How to Buy a Reliable Gaming Laptop

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Avant-P870DMG Gaming Laptop (By Nikitarama [CC BY-SA 4.0])

As any veteran gamer will tell you, a high-spec desktop computer offers better graphics and performance than any console could come close to, but it’s a bit more complicated when it comes to laptops. With portability comes the inevitable sacrifice of some performance, leading many to consider even so-called gaming laptops to be unsuitable for real gaming. Nonetheless, there is now a whole market for gaming laptops, some of which can offer performance on par with a high-end desktop system. You’ll need to be prepared to spend at least $1,000 and sacrifice some portability, but there are options available.

What Is a Gaming Laptop?

Since there is no industry-standard definition of a gaming laptop, some brands market certain products as gaming laptops even when they’re ostensibly low-spec machines that wills struggle to play anything but the least demanding video games. As such, listening to the sales hype and terminology alone is not likely to result in making an informed purchase. At the same time, there are many ‘normal’ laptops that are perfectly capable of playing most modern video games. Nonetheless, as a general rule, anything being touted as a gaming laptop should feature premium cooling, dedicated graphics, backlit keys and higher screen resolutions.

The Importance of Dedicated Graphics

GeForce GTX 970m - Don't leave home without it
GeForce GTX 970m – Don’t leave home without it

Unless you only intend to play the lowest-end titles, such as those designed for tablet computers and smartphones, a dedicated graphics card is an absolute must-have. In fact, it’s often the presence of a dedicated graphics card, in addition to an integrated Intel graphics chip, that defines gaming laptops in the first place. However, these graphics cards also differ enormously in their capabilities. For a start, to play demanding titles, such as The Witcher 3 or Dark Souls 3, you’ll need an nVidia 960M graphics card at the very least. If you can’t stand anything less than playing your games in full-HD resolution on the highest settings, you’ll need to step up to a 970M or 980M. Laptops with dual (SLI) graphics cards also exist, though they tend to be extremely heavy and expensive and get very hot if you don’t have an additional laptop cooler.

Portability vs. Power

When it comes to portability, you’ll inevitably have to sacrifice some to make way for greater processing power. After all, the reason why the desktop computer offers unrivalled gaming performance is that it offers far more scope for expansion and upgrades. As such, a true gaming laptop is not likely to be well-suited to traveling with, particularly if it features a 17- or 18-inch screen. The largest gaming laptops rather defeat the purpose of buying a laptop in the first place, since they’ll inevitably end up being permanently placed on your desk anyway. Nonetheless, portable gaming laptops from brands such as Dell Alienware and Razer Blade also exist, and they have screen sizes of 11 to 14 inches.

Display Size and Resolution

Unfortunately, screen sizes are, by definition, very limited on a laptop computer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy desktop-quality graphics. You’ll want a laptop that provides a full high-definition display of 1920×1080 pixels, regardless of the screen size. If the machine is powerful enough, there’s nothing stopping you from connecting an external monitor with a higher resolution instead. Some of the highest-end gaming laptops support 4K resolution, offering four times more on-screen real estate that full-HD. Nonetheless, you won’t really be able to appreciate the greater number of pixels on the smaller screen, making 4K laptops something of an overpriced and pointless gimmick, at least until they come down in cost.

Laptop Audio Systems

When it comes to gaming, most players would agree that audio is just as important as visuals. Although you’ll probably be using a USB headset with its own sound card and drivers most of the time, you might want to choose a laptop with decent speakers as well. Better gaming laptops tend to support full surround sound, 5.1 external speaker connectivity and a number of other features such as improved bass, voice clarification and additional audio software. However, just like normal laptops and desktop computers, almost all gaming laptops use Realtek HD audio codecs anyway.

Mouse and Keyboard

Of course, you’ll be using an external mouse for almost all of your gaming, so the track pad is largely irrelevant. However, choosing something that has a great keyboard is important. Many gaming machines have the characteristic keyboard backlighting, but more important concerns include key actuation, key travel and ghosting. You’ll need keys that offer firm feedback, comfort and fast response times.

CPU and Memory

While the dedicated graphics card is by far the most important component in any gaming laptop, you’ll also want the latest generation processor and plenty of memory to prevent any performance bottlenecks. Firstly, you’re not likely to find any worthy gaming laptop with an AMD processor, so you’ll want to stick to Intel only. For maximum future-proofing, you should go for a sixth-generation i5 or i7 (as of June, 2016). These processors are characterized by the number 6 in the model number (such as core i7-6700). As for RAM, you’ll need 8 gigabytes, although having any more is largely a waste of money, since no games can utilize that much anyway.

Storage

When it comes to gaming, faster is always better, so you’ll definitely want a solid-state drive if you can afford one. SSDs provide much faster transfer rates, cutting loading and boot times by 70-80%. They’re also more affordable than ever before, although capacities are still relatively low when compared to mechanical hard drives. As such, you’ll probably still want an additional conventional hard drive for mass storage of backups, multimedia collections and games you don’t play much. Alternatively, if a suitably large SSD is out of your budget range, you may want to consider a hybrid drive that automatically caches the most frequently accessed data on an SSD portion of the drive.

Final Words

Gaming laptops are undeniably expensive, but you don’t necessarily need to fork out upwards of $2,000 on the most cutting-edge machine available. In fact, it’s possible to get a perfectly satisfactory gaming laptop for under $1,000, even if it might mean dialling down the settings in some of the more demanding video games. Ultimately, though, you’ll be much better off investing in a desktop computer as your primary gaming system if you can. After all, even the very best gaming laptops can never offer the portability of a normal laptop or the performance and versatility of a desktop tower case.