How to buy the perfect PC gaming laptop

Desktop diehards and the Reddit build-it crowd might scoff at the very concept of a portable PC gaming machine, but the gulf between gaming desktops and gaming laptops has narrowed considerably over the years. Today’s laptops can play modern games at 1080p and higher with few to no compromises in graphics settings. And that's not bad.

Sure, traditional desktop PCs offer more expansion options and easier upgrade paths, and can be significantly cheaper for the performance you get. But there's no denying the appeal of a single, self-contained gaming machine that you can move from the living room to the dining room to even the back porch.

You just need to pick your gaming laptop wisely. Your decisions will key into a series of component choices, so let's dig into them, one by one.

GPU: Your 3D graphics engine

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A gaming laptop's number one component should always be the GPU, such as Nvidia's new GeForce GTX 980M.

Modern games are all about 3D graphics, which means the most important component in your gaming laptop will be the graphics card, or GPU (short for graphics processing unit). Today, only two manufacturers makes respectable mobile GPUs: AMD and Nvidia.

Most mainstream productivity laptops come with graphics powered by Intel, and they're not powerful enough to run serious 3D games. Intel's graphics unit is integrated directly into the CPU die, whereas the GPUs from AMD and Nvidia are completely separate—and much more powerful—chips. In fact, some people intentionally buy laptops with integrated graphics so their kids can’t play games on them. (Or at least the fun games.)

Manufacturers will try to entice you with hard drive and RAM upgrades, but your GPU will make the biggest impact on your gaming experience. So if gaming is important to you, buy the biggest, baddest, fastest GPU possible—because you’re essentially stuck with it for the life of the laptop.

msi gt72 dominator pro MSI

The MSI GT72 Dominator Pro comes with Nvidia's GeForce GTX 880M graphics card.

Today, Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 980M is the highest-performing mobile GPU; Nvidia says it offers 75 percent the performance of its desktop equivalent. That’s pretty phenomenal, considering that the GeForce GTX 480M, the best mobile GPU in 2010, offered only about 40 percent of its desktop counterpart's performance. AMD’s current bad-boy GPU is the Radeon R9 M290X. Rumors point to an impending update, but for now the M290X is the top dog wearing AMD colors.

You don't necessarily require super-high-end Nvidia or AMD graphics in your laptop for a good gaming experience. But when you're looking at two similar laptops, it's generally wise to go for the GPU with the highest model number possible. A GTX 990M will be a better choice than the GTX 880M, and so on, down the line.

The bottom line is you should prioritize your gaming laptop decision around your GPU—and how much that GPU impacts the size of the notebook. These high-end GPUs are fast, but the heat they generate, and the power they consume, will limit you to very large notebooks (as the machines need to accommodate elaborate cooling systems and large batteries). And, yes, having two GPUs in a laptop is better than having one GPU when it comes to gaming performance.

CPU: Important but not paramount

Intel Devil's Canyon

Just as with a desktop gaming rig, you don't want to prioritize the CPU over the GPU.

Intel has conditioned us to splurge on CPUs, but for gaming, your laptop's CPU will never be as critical as its GPU. Keep that in mind when you're debating whether to spend extra money on a faster or more advanced CPU. A CPU with a higher clock speed or more cores will help in video encoding or even photo editing, but it rarely pays dividends in 3D gaming once you’re above a certain threshhold.

Let's look at three increasingly powerful Alienware notebooks, each armed with a different CPU. At the bottom, we have dual-core 2.6GHz Core i5. The middle choice comes with a quad-core 2.9GHz Core i7. The high-end model features a quad-core 3.1GHz Core i7. These are all strong processors, and each supports Hyper-Threading, which tackles simultaneous processing tasks, much like multi-core technology does. But the price for that 3.1GHz machine is almost $850 more than the price of the 2.9GHz machine. The more expensive model also comes with extra RAM and better storage, but these are relatively unnecessary upgrades if your only goal is kick-ass PC gaming.

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Don't buy the most expensive Alienware 17 model just because it comes with the fastest CPU. And remember: Faster processors require bigger fans, which make for bigger packages.

The reality is you’d be hard-pressed to see a difference in games running on the two-quad-core Alienware models. We're starting to see more games exploit multiple cores, but, frankly, that dual-core Core i5 might be fine for most titles you ever end up playing—especially because it supports Hyper-Threading.

And, yes, I'd mention AMD processors, but it’s pretty rare to see a gaming notebook using AMD CPUs today.

RAM: Eight is enough

how to buy a gaming laptop ram Gordon Mah Ung

One trap to avoid is buying too much RAM in a gaming laptop. You really don't need more than 8GB or 16GB of RAM for gaming yet vendors sell up to 32GB of RAM in gaming laptops.

Pay close attention to how much RAM you're buying, because many people get snookered into buying more than they really need for PC gaming.

Today, 8GB is fine for the vast majority of games on the market. It doesn’t hurt to get 16GB, but it's difficult to find legitimate benefit for that much memory in today's games. Even worse, some system vendors like to offer extreme configurations—like 32GB of RAM—in their gaming laptops. That may pay off in some extreme content-creation scenarios, but gamers would be better off paying for a faster GPU or bigger SSD.

SSD: Check 'yes' for faster load times

how to buy a gaming laptop ssd Sandisk

With game loads reaching 40GB, a small SSD won't cut the ketchup any more for a gaming laptop.

An SSD (solid-state drive) isn't essential, but it's definitely preferred. Because it uses memory chips instead of mechanical platters for storage, an SSD speeds up Windows boot time, overall system responsiveness, and even how fast games load. Having an SSD usually won’t improve frame rates in 3D games, so if you have to pick between faster frame rates and faster game loads, choose the benefit that appeals to you most.

SSDs are definitely a nice luxury, but don't settle for one with a small capacity. Indeed, if your preferred laptop only has one storage option, going for a larger hard drive or hybrid hard drive (which pairs a small-capacity SSD with a large-capacity mechanical drive) is the better idea. You'll need that storage space for today's big games.

EA’s Titanfall, for example, is a 48GB download. If your main drive is a 128GB or even 250GB SSD, you'll run out of space in no time. So while SSDs provide a lot of great benefits, they can also leave you ass-out when you need storage space the most.

Display: Play it sensible

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This year's Razer Blade has an ungodly high-res 3200x1800 display.

Gaming notebook displays tend to run the gamut from lackluster to luxurious. The problem is you really don’t get to pick what you want. The vast majority of gaming notebooks ship with twisted nematic LCD displays, which generally offer faster response times, but their off-axis viewing can run from fair to terrible. IPS panels are preferred for their better color accuracy, but they also increase laptop prices, so few vendors will deploy them.

The other criterion you should ponder is resolution. You'll want a machine with a sensible native resolution, and this typically means 1920x1080. While 4K is spectacular for pixel density and reducing the need to run anti-aliasing, this resolution will kill frame rates, at least if you run games at the display's native resolution.

Then there's the latest Razer Blade. This gaming machine has an insane 3200x1800 resolution, but the display is arguably overkill, especially if you want the fastest frame rates possible. We say stick with 1920x1080, and consider 1366x768 only if you're looking at a low-end model.

Keyboard

how to buy a gaming keyboard MSI

Almost all gaming laptops have used the same style keyboards as non-gaming laptops. MSI's new GT80 Titan will be the first in a long time to use mechanical switches.

Other than some fancy backlighting schemes, gaming laptop keyboards tend to be pretty generic. The Alienware 17 keyboard features steel pillars under the WASD keys, the keys most often used for directional control in PC games. This gives the keyboard a more solid feel, and prevents you from damaging the laptop when you're fighting for your life.

Aside from these subtle touches, gaming laptops typically all use the same scissor-switch keyboards that productivity laptops employ. But then there's MSI’s new GT80 Titan. As insane as it may sound, this upcoming gaming laptop is touted to feature a mechanical keyboard. These haven't been common in laptops since the late 1980s. Mechanical keyboards require extra space for key travel, and this defies the general consumer desire for thinner, more streamlined chassis designs.

Size and weight compromises

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You can get a gaming laptop in a thinner profile—but you do so at the cost of graphics performance.

You can buy a gaming laptop with two graphics cards, multiple bays for storage drives, an optical drive, and a super-large screen. But it’ll weigh more than the boat anchor for the USS George H.W. Bush. For soldiers who live out of their foot lockers, that weight penalty may be worth it.

Of course, not all gaming laptops have to be 12-pound monsters. You can definitely find thinner notebooks that still come with discrete graphics cards, but you'll have to give up some performance.

And that’s ultimately the rub: The more portable the laptop is, the less likely it will crank out super-fast frame rates. This is unlikely to change until there's some breakthrough in physics. So for now, just resign yourself to compromises.

Heat and acoustics

how to buy a gaming laptop heat Gordon Mah Ung

With great gaming power comes great heat and great big fans too.

Gaming notebooks may be physically huge, but those large chassis sizes can allow for more efficient heat dissipation. The manufacturers can pack in larger heat pipes as well as larger fans running at slower RPMs. This delivers sufficient cooling with less noise.

But you never really know what you're getting until you run a hardcore game for more than 10 minutes. So if you have the opportunity before buying a machine, put it under a real-world gaming stress test. Does the laptop get uncomfortably hot? Or does the machine stay cool, but sound like a hovercraft because its fans are spinning in overdrive? This is a problem you may encounter in some of the thinner gaming notebooks.

Upgradability: Almost off the table

how to buy a gaming laptop cpu Gordon Mah Ung

Some large gaming notebooks do offer the ability to upgrade the CPU and GPU... but it's not an easy path.

This last point is probably the stickiest. For the most part, gaming laptops have fairly limited upgrade options. You’ll probably be able to drop in more RAM, or a larger SSD or hard drive. You might even be able to swap out the wireless card. But don’t expect to upgrade the CPU or GPU without some serious warranty-breaking surgery.

I won’t say it’s impossible, as it can be done. But counting on an upgrade path in a gaming laptop is a fool’s errand. Just buy the laptop and be prepared to live with it for the next few years.

See why the gaming desktop has an advantage?

This story, "How to buy the perfect PC gaming laptop" was originally published by PCWorld.

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