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How to Choose the Right Laptop

How do you define what makes for a “real” gaming laptop? We don’t consider any laptop a true gaming machine unless it comes with a dedicated graphics chip (aka, a “GPU”), as opposed to the integrated graphics built into the PC’s main processor. For us—and for sellers of laptops—that’s the bright line that divides a gamer from a pretender.

Still, depending on the kind of games you play and how fussy you are, sometimes a laptop doesn’t have to pretend. On some level, almost any recent notebook PC can work as a gaming laptop. Current general-use laptops with Intel’s 8th or 9th Generation Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs (10th Gen chips are out now, but chiefly found in gaming laptops to begin with), or AMD’s Ryzen CPUs can play basic games passably if you roll back the screen-resolution and graphical-detail settings far enough. These chips have modest graphics acceleration built in, and that’s all you need for casual or Web-based games. Plants vs. Zombies, here you come.

A True GPU Is the Difference-Maker, Though

But we assume you want to do more than harvest potato mines and pea-shooters—you have a Steam account, and you ache to play some of the latest AAA titles: the newest rev of the Battlefield series, the latest Tom Clancy-fest, the newest iteration of Tomb Raider or Far Cry. Or, you’re looking to play the latest mega-trending online titles—Fortnite, Apex Legends, Valorant—at the highest possible frame rate that your gaming laptop’s panel supports. That’s where a dedicated graphics chip comes in. It’s the starting point for getting serious about gaming on a notebook.

If you’re truly serious, and insist on playing all your games at very high detail settings and the highest possible screen resolution (for most laptops, that’s 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, assuming you’re playing on the laptop’s screen and not an external display), you’re just going to have to shell out some bucks, especially if you want that laptop to stay game-viable at those settings for more than a couple of years. High-end future-proofing like that demands top-end graphics silicon: Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 2070 Super or RTX 2080 Super are the latest and greatest for mobile GPUs. And that means spending, at current prices, $1,500 or more on your laptop.

Times have changed, however. With a little compromising, you can enjoy some very respectable gaming at 1080p in machines a notch or two down from the GeForce RTX elite, with models starting as low as $800. There are even some RTX 2060 laptop options as low as $999 as of April 2020 (more details on this breakdown in the GPU section below). Budget-priced gaming laptops are now an established category, not outliers, and have been embraced by the major players. We’ve tested models from Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and MSI.

The Best Budget Gaming Laptop Deals This Week*

*Deals are selected by our partner, TechBargains

Here’s how to make sense of their components—and get the most for your money.

Budget Gaming Laptops: What to Look For, Part by Part

Our first bit of advice? If gaming’s your primary focus and your budget really does dead-stop at $1,000, get the best GPU you can for the money, and let everything else follow from there. That may be at the expense of another spec or two—a little less storage, say, or a Core i5 processor instead of a Core i7.

That said, notebooks aren’t upgradable, apart from their primary system memory (RAM, not to be confused with the graphics memory) and in some cases, the storage. You’re going to be stuck with the screen, the graphics chip, and the processor you buy now, so evaluate these parts wisely. If you can stretch your budget a bit to get the next-tier-higher component, it can pay dividends in terms of usable life.

Acer Predator Helios 300 (2019)

The Processor: Yes, It’s Important, But Don’t Overbuy

Some of today’s games, especially in the MMORPG and real-time-strategy (RTS) categories, tend to hammer the processor. New gaming notebooks no longer come with dual-core processors, for good reason: Some AAA games call explicitly for quad-core CPUs as a minimum.

That said, a maxed-out Core i7 CPU is less crucial for gaming than it is for processor-intensive tasks such as video editing and media-file production work. With current-generation Intel CPUs, you’ll get plenty of pep even from a four-core “Coffee Lake”/8th Generation Core i5. A Core i7 of the same generation is actually a hefty six-core/12-thread processor that, we’d argue, is overkill for casual gamers who need to mind what they spend. So, our bottom line: Opt for a Core i5 or i7 chip with four true cores if you can; a six-core chip is gravy.

In late 2019 and early 2020, 9th Generation “Coffee Lake” chips, like the Core i7-9750H, became increasingly common in pricier gaming laptops, and remain so. Following that, in April 2020, Intel launched its 10th Generation “Comet Lake H” mobile processors, but these will remain firmly in the high-end for the time being. It’s hard to say how soon these might roll down to the under-$1,000 set, but their presence makes it more likely that the better CPUs of the last two generations will appear in entry-level systems more often sooner than later. Less-premium 9th Generation CPUs, like the Core i5-9300H, are already present in some budget laptops.

Meanwhile, on the AMD side of the fence, things are looking up. Previously, AMD processors and GPUs were rarely seen in midrange and high-end laptops, but were good fits for budget laptops (because the components were generally cheaper value plays to begin with). Even then, there weren’t too many laptops with AMD chips. That is now changing across all price tiers with the release of laptop chips based on the company’s Zen 2 microarchitecture.

As the Zen 2 processors did on desktop, these Zen 2-based “Renoir” processors are challenging Intel on laptop. The first chip we tested was the Ryzen 9 4900HS, which proved both a great performer and value. It’s a higher-end chip, so less relevant here, but there are also Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 CPUs that will appear in plenty of budget laptops going forward. We haven’t reviewed any of these ourselves yet, but when paired with a GTX 1660 Ti and RTX 2060, they will be attractive options for gamers on a budget.

Acer Nitro 5 (2019)

System Memory: In This Range, Go Eight

Given an around-$1,000 budget, 8GB is the minimum RAM you should settle for. (We haven’t seen less than 8GB of main system memory in a machine with dedicated graphics for some years now.) Most sub-$1,000 machines with dedicated graphics won’t go any higher, but that’s a perfectly adequate amount for most moderate use and mainstream gaming. The occasional cheap gaming laptop manages to squeeze in 16GB of memory these days, but it’s still the exception to the 8GB norm in this price range.

Whether the laptop’s RAM is user-upgradable later on, and what the ceiling is, are further facets to investigate. That said, even if you can upgrade the memory, the laptop may come with memory modules occupying both slots, which would mean replacing them both when upgrading later. It’s best to get what you need up front.

Storage: SSDs Rule, But a Mix Is Better

You’ll see both ordinary hard drives and swifter (but lesser-capacity) solid-state drives (SSDs) in under-$1,000 laptops. The occasional 15.6-inch-screen model might offer a small-capacity SSD boot drive alongside a secondary-storage platter hard drive, though this is more common with 17-inch laptops. (Note that most budget gaming laptops under a grand will be 15.6-inchers.) Opt for this dual-drive approach if you can find it and afford it. The smaller SSD would be home to the operating system and a few favorite games, and the larger, more economical hard drive would host the rest of your games and other programs that don’t need quick loading times. (It’s indeed possible to split your Steam game library across drives.)

In a gaming laptop, an SSD plus a hard drive is the best of both storage worlds. This is especially recommended given how large modern game installations have become, ballooning over 100GB fairly often. Your small SSD will fill up quickly. In terms of gaming performance, the storage subsystem affects game load times and in-game level changes. It can be of special importance in MMORPGs, where huge environments are loaded in real time. Thus, having at least some fast, SSD-based storage is desirable. To our eyes, you should only opt for an SSD boot drive at this point in time. The difference in performance “feel” between a hard drive and an SSD boot drive is too big to ignore. (See our picks for the fastest SSDs.)

Optical drives are just about extinct on gaming models at any screen size these days. Even if you have lots of games on disc, know that you can always use an external USB DVD/CD drive in a pinch, and they cost just $20 or so.

Display Details, Part One: Size and Resolution

You should keep four specs in mind when looking at a given gaming laptop’s display panel: the screen size, the native resolution, the refresh rate, and the panel type.

As we noted earlier, 15.6 inches is the general screen-size rule for most under-$1,000 gaming laptops. This size is a good compromise in ways that extend beyond cost. Sometimes, gaming on the biggest laptop screen possible—and with a few exotic exceptions, that’s the 17-inch class—is the way to go. But if you’ve ever tried carrying one of these machines, or shopped for a laptop bag that can fit both it and its gigantic power adapter, you may have second thoughts. Many of these notebooks weigh eight pounds or more, and the lightest ones tend to be far from the cheapest.

A 15-inch gamer still won’t be an ideal daily traveler, but most are a lot more manageable than their larger kin. Also, today’s 15-inch gaming rigs are better suited for use in true mobile fashion—that is, off an AC power plug—than those of past years. We’ve seen a few hit six or more hours of battery life, albeit in everyday productivity use or playing back video; gaming will trim that number considerably. (See our picks for the laptops with the best battery life.)

Dell G7 15 (2018)

As for the screen’s native resolution, 1,920 by 1,080 pixels (commonly called 1080p) is now the norm in budget-priced and mainstream gaming machines. The more pixels you need to push, the more graphics power you need, and a savvy maker of gaming laptops won’t outfit a laptop with a screen whose native resolution the GPU can’t do justice. So the scarcity of higher-than-HD screens in budget gaming machines is no accident. Not only do such screens cost more and sap more battery life, but the graphics chips found in under-$1,000 gaming rigs wouldn’t power gameplay on them very well. (Screens with resolutions higher than 1080p tend to look small and squinty at the 15-inch size, anyway.)

Display Details, Part Two: Refresh Rate and Panel Type

Like the native resolution, you should take note of the panel’s refresh rate, even if, these days, it will likely be the same—that is, 60Hz—across budget models.

If the refresh rate (which is measured in hertz, or Hz) is being called out as a feature on a given laptop, that means it’s likely higher than the norm. Most laptop screens, including those in almost all budget models, stick to 60Hz, which means they redraw the onscreen image 60 times per second and thus can display up to 60 frames per second (fps) of in-game performance. (In other words, if your graphics chip can produce 90fps in a given game, you’ll see only 60 of them.) Some notebook screens these days, though, can display at 75Hz, 120Hz, or more. These high refresh rates can be beneficial for some extremely fast-paced games, particularly titles played competitively online, including stalwarts such as CS:GO, DOTA 2, and Overwatch, and the more recent Fortnite/Apex Legends/Call of Duty: Warzone nexus.

Asus TUF Gaming FX504G

Still, unless you’re attempting to become a professional gamer or get ranked globally in a particular popular title, a 60Hz screen will suffice. Nearly all gamers are still “stuck” with 60Hz displays, after all. High-refresh panels aren’t common in budget machines, but they are worth knowing about, as we expect them to trickle down into under-$1,000 machines soon.

Another spec to watch for is panel type. You’ll want to go for an in-plane switching (IPS) panel if possible, as they generally offer the best off-center viewing angles and colors. Some gamers are content with cheaper twisted nematic (TN) panels, which make you settle for narrower viewing angles—but then, you’re probably seated directly in front of the screen, so that’s not an issue. TN panels can offer slightly faster response times.

A final note, about touch input. Despite the undeniable convenience of touch screens for Windows 10, they are not the norm on gaming machines, and we don’t know of any GeForce- or Radeon RX-based gaming models in the under-$1,000 zone with touch. (See our picks for the best touch-screen laptops.)

Graphics Processor: Now Here’s Where to Spend

The dedicated graphics chip is the backbone of any gaming computer. In budget gaming machines, Nvidia’s GeForce GTX line dominates the market, and the very latest chips at this writing are part of the company’s GeForce GTX 1600 series, or “Turing” family, which rolled out in April 2019 in mobile versions of the GeForce GTX 1650 and GTX 1660 Ti. The GTX 1650 Ti joined the family in April 2020, fitting in between those two.

However, due to some recent changes, it’s not just about GTX at this price. When Nvidia launched the GTX 1650 Ti (and the aforementioned high-end RTX Super GPUs) on laptops in April 2020, it also lowered the starting price for laptops with its RTX 2060 GPU to just $999. The RTX 2060 will only be found in laptops at the very top of the “budget” price range (around $1,000), but still, it technically brings the RTX line and its signature ray-tracing capabilities to this category. This means gaming at high settings (or even maximum, depending on the game) on an entry-level laptop is more attainable than ever.

MSI GL65 9SC

Until 2019, the go-to entry-level gaming chip was the “Pascal”-based GeForce GTX 1050, typically found in models starting around $700 to $800. The GTX 1050 is capable of playing most of today’s games at 1080p resolution with medium to high settings. The GTX 1650, however, is now the top dog for the most inexpensive systems, and a purely better performer.

If you have a little more cash, the GTX 1650 Ti will boost you more comfortably over 30fps (and maybe to 60fps depending on the game), while the 1660 Ti is a genuine 60fps performer. You’ll find those in laptops from $800 to $1,200 depending on which other components they’re paired with. As stated, the RTX 2060 can now be found in laptops as low as $999, which should be mouthwatering for budget shoppers.

Ray tracing is an advanced lighting technique that only GPUs with the RTX moniker carry the hardware to pull off. The elite RTX 2070 and 2080 are superior for performing this technique, as it will drag down your frame rates, but the RTX 2060 is capable. This is especially true with DLSS 2.0, an Nvidia visual feature that helps performance. Being able to pull this off on budget laptops at all is an impressive feat, and shows how this category is healthier than ever.

The previous Pascal 10-Series GPUs, which launched in 2016, are mostly
phased out by now. Some may be floating around at very low price
points, or retailers have stock left over, but the shift to the GTX 1600
series is mostly complete for any new laptop being released. It’s worth
noting that, unlike prior generations, Pascal and Turing GPUs are much
closer to their desktop counterparts. The full-size GPUs still have an
edge, but older generations only saw roughly 70 to 80 percent of desktop
performance.  (See our picks for the top gaming graphics cards for 1080p play.)
Turing and Pascal mobile chips deliver almost equivalent performance to
their desktop counterparts of the same name, assuming they are
implemented in machines with a complementary CPU, and in designs that do
the GPU’s thermal needs justice. (Most do.)

HP Pavilion Gaming 15

The dominance of the GTX 1650 and GTX 1660 Ti (and presumably the newer GTX 1650 Ti) in the budget tier will only continue to grow as the GTX 1050 and step-up GTX 1060 are completely phased out. The GTX 1060 was an ideal no-compromise GPU for 1080p gaming, so if you come across one while they’re still on the market, it could be a great value. The GTX 1060 is still listed as the baseline for using your laptop with a virtual reality (VR) headset. (See our picks for the best laptops for VR.) The GTX 1660 Ti will only give you better performance in this regard.

For GTX 1060-based models close to the $1,000 line, though, you’ll want to take note of the amount of video memory that backs up the GPU. You’ll see GTX 1060-based laptops with 3GB or 6GB, with the latter obviously preferable and the former obviously cheaper. If you play games with system requirements that demand a certain VRAM minimum, or tend to play games with large texture packs or other VRAM-hungry mods, this could be a difference-maker.

To muddy the waters, Nvidia in 2017 introduced a technology called Max-Q Design that squeezes a slightly detuned GeForce chip into thinner and lighter notebooks than would normally be possible, at the expense of 10 to 15 percent of the chip’s performance. Because Max-Q tends to be implemented in thin, premium machines, it’s seldom a factor among the under-$1,000 brigade. But it’s good to know what it is, in case you encounter the term when shopping. (A few models just above the one-grand line incorporate the tech.) You may be interested in a Max-Q rig if maximum portability—not a trait usually associated with gaming laptops—matters to you.  

Dell G3 15

As for Nvidia’s competitor AMD, its dedicated graphics chips are far less common in budget gaming laptops (or higher-cost ones, for that matter), even as its processor success rises. You’ll see some one-off models based on Radeon RX or Radeon Vega chips (with the RX the only budget solution), but they are rare enough to be considered on their individual merits than as a class of laptops; you won’t find enough of them to draw conclusions about them as a whole. There are occasional laptops using AMD’s Radeon RX 5500M, but these are mostly limited to creator laptops so far. At this point in 2020, just one new gaming laptop with an AMD GPU had arrived on our benches for testing: MSI’s Alpha 15. We expect more soon.

Don’t Forget the Keyboard: Lighting and Layouts

One of the typical features that sets apart a gaming laptop is a colorful, backlit keyboard. These vary quite a bit from model to model, with more elaborate backlighting going hand-in-hand with higher prices and a higher general level of other components.

Almost all budget gaming laptops will employ single-color backlighting (most often, red or white) to keep costs down. The next step up is lighting programmable by zone, with three or four blocks of the keyboard independently customizable in different colors, but this is not common in budget machines. Keyboards with per-key, individually programmable lighting are the province of high-end machines only.

Acer Nitro 5 (2019)

Also look at the key layout. Models with an isolated cluster of arrow keys or well-defined WASD keys get bonus points, in our book. Also, because most budget gaming laptops are 15.6-inch models, check for a dedicated number pad to the right of the main key area, if you prefer to have one—or not, for that matter. Some machines of this screen size will have one, some won’t. (A 17-inch laptop almost invariably will, however.)

So, Which Cheap Gaming Laptop to Buy?

In our chart at the top of this article and in our list below, we’ve mapped out our top-rated models to investigate. Note that a few of the configurations sent to us for testing were a bit above $1,000; some remain so, while others have fallen below the one-grand line since. Also, note that most of these models are a single version of a machine in a varied line. So use the linked reviews as guidelines, not absolutes, when assessing each laptop family. You may not get quite the level of performance we did, if key components were downgraded to get the price below $1,000. But you should get a solid idea of the various laptops’ screen, build, and input quality from our reviews.

In addition to poring over our reviews and checking out the vendors’ sites, using the price filters at a reseller like Newegg.com can help you see different configurations at different price points. Some manufacturers offer lots of differently weighted versions of the same laptop (say, more storage in one config, a better GPU in another). Playing with the filters on these sites can be an illuminating exercise in give-and-take.

Want to round out your PC gaming experience? Also check out our picks for the best gaming mice and top gaming headsets, as well as our picks for the best gaming laptops overall, price aside.

  • Acer Nitro 5 (2019)

    Acer Nitro 5 (2019)

    Pros: Solid 1080p gaming and a giant display at a low price.
    Room for storage expansion.
    Decent webcam.

    Cons: Lackluster screen.
    No SD card slot or Thunderbolt 3 port.
    Hard-to-read keyboard.

    Bottom Line: For less than $900, this 17.3-inch version of Acer’s Nitro 5 bargain gaming rig plays top games at top quality settings at close to 60fps.
    Its screen is merely adequate, but the laptop as a whole is a great value.

    Read Review

  • Acer Predator Helios 300 (2019)

    Acer Predator Helios 300 (2019)

    Pros: Unbeatable gaming performance for the price.
    Solid build.
    144Hz display.
    Good port selection.
    Seamlessly integrated component monitoring and boosting.

    Cons: 256GB of storage restrictive for gaming.
    Brief battery life.

    Bottom Line: Performing like a pricier machine without skimping on build quality or features, Acer’s 2019 Predator Helios 300 delivers excellent value.
    It’s our new top pick among entry-level gaming laptops.

    Read Review

  • Lenovo Legion Y545

    Lenovo Legion Y545

    Pros: Excellent 1080p gaming performance as tested (with GTX 1660 Ti). Bright screen. Reasonably priced. Supports two internal storage drives. Ports are well-placed.

    Cons: Relatively quiet fans, but chassis gets hot while gaming. Awkward webcam location. Number-pad layout isn’t familiar. No media card reader.

    Bottom Line: Lenovo’s new entry-level gaming notebook, the Legion Y545 provides smooth framerates on its 15.6-inch full HD screen in today’s games. It’s a good alternative to the Acer Predator Helios 300, although its chassis gets a little toasty.

    Read Review

  • MSI GL65 9SC

    MSI GL65 9SC

    Pros: Impressive hardware mix for the money. Bright full-HD (1080p) screen. Solid, not-all-plastic build. Comfortable keyboard.

    Cons: Touchpad button clicks are too loud. Some ports located too near the user. Tinny speakers.

    Bottom Line: MSI’s 15.6-inch GL65 levels up the entry-level with its bright screen, 512GB SSD, and GeForce GTX 1650 GPU. Packing solid 1080p gaming pep, for the money it’s hard to top.

    Read Review

  • Acer Nitro 7

    Acer Nitro 7

    Pros: Classy looks.
    Supports up to three storage drives.
    Effective, quiet cooling.
    Bright 144Hz screen.
    Excellent battery life.

    Cons: GPU could be peppier than the GTX 1650 at this price.
    Heavy.
    Red keyboard backlighting is cliché.
    No flash-card reader.

    Bottom Line: Acer’s Nitro 7 impresses on style and features, but its performance trails that of other gaming notebooks with more powerful graphics chips at this price.

    Read Review

  • Asus TUF Gaming FX504G

    Asus TUF Gaming FX504G

    Pros: Good 1080p gaming pep for the price.
    Crisp IPS display.
    Abundant storage.

    Cons: Poor battery life.
    Touchy touchpad.
    No GTX 1060 or SSD options.
    No SD card slot or USB-C ports.

    Bottom Line: The Asus TUF Gaming FX504G pairs a 1080p IPS display and GeForce GTX 1050 Ti power at an aggressive price.
    It’s a solid budget gaming laptop, but suffers from short battery life.

    Read Review

  • Dell G3 15

    Dell G3 15

    Pros: Good-value component mix for the money.
    GTX 1050 Ti powers competent HD gaming.
    Test config has an SSD and a roomy hard drive.

    Cons: Ho-hum design and build.
    So-so display.

    Bottom Line: Dell’s G3 15 gaming laptop doesn’t stand out on design, but delivers good value for the money with reliable performance and plenty of storage.

    Read Review

  • Dell G5 15 SE (2019)

    Dell G5 15 SE (2019)

    Pros: Solid full HD gameplay for the price.
    Sturdy design.
    Includes both a 256GB boot SSD and a 1TB hard drive for storing games.
    Good battery life.
    Highly configurable.

    Cons: A bit heavy for its size.
    Only a Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM in our configuration.

    Bottom Line: The Dell G5 15 SE may not blow you away with any one aspect, but this gaming laptop does a lot of things right.
    With respectable 1080p gaming performance and a good feature set, along with a sturdy build and affordable price, it’s a safe bet when shopping on a budget.

  • HP Pavilion Gaming 15

    HP Pavilion Gaming 15

    Pros: Capable 1080p gaming at high image-quality settings. Decent battery life. Wi-Fi 6.

    Cons: Max-Q GPU rather than full-strength GeForce GTX 1660 Ti. Lackluster 60Hz instead of 144Hz display in test unit. No Thunderbolt 3 port.

    Bottom Line: HP’s Pavilion Gaming 15 is a respectable contender in the ultra-competitive arena for 1080p gaming laptops priced just north of $1,000, but it falls in the quarterfinal or semifinal round instead of reaching the championship.

    Read Review


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