Purists will suggest that a PC is required to truly play games, especially if you prefer pushing the boundaries of graphical quality beyond what a gaming console can manage. The gaming desktop remains king in this sense, especially when it comes to having the components and horsepower required to run 4K games smoothly and support virtual reality (VR) installations. However, if you want or need something you can carry around the house or over to a friend’s house, we can assist you in selecting the best gaming laptop.
What Should You Expect to Pay for a Gaming Laptop?
Gaming systems have higher-end components than typical consumer laptops, so they will cost more, but the price range is vast: from under a grand to $4,000 and over. Budget gaming laptops start at approximately $750 and go up to around $1,250. For that money, you get a machine that can play games in full HD (1080p) with most settings dialed down, or at top quality settings in simpler titles. For storage, a hard disk or a small-capacity solid-state drive can be utilized (SSD). The superior option is always a solid-state drive (SSD).
Do you want something more? On a better-quality 1080p screen, midrange computers should handle VR headsets and deliver smoother gaming at high or maximum settings (typically in conjunction with a dedicated high-refresh screen; more on that later). Depending on the model, these variants will cost between $1,250 and $2,000.
High-end computers, on the other hand, should provide seamless gaming at 1080p with all graphical details turned up to 11 and, in many cases, a high-refresh screen. If your screen allows it, they could even let you play in 4K resolution. A high-end model should be capable of powering a VR headset as well as supporting several external displays. These workstations are usually equipped with fast storage components such as PCI Express solid-state drives, and they cost more than $2,000, if not more.
Some laptops in this class offer QHD (2,560-by-1,440-pixel) or 4K displays as optional extras, as well as a hard drive to support the SSD and ultra-efficient cooling fans. A rising number of them are even small and portable, thanks to technological advancements. With laptops in this grade, you’ll either pay a premium for high-end performance in a small chassis or a premium for the most potential power in a chunkier chassis.
Prioritize the GPU: Graphics Are Crucial.
The graphics processing unit is the main feature that makes or breaks a gaming laptop (GPU). Unless a laptop contains a discrete graphics chip from Nvidia or (less typically) AMD, we don’t consider it a gaming laptop. For the uninitiated, here’s a fast crash course: The higher the number in a GPU series, the more powerful it is in general. An Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080, for example, will deliver greater frame rates and graphics quality than an RTX 3070, and so on.
Currently, Nvidia is the major player in the field, with discrete mobile GPUs based on its “Ampere” microarchitecture. Ampere GPUs were released in early 2021 as part of the GeForce RTX 30-Series (i.e., the RTX 3070 or RTX 3080). While you may still find 20-Series GPUs (such as the RTX 2070) in select laptops from last year at online stores, this platform supplanted the prior “Turing” generation.. Unlike previous generations, the top-end Turing and Ampere GPUs available on laptops are labeled “RTX” rather than “GTX,” a tribute to the platform’s ray-tracing technology for improved in-game aesthetics (with games that support it).
That’s how the GeForce RTX 2080 (Turing) and RTX 3080 (Ampere) graphics cards for laptops and desktops got their names. With Turing, we discovered that laptop GPUs were quite comparable to their desktop equivalents, however with Pascal, there was a notable disparity between the two. Unfortunately, Ampere is back to being a little complicated: RTX 30-Series GPUs on desktops perform significantly better than their laptop counterparts, and there can be significant performance differences between the same GPU on different laptops. (Read our mobile Ampere testing page for more information on this subject.)
The GeForce RTX 3050 and RTX 3050 Ti, the most recent additions to the range, introduced in spring 2021, are at the bottom of the Ampere stack. These two GPUs, in comparison to the premium RTX 3070 and RTX 3080, are accessible in more budget-friendly gaming laptops (or in the base configurations of more premium machines), bringing Ampere architecture and, most importantly, ray-tracing to entry-level PCs. Between these two entry-level and high-end GPU combinations, the RTX 3060 sits in the middle.
Things get a little more tricky below the RTX 3050. Three Turing-based GPUs held the slot below the RTX 3060 for real budget PCs before the RTX 3050 and RTX 3050 Ti arrived. The GTX 1650 and GTX 1660 Ti GPUs were released in 2019, with the GTX 1650 Ti following in 2020. They provide good HD gaming performance without the perks of RTX, such as ray-tracing. They use the same architecture as the RTX GPUs, but they lack the ray-tracing cores and are less expensive, making them an excellent fit for budget PCs.
These stay pertinent for the time being in spite of the unused GPUs, particularly within the lowest-end gaming tablets, in spite of the fact that the RTX 3050 and RTX 3050 Ti will start to supplant them in numerous cases. You’ll too see, for illustration, the GTX 1650 Ti utilized in little gaming portable workstations just like the Razer Edge Stealth 13, and in non-gaming tablets that can advantage from a few design oomph, just like the Dell XPS 15.
Nvidia is still the market leader in graphics, although AMD’s share of the market is growing. Radeon RX 5000 Series GPUs are becoming more common in gaming laptops. Radeon GPUs are sometimes used in conjunction with Intel processors, however, AMD graphics are being used with AMD processors more frequently than before. (A few AMD-on-AMD CPU/GPU computers were available from Dell and MSI, for example.) Furthermore, AMD unveiled a new line of mobile GPUs at Computex 2022 in the shape of the Radeon RX 6800M, RX 6700M, and RX 6600M, which should begin to appear in high-end and midrange gaming laptops in the second half of 2022.
Even with all of the foregoing complexity, some basic conclusions concerning graphics performance can be reached. A single high-end RTX-class discrete GPU will be sufficient to run the most recent AAA games on a 1080p screen with all of the bells and whistles turned on, as well as power VR. Furthermore, even with ray-tracing enabled in some games, the 30-Series Ampere GPUs (particularly the RTX 3080) have made seamless 1440p and 4K gameplay much more feasible than before. Depending on the laptop, the most demanding games may not get 60 frames per second in 4K with ray tracing enabled, but it’s far more likely to do either on their own with these high-end settings..
Previously, the power of an RTX 2080 or RTX 3080 would have appeared to be excessive for smooth 1080p gaming, but numerous new elements can absorb that extra potential. A high-refresh-rate screen embedded into the laptop is becoming increasingly popular among high-end PCs, allowing for the full presentation of high frame rates to smooth up the apparent action. To make use of the benefits of a high-refresh panel with demanding games, you’ll need a powerful graphics chip. You’ll be able to spot these computers if they advertise a 120Hz, 144Hz, or 240Hz screen, for example. (A average laptop display has a 60Hz refresh rate, but most gaming machines will have a 100Hz or higher refresh rate at this point.)
The most common is a 144Hz panel, but we’re also seeing 240Hz and even 360Hz possibilities in more expensive versions), which can display more than 60 frames per second (In the case of 144Hz panels, for example, up to 144 frames per second). This makes games look smoother, but in many cases, only high-end GPUs can exceed those limitations. Furthermore, ray-tracing techniques (think real-time lighting and reflection effects) are resource-intensive, and the more video games that use the technology, the more you’ll want you could turn them on. (At the moment, they’re only present in a few AAA titles, such as Battlefield V and Metro: Exodus.)
As a result, even though playing games at full HD (1080p) resolution doesn’t appear to be overly demanding on paper, there are several reasons to choose an RTX 2070 or RTX 2080 (while they’re still available), RTX 3070, or RTX 3080. We won’t go into too much detail here, but Nvidia is using a rendering technique known as DLSS to make ray tracing function seamlessly on less powerful hardware like the RTX 3050 with little drawbacks, so you’re not completely out of luck if you can’t buy the top-end CPUs. However, for the time being, DLSS support is limited to a small number of titles.
How to Choose a CPU for Your Gaming Laptop:
The CPU is the core of a computer, and Intel’s 10th Generation Core H-Series processors are likely to be found in most gaming laptops announced in 2020. (also dubbed “Comet Lake-H”). Even though they’re no longer the latest and greatest, you’ll still find many of these CPUs (along with the rare older chip) available in 2021. The initial 11th Generation “Tiger Lake-H” processors (commonly referred to as the “H35” class) were released in early 2021, with some newer, higher-powered chips arriving in May. The original ones had “just” four cores and eight threads, but thanks to advances in Intel’s manufacturing process, this shouldn’t always imply lesser performance, especially for jobs that aren’t as multi-threaded. They also have the advantage of consuming less energy and operating at a lower temperature.
Even better for gamers, the second wave of Tiger Lake-H chips will be available in the second half of 2021 for a variety of gaming systems. Core i9 processors for enthusiasts, Core i7 processors for thin-and-light gaming laptops, and new Core i5 processors for affordable computers are among them. Unlike the first wave of CPUs, these more powerful chips have at least six cores and 12 threads, with the Core i7 and i9 models having eight cores and 16 threads. We haven’t examined any laptops with these CPUs yet, but performance figures should be available soon.
More cores and faster clock speeds increase overall efficiency and performance on multithreaded applications such as media projects, but they’re less important for gaming, thus the four-core Tiger Lake H35 family is a solid fit for the future. More threads don’t always help to game as much as they help other media chores, but they sure don’t hurt. In 2020, the six-core/12-thread Core i7-10750H (and, in most premium gaming laptops, the Core i7-10875H), became the go-to processor for mid-range to high-end gaming laptops, while we expect the recently announced Core i7-11800H to become highly popular during the remainder of 2021.
A gaming laptop with an Intel Core i3 processor is technically possible, although they’re uncommon: Why start from the beginning when PCs with Intel Core i3 and comparable entry-level AMD CPUs are capable of playing a wide choice of games? However, if you have to choose between a high-end CPU and a high-end GPU, take the graphics card. For example, if the money saved could be used toward an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 GPU instead of an RTX 3060, we’d recommend getting a Core i5 CPU over a Core i7. If gaming is your primary concern, spending the money on the GPU makes more sense than spending it on the CPU.
Is a 17-Inch Gaming Laptop Really Necessary?
A 15-inch display is a sweet spot for gaming laptops in terms of screen size. There are models with larger 17-inch displays, but they will almost certainly increase the weight to well over 5 pounds, posing a portability issue.. However, it’s less of a question in terms of resolution: Regardless of screen size, a full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) native-resolution screen is the default minimum.
Higher-than-1080p resolutions are possible with larger displays, but choose wisely: a resolution of QHD (uncommon), QHD+ (3,200 by 1,800 pixels, even less common), or 4K (3,840 by 2,160 pixels, slightly more common) will increase the final cost twice: first for the panel, and then for the higher-quality graphics chip you’ll need to drive it to its full potential. If you prefer smoother images, seek increasingly prevalent G-Sync or high-refresh-rate panels (as detailed above in the GPU section).
Gaming laptops with a 4K screen (3,840 by 2,160 pixels) are still an oddity, and they’re still pricey because they demand the most powerful GPUs for seamless gameplay at native resolution. Keep in mind that only the most powerful graphics cards can produce sophisticated game animations at playable frame rates across the full screen at 4K, so if you only play games, a 1080p screen could be a better investment (particularly if you can also get a high refresh rate screen). Despite the fact that the RTX 3070 and RTX 3080 are significantly more capable of 4K gaming than any laptop GPU before them, we don’t believe it’s worth the money to seek out 4K gaming in laptops. However, the screens do look great, especially since they’re frequently combined with OLED technology.
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