Gaming laptops exist at the juncture of power and portability, packing all of the components it takes to run modern games into sleek, mobile packages. Usually designed with cooling in mind, they feature smartly engineered combinations of fans and cooling vents, housing premium grade components in a package that delivers the heights of power output with the design that keeps it running. These devices also usually offer premium dedicated graphics processors, high refresh-rate screens, and powerful processors. The best versions also come with better-than-average RAM and internal solid-state drives (SSDs).
Now that USB 3.2 has made it possible to run AAA games off external SSDs, high-end USB 3.2 and Thunderbolt ports are increasingly a must-have on these devices as well. With so many high-demand components to house in the same small package, the best option is often the machine that achieves it all with balance, rather than the one that crams it all in the box without mastering the harmony of its system. Here’s how you can find the best gaming laptop for your needs.
— Best Overall: Alienware m17 R4, 17.3 inch FHD
— Best Budget: Acer Nitro 5
— Best for Gaming and School: Razer Blade 15 Advanced Gaming Laptop
— Best for Gaming and Work: MSI GS66 Stealth 15.6
— Best With Large Screen: ASUS ROG Strix G17
— Best for Portable Gaming: GPD Win Max
How We Picked the Best Gaming Laptops
While so many components go into a great laptop, gaming laptops come with a few specific wants. To build this list, I looked for these technical qualifications first, reviewing numerous different builds and sub-brands from seven top makers. While elements like RGB lighting effects can be a cool plus, I didn’t factor strobing lights as heavily as I did packed performance features. Some of these picks do have pattern strobing keys and the like, but those types of effects didn’t sway my choice, in the same way, something like a super-fast refreshing screen with a stellar color gamut would. My most important criteria loosely fell into five categories:
Graphics Card: A dedicated graphics card is the first feature that comes to mind as what makes a laptop designated for gaming. These components shuffle off the processing power your system requires to display a game’s graphics so that your main processor doesn’t have to. The best graphics cards have built-in internal RAM and cost hundreds of dollars by themselves. Not only does a strong graphics card allow you to run your game at higher visual quality, but it also allows you to run it faster. Paired with a screen that has ultra-fast refresh rates, a strong dedicated graphics card can get you hundreds of beautifully rendered frames per second, allowing you to blaze through enemies before they can so much as process you.
Processor: The brain of your laptop exists in its processor. The CPU (central processing unit) performs the computer’s calculations, assigning tasks to other components of the system and executing them. Processors have a cache of memory they store current items in. In non-gaming systems, processors usually perform graphics calculations as well. A powerful CPU is critical for high-end gaming, as well as tasks like content creation in Adobe software. These CPUs contain multiple cores (current mass-market Intel chips go up to 8 cores). These cores distribute calculations, so that multiple tasks can be handled at once.
Screen Quality: Screen quality is one of the most important features of a gaming laptop. Gaming laptops usually prioritize super fast refresh times measured in (Hz) over color accuracy or brightness (Nits). When you’re in a competitive online firefight, screen refresh rate is all important. Lagless graphics require high refresh rate times, and players with lagless graphics usually have the best chance of winning. Millisecond refresh rates might not matter for everyone, but when you’re playing competitively they do. That said, brightness and color are still important, and I prioritized screens with high refresh rates that also offered high color gamut and brightness, like the Alienware M17 R4. Note: I only noted Nits and color gamut in my reviews where I could find a reliable manufacturer figure.
Memory: There are two important components to system memory: RAM and storage. A system’s RAM is its random-access-memory. Loosely similar to short term memory, this is the system memory that can be open and workable at any given time. High RAM allows you to do things like edit a document in Photoshop while simultaneously casting streamed music to a Bluetooth speaker and running Firefox with 10 tabs open. If you don’t have enough RAM, your system will slow down when it performs multiple tasks at once. Your storage, on the other, hand measures how much space is contained on your system’s hard-drive. In 2021, Solid State Hard-Drives (SSDs) are par for the course. An SSD allows you to more quickly boot your machine, software, and access files.
Connections: USBs (Universal Serial Buses) offer near-magical connectivity. Premium USB 3.2 connections and Thunderbolt ports allow you to run AAA games or edit giant files directly from an external hard drive. USB 3.2s and Thunderbolts can have transfer speeds from five to 40 gigabytes-per-second (Gbps), with Thunderbolts achieving the fastest rates. Thus, a Thunderbolt or high-end USB 3.2 port is a huge boon for gaming or creative work.
We further explain how we test gaming equipment here.
The Best Gaming Laptops: Reviews & Recommendations
Best Overall: Alienware m17 R4, 17.3 inch FHD
Why It Made The Cut: This Alienware model is the best gaming laptop overall because it has a superfast screen, a loaded 8-core processor, and a stellar graphics drive, what’s not to like?
— Processor: Intel Core i7-10870H 10th Gen 8-Core
— Memory: 16 GB RAM, 1 TB hard disk
— Graphics Card: NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3060 6GB
— Screen: 360 Hz, 300 Nits, 100 percent sRGB
— Ports: 1 Thunderbolt, 3 USB-A 3.2 ports
— 8-core CPU
— Excellent screen refresh and better-than-average color
— Great graphics card
— 17 inch
— Runs hot
This beast in laptop’s clothing is jam-packed with all the updated components you’ll want for AAA gaming at the highest settings. Its 8-Core i7 CPU has twice the computing power of CPUs from some of the best machines of just a couple of years ago. Its RTX 3060 graphics card offers an extreme industry-leading performance boost that delivers frame rates in the hundreds per second. The laptop visually keeps up with that high frame rate potential with a bright high-color gamut screen that has a 360 Hz refresh rate. At that speed, you’ll have virtually no awareness of frames for a totally fluid experience. Its thunderbolt port means that lagless gaming from an external hard drive is par for the course, creating virtually endless memory. And at 17 inches, the Alienware m17 R4 is big enough to house whatever world you might find yourself in.
For those of us who use our laptops for more than just mobile battle stations, the 8-Core CPU and solid RAM, coupled with the 100 percent sRGB screen mean that this laptop is also a solid pick for creatives working in 3D, Adobe Suite, or film. However, they should note that sRGB is not the same spectrum as Adobe RGB. While this color gamut is good for the gaming laptop market, it doesn’t touch a Macbook Pro or some other high color gamut PCs such as the ASUS Zenbook 15. Sadly, like many gaming laptops, this unit suffers from heat issues. Users who want to run this laptop at its maximum settings should consider getting a cooling tray. For the top performance at the highest FPS, the machine might even need to be undervolted to keep the circuitry from frying. While high temperatures are certainly an issue with this machine, they are sadly quite common in the gaming laptop market. Running so many high-end components does take a toll.
Best Budget: Acer Nitro 5
Why It Made The Cut: With ray tracing graphics and a 144 Hz screen this laptop punches high above its price point, especially in the shooter and E-sport sphere.
— Processor: 10th Gen Intel Core i5-10300H 4-Core
— Memory: 8 GB RAM, 256 GB hard disk
— Graphics Card: NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3050 4-GB dedicated RAM
— Screen: 144 Hz, Full HD
— Ports: 3 USB-A 3.2 ports, one USB-C 3.2 port (up to 10 Gbps)
— Generous graphics card
— Good screen refresh times
— RAM is upgradeable
— 4 core CPU lags higher-end models
— No Thunderbolt port
— Plastic exterior
Truly the bastard-sword of gaming laptops, the Acer Nitro 5 is the best budget gaming laptop that still keeps a keen edge. With a ray tracing graphics card that competes with the gear you’ll find in gaming laptops twice this model's price, this machine can achieve very high frame rates at quite decent quality. The screen does create something of a limit to your frame rate count with its 144 Hz refresh rate. However, this frame rate is still competitive enough to make this laptop viable for online competitive gaming in shooters and eSports. In fact, I think that’s where this laptop shines. Its low-powered i5 chip is a limiting factor for intensely detailed worlds (think Cyberpunk 2077), so while this machine might not render each new galaxy you encounter in its most scintillating hues and detail, it still does a great job at achieving good FPS rates with lower graphically intensive titles and eSports, even on relatively high settings. It’s an all-around strong laptop with an excellent graphics card that isn’t marred by awful thermal issues. Buying a refurbished model makes the buy an even better value.
Best for Gaming and School: Razer Blade 15 Advanced Gaming Laptop
Why It Made The Cut: With undeniable aesthetics and a brand name that’s remained consistent with quality in laptop gaming, this Razer edition continues to deliver on everything the brand is known for.
— Processor: 10th Gen Intel i7 8-Core
— Memory: 16 GB RAM, 512 GB SSD capacity
— Graphics Card: NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2070 Super MAX-Q
— Screen: 300 Hz full HD, approx. 100 percent sRGB
— Ports: 1 Thunderbolt 3, 1 USB-C, 3 USB-A ports
— High screen refresh rate
— Excellent graphics processor
— Powerful cooling system
— Gets very hot
— Low profile keyboard isn’t the best
— Might not have the best longevity
The Lamborghini of gaming laptop brands, Razer Blade is a head turner. Since the brand’s 2005 genesis, it has remained one of the most recognizable and well-known makers of gaming devices. The 2020 Razer Blade 15 Advanced is still one of the best laptops on the market a year later, and with supercharged 2021 versions available (which are also very much worth a look), the 2020 is now more affordable. We picked the 2020 model as our best laptop for gaming and school with that reduced price point in mind, as well as the peacock-worthy aesthetics. Even a year later this 8-Core, RTX-equipped laptop is future-proofed and ready for any project you want to explore, from high-intensity Adobe Suite work, to 3D modeling, or video editing. With an extremely fast screen refresh rate of 300 Hz (2 milliseconds), you’ll be blazing past the competition in online multiplayer; and with its stupefyingly powerful ray tracing graphics processor, the Blade 15 will take you to whatever world you need to go to, painted in the fullest detail. Getting a used model not only saves you some cash, it saves a gorgeous laptop from a landfill.
Best for Gaming and Work: MSI GS66 Stealth 15.6
Why It Made the Cut: With an 8-Core i7 processor, a solid RTX graphics drive, and a quick refresh screen, this MSI packs it all into an elegant black frame.
— Processor: 11th Gen. Intel Core i7 8-Core
— Memory: 16 GB RAM, 1 TB SSD
— Graphics Card: RTX2070 Max-Q
— Screen: 240 Hz, HD
— Ports: 1 Thunderbolt 4, 1 USB-C 3.2, 2 USB-A 3.2 ports
— Relatively light
— Powerful ray tracing graphics card
— Sleek design
— Screen could be better
— Some heat issues
If you think that “speak softly and carry a big stick” might be a mantra more gaming laptops should heed, then this tastefully designed MSI gaming laptop is for you. With a light, all-metal black frame featuring subdued vents in the rear, this is a good-looking laptop. Its RGB-lit keys can be programmed to your needs, with options for certain keys to strobe on headshots or other critical in-game moments. With its 8-core processor and powerful graphics card, this laptop makes a nice 3D modeling rig. Its Thunderbolt port ensures that it's ready for flawless integration with an external SSD.
This is a laptop that does most of everything right—it’s got great components under the hood, but it can get hot (though not much more so than competitors). However, its selling point really lies in the design. It’s an elegant medium-high-end gaming laptop that doesn’t scream gamer, making it the best laptop for gaming and work. If you go for a refurbished model, you can save an ungodly $623.
Best with Large Screen: ASUS ROG Strix G17
Why It Made The Cut: With its 8-Core Ryzen CPU, powerful graphics card, and large bright and fast screen, this is a powerful machine.
— Processor: AMD Ryzen 9 5900HX 8-core Processor 3.3 GHz
— Memory: 32 GB RAM, 1 TB hard drive
— Graphics Card: NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3070 8GB
— Screen: 165 Hz, 300 nits
— Ports: 3 USB-A, 1 USB-C port
— High-definition display with blazing update speeds
— Powerful AMD Ryzen 8-Core processor
— Upgradeable hard drive
— No Thunderbolt port
With a list of components that could potentially outclass the Alienware that took our best overall ranking, this Republic of Gamers 17 inch behemoth is an all-around juggernaut. This is the only laptop with an AMD Ryzen chip on this list. The chip is competitively constructed with eight-core processors and yields comparable power to the 8-Core Intel i7s that dominate the higher-priced slots on this list. Its GeForce RTX 3070 with 8GB of dedicated RAM is a fearsome engine, and as the best gaming laptop with a large screen the screen keeps up with 300 Hz tearless graphics at double the resolution of many other laptops on this list. As linked, this customizable version of the 2021 laptop is available for preorder.
It’s worth a good look at the ROG Strix G17 (2020) version as well, which still delivers great quality. These laptops come in many iterations that vary somewhat from seller to seller, so read the specs of your model carefully before you place your order.
Best for Portable Gaming: GPD Win Max
Why It Made The Cut: For truly portable gaming, the GPD Win Max packs tons of power in a little space, complete with its own built-in gamepad.
— Processor: Intel 11th generation 10nm Core i7-1195G7
— Memory: 16 GB RAM, 1 TB hard disk
— Graphics Card: Intel Gen 12 Iris Xe Graphics 96Eu
— Screen: 60Hz, 4K
— Ports: 1 USB 3, 1 USB Type-C 3.1, 2 USB Type-A
— Tiny powerhouse
— All-in-one gaming device
— Great portable, but also desktop friendly
— Runs most games at 60 fps, but AAA titles top out at 30 fps
— Battery life is lackluster
Laptops allow you to game on the go, but could you play one on the subway comfortably? Even if you don’t mind the stares, you’re going to need to bring a gamepad with you too. If truly portable gaming is your aim, there’s no better device than the GPD Win Max.
At first glance, this clamshell portable PC certainly qualifies as a laptop. It’s got a full keyboard, a touchpad, and a bright eight-inch touchscreen. But just north of the keyboard lies something special: a 16-button gamepad. Two clickable thumbsticks, four triggers, a D-Pad, and four face buttons. You know, the works. There’s no complicated UI here, despite its size and the built-in gamepad, it’s a standard powerful Windows 10 PC. And while it could easily run most Steam games at full power, powerful titles like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice will be a little too demanding to run at 60 fps. This isn’t something an eGPU can’t solve. And because it’s got tons of ports, you could easily slide it into any desktop game station complete with a bigger keyboard and mouse, and a flashy curved gaming monitor. But the main selling point for this number is that you can take it anywhere and be able to game within seconds. GPD Win Max claims it can run for up to 10 hours, but with 75 percent brightness and only playing less demanding titles, for the most part, I’m lucky to get four. Bring your charger with you.
Things To Consider Before Buying A Gaming Laptop
Laptop vs. Desktop
Gaming laptops offer extreme power for running computer games. However, the customization and ventilation of desktop PCs make them more powerful by cost most of the time. If you’re someone on the move, a laptop is the clear choice. These gaming laptops offer power that will keep you competitive even when you’re playing with or against desktop rigs.
Because of the large graphics cards they house within them, along with their powerful processors, gaming laptops run hot. Much of the design of each laptop caters to dispersing that heat to maximize power. This is achieved through various design methods, including fans, gas pipes, specialized metals, and thermal glues. While these design features are often quite effective, it’s still the case that running a machine for years at 100-degree-plus temperatures can take a toll. So before you buy a gaming laptop, consider your expectation for the longevity of the product. Some of these risks can also be mediated with purchases such as the XOTIC PC Notebook Cooler or the thermal paste upgrades you can select when purchasing a customized gaming laptop from XOTIC PC or other similar sellers.
While all these gaming laptops work beautifully for gaming, they are also all-powerful machines that will generally do a good job at whatever task you throw at them. That said, if you work in high-end content creation and run 3D modeling software, work with intensely large Photoshop files, or edit videos, you’ll want to look for a gaming laptop that has the chip and RAM you need. Make sure to get a computer with at least 16 GB of RAM, and these days you’ll probably want an 8-Core processor. Screen quality is also an important concern. This list prioritizes high refresh rate gaming screens, but laptops like the ASUS Zenbook 15 with its dedicated graphics card, 4K screen, and excellent color gamut could be a better choice for some.
Using a Laptop as a Desktop Gaming Rig
A gaming laptop may run for more money than a desktop gaming PC with similar specs. However, you can turn a gaming laptop into a desktop rig at will. All you need is a good gaming mouse, a solid keyboard, and perhaps most importantly, a big, beautiful gaming display. If you're unsure where to start, here are a few suggestions. For a good gaming mouse, the Logitech G502 HERO is a solid starter with plenty of avenues for customization. A good starter keyboard is the Razer Cynosa Chroma Gaming Keyboard, which is great for gaming and work alike. As far as gaming monitors go, any Samsung monitor would be fantastic, and the Odyssey G30A is a great choice at an even greater price.
Q: How much does a gaming laptop cost?
Gaming laptops range from hundreds of dollars to thousands. While you can sometimes get a real steal during holiday sales, a really solid machine will usually cost you well over $1,000. If cost reduction is a priority, it’s sometimes worth it to look for new models that are over a year old. The true premium laptops of 2020 may be heavily discounted in late 2021 when the new competition hits the market. With that said, if you want the best future-proofing, it’s often best to look for the laptops with the most cutting-edge features—which will cost you.
Q: Where can I recycle my old laptop?
Consumer electronic waste is a massive issue. These devices often contain harmful, polluting, and rare components. Because of this, new e-waste recycling measures are on the rise. Luckily, there are a few ways you can safely recycle your devices. The Environmental Protection Agency provides a helpful guide to which manufacturers will recycle old devices. Call2Recycle allows you to locate centers for recycling rechargeable batteries, single-use batteries, cell phones, and e-bike batteries with its interactive map. The Consumer Technology Association’s Recycle Electronics locator uses your zip code to identify which centers will accept specific electronics for recycling.
Q: What's more important, CPU or GPU?
While gaming laptops put emphasis on graphics drives (GPU), the central processing unit (CPU) is still the brain of the computer. You can game without a GPU drive, but you can’t without CPU. However, the GPU is arguably the most important component for gaming laptops. Usually, a stellar GPU is the feature that makes one gaming laptop truly stand out of the crowd over the others. In the end, it’s the combination of CPU and GPU that makes a truly excellent machine.
Q: Is 32 GB of RAM overkill?
32 GB of RAM drastically speeds up your computer’s calculations. While many users may not need this much RAM, users working in video, 3D, or playing high-end AAA games will feel the difference. In 2021, 16 GB of RAM would be the minimum for a really solid gaming device. However, there are still many lower-end games you could play with eight.
Q: Is a Core i5 good for gaming?
While some Core i5 systems can work quite well for gaming, these will mostly be found in budget laptops. Higher-end laptops generally have Core i7 processors or higher.
Q: What screen size is best for a gaming laptop?
While bigger is better is often an easy logic with gaming laptops. When price is involved it’s not always the case. Finding an excellent screen for what you want is often more important than that screen’s size. If you have thousands of dollars to spend you may be able to find a 17-inch 4K gaming monitor, a super high color gamut, and an extreme refresh rate. However, the price tag will be so formidable that the laptop will be rare. Usually, the best thing to look for is a combination of features you need for what you want to do at your price point.
Final Thoughts on Gaming Laptops
With so many technical specifications, buying a gaming laptop can be confusing. The most important thing is to find the right synthesis of GPU, CPU, and screen quality for your particular needs. If you’re looking for a super fast eSports competition killer that also functions impeccably for high-end graphics-dense AAA games, the Alienware m17 R4 is a great pick. If you’ve got a budget in mind, the Acer Nitro 5 really does a lot for a little. If portability is your aim, the GPD Win Max is a pint-sized powerhouse.
Related: Add to your favorite player's fun with the best gifts for gamers.
This post was created by a non-news editorial team at Recurrent Media, Futurism’s owner. Futurism may receive a portion of sales on products linked within this post.