What kind of screen do you want?
Screen size is a good place to start when judging gaming notebooks. In general, 15-inch laptops will be the best balance of immersion and portability, while larger 17-inch models are heftier, but naturally give you more screen real estate. And sure, there are some 13-inch gaming notebooks, like the Razer Blade Stealth, but paradoxically you’ll often end up paying more for those than slightly larger 15-inch options.
But these days, there are plenty more features to consider than screen size alone. Consider refresh rates: Most monitors refresh their screens vertically 60 times per second, or 60Hz. That’s a standard in use since black and white NTSC TVs. But over the past few years, displays have evolved considerably. Now, 120Hz 1080p screens are the bare minimum you’d want in any gaming notebook — and there are faster 144Hz, 240Hz and even 300Hz screens. All of those ever-increasing numbers are in the service of one thing: making everything on your screen look as smooth as possible.
For games, higher refresh rates also help eliminate screen tearing and other artifacts that could get in the way of your frag fest. And for everything else, it just leads to a better viewing experience. Even scrolling a web page on a 120Hz or faster monitor is a stark difference from a 60Hz screen. Instead of seeing a jittery wall of text and pictures, everything moves seamlessly together, as if you’re unwinding a glossy paper magazine. Going beyond 120Hz makes gameplay look even more responsive, which to some players gives them a slight advantage.
Not to make things more complicated, but you should also keep an eye out for NVIDIA’s G-SYNC and AMD’s FreeSync. They’re both adaptive sync technologies that can match your screen’s refresh rate with the framerate of your game. That also helps to reduce screen tearing and make gameplay smoother. Consider them nice bonuses on top of a high refresh rate monitor — they’re not necessary, but they can still offer a slight visual improvement.
One more thing: Most of these suggestions are related to LCD screens, not OLEDs. While OLED makes a phenomenal choice for TVs, it’s a bit more complicated when it comes to gaming laptops. They’re limited to 60Hz, so you won’t get the smoother performance you’d find on a high refresh rate screen. And they’re typically 4K panels; you’ll need a ton of GPU power to run games natively at that resolution. OLED laptops still look incredible, with the best black levels and contrast on the market, but we think most shoppers would be better off with an LCD gaming laptop.
A few other takeaways:
Get at least 16GB of RAM. And if you’re planning to do a ton of multitasking while streaming, 32GB is worth considering.
Storage is still a huge concern. These days, I’d recommend aiming for a 512GB M.2 SSD, which should be enough space to juggle a few large titles like Destiny 2. Some laptops also have room for standard SATA drives, which are far cheaper than M.2’s and can hold more data.
Normally we’d recommend getting your hands on a system before you buy, but that’s tough as we’re in the midst of a pandemic. I’d recommend snagging your preferred system from a retailer with a simple return policy, like Amazon or Best Buy. If you don’t like it, you can always ship it back easily.
The best gaming laptop for most people: ASUS ROG Zephyrus G14
Starting price: $1,050
Recommended spec price (Ryzen 9, RTX 2060): $1,450
If you can’t tell by now, we really like the Zephyrus G14. It’s compact, at just 3.5 pounds, and features AMD’s fast new Ryzen 4000-series chips paired together with NVIDIA’s graphics. It’s a shockingly compact machine, and while its 14-inch screen is a bit smaller than our other recommendations, it looks great and features a fast 120Hz refresh rate. We also like its retro-future design (some configurations have tiny LEDs on its rear panel for extra flair). The G14 also starts relatively cheap, at around $1,050, but we’d recommend the specced-up Ryzen 9/RTX 2060 model for $1,450. The only downside: It doesn’t have a webcam, which can be inconvenient in the era of never-ending Zoom calls. Still, it’s not that tough to attach an external camera.
The best budget option: Dell G5 15
Starting price: $824
We’ve been fans of Dell’s G5 line ever since it first appeared a few years ago. Starting at just $824, it features all of the latest hardware, like Intel’s 10th-generation CPUs and NVIDIA’s GTX and RTX cards. (You can also find AMD’s Ryzen 7 and Radeon RX 5600M graphics in the special edition model whenever that’s back in stock.) It’s a bit heavy, weighing over five pounds, but it’s a solid notebook otherwise. And you can even bring it into mid-range gaming territory if you spec up to the RTX 2070.
The best premium gaming laptop: Razer Blade 15
Starting at $1,600
Recommended model (RTX 2070 on sale): $1,900
Razer continues to do a stellar job of delivering the latest hardware in a sleek package that would make Mac users jealous. The Blade 15 has just about everything you’d want, including NVIDIA’s fastest mobile GPU, the RTX 2080 Super Max-Q, as well as Intel’s 10th-gen octa-core CPUs and a 300Hz 1080p screen. You can easily save some cash by going for a mid-range option like the ASUS G14, but those won’t feel nearly as polished as the Blade.
A solid all-around option: Acer Predator Triton 500
Starting price: $1,700
While we’ve seen some wilder concepts from Acer, like its 360-degree hinge-equipped Triton 900, the Triton 500 is a more affordable bread and butter option that doesn’t break the bank. It’s relatively thin, weighs under five pounds, and it can be equipped with Intel’s latest 10th-gen CPU and NVIDIA’s RTX 2080 Super Max-Q. Acer’s build quality is as sturdy as ever, and it has most of the standard features you’d need in a gaming notebook.
The most configurable gaming notebook: Alienware Area 51m r2
Starting price: $2,300
We were excited about the Area 51m when Alienware first introduced it last year. Mostly, because Alienware was positioning it as a gaming notebook that would be as configurable as a desktop. You could upgrade its CPU, graphics and other components down the line. While we had our issues with the first generation model, the second-gen R2 has the advantage of coming with even faster hardware, as well as the option of moving between AMD and NVIDIA GPUs. While there are limits to how much you can upgrade the Area 51m, it’s still a great option if you want a machine that’s also easily repairable.