Modern gaming laptops offer a lot of variety and choice when it comes to features, size and of course price. These days everyone’s buying on a budget, so it makes sense to maximise the value you can get for your gaming laptop dollar every step of the way.
How much should I spend on a gaming laptop?
As much as you can afford – but be aware that what you pay will have a big impact on your gaming experience.
Pricing and availability changes over time, but the first detail to realise is that while it’s been feasible to game on a laptop ever since laptops existed — as long as you didn’t mind playing a lot of minesweeper and solitaire – dedicated gaming laptops do cost a little more.
Buy a budget laptop, and your gaming experience will be considerably more constrained than if you buy a notebook built specifically for that purpose. So be ready to spend a little more than on the kind of laptop that’s fine for shuffling spreadsheets but less tailored to shuffling your foes off this mortal coil.
At the entry level – around $800-$1200 or so – you’re looking at a more basic GPU, simpler screen and less storage, while mid-to-high range ($1500+) models will bring a lot more gaming goodness into your life.
The trick is knowing which features to look for, and what’s really worthwhile.
GPU: The heart of the gaming laptop
The key factor you’ll pay more for on a good gaming laptop is the graphics processing unit, or GPU. Even the most basic laptop has a GPU, but in the non-gaming space they’re typically integrated graphics processors that sit on the same silicon as the CPU itself for laptops, generally tasked just with running Windows and not much more.
In the gaming space, you need more power, and a good GPU will go a lot further than a faster Central Processing Unit (CPU) will, so that’s the key specification to check. In the gaming laptop world, NVIDIA’s GPUs are a little more common than their AMD counterparts, though it’s also worth considering that many gaming laptops now offer the opportunity to add an external GPU via Thunderbolt connections, which does give you a potential upgrade path for some models. Check that this is supported before you buy, however.
One detail to check carefully here is which type of GPU you’re getting. Most manufacturers now produce laptop-specific variants of their primary GPU systems, designed to be a little more friendly on power usage than their desktop counterparts – but a tad less powerful as a result.
Naturally, your budget still determines what you can actually get within the GPU space. As a rough guideline, a 2023 laptop with an NVIDIA RTX 4050 or older should sit more in the “budget” gaming price range, while newer and more expensive systems are likely to feature GPUs such as the RTX 4080 or RTX 4090 that are considerably more capable when it comes to pushing polygons fast.
Is this all sounding too technical?
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Display: Choose speed over resolution
Typical gaming logic tells you that having higher resolution is better, because basically nobody in 2023 wants to look at blocky graphics any more. However, when it comes to gaming laptops, there’s current a hard line between screens with faster refresh rates – good for fast action games and first person shooters and the like – and screens with higher resolutions, especially 4K.
You’re probably familiar with 4K from TV technology – and it’s the same idea, a higher pixel count on a given display – but when it comes to refresh rates, what you’re looking at is a number in Hertz. A standard laptop screen is rated at 60hz, which means it redraws the screen 60 times per second.
For gaming laptops that’s rather basic, and it can lead to unwanted slow draw refresh, especially again for action titles, which is why many gamers prefer screens that bump that up to 144Hz or higher, leading to smoother screen animations and perceptible improvements in reaction times. A faster screen won’t automatically make you a better laptop gamer, but a slower one could give your opponents a distinct edge.
Here, unless you never play fast action titles, opt for the faster refresh rate screen every time. Most of the GPUs that you’ll find nestled beneath the keyboard of gaming laptops aren’t always the best suited for pushing out 4K resolutions, but they can handle the speeds of faster refresh rate screens.
Storage and Memory: Understand the difference
Gaming laptops need both storage – commonly referenced as the hard drive capacity – as well a memory, or RAM. That’s not a sheep reference, but an acronym for Random Access Memory, if you care. But how much do you need?
For a good gaming experience, shoot for 16GB RAM at a minimum. You can get by on 8GB or less, but it will have an effect on your game loading time, and leave you a lot less headroom for anything else that Windows is doing in the background while you’re gaming.
On the storage front, look for at least 1TB of internal storage. While it’s true that you can add storage to a Windows gaming laptop via an external hard drive, having that storage sitting on an external drive will introduce some access speed issues. Couple that with many modern AAA gaming titles wanting hundreds of GB of storage space, and you can basically never have enough on a gaming laptop. Your budget, and to an extent your choice of gaming titles will play a role here too.
Keyboards: Check that keyboard action
One of the other major ways that gaming laptops differentiate themselves from their everyday brethren is with rather more specialised keyboard hardware. RGB backlighting is just table stakes here – and not beloved by every gamer, but every gaming laptop will offer you customisation options or at least the ability to switch the flashy lighting off if it’s not to your taste – but what you should check is the type of keyboard and its feel.
If you’re playing PC games that rely on the keyboard – plenty are more controller-centric these days, but not exclusively – bear in mind that a standard membrane type keyboard won’t take the full punishment of hundreds of thousands of keystrokes in rapid succession. Keyboards with a more mechanical action are often more durable, and that’s what you’ll find in varying styles across different gaming laptops.
Here it’s also important to consider feel and layout. If your gaming style needs a number pad, you’re probably talking a larger 17” model, as many smaller gaming laptops just don’t have the space for that many keys. Layout also helps determine the comfort level of a gaming laptop, and that’s a very personal matter. Going hands-on with a gaming keyboard can often tell you a lot about how you’ll find it for prolonged use.
Ports matter: Expand your gaming ambitions
A lot of gamers still love desktops as their primary platform, because it’s relatively easy to switch out components or add features to a desktop, where laptops are rather more fixed affairs. Gaming laptops typically fare a little better here than everyday or ultra thin style laptops, because you can often upgrade some parts such as memory, but you’re still fixed with just what you’ve got when you buy it, right?
In short, no. It’s always possible to extend your gaming experience at least somewhat with peripherals, and this is where you need to consider the ports that a given gaming laptop has. External HDMI makes for an easy way to connect up to an external monitor, which can take a smaller 13” gaming laptop to a screen of any size you favour. Equally if you’ve knackered out the keyboard after one too many COD sessions, an external gaming keyboard can get you back in the game or add extra keys and functionality. If you fancy yourself the next Twitch or YouTube gaming star, an external webcam can give a serious quality boost to your presentations, as can a good quality external microphone.
All of these add-ons rely on having enough ports in a layout that works for you in the space you’ve got. Some gaming laptops throw nearly everything around the back of the laptop, while others spread everything around the right, left and rear of the device. Consider your needs now, but also what you might want to do down the track when making a gaming laptop purchasing decision.