How do you define what makes for a “real” gaming laptop? We don’t consider any laptop a true gaming machine unless it comes with a dedicated graphics chip (aka, a “GPU”), as opposed to the integrated graphics built into the PC’s main processor. For us—and for sellers of laptops—that’s the bright line that divides a gamer from a pretender.
Still, depending on the kind of games you play and how fussy you are, sometimes a laptop doesn’t have to pretend. On some level, almost any recent notebook PC can work as a gaming laptop. Current general-use laptops with Intel’s 9th, 10th, or (more recently) 11th Generation Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs can play basic games passably if you roll back the screen-resolution and graphical-detail settings far enough. These chips have modest graphics acceleration built in, and that’s all you need for casual or Web-based games. Plants vs. Zombies, here you come. The best 11th Generation “Tiger Lake” CPUs have changed the calculus on this somewhat, as they have notably improved integrated graphics and can run real games at low-to-moderate settings. Ultimately, though, they too are still well short of the performance of a discrete GPU.
A True GPU Is the Difference-Maker
We assume you want to do more than harvest potato mines and pea-shooters, or play games at low settings—you have a Steam account, and you ache to play some of the latest AAA titles in all their glory: the newest rev of the Battlefield series, the latest Tom Clancy-fest, the newest iteration of Tomb Raider or Far Cry. Or, you’re looking to play the latest mega-trending online titles—Fortnite, Apex Legends, Valorant—at the highest possible frame rate that your gaming laptop’s panel supports. That’s where a dedicated graphics chip comes in. It’s the starting point for getting serious about gaming on a notebook.
If you’re truly serious, and insist on playing all your games at very high detail settings and the highest possible screen resolution (for most laptops, that’s 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, assuming you’re playing on the laptop’s screen and not an external display), you’re just going to have to shell out some bucks, especially if you want that laptop to stay game-viable at those settings for more than a couple of years. High-end future-proofing like that demands top-end graphics silicon: Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 2070 Super or RTX 2080 Super were the latest and greatest by the end of 2020, and the mighty RTX 3070 and 3080 launched on laptops in early 2021. Getting one of those GPUs means big spending, though, and at current prices, $1,500 or more is outside of budget range. You’re more likely to find the GTX 16-Series, or the newer RTX 3050 family, at this price level—you’ll find more detail on this in the GPU section below.
Take comfort, though, that times have changed. You don’t necessarily need one of the top-line GPUs (in 2021, that means a GeForce RTX-branded GPU) for solid gaming performance. With a little compromising, you can enjoy some very respectable gaming at 1080p in machines a notch or two down from the GeForce RTX elite, with models starting as low as $800. There are even some RTX 2060 laptop options as low as $999 (more details on this breakdown in the GPU section below). Budget-priced gaming laptops are now an established category, not outliers, and have been embraced by the major players. We’ve tested models from Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and MSI.
Here’s how to make sense of their components—and get the most for your money.
Budget Gaming Laptops: What to Look For, Part by Part
Our first bit of advice? If gaming’s your primary focus and your budget really does dead-stop at $1,000, get the best GPU you can for the money, and let everything else follow from there. That may be at the expense of another spec or two—a little less storage, say, or a Core i5 processor instead of a Core i7.
That said, notebooks aren’t upgradable, apart from their primary system memory (RAM, not to be confused with the graphics memory) and in some cases, the storage. You’re going to be stuck with the screen, the graphics chip, and the processor you buy now, so evaluate these parts wisely. If you can stretch your budget a bit to get the next-tier-higher component, it can pay dividends in terms of usable life.
The Processor: Yes, It’s Important, But Don’t Overbuy
Some of today’s games, especially in the MMORPG and real-time-strategy (RTS) categories, tend to hammer the processor. New gaming notebooks no longer come with dual-core processors, for good reason: Some AAA games call explicitly for quad-core CPUs as a minimum.
That said, a maxed-out Core i7 or Core i9 CPU is less crucial for gaming than it is for processor-intensive tasks such as video editing and media-file production work. With the 10th Generation Intel CPUs that dominate budget gaming laptops at the moment, you’ll get plenty of pep even from Core i5 CPUs. A Core i7 of the same generation is actually a hefty six-core or eight-core processor that, we’d argue, is overkill for casual gamers who need to mind what they spend. So, our bottom line: Opt for a Core i5 or i7 chip with four true cores if you can; a six-core chip is gravy.
Currently, Intel’s 10th Generation “Comet Lake” mobile processors are making way for Intel’s 11th Generation “Tiger Lake” processors in 2021 models. The Tiger Lake-H processors have also launched in more premium gaming laptops, but are only starting to filter down to laptops priced below $1,000. You can often configure up laptops that start around $1,200 to include those chips, but then you’re leaving budget pricing territory. In the meantime, many new machines still use the 10th Gen Comet Lake Core-H processors.
Meanwhile, on the AMD side of the fence, things are looking up, big time. Previously, AMD processors and GPUs were rarely seen in midrange and high-end laptops, but were good fits for budget laptops (because the components were generally cheaper value plays to begin with). Even then, there weren’t too many laptops with AMD chips. That started to change in 2020 across all price tiers with the release of laptop chips based on the company’s Zen 2 microarchitecture. As the Zen 2 processors did on desktop, these Zen 2-based “Renoir” processors challenged Intel on laptop in 2020. The first chip we tested was the Ryzen 9 4900HS, which proved both a great performer and value. That’s a higher-end chip, so less relevant here, but there are other Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 CPUs available in budget laptops, like the Ryzen 7 4800H in the Dell G5 15 SE (2020).
AMD continues to up the ante in 2021 with the launch of the Zen 3-based Ryzen 5000 mobile CPUs. We’ve tested just a few laptops with these processors so far, and were not surprised to see very good performance. Look for more of these CPUs in all types of laptops as 2021 rolls to a close.
System Memory: In This Range, Go Eight
Given an around-$1,000 budget, 8GB is the minimum RAM you should settle for. (We haven’t seen less than 8GB of main system memory in a machine with dedicated graphics for some years now.) Most sub-$1,000 machines with dedicated graphics won’t go any higher, but that’s an adequate amount for most moderate use and mainstream gaming. The occasional cheap gaming laptop manages to squeeze in 16GB of memory these days, but it’s still the exception to the 8GB norm in this price range.
Whether the laptop’s RAM is user-upgradable later on, and what the ceiling is, are further facets to investigate. That said, even if you can upgrade the memory, the laptop may come with memory modules occupying both slots, which would mean replacing them both when upgrading later. It’s best to get what you need up front.
Storage: SSDs Rule, But a Mix Is Better
You’ll see both ordinary hard drives and swifter (but lesser-capacity) solid-state drives (SSDs) in under-$1,000 laptops. The occasional 15.6-inch-screen model might offer a small-capacity SSD boot drive alongside a secondary-storage platter hard drive, though this is more common with 17-inch laptops. (Note that most budget gaming laptops under a grand will be 15.6-inchers.)
Opt for this dual-drive approach if you can find it and afford it. The smaller SSD would be home to the operating system and a few favorite games, and the larger, more economical hard drive would host the rest of your games and other programs that don’t need quick loading times. (It’s possible to split your Steam and other game libraries across drives.) Some budget gaming laptops let you add the second drive yourself inside an empty internal 2.5-inch bay. That can be the most economical choice, as 2.5-inch hard drives of significant capacity can be had for well less than $100.
In a gaming laptop, an SSD plus a hard drive is the best of both storage worlds. This is especially recommended given how large modern game installations have become, ballooning over 100GB at times. Your small SSD will fill up quickly. In terms of gaming performance, the storage subsystem affects game load times and in-game level changes. It can be of special importance in MMORPGs, where huge environments are loaded in real time. Thus, having at least some fast, SSD-based storage is desirable. To our eyes, you should only opt for an SSD boot drive at this point in time. The difference in performance “feel” between a hard drive and an SSD boot drive is too big to ignore. (See our picks for the fastest SSDs.)
Optical drives are just about extinct on gaming models at any screen size these days. Even if you have lots of games on disc, know that you can always use an external USB DVD/CD drive in a pinch, and they cost just $20 or so.
Display Details, Part One: Size and Resolution
You should keep four specs in mind when looking at a given gaming laptop’s display panel: the screen size, the native resolution, the refresh rate, and the panel type.
As we noted earlier, 15.6 inches is the general screen-size rule for most under-$1,000 gaming laptops. This size is a good compromise in ways that extend beyond cost. Sometimes, gaming on the biggest laptop screen possible—and with a few exotic exceptions, that’s the 17-inch class—is the way to go. But if you’ve ever tried carrying one of these machines, or shopped for a laptop bag that can fit both it and its gigantic power adapter, you may have second thoughts. Many of these notebooks weigh six pounds or more, and the lightest ones tend to be far from the cheapest.
A 15-inch gamer still won’t be an ideal daily traveler, but most are a lot more manageable than their larger kin. Also, today’s 15-inch gaming rigs are better suited for use in true mobile fashion—that is, off an AC power plug—than those of past years. We’ve seen a few hit six or more hours of battery life, albeit in everyday productivity use or playing back video; gaming will trim that number considerably. (See our picks for the laptops with the best battery life.)
As for the screen’s native resolution, 1,920 by 1,080 pixels (commonly called 1080p) is now the norm in budget-priced and mainstream gaming machines. The more pixels you need to push, the more graphics power you need, and a savvy maker of gaming laptops won’t outfit a laptop with a screen whose native resolution the GPU can’t do justice. So the scarcity of higher-than-HD screens in budget gaming machines is no accident. Not only do such screens cost more and sap more battery life, but the graphics chips found in under-$1,000 gaming rigs wouldn’t power gameplay on them very well. (Screens with resolutions much higher than 1080p tend to look small and squinty at the 15-inch size, anyway.)
Display Details, Part Two: Refresh Rate and Panel Type
Like the native resolution, you should take note of the panel’s refresh rate, even if, these days, it may be the same—that is, 60Hz—across some older budget models.
If the refresh rate (which is measured in hertz, or Hz) is being called out as a feature on a given laptop, that means it’s likely higher than the norm. Most laptop screens, including those in most non-gaming-oriented budget models, stick to 60Hz, which means they redraw the onscreen image 60 times per second and thus can display up to 60 frames per second (fps) of in-game performance. (In other words, if your graphics chip can produce 90fps in a given game, you’ll see only 60 of them.) Some notebook screens these days, though, can display at 75Hz, 120Hz, or more. These high refresh rates can be beneficial for some extremely fast-paced games, particularly titles played competitively online, including stalwarts such as CS:GO, DOTA 2, and Overwatch, and the more recent trio of Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Call of Duty: Warzone.
Still, unless you’re attempting to become a professional gamer or get ranked globally in a particular popular title, a 60Hz screen will suffice. Nearly all gamers are still “stuck” with 60Hz displays, after all, if they haven’t bought a new PC in the last few years. Still, high-refresh panels are becoming the norm even in budget gaming machines, and the lack of one now indicates an older model you probably want to avoid.
Another spec to watch for is panel type. You’ll want to go for an in-plane switching (IPS) panel if possible, as they generally offer the best off-center viewing angles and colors. Some gamers are content with cheaper twisted nematic (TN) panels, which make you settle for narrower viewing angles—but then, you’re probably seated directly in front of the screen, so that’s not an issue. TN panels can offer slightly faster response times.
A final note, about touch input. Despite the undeniable convenience of touch screens for Windows, they are not the norm on gaming machines, and we don’t know of any GeForce- or Radeon RX-based gaming models in the under-$1,000 zone with touch. (See our picks for the best touch-screen laptops.)
The Graphics Processor: Now Here’s Where to Spend
The dedicated graphics chip is the backbone of any gaming computer. In budget gaming machines, Nvidia’s GeForce GTX line dominates the market, and the latest chips at this writing are part of the company’s GeForce GTX 1600 series, or “Turing” family, which rolled out in April 2019 in mobile versions of the GeForce GTX 1650 and GTX 1660 Ti. A GeForce GTX 1650 Ti joined the family in April 2020, fitting in between those two.
However, due to some changes in Nvidia’s stack, it’s not just about GTX at this price. When Nvidia launched the GTX 1650 Ti (and the aforementioned high-end RTX Super GPUs) on laptops in April 2020, it also lowered the starting price for laptops with its RTX 2060 GPU to just $999. The RTX 2060 will only be found in laptops at the very top of the “budget” price range (around $1,000), and even then, only in a couple of selected models. But still, it technically brings the RTX line and its signature ray-tracing capabilities to this category. This means gaming at high settings (or even maximum, depending on the game) on an entry-level laptop is more attainable than ever.
Meanwhile, this spring, Nvidia rolled out the new, mainstream GeForce RTX 3050 and RTX 3050 Ti GPUs for gaming laptops. So far, they have only barely tipped into laptops under $1,000; we’ve seen just a few RTX 3050-based machines starting at around $999.
Until 2019, the go-to entry-level gaming chip was the “Pascal”-based GeForce GTX 1050, typically found in models starting around $700 to $800. The GTX 1050 is capable of playing most of today’s games at 1080p resolution with medium to high settings, and, while you may still see it around, will no longer be sold in modern laptops. The GeForce GTX 1650 is now the main offering in the least-expensive new gaming laptops, and a better performer.
If you have a little more cash, the GTX 1650 Ti will boost you more comfortably over 30fps (and maybe to 60fps depending on the game), while the GTX 1660 Ti is a genuine 60fps performer. You’ll find those in laptops from $899 to $1,200 depending on which other components they’re paired with. The dominance of the GTX 1650 and GTX 1660 Ti (and the newer GTX 1650 Ti) in the budget tier is now complete. The older GTX 1060 is still listed as the baseline for using your laptop with a virtual reality (VR) headset. (See our picks for the best laptops for VR.) But know that the GTX 1660 Ti is the newer equivalent in that regard, and it will only give you better performance. Expect the RTX 3050 line to start to elbow in on the GTX 1660 Ti’s space, in turn, as 2021 runs to a close, but component shortages through 2021 have kept prices high.
As stated, the RTX 2060 can now be found in a few laptops as low as $999, which should be mouthwatering for budget shoppers. Ray tracing is an advanced lighting technique that only GPUs with the RTX moniker carry the hardware to pull off. The elite RTX 2070, 2080, and (as of early 2021) the RTX 3070 and 3080, are superior for performing this technique, as it will drag down your frame rates, but the RTX 2060 (and presumably the RTX 3050s, as they get into cheaper machines) is capable. This is especially true with DLSS 2.0, an Nvidia visual feature that helps performance in a handful of games. Being able to pull this off on budget laptops at all is an impressive feat, and shows how this category is healthier than ever, even if RTX isn’t quite yet a budget staple.
It’s worth noting that, unlike prior generations, the Pascal and Turing mobile GPUs are much closer to their desktop counterparts. The desktop GPUs still have an edge, but older generations only saw roughly 70% to 80% of desktop performance. (See our picks for the top desktop gaming graphics cards for 1080p play.) Turing and Pascal mobile chips deliver almost equivalent performance to their desktop counterparts of the same name, assuming they are implemented in machines with a complementary CPU, and in designs that do the GPU’s thermal needs justice. (Most do.)
The “Ampere” RTX 30-Series GPUs, though, diverge again from their desktop counterparts. As mentioned, the pricing on those GPUs means they won’t dominate budget gaming laptops for some time, but we have more details on their complicated performance nuances if you want to read more.
To muddy the performance waters further, Nvidia in 2017 introduced a technology called Max-Q Design that squeezes a slightly detuned GeForce chip into thinner and lighter notebooks than would normally be possible, at the expense of 10% to 15% of the chip’s performance. Because Max-Q tends to be implemented in thin, premium machines, it’s seldom a factor among the under-$1,000 brigade. But it’s good to know what it is, in case you encounter the term when shopping. (A few models just above the one-grand line incorporate the tech.) You may be interested in a Max-Q rig if maximum portability—not a trait usually associated with gaming laptops!—matters to you.
As for Nvidia’s competitor AMD, its dedicated graphics chips are less common in budget gaming laptops (or higher-cost ones, for that matter), even as its Ryzen processor success rises against Intel. That said, its most recent GPU efforts are seeing more traction than earlier ones. The Radeon RX 5500M and RX 5600M have showed up in a few late-model laptops we’ve tested, and you’ll want to look at individual reviews of those machines to see how these new Radeon GPUs stack up. (We haven’t reviewed enough of them yet to draw firm across-the-board conclusions.) Recently introduced Radeon RX 6000M Series GPUs are not likely to be a big factor in cheap laptops for a while.
Don’t Forget the Keyboard: Lighting and Layouts
One of the typical features that sets apart a gaming laptop is a colorful, backlit keyboard. These vary quite a bit from model to model, with more elaborate backlighting going hand-in-hand with higher prices and a higher general level of other components.
Almost all budget gaming laptops will employ single-color backlighting (most often, red or white) to keep costs down. The next step up is lighting programmable by zone, with three or four blocks of the keyboard independently customizable in different colors, but this is not common in budget machines. Keyboards with per-key, individually programmable lighting are the province of high-end machines only.
Also look at the key layout. Models with an isolated cluster of arrow keys or well-defined WASD keys get bonus points, in our book. Also, because most budget gaming laptops are 15.6-inch models, check for a dedicated number pad to the right of the main key area, if you prefer to have one—or not, for that matter. Some machines of this screen size will have one, some won’t. (A 17-inch laptop almost invariably will, however.)
So, Which Cheap Gaming Laptop to Buy?
At the top of this article and below, we’ve mapped out our top-rated models to investigate. Note that a few of the configurations sent to us for testing were a bit above $1,000; some remain so, while others have fallen below the one-grand line since. Also, note that most of these models are a single version of a machine in a varied line. So use the linked reviews as guidelines, not absolutes, when assessing each laptop family. You may not get quite the level of performance we did, if key components were downgraded to get the price below $1,000. But you should get a solid idea of the various laptops’ screen, build, and input quality from our reviews.
In addition to poring over our reviews and checking out the vendors’ sites, using the price filters at a reseller like Newegg.com can help you see different configurations at different price points. Some manufacturers offer lots of differently weighted versions of the same laptop (say, more storage in one config, a better GPU in another). Playing with the filters on these sites can be an illuminating exercise in give-and-take.