A good gaming rig may cost you, but for those serious about their gaming experience — and with a budget to match — it’s frequently worth it to drop some serious cash to build the ideal gaming setup. Gaming laptops have evolved to keep up with the needs of even the most intense gamers, who know that having the right equipment can often be as important as skill to raise your stats.
There’s more to a decent gaming laptop than raw speed. You can pack it with the best graphics card, the fastest, most colorful display around, a gazillion-core processor, tons of fast solid-state drive storage to hold your games and a rock-solidfor secondary storage, but it can still fall short. Those powerful components may overheat at the worst moments, your battery may die or you might experience an instability that impacts your gaming performance. Or maybe you don’t want to always use an with per-key RGB backlighting, but the system’s WASD keys feel like mashed potatoes under your fingers.
The good news is that battery life, at least for 15-inch gaming laptops, has gotten significantly longer and processors, both CPUs and GPUs, are a lot better. Throw in advances in cloud gaming, and you’ve got the ability to play more games on lower-end hardware than ever before. So it’s not a given that you’ll need toto pay for a new laptop. But budget gaming can be difficult if you’re not shopping carefully and we all know that there’s really no such thing as a “cheap gaming laptop.”
Check out our recommendations for the best gaming laptops below that will give you the best gaming performance for the price; for more detailed advice, scroll down below them. This list is periodically updated so that you can always find the best gaming laptop for you at the best value.
We didn’t test the refreshed 2021 version of the Blade 17 (formerly the Blade Pro 17), but there’s nothing that should have changed our high opinion of it, as it’s gotten faster components and better screen options. Yes, there are faster 17-inchers, but I draw the line at dual humongous power bricks. The Blade is fast and provides powerful gaming performance with up to an Intel Core i9-11900H processor and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 GPU, but doesn’t sacrifice its svelte figure.
While I recommend getting this Blade 17 laptop with its 4K-resolution display option for creators, I’m a big fan of the newly ubiquitous 165Hz 1440p laptop screens, and that resolution is a great match for the screen size without the 4K overkill.
Read our Razer Blade Pro 17 (early 2020) review.
There’s no such thing as a budget gaming laptop. But solid gaming graphics power and strong battery life are the foundation of a good gaming laptop, and the price makes this budget gaming Dell G15 a great bargain. It comes in two flavors, a standard Intel-based model and the AMD Ryzen-based edition. The naming’s a little confusing, since the line’s branding changed from “G5 15” to “G15” and the company seems to have dropped the all-AMD versions since we reviewed (and gave it an Editors’ Choice) a year ago. That’s sad, but the lower-performing RTX 30 series does allow Dell to hit cheaper entry prices than the AMD GPUs at the moment. And it’s a good budget gaming laptop, whichever processor’s inside.
The Acer Nitro 5 comes in both 17.3- and 15.6-inch sizes. A 17-inch cheap gaming laptop is a rarity with entry-level gaming laptops; most sub-$1,000 gaming laptops have 15.6-inch displays, and the Acer’s larger screen lets you sink in and get lost in your chosen gaming world. The 17-inch version we reviewed of the laptop will run you over $1,000, but you can get the 15-inch model for a lot less, in a decent configuration of an Intel Core i5-11400H processor, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 GPU and an FHD 144Hz refresh-rate display. At this level, you’ll be able to play current games at FHD resolution with the graphics settings at medium to high, depending on the game you’re playing, of course. Still, Acer makes an affordable gaming laptop that packs in some nice extras like direct controls for power and cooling and upgrades access to memory and storage.
Asus’ $1,650 all-AMD gaming laptop delivers excellent performance and battery life, with a top-of-the-line Ryzen 9 5900HX CPU and Radeon RX 6800M GPU — and that’s before you realize that the performance and components are way above its price class. It runs cool and quiet, even running close to full tilt. At current higher-than-$1,650 prices in some places it’s less of a no-brainer, though.
Read Asus ROG Strix G15 Advantage Edition review.
A smaller version than the 15-inch staple, the 14-inch Razer Blade delivers a lot of gaming power for its size without feeling small — an important consideration for a gaming laptop — but has decent battery life, a nice size for travel and a subtle design (for a gaming laptop) that’s buttoned-up enough for sitting in a meeting with the top brass or clients.
Read Razer Blade 14 (2021) review.
Asus pairs an ultraportable 13-inch two-in-one that has a relatively powerful AMD CPU with an external GPU dock equipped with a top-of-the-line Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 mobile processor, and the result is an incredibly flexible system for both work and play that outperforms many bigger, clunkier gaming laptops. Because it’s a two-in-one, you can comfortably use an external gaming keyboard without the built-in keyboard getting in the way. The stand-alone model has gotten an upgrade to an Nvidia RTX 3050 Ti since I reviewed it, but the bundle with the XG Mobile still has a GTX 1650.
Read Asus ROG Flow X13 with XG Mobile review.
You can add some custom graphics to make the generic chassis a little more stylish, but it’s the wealth of component choices that makes this 17-inch gaming laptop an appealing buy for a gaming beast — though not a cheap one, starting at $1,936. It may be somewhat thin, but you can cram it with up to an Nvidia RTX 3080 GPU, a 4K 100% Adobe RGB display and a Core i7-11800H.
Read Origin PC Evo17-S hands on.
Do you still have to compromise on battery life?
A compromise you’ve traditionally had to make has been battery life, which has typically lasted as little as 2 hours of nonstop gaming. You also couldn’t play most complex games — GPU- or CPU-intensive ones — on battery power. Processors would get throttled back and screens dim during hard-core gaming sessions, so a laptop that felt nimble when connected became a slog on battery power, turning your epic battles into battles of frustration.
That’s been changing recently, as Intel, AMD and Nvidia have concentrated on improving their power management technologies. No, you still can’t play for 10 hours on battery power, but now you can find some great gaming laptops with 10-hour battery lives to make gaming on the road more feasible.
What do I need to know about a gaming laptop GPU (beyond speed)?
The fastest graphics card currently available in a laptop is thewith the usual Max-Q variants. The Max-Q versions run at slower frequencies than their full-size siblings — that keeps down the noise and heat and allows them fit into thinner designs. RTX models also accelerate ray-traced rendering and provide intelligent upscaling (also known as DLSS) where it’s explicitly supported. If your favorite games don’t use it, the lower-end Nvidia GTX 1660 Ti incorporates Turing, the last generation of Nvidia’s technology, without the extra cost or power burden of the RT cores.
The problem with the Max-Q, though, is that with its last-generation Optimus technology that’s still used by a lot of laptops, you have to reboot to switch between a dedicated GPU mode and a power-saving mode, which only uses the GPU for accelerating, not actually drawing the screen (so every frame has to travel from the GPU’s dedicated memory over the system bus to the CPU and then to the screen rather than going directly from the GPU memory to the screen).
That means it can’t take advantage of adaptive refresh-rate technologies and it can negatively affect frame rates. So why not leave it on the GPU mode all the time? Because you’ll frequently get poorer CPU performance and even lesser graphics performance in games that balance CPU and GPU usage rather than going all-out on the GPU.
Nvidia launched the new generation of its Max-Q architecture, which introduced Advanced Optimus, in 2020. It’s smarter, with the integrated and discrete graphics sharing (rather than switching) the pipeline to the display, no reboot necessary. But Advanced Optimus needs a major change to system design, so laptops supporting Advanced Optimus still aren’t plentiful.
AMD’s latest laptop GPUs, the, don’t quite reach the level of the fastest Nvidia RTX models, but the 6800M has gotten pretty close, with performance on average falling between the RTX 3070 and 3080.
On the distant horizon, Intel’s getting closer to finally launching its— though not until early 2022 — code-named Alchemist. We expect to hear more about the GPUs in January during .
Does a gaming laptop’s CPU matter?
Yes, but not always. In general, sims benefit from faster clock speeds and more cores since those are required for the heavy calculations when worlds get complex. More and more AAA games are also starting to balance loads better between the CPU and GPU where possible as well.
Still, a lot of games, especially first-person shooters, don’t take advantage of more than four cores. That was partly Intel’s rationalization for its continued reliance on its old 14-nanometer architecture for theprocessors. It let the company boost single-core clock frequencies, compared with gains it would have made by moving to a smaller process technology such as , which is designed to support more cores on less power draw.
Ice Lake never came to gaming CPUs, though; instead Intel’s likely jumping ahead to 10nm, which combines performance and power-efficient cores similar to . The company’s just begun rolling out the desktop CPUs, and they seem to deliver excellent performance, even for gaming. I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear about versions for gaming laptops at .
We haven’t heard much from AMD about a new generation of its CPUs; the news about desktop versions usually arrives in the fall, but so far, crickets. CES is always a possibility for news on that.
What do I need to know about screen size and refresh rate?
. All the major companies bumped their flagship 1080p configurations to 360Hz, but for many a gamer, they’re not essential: 240Hz max should be fine for those few times you can get frame rates above 240fps. Even 144Hz will do for many people, but artifacts like tearing, caused by the screen refresh rate becoming out of sync with the frame rate, depend on your games as much as your laptop brand and hardware.
We’re also seeing a lot more 120Hz 4K screens in the flagship models in both 17- and 15-inch sizes and a ton of 165Hz and 240Hz QHD (1440p) options. The latter are my favorites, balancing higher resolution — certainly enough on a laptop screen — with gaming-friendly refresh rates.