Black Friday and Cyber Monday offer great laptop discounts, but the flood of deals can be overwhelming. So many configuration options are available, and it’s not always clear which ones are the best.
If you’re a gamer, your hobby adds one more thing to consider: the GPU. It’s the most important component in any gaming notebook, but choosing the type and level of performance isn’t straightforward. This year in particular has yielded a slew of options for laptop graphics.
That’s where we come in. To help you make the right decision, we’ve compiled performance scores from more than a dozen different GPUs and laptops, and then boiled it all down into easy guidelines for every budget.
Laptop GPU performance in a nutshell
The chart above breaks down which resolutions, frame rates, and graphical settings you can expect from the most common laptop GPUs. In it is everything from Nvidia’s top-end GeForce GTX 1080 to the lowly GeForce 940 MX.
Want to cut to the chase? Jump below for specific GPU recommendations and laptop examples.
These guidelines are based on Futuremark’s 3DMark Sky Diver benchmark. Though the test isn’t from a real video game, its value actually extends beyond a typical game. Some built-in benchmarks can be influenced by the CPU performance. 3DMark, on the other hand, is inherently a graphics benchmark, and it allows us to focus very narrowly on graphics performance.
Note that that 3DMark’s Sky Diver test is a good indication of what to expect when playing lower-intensity or older blockbuster games. If you put a more intensive graphics load in it, you’ll see cards on the lower end of the power scale fall.
For example, in 3DMark’s Fire Strike test, we can see the margin widen between the GeForce GTX 1050 Ti and the GeForce GTX 1050.
Now that you have a baseline idea of what to expect, let’s break down the best GPU for each common screen resolution.
Best GPU for 720p gaming
Best: Nvidia GeForce MX150
Best (alternatives): Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M or GTX 960M
Okay: Nvidia GeForce 940MX
Expect to pay: Laptops in this range roughly span $500 to $1,600.
For playing at a resolution of 1366x768, you have two main options: the Nvidia GeForce 940 MX and its newer, Pascal-based sibling, the GeForce MX150. You can expect to play at medium to high graphical settings, which is roughly the equivalent to console gaming. (Note: AMD has recently released its Vega 8 mobile graphics, which is in this GPU class, but we haven’t tested it yet.)
In this range, the older Maxwell-based GeForce GTX 965M and GTX 960M will perform well, too. Since they can technically handle outputting a resolution of 1920x1080, you’ll get more longevity out of them if you instead regularly play at 1366x768.
You’ll find these GPUs in general-purpose laptops for the most part, and so there’s a good range of options in form factor. We’ve seen these in everything from chunky budget laptops (like the Acer Aspire E 15) to slender high-end notebooks (like the HP Spectre x360 15.)
Best GPU for 1080p gaming
Best: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 or GTX 1060 Max-Q
Good: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti
Okay: Nvidia GeForce 1050
Barely acceptable: Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M and GTX 960M
Expect to pay: Laptops in this range span an average of $900 to $1,800.
When moving up to 1080P (or “FHD”), you have four levels of GPU to pick from: The GeForce GTX 1050, GTX 1050 Ti, GTX 1060 Max-Q, and GTX 1060. The GeForce GTX 965M and GTX 960M technically get a place here, too, but their age and performance means you’d be playing at Medium graphic settings in newer games.
For a constant 60 fps when playing at 1080p, the best GPU is the GeForce GTX 1060 or the GeForce GTX 1060 Max-Q. The Max-Q variant is maybe 5 to 15 percent slower than the full GTX 1060, but it consumes less power. It also shaves off some cost, too. That said, both GPUs are great for playing at Very High to Ultra settings.
At this performance level, most laptops are dedicated gaming notebooks. (Some exceptions do exist, like the Dell XPS 15 and its GTX 1050.) The prices and screen sizes range widely: You’ll find everything from Dell’s budget-friendly 15.6-inch Inspiron with a GTX 1060 Max-Q for $900 to Alienware’s luxurious 13.3-inch laptop with a GTX 1060 and an OLED display for $1,800.
The portability of these laptops have a fairly wide variety, too. Gaming laptops with this class of GPU can be as thin and light as general-purpose laptops: MSI’s GS63VR packs a GTX 1060 into a 4-pound frame.
Best GPU for 1440p gaming
Best: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 or GTX 1070 Max-Q
Expect to pay: Laptops in this range span an average of $1,700 to $2,300.
If you go up one more level to 2560x1440, you’re firmly in the range of the GeForce GTX 1070 or the GeForce GTX 1070 Max-Q. Both are great and should deliver gaming at high frame rates on newer games without issue. They should also meet the needs of 120Hz panels in most games at 1080p.
Previously, most laptops in this range were 15-inch or 17-inch notebooks that weighed a ton. With the launch of Nvidia’s Max-Q GPUs, however, you can now find slimmer options that can be easily (or at least, more easily) carried around. Examples include the Gigabyte Aero 15X and ASUS ROG Zephyrus GX501VS.
Best GPU for 4K gaming
Best: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 or GTX 1080 Max-Q
Expect to pay: Laptops in this range span an average of $2,700 to $3,300.
If you’re aiming to play at a resolution of 3840x2160, you’ve moved into the range of the GeForce GTX 1080 card (and its Max-Q variant). That is, provided the laptop also has a G-Sync panel. Having a display that supports variable refresh rates will smooth out your gaming experience when frame rates dip below 50 fps.
Since the GTX 1080 can’t support 4K at 60 fps across the board, an alternative reason to have it is for gaming at a high refresh rate, but at a lower resolution. Most gaming laptops offer refresh rates of 60Hz. By doubling it to 120Hz, blurring is eliminated at high frame rates and everything looks buttery smooth.
You can find laptops with a GTX 1080 with 15- or 17-inch displays, and even fairly slender and lightweight models, thanks to Nvidia’s Max-Q variant. Some come with G-Sync, while others have panels with a fixed refresh rate. Regardless, expect to shell out some serious cash in this range.
Best GPU for eSports
Best: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050
Good: Nvidia GeForce MX150 or GeForce 940MX
Acceptable: Integrated graphics
Expect to pay: Laptops that can handle eSports span the range of $500 and up.
One extra category we’ll touch on here is the “eSports” category. That’s the all important competitive-gaming category that includes Counter Strike: Global Operations, League of Legends, DOTA 2, and other similar games.
These types of games aren’t that intensive, so a GeForce GTX 1050 and higher will run them very easily. Lower-end cards like the 940MX and MX150 are also capable of running them. In fact, this class of video games can even run on integrated graphics—they just may not run them that well.
So what should you get? It really comes down to how fast you want the game to run and how much you want to pay to get that performance. For casual gamers who like to play eSports-class games, a GTX 1050 will provide a good experience. For serious competitors who need to push 120 fps on a high refresh-rate monitor, then a GeForce GTX 1070 or even GTX 1080 might be preferred.