What To Look For in a Gaming Laptop

6 things to consider before buying a gaming laptop

A gaming laptop is a perfect way to enjoy playing the latest games while on the move or in a home where space is at a premium. It can be intimidating to know where to look first with numerous brands and different configurations to consider.

Our buying guide will help you figure out which gaming laptop to buy, looking at your specific needs, your budget, and other features you may need to consider.

What Is a Gaming Laptop?

Much like when researching gaming PCs, gaming laptops initially seem like regular laptops. However, laptops designed without gaming in mind don't provide users with a dedicated graphics card. They often have pretty limited cooling systems, so they can't handle the heat generated when playing games.

Instead, you need a gaming laptop if you want to play the latest games while on the move. Including hardware such as a dedicated graphics card, effective cooling, and enhanced specs elsewhere means a gaming laptop can provide the same experience as a gaming PC but on the move.

6 Gaming Laptop Specs to Consider When Buying a Gaming Laptop

It's essential to buy a balanced gaming laptop that offers all the specifications you need for a good gaming experience, mainly as it's often impossible to upgrade the hardware after buying it. 

Here are the key areas you need to consider before you buy a new gaming laptop: 

  • Cost
  • Graphics card
  • Processor/RAM
  • Display and its features
  • Size
  • Keyboard
Rear View Of Boy Playing Game On Laptop

Rosley Majid / EyeEm /Getty Images

How Much Should a Gaming Laptop Cost?

Gaming laptops typically cost more than a gaming desktop, but it's still possible to spend a relatively low amount or a lot more, depending on your budget. Generally, it's possible to spend $700-800 on a budget gaming laptop, but it's also possible to spend $3,000 on one. 

The more you spend, the better the components and other features are. Spending more also ensures your system can handle emerging technology and the next few years of game releases, so it's often a good idea to budget as much as you can afford.

 Price Range  What You Can Expect
 $500-$1000  Can handle games that don't require high-end graphics and older games—best for users who don't need to play games at high resolutions or quality levels. Note: Not suitable for graphically intensive games like Cyberpunk 2077 or Forza Horizon 5.
 $1000-$1500  It can handle more modern games and tend to offer more storage space, a better graphics card, and other minor improvements.
$1500-$2000 An improvement once again and far more capable of running the latest games at a reasonable graphical level.
$2000-$3500 A future-proofed gaming laptop that can play all the latest games while also being set up ready for future games. It usually includes plenty of storage and a high-end graphics card.

For most players, the ideal price range is $1500 to $2000. Most gaming laptops in this range can play the latest games and are advanced enough to include some future-proofing.

What Kind of Graphics Card Should a Gaming Laptop Have?

As with a gaming PC, the most critical component of a gaming laptop is its graphics card. While you need well-balanced hardware alongside that (as we'll see later), a graphics card is the heart of a gaming setup and is vital in ensuring you can play games at high resolutions and the highest detail level possible. It's typically one of the most expensive components in a gaming laptop, so it's worth paying for the best one you can afford.

Look for a card capable of playing at 1080p resolution as a minimum with 4K resolution recommended if you can afford it. Also, pick out the most potent GPU processor you can afford and the most GPU RAM you can afford.

Graphics Card Brands

Two companies provide graphics cards for laptops: AMD and Nvidia. Currently, Nvidia provides the best graphics cards, with the RTX 30-series leading the way. The highest-end graphics card you can find for laptops is the Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 Ti.

Gaming laptops typically include the Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 or 3060 graphics card instead. If you want to play games at 4K resolutions or ultra-high detail levels, you need an RTX 30-series graphics card.

AMD also offers a range of graphics cards often best suited if you're on a tighter budget. The RX 6000 series range is worth looking at and can be high-end if you wish to spend more. However, the RX 6000 series is generally best regarded for playing games at 1080p resolutions with slightly lower detail levels.

If you wish to play games like Fortnite, the latest Call of Duty games, or Final Fantasy XIV, any of these cards will suffice as these games scale down to 1080p well. However, you will need a higher-end GPU if you want to play more advanced-looking games like Cyberpunk 2077.

Choosing a Graphics Card

Generally, the higher the number the card is named, the better its performance. Older laptops may offer a GeForce RTX 20-series graphics card, which is powerful but older than the GeForce RTX 30-series. Ideally, you want to invest in the newest technology as it is not possible to upgrade a graphics card in a laptop later.

The most advanced RTX 3080 Ti graphics card can add around $1,000-$1,500 to the price of a laptop, meaning it's often better value for gamers to opt for an RTX 3070 graphics card which reduces the cost substantially.

Whichever graphics card you choose, check how much memory is on the card. A graphics card with 12GB of RAM is likely to perform better than one with 4 or 8GB of RAM. GPU RAM, also known as VRAM (video random access memory), is a specific type of RAM that works to assist your system's graphics card.

It's not possible to upgrade VRAM later, and the more you have, the faster your graphics card can perform.

Which Processor and RAM Should a Gaming Laptop Have?

Intel and AMD are the two options for a gaming laptop when choosing a processor. Both offer powerful processors for gaming, and your budget is usually the deciding factor between the two.

The higher the number, typically, the better the processor is, as with graphics cards.

A processor is also called a CPU, and it's the brain of your computer. It deals with interpreting and executing data before displaying the results on the screen. Modern processors offer multiple cores which work like processors within processors. These cores can multitask more effectively, with each core offering a certain speed. Most CPUs have between four and eight cores.

AMD has its Ryzen 5 series, which is commonplace in gaming, but there's also the Ryzen 9 series for more high-end gaming. Intel has the i9 range for high-end gaming, while there is also the i5 and i7 for more affordable gaming. In terms of core and processing speed, aim as high as possible.

Computer RAM works like VRAM, but it helps the computer's CPU instead of assisting your GPU. The more RAM you have, the more effectively your computer can retrieve temporary information, which improves your speed and performance. When gaming, it can mean levels load faster, and details load up in-game quickly.

For a gaming laptop, you need 16GB of RAM. While those buying a budget gaming laptop can make do with 8GB of RAM, 16GB is required for good performance and ensuring there are no bottlenecks when loading new data.

As with regular RAM, RAM performance in a gaming laptop is not solely dependent on the quantity. Speed is also a factor with different types of RAM available. DDR5 is the latest and fastest RAM, but many systems still use DDR4. Anything lower than DDR4 is too old for gaming.

What Display Should a Gaming Laptop Have?

A gaming laptop has its display built into the system, so, as with many other components, it's not possible to upgrade at a later date. While you can plug an external monitor or screen into a gaming laptop, it's good to have a high-end display to match the components you've chosen.

For a gaming laptop, response times and refresh rates are essential. A basic display offers a refresh rate of 60Hz, but a good gaming laptop display offers 120Hz or higher. Combined with a low response time such as 1-3ms, the games you play run more smoothly.

A low refresh rate can cause issues with motion blur when playing fast-paced games, and a high response time can cause problems when responding quickly to a game's actions. 

There's also the question of panels. Some high-end gaming laptops offer a 4K screen with a much higher resolution than a standard HD display. This resolution can increase the price by a few hundred dollars, but it means a sharper image. If your choice of gaming laptop has a high-end graphics card, you'll miss out on a great picture if the screen does not match its quality. 

A girl lying on the floor looking at a gaming laptop while wearing headphones.

Marcus Windstorm / Getty Images

How Portable Should My Gaming Laptop Be?

Gaming laptops are often a little bulkier than the average laptop as the required higher-end hardware, and cooling system is more extensive than what you'd find in a typical laptop.

Look for a system as slim and lightweight as you can afford. Also, keep an eye out for a laptop's battery life. Often, gaming laptops suffer from relatively low battery life.

If portability is everything, you may need to aim for a lower set of specs to ensure the battery will last more than a couple of hours away from a power source. 

What About the Keyboard?

Some gaming laptops, such as those made by Razer or Alienware, offer mechanical keyboards. 

A mechanical keyboard has physical switches beneath the keys, so they're noisier but far more satisfying (and accurate) to use. Highly durable, they work particularly well when gaming and such extras can be a helpful way of gaining the edge when playing games on your gaming laptop. 

Who Should Buy a Gaming Laptop?

Not everyone needs a gaming laptop, but there are a few key types of gamers that will benefit most.

  • Students and travelers. If you regularly travel between two locations, like school and home, or for work, a gaming laptop means you can still play PC games while on the move. It's a great way of using your traveling time more productively or being able to take your gaming setup wherever you go.
  • People with limited space. If you share an apartment with others, live in a dorm, or have limited space at home, a gaming laptop can help here. Instead of needing to find permanent room for a monitor, tower, and accessories, you can move the laptop between rooms and find a simple place to store it.
  • Gamers with mobility issues. Sitting at a desk while gaming isn't always convenient and can be an issue for those with mobility problems. Sitting on a sofa with a gaming laptop can be more comfortable. 

What Should I Do After I Buy a Gaming Laptop?

After you've bought a new gaming laptop, there are a few other things you may wish to do. Here's a quick overview.

  • Buy new peripherals. While your gaming laptop has a built-in keyboard and mouse, buying some extras is still a good idea. Purchasing a game controller and headset is nearly essential these days. It's possible to use games console controllers with your gaming laptop and purchase wireless or wired headsets so you can enjoy immersive sound. 
  • Buy some games. You need games. If there are games you couldn't run before, you will be able to now. 
  • Buy a case. A gaming laptop is expensive yet somewhat fragile. If you plan on traveling with it, buy a case to keep it safe. Look for one with reliable padding, military-grade protection, and straps to make it easy for you to carry around. Extras like additional pockets or other ways to store accessories and cables are also helpful.

More Tips for Buying a Gaming Laptop

Before buying a gaming laptop, there are some final things to consider.

  • Do you need a gaming laptop? Gaming laptops look cool and appealing, but not everyone needs one. Do you already have a gaming PC set up at home? In which case, you may not need a gaming laptop. Only buy one if you travel often or you don't already have a desktop setup.
  • Plan your budget. Like any significant technological purchase, you can spend hundreds or thousands on a gaming laptop. If you rarely play PC games, you don't need a $4,000 laptop, but if it's your primary source of entertainment and you can afford it, it could be worthwhile future-proofing.
  • Look for extra features. Some gaming laptops focus on offering enhanced cooling or an ergonomic design that makes it easier for longer gaming sessions. If you're the kind of gamer that loses a day to the latest release, both may be worth spending extra on these features. 
  • How do I make my laptop faster for gaming?

    It's possible to optimize a laptop you already have to make it work better with games. Some options include upgrading the memory and replacing the video card. You can also an application like CCleaner or MSI Afterburner to clear up your registry and make your computer's components work faster.

  • How long does a gaming laptop last?

    If you get a gaming laptop that you can upgrade easily by adding more memory or replacing old components, it will last longer than one that's not upgradable, even if the initial specs are better. The main factors affecting longevity of a gaming laptop are the quality of the hardware and the requirements of (and compatibility with) games you want to play.

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