Laptops have come a long way in the last few years, and good gaming laptops, which once sounded like an oxymoron, are now more widely available. But it's still hard to find an affordable gaming laptop or even a cheap one; the high demands on performance often conflict with the needs of portability, and it means desktops still might offer the best value.
That said, top gaming laptops can be had in a range of prices, from at least $600, to easily $2,000. Knowing the most important features for a killer system will allow you to choose a gaming laptop that fits your budget and your need for Michael Bay-level explosions in Call of Duty.
Graphics Cards (GPU)
This is where you want to spend most of your money. Your basic choice is between AMD and NVIDIA, but both offer a wide range of different cards and the confusing names really don't offer much of a clue about what the best pick is. It's common to aim for better performance on desktops by doubling up and having two graphics cards. You'll need to do that if you want to run the latest games on a 4K display, or hook up multiple monitors, but as space is limited and heat can be a problem, this isn't an ideal solution for laptops.
Check out the performance benchmarks to help you make a decision. If you want to get a good overview, then Notebook Check provides a complete list of the top GPU options, gathering together benchmarks from various sources, and it allows you to filter by what's important to you.
Bear in mind that the performance to value ratio climbs steeply the higher you go, so an extra $50 in the mid-range might offer a real boost in performance, while it could take an extra $200 at the top for a similar bump.
For your CPU, it's a straight battle between AMD and Intel. At the moment Intel is way ahead and nothing gets close to its top offerings. The Core i7 is the flagship, followed by the i5, but even the latest i3 outperforms AMD's series. You can check out another good benchmark comparison at Notebook Check.
The later the generation, the better. Intel's 6th generation Core GPUs are named Skylake; Broadwell is the next most recent. If you have the budget, an octa-core Intel Core i7 will give the most raw power, but a quad-core i5 should be enough for most gamers. Given the choice, it makes more sense to spend your money on the graphics card and memory than the processor.
Aim for 8GB of RAM and you shouldn't have any problems with the majority of today's games. If you tend to have multiple applications running at once, you like to do a lot of video editing, you plan to stream your games, or you just want to future-proof a little bit, you could opt for 12GB or 16GB of RAM. Bear in mind that it's easy to upgrade the RAM yourself later, and manufacturers will often charge an unnecessary premium if you customize your order for more RAM.
Drive (HDD or SSD)
Given the choice between SSD and HDD you should always go for SSD. But while SSDs have come down in price a lot lately, they are still much more expensive than HDDs, especially if you need a large capacity. It's not unusual for games to be 20GB or 30GB, but some big games are 50GB or 60GB now, and they're growing all the time. You may find less than 500GB really isn't enough.
Laptops typically don't have two slots due to space restrictions, so using a small SSD as a boot drive and a larger HDD for files and content may not be an option. You could go with HDD to keep your costs down and plan to upgrade in the future. It's fairly easy to switch a hard drive.
The speed boost an SSD will provide for booting up and loading games is well worth the extra cost if you have the cash. It's also worth considering that SSDs are a lot tougher and will generally survive a fall unscathed, whereas a mechanical HDD with moving parts inside could lock up and die on you.
There's an obvious trade-off here between size and portability. Bigger screens are more fun to game on, but they'll make the laptop bigger, bulkier, and more power-hungry. A 1080p resolution is going to be the sensible option for most people. We're starting to see more 4K content, but the premium you'll pay to get a 4K screen is high, and 4K content is going to give the hardware a real workout. If you demand a high frame rate, 4K gaming on a laptop right now is going to disappoint.
If you want to be able to have extended gaming sessions without an outlet handy, then you should read up about the battery life of your prospective new laptop. A bigger battery means more heat and weight. But, even with a big battery, it's not uncommon for laptops to give up after an hour of gaming on the highest settings. You could always consider getting a rechargeable power pack to squeeze in some extra gaming without having to plug into the wall.
Other Things to Consider
For the best quality sound and a really immersive experience, you should probably factor in the cost of a decent pair of noise-canceling headphones or portable speakers. A few high-end gaming laptops have good speakers built-in, but it's relatively rare.
You should also think about the keyboard and trackpad. You want a nice action on the keyboard and smooth trackpad performance. Some gamers will consider a gaming mouse to be an essential accessory.
Heat is a real issue with laptops, especially gaming rigs. If you're asking the hardware to run the latest games then it's going to eat your battery life very quickly and generate a lot of heat in the process. Svelte laptops may look sexy, but generally speaking the thinner and more compact they are, the harder it is for them to deal with the heat. If you actually plan to game with it on your lap, then consider getting a tray or a cooling stand.
What do you look for when buying a gaming laptop? Do you have any favorite models? Let us know in the comments below.