THE BEST GAMING LAPTOPS
Gaming laptops have come a long way in recent years. Notebooks that once required a massive jet engine or two to be able to cope with the heat output of mobile graphics chips have slimmed down considerably to offer desktop-class graphics in an actually portable form factor.
This is thanks in large part to Nvidia’s Pascal GPUs. The 10-series of graphics cards are more powerful and efficient than ever. With higher clockspeeds and lower TDPs than previous generations, it’s now possible to pack GTX 1060 and 1070 GPUs into notebooks that measure around or sometimes less than an inch thick. Even better, those 10-series cards aren’t tuned-down mobile variants but rather every bit as powerful as their desktop counterparts. However, if you’re looking for truly slim gaming notebooks, Nvidia’s new Max-Q design philosophydoes sacrifice a bit of performance to get power draw even lower—those laptops should start showing up this summer.
Just as impressive, laptop screens are getting closer and closer in feature set to their desktop counterparts. Features such as high refresh rates, 1440p or 4K resolutions, and G-Sync technology are no longer limited to the tabletop form factor. And perhaps best of all, a modest combination of these features and performance can be had at non-insane price points.
In testing for this guide, we called in a literal stack of gaming laptops from various hardware manufacturers. We limited our overall choice to laptops featuring a GTX 1070 GPU, as systems with that spec have the best balance of performance, features, and price for most gamers. We’re also testing lower-priced GTX 1060 systems and high-end GTX 1080+ ones, but we’re not done yet. Look for updates to this guide in the coming months with those picks.
Asus’s ROG Strix GL502VS is the best gaming laptop for most users. It combines a robust feature set with a decent build quality in a not-gigantic form factor, all at a reasonable price.
I’m a big fan of the 15-inch laptop form factor. It’s large enough to give you the screen real estate needed to play games without squinting, but not so large (looking at you, 17-inchers) that it requires a special gaming laptop backpack. In other words, it’s the form factor that lets a portable gaming machine actually be portable.
The ROG Strix GL502VS fulfills that promise of portability. Measuring only 1.18 inches (30mm) thick, it’s one of the thinner GTX 1070 laptops we tested, being beaten only by the X5 v6 from Gigabyte’s Aorus division. There was a lot we liked about the X5 v6—not the least of which was its super-svelte frame—and in another world it might be our top pick, but it was held back by questionable build quality and a much higher price tag.
CPU: Intel Core i7-7700HQ (2.8GHz Base)
GPU: GeForce GTX 1070 8GB
RAM: 16GB DDR4-2400
Display: 15.6” Wide View LCD with 120Hz refresh and G-Sync (1920×1080)
Storage: 128GB NVMe SSD, 1TB 5400 RPM HDD
Connectivity: headphone/mic combo jack, 3x USB 3.0, 1x USB 3.1 Type C, 1x mini-DP, 1x HDMI, 1x RJ45, SD card
OS: Windows 10 Home 64-bit
Weight: 4.80 lbs.
Thickness: 1.2″ (30mm)
Like most of the laptops tested in this category, the GL502VS features an Intel Core i7-7700HQ CPU, 16GB DDR4 RAM, and a GTX 1070 GPU. Where it sets itself apart, aside from the form factor already mentioned, is in its display. Where most gaming laptops offer a 1080p G-Sync IPS screen, they are mostly held back by panels with a 60Hz refresh rate. The GL502VS steps things up with a 1080p “IPS-like” matte panel with a 120Hz refresh rate. Frankly, much of the GTX 1070’s pixel-pushing power is wasted on a 60Hz screen, as it’s more than capable of maintaining framerates well above 80 to 100 FPS at 1080p. With the GL502VS’s 120Hz G-Sync screen, you aren’t forced to choose between screen tearing and higher than 60 FPS.
Considering the similarity of internals, the laptops we tested scored relatively close in our benchmarking. Truth be told, the difference between the highest and lowest scores is small enough to be mostly negligible once you get into real-world usage. Even so, the GL502VS scored in the top of the class against similarly spec’d, more expensive laptops.
In my opinion, the GL502VS’s chassis is a vast improvement over Asus’s larger, more expensive laptop, the updated version of one of our past favorite laptops. The GL502VS has a more understated look that maintains a bit of the ROG brand’s angular aesthetic while toning down some of the more aggressive styling—and in a smaller package to boot. Of course, the G752VS’s size mostly comes from it’s large rear vents, but in my testing the GL502VS’s smaller size didn’t limit it thermally in any noticeable way, and it comes in at a much more attractive price point.
For connectivity, the GL502VS has all the usual suspects: three USB 3.0 alongside one USB Type-C, as well as one each of HDMI and Mini DisplayPort for connecting to external monitors. Unfortunately, it’s missing Thunderbolt 3 connectivity in the Type-C port, limiting transfers to 10Gbps instead of Thunderbolt 3’s blazing-fast 40Gbps.
The other main drawback to the GL502VS is battery life: with only a 62 WHr battery, the power draw of the GTX 1070 means your time untethered from the wall is limited to only an hour or two, even if you aren’t gaming. Having said that, the lack of battery life is more than made up for when considering the GL502VS’s price. At $1,699, it’s hundreds of dollars cheaper than most GTX 1070 laptops. And while it’s not the most portable—especially compared to the ultra-thin Razer Blade or the upcoming Nvidia Max-Q laptops—it’s small enough for a normal backpack and light enough to not break your back. Of course, if you insist on more screen real estate, the 17-inch GL702VS is effectively the same laptop in a larger frame.
The best budget gaming laptop
- Very attractive price
- Solid 1080p performance
- Great battery life
- No G-Sync
For the budget category of this guide, I focused on gaming laptops with GTX 1060 GPUs in the $1,000 to $1,500 range. It’s possible to find gaming laptops for under $1,000, but they usually hit that lower price point by scaling down to a GTX 1050 or 1050 Ti (or older-generation) GPU, which is significantly less capable at handling today’s most demanding games. The GTX 1060, on the other hand, offers a nice price-to-performance ratio that works well for 1080p @ 60fps gaming.
Acer’s Predator Helios 300 is the best budget gaming laptop for most users. Like others in the category, it features an Intel Core i7-7700HQ CPU, 16GB DDR4 RAM, and the aforementioned Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 GPU. The biggest variance between laptops tested is in the storage spec, build quality, and price. And like the GTX 1070 laptops tested for the overall best laptop category, most of the laptops here produced similar results in all of our benchmarking tests. In other words, performance-wise, there’s very little difference between the various similarly-spec’d laptops in this price range. Here’s how the GTX 1060 laptops fared against each other:
So if all the laptops performed similarly, what sets the Helios 300 apart? Two main things: battery life and price. Let’s talk price first. I mentioned using a range of $1,000 to $1,500 for this category, but most of the laptops cost around $1,350. Save for one: the Helios 300, which is priced at $1,100 MSRP and widely available for $1,050. Considering the feature spec is almost identical to the Asus ROG GL502VM ($1,350) and MSI GE62VR Apache Pro ($1,400), the Helios 300 ($1,050) handily wins on price alone.
CPU: Intel Core i7-7700HQ (2.8GHz Base)
GPU: GeForce GTX 1060 6GB
RAM: 16GB DDR4-2133
Display: 15.6” IPS (1920×1080)
Storage: 256GB M.2 SATA SSD
Connectivity: headphone/mic combo jack, 2x USB 2.0, 1x USB 3.0 w/power, 1x USB 3.1 Type C, 1x HDMI, 1x RJ45, SD card
OS: Windows 10 Home 64-bit
Weight: 5.95 lbs.
Thickness: 1.5″ (33mm)
The only thing I found that the Helios 300 is missing, that might be worth paying an extra $250 for on the GL502VM, is G-Sync. The Helios 300’s 1080p matte screen is nothing special—not as bright as a desktop IPS screen, but nowhere near as bad as the washed-out colors we’ve seen on some budget TN panels—but it gets the job done. Without G-Sync, though, you’ll be dealing with screen tearing if your turn off v-sync and your framerate drops below 60fps. Having said that, the GTX 1060 will easily maintain 60fps with a few tweaked settings in pretty much any high-end game (remember that our fps benchmarks have settings cranked to the max, so a small tweak can easily get you the extra 10 or 20 fps needed to maintain 60). With that in mind, aiming for 60fps with v-sync on is a solid alternative to dealing with the price premium of Nvidia’s G-Sync tech.
If price alone isn’t enough to sway you toward the Helios 300, its superior battery life is another strong point. Almost all of the laptops I tested (both in this category and others) use only their dedicated graphics card, even during regular non-gaming use. This means the GPU is drawing power all the time, cutting battery life down to only one or two hours. The Helios 300, on the other hand, swaps over to integrated graphics during normal, non-gaming periods, improving battery life significantly. During normal browsing with brightness set to 50 percent, the Helios 300 lasted more than four hours without plugging in—long enough for back-to-back meetings or a medium-length flight. With power saving mode and lower brightness, you can probably boost that to six hours or more.
How we test gaming laptops and others we tested
What makes one laptop more attractive than another in the eyes of a gamer? Is it light weight, for portability in between LAN parties? How about high-end hardware to facilitate the fastest frame rates? Surely connectivity matters. External displays, gaming peripherals and direct-attached storage can make you forget you’re even using a notebook. Or maybe value is what matters most. For a low-enough price, we’re all willing to compromise on graphics quality, right? Right?
Of course not, which is why the best builders cram in as much processing muscle as possible, even when money is tight. And at the top of the range, desktop-class components in mobile enclosures set new performance records with every generation.
Most of the laptops we tested for the overall best category offer similar internals: an Intel Core i7-7700HQ processor, Nvidia GTX 1070 GPU, 16GB DDR4 RAM, and a 1080p G-Sync screen. The main difference between models usually comes down to storage options, weight and dimensions, screen features, and of course, price. The similarity in components resulted in relatively similar benchmark scores, with the difference between lowest and highest scores not varying considerably.
We run the following tests to measure performance and productivity on gaming laptops:
- Cinebench 15
- Tech ARP x264 HD
- CrystalDiskMark64 4K Read and Write
- 3DMark Fire Strike
- PCMark 8 Creative
For gaming, we use the built-in benchmarks on Rise of the Tomb Raider, Far Cry Primal, and The Division. Tests are performed at 1080p using the highest available graphics preset, with V-sync and G-Sync disabled. All tests are run multiple times to ensure that thermal throttling doesn’t occur. In the event that scores drop on subsequent tests, the lower (throttled) scores are used.
HP’s gaming division Omen has a nice offering in the laptop space, focusing on top-tier graphics while cutting corners elsewhere to keep prices down. It’s the most competitive with the GL502VS when it comes to price, actually coming in $100 cheaper when on sale for a similarly-spec’d system. It’s also available with a 4K screen upgrade, if that’s something you care about, but we recommend staying away from attempting 4K on a laptop, as running that high of a resolution in games requires much more graphical horsepower than the GTX 1070 can offer. We still like the GL502VS more than the Omen 17, as it comes in a 15-inch form factor and was the only laptop we tested to offer a 120Hz screen.
True to the company’s namesake, the Alienware 15 (also available in 13 and 17-inch form factors) is the most gaming-focused in design of all the laptops we tested, with aggressive styling, bright LEDs along the panel, and a backlight behind the touchpad that gives it an eerie alien-like glow. It’s also one of the bulkiest, especially for a 15-inch, weighing 7.8 lbs. It’s an overall solid machine, held back by price—no doubt a premium you’re paying for the Alienware name and styling—costing almost $300 more for a system spec’d similarly to the GL502VS.
I want to love the X5 v6, I really do. Gigabyte’s gaming division Aorus has been ahead of the curve when it comes to thin-and-light portable powerhouses, and the X5 v6 laptop nearly delivers on that promise. At a glance, it has everything I want—It’s an extremely powerful laptop in one of the smallest frames I’ve seen, and will probably continue to hold that title until the next-generation Max-Q laptops hit the streets later this year. Of course, its space-saving engineering comes with a price premium—at $2,249 (on sale), it’s the most expensive GTX 1070 laptop we tested. Even so, the price might be worth it, as it ships with a gorgeous 3K (2880 x 1620) resolution screen—better than 1080p but not so demanding as 4K—and the form factor is really spectacular.
My main issue is the keyboard. I went through multiple test units of the X5 v6, and each time had an issue with the keyboard (which has full RGB backlight control, by the way). The first time, several keys suffered from an annoying double-tap problem, while the second unit’s keyboard felt spongy in construction, and often wouldn’t register keypresses. (And before you ask, yes, I was fully up-to-date with proper drivers.) A cursory search finds that I’m with issues. YMMV, but QC seems to be an issue here.
Acer’s Predator 17 laptop is more in competition with the larger I mentioned above, and at $1,899 it offers a compelling case. It’s a solidly built laptop if you don’t mind the heft (9.4 lbs) and the aggressive Predator styling, but it’s not without problems. I experienced the same issue on two review units where the screen would flicker at lower brightness settings. This was mostly forgotten once I left the brightness near max, but distractingly annoying for times when I didn’t want as much glow in a dark room or wanted to save on battery life. Like the Aorus’s keyboard, I don’t know how widespread the issue is, but it’s something to keep in mind, especially since Acer has had QC issues with its displays in the past.
MSI’s GT62VR comes from the school of bulkier laptop designs, though it’s a clear improvement over MSI’s older GT6 series from several generations back. It matches up well with the GL502VS in most areas, including the option for a 120Hz 1080p IPS panel. The catch is the panel isn’t G-Sync enabled, but there are 1080p75 G-Sync and 4Kp60 alternatives—again, I’d steer clear of 4K. The RBG backlighting, aggressive red accents, and MSI’s Dragon Army logo on the cover make this an obvious gaming notebook, which may not fit in so well in business meetings. Tipping the scales at 6.5 pounds, it’s not the heaviest of the group, but but at 1.57 inches (39.8mm) it is one of the thickest. If you don’t mind a bit of extra thickness or the gaming aesthetics, MSI offers a good alternative to Asus. The is an even larger notebook with otherwise similar specs and design language.
There’s a lot of gaming laptops out there, and we certainly didn’t get the chance to test them all. We’re currently testing lower-priced GTX 1060 laptops, and plan to update this guide soon with a favorite sub-$1500 machine. The next step after that will be evaluating high-end machines that pull out all the stops. If you have a specific laptop you think we should evaluate, be sure to let us know in the comments.
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