Not long ago, a friend asked me for help choosing a gaming laptop. Precisely because he was in this situation, he had saved money and wanted to buy one, but he was lost, and indecisive on which model to choose. In fact, he didn’t even know where to start since many models with different components had very similar prices, which he found extremely confusing.
Unfortunately, choosing a gaming laptop is very complicated, as there are always a number of items that require a good knowledge base and for you to be completely up to date on what comes out in the market, because otherwise you risk making a bad purchase.
His situation led us to publish this guide that will give you the most important information you should consider when shopping for a gaming laptop, so you can correctly choose the one that best fits your needs and budget. It will even help you avoid being ripped off.
You must understand a gaming laptop is not like conventional notebooks. Depending on the manufacturer and your price range, they clearly have differentiating factors among them, such as more powerful and efficient cooling systems, as well as a higher build quality to withstand long gaming sessions.
On the other hand, the price of these devices is usually much higher than that of utility models, and also higher than what it would cost you to assemble a desktop with similar power. So before you buy one, it is important to thoroughly consider whether you really need a portable gaming system. Maybe it would be wiser to opt for a PC for your gaming needs.
Mobility is another aspect you must be willing to sacrifice with these computers, since more powerful components mean their autonomy is very low when they are at full capacity and they are much less efficient than other laptops, like ultrabooks, for example.
Finally, it is vital to understand that to really play on a laptop at a similar level to what you would enjoy on a desktop, you must be willing to spend a minimum of of around 800 dollars, approximately. Still, the computer you buy for that price will be much less powerful than its desktop equivalent at the same budget.
The Processor: The heart of the computer
On gaming portables, compare to AMD, Intel has a clear domain, which is unfortunate for the consumer. So for obvious reasons we will focus on solutions from this manufacturer.
You can find Haswell based processors, identified as the series 4000, and Broadwell, which are recognized by the 5000 series.
The difference between them is limited essentially to the manufacturing process. The first ones come in 22nm and the second in 14nm, but this detail does not make a real big impact, since most models that interest us — the high performance ones — have an identical TDP in almost all versions.
By this we mean you should not obsess about spending more money on a computer with a Core 5000 series, as one with a Core 4000 series processor is just as perfect for gaming.
Since your goal is to play, we are just going to focus on the larger models, i.e. the Core i5 and Core i7, as they are the ones used in these types of portables.
- Core i5: Unlike a desktop model, the Core i5 has two cores and four threads, not four real cores. This means they can divide the burden of those four threads between the two cores, which generally provides good results. However, it doesn’t give good results in games that really take advantage of more than two cores. They integrate Turbo Boost technology that increases work frequency when necessary.
- Core i7: The Core i7 has four real cores and eight threads, just as a standard desktop version. They are preferable because, when used with games that can properly exploit their potential, they clearly mark a difference, especially at minimum FPS levels and overall stability. They also have better guaranteed “aging”. Turbo Boost technology is an added feature that increases the working frequencies and can even turn off cores that are not used, further increasing the speed of the nuclei that are still active, so that even those games that only use two cores will be greatly benefited by the presence of Core i7.
- Core i7 extreme range: These are versions that maintain the above specifications, but come at higher frequencies. Normally, they greatly increase the price of the computer but don’t compensate, so when it comes to price-value relation, they’re best avoided. We discarded low-energy solutions, identified with the letter “U”, as they sacrifice performance in order to increase the battery life(the Core i7 U series, for example, only has 2 cores and four threads).
The graphics card is an essential component, as it determines the resolution and graphics quality you can play on, as well as the life of the portable and its price.
You should note that its performance does not match the desktop offering of those with whom they share the same name, and usually they’ll always be lower . As an example, we can mention the GTX 960M, which does not yield a performance even remotely like a GTX 960, but rather like a GTX 750 Ti.
And just as in the previous case, the presence of AMD is very limited, so we will focus on NVIDIA solutions.
To make everything easier to understand, what follows is a summary of base models grouped into three broad ranges, a classification that must be understood within the context of gaming solutions.
- Recommended minimum to play at 1080p: The 2GB GTX GTX 860M- 960M are the recommended minimum to play. The second is a renamed model of the first and both have a lower performance than the GTX 750 Ti, but we can compare them so you’ll have a better idea. Always seek computers mounted with GDDR5 memory, avoiding the DDR3 versions, keeping in mind that the GTX 860M and GTX 960M are identical to the GTX 850M and GTX 950M, the only differences are the working frequencies.
Recently, the latest Pascal GTX 100x series graphics card has came out, you can see the latest GTX 1050Ti and GTX 1050 graphics cards be built-in many laptops at a price tag of 1000 dollars. Compare to the same level graphics cards of the old GTX960M, their performance has a big boost, the GTX 1050 Ti (Laptop) shows more than 60% (up to 86%) better performance than GTX 960M! The new chip of GTX 1050 Ti left behind even the higher tier GTX 970M.
- Optimal level to play in 1080P: The GTX 1060 is our goal. It’s not a rebranded solution, but rather it mounts a new GPU based on Pascal architecture, which marks a significant leap over previous models. The 6GB GDDR5 models have no real performance improvement compared to the 3 GB ones in many games. If you’ll play some high-end games needing more VRAM, more VRAM is necessary.
- High performance in 1080P without excesses: If you want to play at Full HD with ultra quality and without choking with virtually no game, the GTX 980M is the best choice for your money. Yes, the GTX 1070 is more powerful, but increases the price of the computer and it’s not worth much. If you want to play VR gaming, you should a laptop with GTX 1060, GTX 1070 or GTX 1080 graphics card.You must not forget that the most expensive is not necessarily the best. When you overcome the medium-high range barrier of graphics cards, the performance-per dollars spent goes down to levels not advisable in most cases.
RAM Memory and storage
You can play with guarantees if you have 4 GB of RAM in most cases, but it is best to choose laptop models with 8 GB of RAM, since it makes a difference in some current games, such as Battlefield Hardline, and the trend to higher RAM consumption in upcoming games is clear.
But overcoming the recommendation of 8 GB of RAM and buying computers with 32 GB of RAM is not a good idea, as more RAM does not mean better performance. Instead, it increases the overall cost of the computer, so it is best to spend that extra money on a computer with a better graphics card.
Regarding storage, a SSD is recommended – but not essential – and it usually increases the cost of the computer. So, if you have a limited budget, you should opt for enhancing the processor and graphics card, even if it means to conform to a mechanical hard drive, and the combo CPU + GPU + RAM will ultimately determine your user experience in games. In any case, you always have the time to change the HDD for an SSD quickly and easily.
As intermediate option, there are computers that mount a hybrid HDD with a certain amount of flash memory acting as a cache. They are not the panacea, so you should only take them into account when the price increase is not so absurd.
Generally, an affordable gaming laptop will consist of a Core i5, a GTX 850M-GTX 950M 2GB GDDR5, 8 GB of RAM, and a mechanical 1TB 5400 RPM HDD. Its price should be around 800 dollars, approximately.
With a computer of these features, you could play almost everything that exists today in the market at 1080p, and at medium to high quality — ultra even in very specific cases. In GTA V, you could play to said resolution and high quality at an average of 29 FPS.
In contrast, an upper-middle range model would be one with a Core i7, 8GB of RAM, a GTX 960M or 965M with 2GB DDR5 VRAM, 1TB 7200 RPM HDD and a 128GB SSD. However, the cost would exceed 1,300 dollars.
With it you could play almost all current games in 1080p and at a high quality, even on ultra-quality in many of them. Continuing the above example, GTA V would run on this computer at 55 FPS on average in Full HD and high quality.