Your guide to buying a gaming laptop in this decade
The vision for 2020 may have been of flying cars, but the image that's clearest is of sophisticated gaming devices taken to the next level.
“A craftsman can only be as good as his tool,” goes the old adage, and for good reason, too. In this case, a PC is unmistakably one of the most essential items in a gamer’s inventory. While desktops reign supreme in the gaming market, in terms of performance and immersion, laptops are the way to go, particularly if portability is necessary.
As straightforward as it might look, choosing the perfect gaming laptop can be very daunting for beginners (read: noob). But don’t worry, this guide has you covered! We’ve presented all the necessary tips and tricks for you to find the right gaming companion, and most importantly, without burning a hole in your pocket.
1. Know your games
While modern PCs can handle most of the latest games, the overall experience can vary greatly. The specifications bear 90% of the responsibility for the performance of your gaming rig on-the-go. So, it’s crucial to know the bare qualifications for running the games that you wish to play. There are generally three types of games: arcade, esports and luxury.
- Arcade: Katana ZERO, Hollow Knight and Stardew Valley
- Esports: Dota 2, League of Legends and PUBG
- Luxury: Monster Hunter, GTA V and The Witcher 3
If you’re purely an arcade gamer, Intel’s Core i3 and AMD’s Ryzen 3 processors are more than enough. These CPUs should be the minimum requirements if you desire gaming sessions on a laptop. For light gaming, the absence of GPUs is acceptable since nowadays, the integrated graphics card that comes with the CPU is sufficient.
Meanwhile, running esports games is a cinch for PCs introduced in the past two years, when Intel was dominating the mobile CPU sphere. The Core i5 from team blue (Intel) is easily the most bang for the buck CPU choice for some decent competitive action, although, things are about to change with the release of team red’s (AMD) 4th gen mobile CPUs.
As for comparable GPUs in competitive gaming, there aren’t a plethora of options besides NVIDIA’s GeForce graphics cards. The RTX 2060, GTX 1660 and even the entry-level GTX 1650, and the older GTX 1050 Ti, can all run esports titles smoothly at an enjoyable frame rate (fps) from the high 90s to low 200s fps.
The Intel Core i7 and even i9 are the absolute top choices when it comes to gaming laptops, at least for now. These high-end CPUs perform flawlessly when paired with equivalent GPUs like RTX 2070 and 2080. When combined, the dilemma of choosing between frame rate and visual details will vanish.
2. The inevitable budget
There are three things that are certain in life - death, taxes and budget. Ideally, 45% to 50% of the budget should be allocated for the GPU, with the display and CPU coming in at a close second and third. But for those who plan to hook up to an external monitor regularly, settling with a mediocre display on gaming laptops is completely fine.
The keyboard, speakers and battery life are vital for long-term satisfaction. If you’re a person of culture who appreciates premium build quality, by all means, go for it. Forget about the RGB effect if budget is a constraint, unless you don’t mind owning a fancy looking but less powerful device.
6 major considerations when choosing a gaming laptop
1. Form factor
The 15.6” and 17.3” gaming laptops are the most common form factors currently. But expect to see more 14” gaming rigs soon, given the recent announcement of the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14 at CES 2020. Razer’s Blade series is another alternative if you’re looking for a compact 14” machine. Stepping into 2020, portability shouldn’t be an issue for most 15.6” and even 17” gaming laptops, since the design trend is leaning towards slimmer and lighter.
However, thin gaming laptops tend to have inferior cooling systems, which is often the nature of compact PCs. But that’s not the case for all gaming laptops. The Asus Zephyrus and Strix series and Acer’s Predator manage to walk the fine line between small form factor and great cooling capacity - these laptops have great heat dissipation and effective fan blade designs.
2. Build quality
Usually, entry-level gaming laptops from big brands that cost around RM3,500, only get you a durable plastic chassis, minus appealing features like thin-bezel display, high refresh rate and good trackpad, so keep reality in check. If you’re more into performance than prestige, Level 51 and Illegear are highly recommended - their laptops offer superb value and performance.
High-end laptops from Gigabyte Aorus, Dell Alienware, Asus ROG, Acer Predator and Razer usually sport quality aluminium chassis. To be fair, the material doesn’t necessarily dictate longevity. The metal construction can often be heavier than its plastic counterpart, which can hinder mobility. Expect to pay for a small fortune of at least RM6,500 if you are after a premium feel aluminium machine.
Generally, you should opt for the highest possible refresh rate panel, be it desktop monitor or laptop display, if you want to have a competitive edge, that is. It’s reasonable to allocate 15% to 20% of the budget for a better display, to enjoy the PC’s full potential. It’s pointless if the in-game fps is restricted by the monitor’s refresh rate.
In 2020, 144Hz is the sweet spot that mainstream gamers vie for. Many manufacturers have started taking the initiative to offer 120/144Hz displays with their mid-tier devices, which was in the realms of sci-fi three years back. Even entry-level gaming laptops, such as the Level 51 Forge 15, come with a 120Hz display.
However, if you plan to get an external monitor, settle with a regular 60Hz display for the gaming laptop since a bigger size external monitor is always a better choice, both entertainment and productivity-wise. The change (not much, though) from your purchase can be invested in an exceptional monitor like LG’s 27GL850, which excels in colour accuracy, refresh rate and response time.
If you’re strictly sticking to the laptop’s display, then, by all means, spend the extra to get the best possible panel. Frankly, upgrading to a great display is the easiest way to enhance your gaming experience.
This might be an unpopular opinion, but the high resolution on a gaming laptop is relatively impractical considering the size of a laptop’s screen. The pixel density of a 15.6” or 17” 1920x1080p screen is decent, and more importantly, that makes individual pixels “invisible” from a normal viewing distance.
From a financial perspective, laptops with 4K displays always have their prices jacked up. Furthermore, the high-resolution panel usually doesn’t come with a high refresh rate, which is a big miss for gaming laptops in 2020.
4. Graphics card
The GPU is the most essential element in any gaming laptop since most games are GPU intensive. Esports titles, including CS:GO, Dota 2 and League of Legends, don’t need massive GPU power to run smoothly. These games can easily hit 80 to 100fps on an entry-level gaming laptop with GTX 1650 and 1660.
But keep in mind that esports titles like Rainbow Six Siege, Overwatch, Apex Legends, Fortnite and PUBG require higher-end GPUs to run comfortably on high visual settings. You should, at least, get RTX 2060 to get the full visual effect and high frame rate at the same time.
While the higher mobile graphics cards available include the RTX 2070 and 2080, they are very expensive, and often, the asking price isn’t justified.
Many gaming laptops now come with two storage and RAM slots for upgradeability, which is welcome. It provides the potential for users to replace older components for greater storage capacity and RAM. So it’s fine to go with the lowest possible storage and RAM capacity, because those are usually overcharged anyway, when purchasing a gaming laptop.
Fortunately, SSD and RAM are becoming cheaper nowadays, and it’s extremely easy to do it yourself by opening the bottom panel of the PC.
6. In/output port selection
This is the most underlooked section, but it’s imperative for people who want to connect their PC with other peripherals. Always aim for at least three USB 3.1 Gen 1 (Type-A), one USB 3.1 Gen 2 (Type-C), RJ45 LAN Jack, 2-in-1 Audio Jack and HDMI 2.0 ports. While the Thunderbolt port (an all-rounded fast data transfer port commonly seen on high-end ultrabooks) is a cool feature, it’s still uncommon for gaming laptops.
1. Refresh rate
It’s the number of images a monitor can display per second, which is measured in Hertz (Hz). The higher the refresh rate, the more frames the monitor can display, making the on-screen image smoother.
Typically, 60Hz is the standard for both desktop and laptop screens – the monitor can display up to 60 images per second. Stats aside, the greatest distinction between high and low refresh rate is that everything is far less grainy on the higher refresh rate display. The cache-free experience is phenomenal, too.
2. Dual-channel memory
The memory (RAM) communicates with the rest of the computer through the CPU, and by adding one more channel (in this case), it allows faster data exchange as the data can be sent on more than one channel. So, if you want to improve your PC gaming performance, you should try dual-channel memory, instead of blindly upgrading the RAM capacity.
The consumer desktop motherboard can have up to an eight-channel memory, which dramatically expands the “highway” of data transfer and more!
1. Extra power = extra productivity
Ideally, Intel’s Core i5 and NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 1660Ti are the sweet pair for gaming rigs on-the-go. Higher-end alternatives can skyrocket in price, so be warned.
Take AMD’s newest 4th gen Ryzen mobile CPUs for example, the extra core count barely affects gameplay. Most modern games still rely heavily on single-core frequency. But if you need to do video editing, 3D rendering and other applications that are more CPU core count intensive, the extra core count will go a long way.
2. More RAM = faster PC
Simply adding more RAM will not increase your in-game performance. RAM serves as a temporary memory for your computer, allowing you to run multiple applications/programmes at the same time. Unless your hobby or profession requires you to constantly multitask, it’s fine to settle with 16GB RAM with dual-channel memory.
The easiest way to improve PC performance without spending:
- Update the PC BIOS to the latest version to enjoy the best user experience.
- Uninstall bloatware to lighten the stress of CPU and RAM.
- Lower the CPU voltage with the Intel Extreme Tuning Utility to run cooler.
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