Buying Guide to Choosing Your Gaming Laptop

Manufacturers today are pushing the limits of gaming performance that laptops are capable of. It has even become the core business of some smaller companies like Aftershock and Aorus. With the market flooded with mobile beasts at ever competitive price points, you have to ask yourself: “Do I really need a custom-built $6,000 gaming laptop with a thermal compound cooling system or can a $1,500 machine get the job done?”

The IT Show team will walk you through how to spend your money wisely to get the right machine to meet your gaming needs.

Setting Expectations

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Prudence in expenditure implies scarcity of resources. With a limited budget, you will no doubt have to compromise in certain areas. A few important questions to ask yourself before you even begin to look at specs:

What types of games do you want to play?

The minimum system requirements of online games such as Dota2 and Counter-Strike Go are less demanding than the latest AAA titles. You also have to note that some games are more CPU intensive while others rely more on your graphics card, depending on the game engine.

What graphics settings are you able to live with?

Some would be content running games at ‘playable’ framerates on reduced settings, while others demand a minimum of 60fps on Ultra High settings. 

Do you move around a lot?

Gaming on the go is essential for people who have to travel a lot, for example. Others choose a gaming laptop over a desktop to simply have the option of moving around, but the machine hardly leaves home.

If you can answer these questions, you are well on your way to finding a machine that fits your needs and your budget.

Choosing Your Hardware

Unless you’re building a custom gaming laptop, chances are that you will be buying a pre-built model that you will be stuck with for the next two years or so. It is time to sort out the gems from expensive pieces of junk. Let us give you a handy primer on the components that make or break gaming laptops (also useful for building custom machines).

Size Does Matter
Before looking at internals, choose a form factor that suits you best. The rule of thumb for gaming laptops is that bigger is better. Your laptop generates a lot of heat when operating at its peak, larger surface areas help with heat dispersion. We wouldn’t recommend anything smaller than 15-inches. Do note that the size of your laptop is proportional to its weight if you want to game on the move.

The size of your display does not matter as much as its maximum resolution though. While laptops on the market today are capable of Quad HD resolutions of up to 3200x1800, you usually won’t require more (or less) than 1920x1080.

CPU
Your choice of CPU will set the pace for the rest of your components if you want to avoid a CPU bottleneck. A bottleneck occurs when your CPU is unable to keep up with other hardware. There is no point in paying more for a GTX 980 if your CPU can’t bring it to its full potential.

It is also important to note that game engines may not be able to utilize all your CPU cores (or threads), so more cores is not always better. Your best bet will always be aiming for the highest single thread performance.

In that regard, we recommend Intel’s latest range of i5 or i7 Skylake mobile processors. You can identify them easily by model numbers that begin with “6” (eg. i5-6300u). Only pay more for an i7 if you can afford it, the performance difference isn’t very significant as compared to the cheaper i5 chips.

Graphics Card

This is the bread and butter of any gaming machine. The market is full of graphics cards with varying model numbers, and memory sizes, and bandwidth. It can all be very overwhelming. So we’ve devised a few simple rules to follow that are relevant to gaming laptops:

1.     Memory size only matters within the same product tier or bandwidth

(eg. GeForce GTX960m 4GB DDR5 is better than GeForce GTX960m 2GB DDR5)

2.     Two isn’t always better than one

Multi-card setups don’t double the performance. Expect only a 25-50% increase in performance.

Generally more trouble than it is worth due to incompatibilities with games, micro-stuttering, noise, and high power draw.

That said; spend only what you can afford and no more. At high tiers and bandwidths, performance increases are marginal and disproportional to price jumps.

3. RAM

RAM is not very critical to gaming. You don’t need too much, but don’t have too little. We’re not going to dive deep into this: 8GB DDR3 will suffice in most cases

4. Keyboard

You can’t play competitively with just any keyboard and unlike on a desktop, this one is attached to your machine – permanently. Unless, you want to carry around a USB keyboard everywhere with you, find one that has anti-ghosting technology.

5. Bells and Whistles

No. That is our short answer. Many manufacturers try to entice you with gimmicks like colorful backlights, brand-name speakers/audio processing, and touchscreens. They are distractions that you can do without. If you can’t avoid them, make sure you are able to switch off these features. At best, they just make the laptop heavier. In worst cases, the bloat might actually reduce your gaming performance. Focus on the core of what makes a gaming laptop.