CPU: Important but not paramount
Intel has conditioned us to splurge on CPUs, but for gaming, your laptop's CPU will never be as critical as its GPU. Keep that in mind when you're debating whether to spend extra money on a faster or more advanced CPU. A CPU with a higher clock speed or more cores will help in video encoding or even photo editing, but it rarely pays dividends in 3D gaming once you're above a certain threshhold.
Let's look at three increasingly powerful Alienware notebooks, each armed with a different CPU. At the bottom, we have dual-core 2.6GHz Core i5. The middle choice comes with a quad-core 2.9GHz Core i7. The high-end model features a quad-core 3.1GHz Core i7. These are all strong processors, and each supports Hyper-Threading, which tackles simultaneous processing tasks, much like multi-core technology does. But the price for that 3.1GHz machine is almost $850 more than the price of the 2.9GHz machine. The more expensive model also comes with extra RAM and better storage, but these are relatively unnecessary upgrades if your only goal is kick-ass PC gaming.
The reality is you'd be hard-pressed to see a difference in games running on the two-quad-core Alienware models. We're starting to see more games exploit multiple cores, but, frankly, that dual-core Core i5 might be fine for most titles you ever end up playing — especially because it supports Hyper-Threading.
And, yes, I'd mention AMD processors, but it's pretty rare to see a gaming notebook using AMD CPUs today.
RAM: Eight is enough
Pay close attention to how much RAM you're buying, because many people get snookered into buying more than they really need for PC gaming.
Today, 8GB is fine for the vast majority of games on the market. It doesn't hurt to get 16GB, but it's difficult to find legitimate benefit for that much memory in today's games. Even worse, some system vendors like to offer extreme configurations — like 32GB of RAM — in their gaming laptops. That may pay off in some extreme content-creation scenarios, but gamers would be better off paying for a faster GPU or bigger SSD.
SSD: Check 'yes' for faster load times
An SSD (solid-state drive) isn't essential, but it's definitely preferred. Because it uses memory chips instead of mechanical platters for storage, an SSD speeds up Windows boot time, overall system responsiveness, and even how fast games load. Having an SSD usually won't improve frame rates in 3D games, so if you have to pick between faster frame rates and faster game loads, choose the benefit that appeals to you most.
SSDs are definitely a nice luxury, but don't settle for one with a small capacity. Indeed, if your preferred laptop only has one storage option, going for a larger hard drive or hybrid hard drive (which pairs a small-capacity SSD with a large-capacity mechanical drive) is the better idea. You'll need that storage space for today's big games.
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