How to Choose the Right Laptop
How to Buy the Best Gaming Laptop for Around $1,000
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 laptops using Intel’s 8th or 9th Generation (“Kaby Lake” or “Coffee Lake”) Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs, or AMD’s less commonly seen A10 or A12 chips, can play basic game titles 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—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. Future-proofing like that demands top-end graphics silicon: Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 2070 or RTX 2080 are the latest and greatest for mobile GPUs. And that means spending, at current prices, $1,500 or more on your laptop.
Simply put: You won’t find high-end dedicated graphics in gaming laptops under a grand. But times have changed, and lower-end dedicated graphics chips here in 2019 have caught up to most games and to the screen resolutions of most mainstream gaming laptops. With a little compromising, you can enjoy some very respectable gaming at 1080p in machines a notch or two down from the GeForce RTX and GTX elite, with models starting as low as $800. 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.
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.
The Processor: 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. The top 9th Generation “Coffee Lake” chips, like the Core i7-9750H, are increasingly common in pricier gaming laptops, but it’s hard to say how soon these might roll down to the under-$1,000 set. Less-premium 9th Generation CPUs, like the Core i5-9300H, are beginning to filter into budget systems.
On the AMD side of the fence, the on-chip graphics solutions in the company’s budget-minded A8-, A10-, and A12-series processors are pretty good (as integrated graphics go). As a result, you’ll see only a few AMD-based laptops under $1,000 with dedicated graphics. That’s because the presence of an AMD CPU, in the first place, is usually a low-price play by the laptop maker. Adding a GPU would just bump up the price. That said, in mid-2019 we saw a few value-minded machines by Asus that go all-AMD on CPU and dedicated GPU, or mix an AMD CPU and an Nvidia GPU.
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. That said, some cheap gaming laptops are managing 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. 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.)
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 nexus.
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. Nvidia’s powerful GeForce RTX GPUs, meanwhile, came to their first laptops in the last week of January, but we don’t expect them to show up in under-$1,000 laptops anytime soon.
Even with the new GTX 1600-series GPUs, however, GPUs based on mobile “Pascal,” the architecture behind Nvidia’s previous generation, are still around. Plus, ever since the 2016 launch of mobile Pascal, gaming notebooks have mostly closed the gap with their equivalent desktop cousins. With Nvidia’s previous-generation “Maxwell” architecture, mobile-graphics-chip performance tended to be roughly 70 to 80 percent of what you’d get from the desktop cards they were based on. (See our picks for the top gaming graphics cards for 1080p play.) But the 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.)
Until 2019, the go-to entry-level gaming chip was the 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 much newer GTX 1650, however, is muscling in on its turf as the best performer for inexpensive systems. We’ve only tested a handful of laptops with this Turing-based GPU so far, but there is a clear jump in performance over the GTX 1050, while still being deployed in laptops that cost around $1,000.
Note that unlike on the desktop, there is no mobile version of the GeForce GTX 1660 above the GTX 1650. Instead, laptop GPU options skip a further step up to the GTX 1660 Ti. Laptops with this superior performer will generally hit the upper limits of budget pricing (or beyond, into midrange), but you can snag the occassional GTX 1660 Ti gaming laptop for less than $1,200.
The dominance of the GTX 1650 and GTX 1660 Ti in the budget tier will only continue to grow as the GTX 1050 and step-up GTX 1060 are 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.
As for Nvidia’s erstwhile competitor AMD, its dedicated graphics chips are far less common in budget gaming laptops (or higher-cost ones, for that matter). 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. You might expect some budget models in 2020 using AMD’s upcoming Radeon RX 5500, but pricing on those is unclear at this writing.
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.
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.)
These Are Our Budget-Gaming Picks…
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.