How to buy a gaming laptop

So many choices, so many specs!

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For a few years now, gaming laptops have been some of the most intriguing PCs around. They’ve gotten thinner and lighter, naturally — but they’ve also become vastly more powerful and efficient, making them suitable for both work and play. They’ve adopted some bold innovations, like rotating hinges and near desktop-like customizability. Gaming laptops are where PC makers can get adventurous.

That’s been especially true since our last gaming notebook guide ran in 2018. These days, AMD-powered PCs are finally making a splash. Dell has delivered the most tweakable gaming laptop yet. And in general, you can now get a lot more portable gaming power for your money.

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

What's your budget? 

Your laptop buying journey starts and ends with the amount of money you're willing to spend. No surprise there. The good news? There are plenty of options for gamers of every budget. In particular, we're seeing some great choices under $1,000, like Dell's G5 15, which currently starts at $840. PCs in this price range will definitely feel a bit lower quality than pricier models, and they'll likely skimp on RAM, storage and overall power. But they should be able to handle most games in 1080p at 60 frames per second, which is the bare minimum you'd want from any system.

Stepping up to mid-range options beyond $1,000 is where things get interesting. At that point, you'll start finding PCs like the ASUS Zephyrus ROG G14, one of our favorite gaming notebooks of the year. In general, you can look forward to far better build quality than budget laptops (metal cases!), improved graphics power and enough RAM and storage space to handle the most demanding games. These are the notebooks we'd recommend for most people, as they'll keep you gaming and working for years before you need to worry about an upgrade. 

If you're willing to spend around $1,800 or more, you can start considering more premium options like Razer's Blade. Expect impeccably polished cases, the fastest hardware on the market, and ridiculously thin designs. The sky's the limit here: Alienware's uber-customizable Area 51m is an enormous beast that can cost up to $4,700. Few people need a machine that pricy, but if you're a gamer with extra cash to burn, it may be worth taking a close look at some of these pricier systems.

Steve Dent/Engadget
Steve Dent/Engadget

What kind of CPU and GPU do you want?

Two years ago, the answer to this question was relatively simple: Just get an Intel chip with an NVIDIA GPU. But this year, AMD came out swinging with its Ryzen 4000-series notebook processors, which are far better suited for juggling multiple tasks at once (like streaming to Twitch while blasting fools in Fortnite). In general, you’ll still be safe getting one of Intel’s latest 10th-generation H-series chips. But it’s nice to have decent AMD alternatives available for budget and mid-range laptops, especially when they’re often cheaper than comparable Intel models.

When it comes to video cards, though, AMD is only beginning to compete with NVIDIA. You’ll find its Radeon RX 5600M in Dell’s G5 15 Special Edition, but we’re still waiting for it to pop up in more notebooks. And at this point, the faster RX 5700M is nowhere to be seen. Back in April, AMD blamed the COVID-19 epidemic for unexpected delays, which has also affected the PC market as a whole. 

The Radeon RX 5600M is a solid GPU for 1080p gaming, and it competes directly with NVIDIA’s GTX 1650 and 1660 Ti cards. But if you want even more power, perhaps for solid 4K performance, or high frame rate gaming beyond 144 FPS, you’ve got no choice but to step up to NVIDIA’s RTX GPUs. You’ll find the RTX 2060 in plenty of mid-range notebooks, and it’s a solid option if you want to crank your graphics settings in 1080p. The RTX 2070 and 2080, meanwhile, are typically found in premium machines. They’re better choices if you simply must game in native 4K, or if you’re trying to reach hellish frame rates to match modern 300Hz screens.

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget
Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

What kind of screen do you want?

Screen size is a good place to start when judging gaming notebooks. In general, 15-inch laptops will be the best balance of immersion and portability, while larger 17-inch models are heftier, but naturally give you more screen real estate. And sure, there are some 13-inch gaming notebooks, like the Razer Blade Stealth, but paradoxically you'll often end up paying more for those than slightly larger 15-inch options.

But these days, there are plenty more features to consider than screen size alone. Consider refresh rates: Most monitors refresh their screens vertically 60 times per second, or 60Hz. That's a standard in use since black and white NTSC TVs. But over the past few years, displays have evolved considerably. Now, 120Hz 1080p screens are the bare minimum you'd want in any gaming notebook -- and there are faster 144Hz, 240Hz and even 300Hz screens. All of those ever-increasing numbers are in the service of one thing: making everything on your screen look as smooth as possible.

For games, higher refresh rates also help eliminate screen tearing and other artifacts that could get in the way of your frag fest. And for everything else, it just leads to a better viewing experience. Even scrolling a web page on a 120Hz or faster monitor is a stark difference from a 60Hz screen. Instead of seeing a jittery wall of text and pictures, everything moves seamlessly together, as if you're unwinding a glossy paper magazine. Going beyond 120Hz makes gameplay look even more responsive, which to some players gives them a slight advantage.

Gigabyte Aero 15
Steve Dent/Engadget

Not to make things more complicated, but you should also keep an eye out for NVIDIA's G-SYNC and AMD's FreeSync. They're both adaptive sync technologies that can match your screen's refresh rate with the framerate of your game. That also helps to reduce screen tearing and make gameplay smoother. Consider them nice bonuses on top of a high refresh rate monitor -- they're not necessary, but they can still offer a slight visual improvement.

One more thing: Most of these suggestions are related to LCD screens, not OLEDs. While OLED makes a phenomenal choice for TVs, it's a bit more complicated when it comes to gaming laptops. They're limited to 60Hz, so you won't get the smoother performance you'd find on a high refresh rate screen. And they're typically 4K panels; you'll need a ton of GPU power to run games natively at that resolution. OLED laptops still look incredible, with the best black levels and contrast on the market, but we think most shoppers would be better off with an LCD gaming laptop.

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

A few other takeaways:

  • Get at least 16GB of RAM. And if you're planning to do a ton of multitasking while streaming, 32GB is worth considering.

  • Storage is still a huge concern. These days, I'd recommend aiming for a 512GB M.2 SSD, which should be enough space to juggle a few large titles like Destiny 2. Some laptops also have room for standard SATA drives, which are far cheaper than M.2's and can hold more data.

  • Normally we'd recommend getting your hands on a system before you buy, but that's tough as we're in the midst of a pandemic. I'd recommend snagging your preferred system from a retailer with a simple return policy, like Amazon or Best Buy. If you don't like it, you can always ship it back easily.

  • Don't forget about accessories! You'll need a good mouse, keyboard and headphones, for sure.

Engadget picks

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

The best gaming laptop for most people: ASUS ROG Zephyrus G14

Starting price: $1,050

Recommended spec price (Ryzen 9, RTX 2060): $1,450

If you can't tell by now, we really like the Zephyrus G14. It's compact, at just 3.5 pounds, and features AMD's fast new Ryzen 4000-series chips paired together with NVIDIA's graphics. It's a shockingly compact machine, and while its 14-inch screen is a bit smaller than our other recommendations, it looks great and features a fast 120Hz refresh rate. We also like its retro-future design (some configurations have tiny LEDs on its rear panel for extra flair). The G14 also starts relatively cheap, at around $1,050, but we'd recommend the specced-up Ryzen 9/RTX 2060 model for $1,450. The only downside: It doesn't have a webcam, which can be inconvenient in the era of never-ending Zoom calls. Still, it's not that tough to attach an external camera. 

Buy ASUS ROG Zephyrus G14 at Best Buy - $1,450

Dell G5 15
Will Lipman/Engadget

The best budget option: Dell G5 15

Starting price: $824

We've been fans of Dell's G5 line ever since it first appeared a few years ago. Starting at just $824, it features all of the latest hardware, like Intel's 10th-generation CPUs and NVIDIA's GTX and RTX cards. (You can also find AMD's Ryzen 7 and Radeon RX 5600M graphics in the special edition model whenever that's back in stock.) It's a bit heavy, weighing over five pounds, but it's a solid notebook otherwise. And you can even bring it into mid-range gaming territory if you spec up to the RTX 2070.

Buy G5 15 at Dell - $824

Razer Blade 15
Devindra hardawar/Engadget

The best premium gaming laptop: Razer Blade 15

Starting at $1,600

Recommended model (RTX 2070 on sale): $1,900

Razer continues to do a stellar job of delivering the latest hardware in a sleek package that would make Mac users jealous. The Blade 15 has just about everything you'd want, including NVIDIA's fastest mobile GPU, the RTX 2080 Super Max-Q, as well as Intel's 10th-gen octa-core CPUs and a 300Hz 1080p screen. You can easily save some cash by going for a mid-range option like the ASUS G14, but those won't feel nearly as polished as the Blade.

Buy Blade 15 at Razer - $1,900

Acer Triton 500

A solid all-around option: Acer Predator Triton 500

Starting price: $1,700

While we've seen some wilder concepts from Acer, like its 360-degree hinge-equipped Triton 900, the Triton 500 is a more affordable bread and butter option that doesn't break the bank. It’s relatively thin, weighs under five pounds, and it can be equipped with Intel's latest 10th-gen CPU and NVIDIA's RTX 2080 Super Max-Q. Acer's build quality is as sturdy as ever, and it has most of the standard features you’d need in a gaming notebook.

Buy Predator Triton 500 at B&H Photo - $2,100

Alienware Area 51m
Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

The most configurable gaming notebook: Alienware Area 51m r2

Starting price: $2,300

We were excited about the Area 51m when Alienware first introduced it last year. Mostly, because Alienware was positioning it as a gaming notebook that would be as configurable as a desktop. You could upgrade its CPU, graphics and other components down the line. While we had our issues with the first generation model, the second-gen R2 has the advantage of coming with even faster hardware, as well as the option of moving between AMD and NVIDIA GPUs. While there are limits to how much you can upgrade the Area 51m, it's still a great option if you want a machine that's also easily repairable. 

Buy Alienware Area 51m at Dell - $2,300

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