Best gaming laptops: Know what to look for and which models rate

We'll help you pick out the perfect gaming laptop.

Credit: IDG / Adam Patrick Murray

Picking a gaming laptop today isn’t as easy as it was five years ago when a “real” gaming laptop meant 12 pounds of back-breaking hardware to haul around.

With major advances in laptop video cards and CPUs, you can now get great gaming performance from laptops ranging from light to super heavy and from super expensive to budget.

The problem these days: too many choices. A luxury problem, to be sure.

Still, you need to know how to navigate this bounty. In this handy-dandy buyer’s guide, we’ll not only name the best gaming laptops currently available, we’ll also highlight what to look for when buying a gaming laptop. (Check back often, as we’ll update this list as new products arrive.)

Best 17-inch gaming laptop

The arrival of Nvidia’s Pascal-based mobile GPUs transformed high-end gaming laptops. These days, getting desktop-equivalent performance is just the natural course of things, and you no longer have to pay through the nose for it, either.

Our current pick for best gaming laptop is the Alienware 17 (available at Dell.com)—with a GTX 1080 mobile GPU and a 17.3-inch 2560x1440, 120Hz G-Sync panel, it starts at $2,500. For that chunk of cash, you’ll get smooth, high-frame-rate gaming at a previously unprecedented level. Our review unit posted frame rates over 150fps with everything maxed out in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and over 100fps in Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Alienware 17 R4 IDG / Adam Patrick Murray

No, it’s not as portable as other gaming laptops sporting Nvidia’s new Max-Q mobile GPUs, but Alienware gives you full 1080 performance at all times, with a better and more consistent frame rate than those lighter notebooks. 

The Alienware 17 has a couple of other drawbacks besides size: Its fans are loud, and its battery life is average. But these things shouldn’t dissuade people in the market for a true desktop replacement.

Best 15-inch gaming laptop

Some gamers might take issue with the Asus ROG Zephyrus GX501. They will consider the laptop’s GeForce GTX 1080 with Max-Q to be compromised—offering performance that’s “just” halfway between a GeForce GTX 1080 and a GTX 1070. (Read our full review.)

But what we see is revolutionary performance for a relatively lightweight machine. This class of performance, frankly, used to require at least 8 to 10 pounds of laptop with the thickness of a phone book. The GX501, on the other hand, is not much thicker than a MacBook Pro 15 and weighs a scant five pounds. Throw in the 120Hz 15-inch G-Sync panel and you have top-notch performance in a laptop you might actually bring with you on a trip.

Not surprisingly, the GX501’s main compromise is battery life. Such is the trade-off when you stuff desktop-caliber hardware into a laptop. At least with the GX501, your gaming rig is a lot more portable.

Best budget gaming laptop

Not long ago, playing a game at higher resolutions and higher graphics settings on a laptop meant shelling out big bucks.

That’s changed in the last year. For less than $1,000, you can get a gaming laptop that will play at 1080p—like Dell’s gaming version of the Inspiron 15 7000 (available at Dell.com) at, which offers a quad-core i5-7300HQ, 8GB RAM, and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti in its $850 base configuration.

It’s a lot of muscle for the price. This system can handle today’s games on High at 1080p (in Rise of the Tomb Raider, this Inspiron ran at over 50fps), and it can definitely play popular titles like League of Legends, Dota 2, Rocket League, CSGO, Team Fortress 2, and Overwatch

Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming Alaina Yee/IDG

There’s one catch, however. The launch version of the Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming had a terrible TN panel with extremely bad viewing angles and washed-out colors—our review is based on this version. Some of these still are available for purchase (through Dell’s outlet site, for instance), but the version we recommend is the current model that features an IPS display.

Best portable gaming laptop

Nvidia’s Pascal GPUs haven’t just put the traditional beefy gaming laptops on par with desktop machines. They’ve also made it so the term “portable gaming laptop” is no longer an oxymoron. Put a GeForce GTX 1060 into a laptop and you have a capable machine that can survive away from a wall socket—and won’t break your back while carrying it, either.

Now, at five pounds, the Alienware 13 (available at Dell.comis a little heavy for its size—but it’s worth toting around those extra ounces. The model we reviewed packs a gorgeous OLED 2560x1440 display, a quad-core i7 processor, and a VR-capable Nvidia GTX 1060 for flawless 1080p gaming. (Yes, you can play at 2560x1440, too, if you crank down some of the settings... or buy an Alienware Amplifier and pop in a beefier video card.) 

Its extra weight comes from its incredibly sturdy and solid chassis, built to withstand hot climates and gamers who react physically to the highs and lows of gameplay. For some, that’ll be a drawback. But it’s hard to hold the Alienware 13’s design against it, especially after experiencing the pure luxury of its OLED screen: Gaming on it makes the best LCD panels seem pixelated and washed out.

While performance is a hair under rival machines like the MSI GS63VR, the difference is almost negligble—just one or two frames less per second in our Tomb Raider and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor benchmarks. If you can splurge on this version of the Alienware 13, we say do it. From its slick design to its performance, battery life, and OLED display, it’s exceptional in every metric we usually examine.

Runner-up

Not all gaming laptops are about insane frame rates and high-end features. There are folks who want a really great gaming experience on the go.

For that, we turn to Gigabyte’s Aero 15 (available at Amazon) , which is not much larger than a Dell XPS 15, and only a bit heavier than MSI’s GS63VR. But the Gigabyte Aero 15 offers better battery life by several hours, and DIY upgrades are easier to perform. Its keyboard also features per-key RGB lighting that gets quite bright. (Read our full review.)

What keeps it out of the top position are a handful of small quibbles: Its maximum screen brightness falls on the lower end of average, and during our review, its keyboard had trouble recognizing certain key combinations. (Firmware updates did help some, but users continue to report problems.) Its off-center trackpad position also takes time to get used to.

Overall, however, the Gigabyte Aero 15 can play the newest games at 1920x1080 with settings at or near Ultra on a 15.6-inch screen. And it won’t break your back while you’re out and about.

Best price-is-no-object gaming laptop

We’d never recommend that a normal person buy Acer’s over-the-top, insanely cool Predator 21X (which costs $9K on Amazon), but if you’re among the filthy rich and looking to surprise your 8-year-old niece on her birthday with a kick-ass Minecraft rig... well, roll in hard right after the face painting and drop this bad boy on her. With a curved 120Hz G-sync panel, two GeForce GTX 1080 GPUs in SLI, a mechanical keyboard, and an overclockable Core i7 chip, it’s nigh-impossible to make a bigger impact than this limited-edition gaming laptop. Is it prudent? Hell no. But if you’re the sort who shops at the House of Bijan (where a tie can cost $1,000), then dropping nine large on a laptop ain’t nothing.

Read on for guidance on how to pick the right gaming laptop for your needs.

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Gordon Mah Ung

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