPUs like the GeForce RTX 1660 Ti (Turing) and above, and all of the current GeForce RTX chips, support playing and exploring VR worlds, while high-end mobile-workstation parts like the Quadro P5000 series support VR authoring or creating them.
Nvidia’s gaming-laptop GPUs here in 2021 have seen a shift. Before the launch of the 30-Series Ampere and 20-Series Turing laptop chips, it was a simple ladder: They climbed from the GeForce GTX 1050 to the GTX 1050 Ti, then the GTX 1060, with the formerly high-end GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 topping the line. The last three were replaced by the GeForce RTX 2060, RTX 2070, and RTX 2080 (and slightly faster “RTX Super” versions of the last two), which are themselves giving way to the RTX 3050, RTX 3050 Ti, RTX 3060, RTX 3070, and RTX 3080. Only the last will truly satisfy gaming hounds planning to play the latest titles at 4K resolution with all the image-quality settings dialed up, while the GTX chips and lower RTX chips have been designed for gamers with full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) screens. The RTX 2070, RTX 3060, and RTX 3070, meanwhile, straddle the full-HD and 4K realms.
At the lower end, the current chips are the mobile versions of the GeForce GTX 1650, GTX 1650 Ti, and GTX 1660 Ti. (There is no mobile version of the GTX 1660.) At this writing, new machines with the GeForce RTX 3050 and RTX 3050 Ti were hitting the streets; these are the first low-end RTX-class GPUs. All of these GPUs have supplanted the GTX 1050, GTX 1050 Ti, and GTX 1060. You’re looking at an up-to-date laptop if it has one of these GTX 1600-series chips or an RTX 3050-class one.
Traditionally, a very few huge, heavyweight gaming laptops carry not one but two GeForce GPUs for ludicrous speed, using Nvidia’s SLI (and in the latest generation, NVLink) multi-GPU technology. But they cost a fortune, their battery life was invariably brutish and short, and not all games benefit from dual-GPU setups, anyway. They are now an anachronism. AMD’s Radeon RX mobile GPUs have made some modest inroads of late in a few machines, but they tend to appear so far in 15-inch-class machines, not 17-inchers. Nvidia dominates laptop GPUs.
So, Which 17-Inch Laptop Should I Buy?
That’s about it for general advice, except for matters of personal preference. Keyboards, for instance: Some gaming laptops go wild with colorful, customizable RGB backlighting and feature macro keys for storing frequently used command or combat sequences, while some mobile workstations’ touchpads or pointing sticks feature the third (middle) mouse button often used in CAD and similar applications. And we don’t think you should buy a 17-inch laptop in either of these groups that doesn’t have at least one Thunderbolt 3 or Thunderbolt 4 port, which combines USB-C and DisplayPort functionality with daisy-chainable support for external docking and storage solutions.
At any rate, you’re ready to shop for the notebook of your big-screen dreams. Get started by checking out the reviews we’ve assembled here, and good luck: Flex those biceps and get your back-strengthening routine down pat. You’re going to go big. On the flip side, your eyes will be very, very happy.