Whether gamers like it or not, it seems the age of the desktop computer is coming to an end. Fewer and fewer people are opting for larger, boxy computers that you can’t take on the go with you. Instead, they prefer to have laptops. This makes a lot of sense, since buying a laptop is more akin to buying any consumer electronics. Gamers and other types of power users have, however, clung to their desktop machines for many good reasons.

The main reason to go with a desktop machine is the fact that you can upgrade it without replacing the whole machine. That’s important to gamers, because while CPU and RAM upgrades are typically not needed over the lifespan of a computer, the GPU needs attention much more often.

It turns out however, that few people, even gamers, bother to upgrade their desktop computers. Most GPU purchases for desktops are heading to new builds, with only the most tech-savvy users opting to upgrade. In the end, this means that many PC gamers are thinking about making the leap to gaming laptops. That used to be a pretty bad idea, but now it’s a pretty viable option. So let’s look at the prospects of gaming laptops today.

Why Gaming Laptops Have Sucked

If you asked me five years ago whether you should consider a gaming laptop, the answer would almost certainly have been “no”. To be frank, no matter how much money you threw at the problem you’d still get a pretty bad experience.

The simple fact is that the technology to squeeze gaming performance into a laptop form factor just wasn’t there yet. At best, you’d get something equal to the previous generation of desktop hardware. Even if the technology was the same, power and heat issues prevented manufacturers from opening up the taps completely. For a use case where you needed all the performance you could get, it just didn’t make sense.

Then we reached a tipping point. The first big sign that things had changed was the advent of mobile 10-series GPUs from Nvidia. For the first time, the mobile versions of their desktop chips were not cut down in any way. A GTX 1060 desktop card and the GTX 1060M were the same. Similarly, there’s little sacrificed in CPU or RAM performance, if anything at all.

So, in principle, you can now buy a gaming laptop that’s got more than enough grunt to get the job done. This basically leaves the lack of upgradability and price as the two negatives. Since laptops have become more popular, they have also become cheaper. Sure, spec-for-spec they still carry a premium, but it’s not a deal-breaker anymore.

What about upgradability? In general, you can upgrade storage and RAM without issue, but you’re stuck with most everything else until you scrape enough together to buy a whole new laptop. If you only plan to game while at a desk, you do have the option to use an external GPU enclosure, as long as the laptop has the right USB-C port and bus.

The truth is that, as long as you bought something new enough, it should stay relevant for about five years, at which point you’ll probably buy a new laptop anyway. The bottom line is that you can now safely buy a gaming laptop, because as long as you buy the right one, you won’t need to do incremental upgrades.

Non-gaming Laptops for Gaming

Do you need a gaming laptop for gaming? The answer is no. Any laptop that has the right specifications is going to do the job. Some people certainly prefer laptops that look like any old business machine, but packs oodles of horsepower under the hood.

In many cases, gaming laptops are really just a marketing gimmick. So you need to understand what that gaming laptop is offering to you over and above a fast enough CPU/GPU combo.

Gaming-specific Features

So what can set a gaming laptop apart from a normal laptop with similar specs?

The first and most obvious differentiator is styling. Gaming laptops tend to be a little more aggressive and adventurous. Bold lines aping supercars, with metal accents and lots and lots of RGB lighting. Whether this is something you like or care about is a personal choice and, honestly, in most cases it’s purely aesthetic – like go-faster stripes on a car.

There are, however, real benefits to some gaming laptops. For one thing, the included screen technology is pretty important. If you are mainly going to game on an external monitor, this isn’t that important. However, if you plan to use the built-in screen to game then features such as color accuracy, Freesync, Gsync, and high refresh rates are pretty important.

We’ll go over each type of specification and quickly talk about what really matters.

gaming laptop rgb

Built-in Screens

Plenty of people who buy gaming laptops mainly use them on external displays. These can be TVs or regular desktop monitors. They’ll usually be connected using HDMI or DisplayPort, which most gaming laptops will have.

If you’re going to use the built-in screen for productivity or casual web browsing, then you may not want to allocate too much budget to it. If it’s going to be your main gaming display you need to pay attention to some things.

First of all, the size of the screen is pretty important. It determines how comfortable the machine is to use, but also the overall size of the chassis. Most gaming laptops will have a screen size somewhere between 15 and 17 inches. That entire range is fine for general use.

The resolution of the screen is a very important factor for gamers. With screen sizes in the typical range, a resolution of 1920×1080 is OK for most people. Anything lower is unacceptable in this day and age. If you opt for a higher-resolution monitor, you need to ensure that the GPU can play the games you want at that resolution. Otherwise you’ll be forced to play at less than the native resolution of the screen, which can lead to some ugly visuals.

Stay away from TN (twisted nematic) panels. These are cheap panels that were popular in the past, but are really not worth the lower price these days. IPS (in-plane switching) or VA (vertical alignment) panels are the go-to technologies now. IPS panels have great color, good viewing angles, and refresh rates usually around 60Hz. If you are aiming for 60fps gaming, you need look no further. If you want to hit crazy frame rates on higher-end machines then VA panels are the only game in town.

Audio

Built-in laptop audio is pretty decent these days, but most people use headsets. Not much to worry about here, but if you plan on using the internal speakers at all, be sure to get a model that has a built-in subwoofer. It really does make a difference.

Input

Gaming with a touchpad is impractical for most game types, unless it’s something like Civilization. You’re going to be using an external mouse, is what I’m saying. So as long as the touchpad is at least as good as the typical non-gaming laptop, it’s fine. The keyboard is another story, however. Does it have backlighting? Does it have macro keys or specially-marked WASD buttons? Is it mechanical? Think about the attributes of the built-in keyboard and the sorts of games you’ll play and decide if it will work for you. If you are only going to game at a desk, then hooking up an external keyboard is the way to go anyway.

CPU,GPU and RAM Considerations

This is one of the most important choices, but you need to be guided by the games that you want to play. Make a list of the present and future titles you want to play. Then have a look at their minimum and recommended requirements. Pick a machine that will drive those games at the resolution you want to play, at a frame rate you find acceptable. Obviously if you want to future-proof the machine a little, you should aim for a tier or two above that spec.

Storage

Solid state storage (SSDs) is becoming the norm. Most gaming laptops will have an SSD as the main drive with a traditional large capacity mechanical drive for media and backups. If you can afford it, it’s better to go with one large SSD and ditch the mechanical drive altogether. Otherwise, make sure the SSD is large enough to hold the operating system and the games you are currently actively playing.

Cooling and Noise

While gaming laptops may all use the same CPU and GPUs, the big difference comes from cooling performance and design. For the performance parts to work their best and to avoid throttling, you need a good cooling solution.

Can the cooling solution in a given laptop stop the GPU and CPU from throttling themselves down? That’s important because you are paying for a specific level of performance. It also matters how loud the cooling system gets under load. A screaming banshee on your desk can really spoil the gaming experience. Luckily, you can usually find video reviews or thermal benchmarks for specific models.