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How to buy the perfect PC gaming laptop

Gordon Mah Ung | Nov. 21, 2014
Desktop diehards and the Reddit build-it crowd might scoff at the very concept of a portable PC gaming machine, but the gulf between gaming desktops and gaming laptops has narrowed considerably over the years. Today's laptops can play modern games at 1080p and higher with few to no compromises in graphics settings. And that's not bad.

Desktop diehards and the Reddit build-it crowd might scoff at the very concept of a portable PC gaming machine, but the gulf between gaming desktops and gaming laptops has narrowed considerably over the years. Today's laptops can play modern games at 1080p and higher with few to no compromises in graphics settings. And that's not bad.

Sure, traditional desktop PCs offer more expansion options and easier upgrade paths, and can be significantly cheaper for the performance you get. But there's no denying the appeal of a single, self-contained gaming machine that you can move from the living room to the dining room to even the back porch.

You just need to pick your gaming laptop wisely. Your decisions will key into a series of component choices, so let's dig into them, one by one.

GPU: Your 3D graphics engine

Modern games are all about 3D graphics, which means the most important component in your gaming laptop will be the graphics card, or GPU (short for graphics processing unit). Today, only two manufacturers makes respectable mobile GPUs: AMD and Nvidia.

Most mainstream productivity laptops come with graphics powered by Intel, and they're not powerful enough to run serious 3D games. Intel's graphics unit is integrated directly into the CPU die, whereas the GPUs from AMD and Nvidia are completely separate — and much more powerful — chips. In fact, some people intentionally buy laptops with integrated graphics so their kids can't play games on them. (Or at least the fun games.)

Manufacturers will try to entice you with hard drive and RAM upgrades, but your GPU will make the biggest impact on your gaming experience. So if gaming is important to you, buy the biggest, baddest, fastest GPU possible — because you're essentially stuck with it for the life of the laptop.

Today, Nvidia's GeForce GTX 980M is the highest-performing mobile GPU; Nvidia says it offers 75 percent the performance of its desktop equivalent. That's pretty phenomenal, considering that the GeForce GTX 480M, the best mobile GPU in 2010, offered only about 40 percent of its desktop counterpart's performance. AMD's current bad-boy GPU is the Radeon R9 M290X. Rumors point to an impending update, but for now the M290X is the top dog wearing AMD colors.

You don't necessarily require super-high-end Nvidia or AMD graphics in your laptop for a good gaming experience. But when you're looking at two similar laptops, it's generally wise to go for the GPU with the highest model number possible. A GTX 990M will be a better choice than the GTX 880M, and so on, down the line.

The bottom line is you should prioritize your gaming laptop decision around your GPU — and how much that GPU impacts the size of the notebook. These high-end GPUs are fast, but the heat they generate, and the power they consume, will limit you to very large notebooks (as the machines need to accommodate elaborate cooling systems and large batteries). And, yes, having two GPUs in a laptop is better than having one GPU when it comes to gaming performance.

 

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