Until a few years ago, gaming laptops had been met with mockery and derision. The logic for this was along the lines of “Why would you pay more money for a ‘gaming laptop’ than for a desktop that, for the same price, would have much more powerful specs?” Add to that the fact that gaming laptops aren’t as effective at getting rid of heat and that they’re heavy and (usually) ugly, and you could see the argument.
But things can change a lot in the tech world in a few years, and it’s safe to say that some game-changing things have happened to make gaming laptops more viable than ever (even if the best ones are still something of a luxury).
Here’s our view on whether a gaming laptop is worth it in 2019.
Let’s get it out of the way first that to get a gaming laptop capable of running most modern games at high quality, you’re still looking at upwards of $1000 (At the time of writing, this would probably get you a GTX 1060 GPU and 1080p display – not bad by any means.) Gaming on the go doesn’t come cheap.
And that’s a crucial thing to think about, too. Are you planning to do a lot of gaming on the go, or will you mostly be doing your gaming in the house? Because if it’s the latter, then for the same price as a powerful gaming laptop, you could get a very good gaming desktop and a lightweight portable laptop for when you work on the go. Consider that your gaming and portable computing could be two separate things for the price of one gaming laptop.
If you like the idea of being able to play in different rooms in your house, remember that services like Steam Link allow you to stream between your in-home devices, so you can carry on gaming from your powerful desktop PC to a laptop or even a phone.
If you travel around a lot, or enjoy the idea of taking your whole gaming collection over to a friend’s house for a games night, then the case to get a gaming laptop becomes stronger.
On paper, gaming laptops come pretty close to matching their PC counterparts. For example, just look at the laptop version of the Nvidia GTX 1080 GPU and the desktop edition, and you’ll see that their benchmarks aren’t too far apart.
However, that doesn’t tell the full story because laptops tend to have their components underclocked – sometimes quite drastically – in order to ensure that laptops don’t overheat. Laptop OEMs have a lot of leeway with limiting clock speeds on GPUs, and they can sometimes be clocked thirty to fifty percent lower than their desktop counterparts.
The lesson here is to always check the clock speeds of the GPU (and CPU) when getting a new laptop because it will vary even if it’s technically the same hardware, and it will almost certainly clock in quite a bit lower than a desktop equivalent.
Also, bear in mind that big powerful gaming laptops get loud – probably louder than a tower PC – because the thermal setup has to work much harder to push all that heat out. That remains a widespread issue.
Weight and Build
This is where a lot of gaming laptops fall down – they’re just so irredeemably ugly. Glowing red or RGB keys, bulky designs, and aggressive key fonts are all the order of the day. But things are slowly changing on this front, too.
For the most part, top-end gaming laptops will still contain GPUs and a degree of ventilation that will give them a large form factor. But there are exceptions, and if you’re willing to spend the money, then you can get impressively slim and light gaming laptops – like the MSI GS65 Stealth or the weaker but slimmer Dell XPS 15 2-in-1.
Cheaper options have also become more accessible thanks to the increasing power of low-power graphics chips. Particularly noteworthy here are Nvidia’s MAX-Q and AMD’s Vega M GPU chips.
These GPUs are a bit weaker than their non MAX-Q counterparts but consume much less power and are designed for slim-form laptops. For under $700, you should be able to hunt down laptops sporting Radeon Vega 8-10 GPUs, which will suffice for mid-range gaming (and won’t be a burden to carry around with you).
The technology in gaming laptops is improving, and in terms of finding a balance between performance and form factor, big efforts have been made in recent years to cater better for the mid-range.
At the top end you’re still looking at big spending and bulky builds, and when you’re spending $1500, maybe you should ask yourself whether you could instead split that into a home gaming rig and a light laptop for when you’re on the go. (With the rise of game-streaming services like GeForce Now and Shadow PC, it’s steadily getting easier to play top games on low-end hardware, too, and that’s going to keep improving.)