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What to look for in a cheap gaming laptop

Invest in the GPU, CPU, display or storage? The trick is knowing exactly what you want to get out of it.

HP Pavilion Gaming 15-dk0045cl

HP's solid Pavilion Gaming 15 starts under $800. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

High-end gaming laptops like the Alienware Area-51m and Acer Predator Helios 700 are fun to test because of their amazing performance and crazy designs and features. But when it comes down to it, they're completely impractical for my laptop needs, and I'm not about to spend upwards of $4,000 when I can get all the graphics performance I need in a laptop for less than $1,000

Going with a more entry-level gaming laptop does mean you won't get the best of the best, and I don't mean just in components. On the flip side, you can get solid gaming performance for less than a grand if you choose your configuration carefully and improve your experience with an external display, keyboard, mouse and headphones or speakers when you don't need to be mobile. 

To help you make the right choices before you buy, CNET editors Dan Ackerman, Lori Grunin and I have listed below what's most important to consider in the category. But, if you'd rather just start shopping, here's our list of the best cheap gaming laptops under $1,000

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Acer's Nitro 5 delivers an immersive gaming experience with its 17.3-inch display. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Josh's advice

You'll want a decent graphics card and processor that can handle demanding titles now and at least for a year or two into the future. Unlike memory and storage, these two components can't be upgraded later. If you're on a strict budget under $800, go with an older Nvidia Geforce GTX 1050 Ti or newer GTX 1650 graphics card, which will give you good gaming performance on newer graphics-intensive games at medium or high settings. If you can afford to spend closer to $1,000 or even a little more, you'll be better off, in the long run, getting a laptop with an older Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 with 6GB of memory or newer 1660 Ti. 

Beyond the graphics chip, look for: 

  • Eighth- or ninth-gen Intel Core i5 or i7 CPU 
  • At least 8GB of memory
  • At least a 256GB solid-state drive, a combo of a 128GB SSD and hard drive or a large solid-state hybrid drive

Most if not all gaming laptops let you easily expand or upgrade your memory and storage, so again, it's best to put your cash into the GPU and processor. That said, if you skimp on storage, you should probably expect to buy a higher-capacity drive almost immediately. With most modern games eating 50GB or more of space, a small primary drive will mean a lot of uninstalling and reinstalling games if you like to jump between titles. 

Most of your money is going toward components, so the other parts -- the display, keyboard and trackpad and build quality -- are going to be OK, but not fantastic. This is why I lean toward models like the Dell G5 15, which has its power input and other ports on the rear for a cleaner setup when connected to external peripherals. It also has a decent battery life, which is something you shouldn't expect on a gaming laptop at any price. 

Dell G3 3590

Dell's G3 is a good pick if you need a laptop for work and play on a budget. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Dan's advice

First, think about what you're willing to cut to get a gaming laptop at a budget price. The keyboard and touchpad aren't going to be great no matter what, so start there. You're going to be using a mouse or game controller for most gaming anyway. Multicolored keyboard backlights? I'd skip that even on high-end gaming laptops if I could. But, some keyboard lighting is helpful for WASD gaming in the dark. 

Second, graphics chip trumps processor, at least to a point. I remember years ago, the now-dead Gateway brand had a series of FX gaming laptops that took a chance and paired high-end (for the time) Nvidia GPUs with low/midrange CPUs to keep prices down, and for the most part, the experiment worked. Even today, you'll see an Nvidia 1650 GPU or better with a mainstream Core i5. It's not ideal for a years-long investment as a gaming-plus-everything-else computer, but for pure gaming it's fine. 

Finally, I've been burned a few times by seeing a great price and decent specs on a budget gaming laptop, only to be totally let down by the display. At least today you'll get at least a standard 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution, but I've seen some pretty dim, dull and lifeless screens that take you out of the zone every time. Seeing a screen in person is one way to get a gut check on that, but barring that, we always pay special attention to that in our budget gaming laptop reviews so you'll know what to expect. 

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The Legion Y545 from Lenovo has a responsive touchpad, but you really shouldn't game with it. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Lori's advice

You need to rank your priorities. Not my priorities, because I guarantee they're different than yours. So I recommend first figuring out what you value most, using some rough guidelines.

Budget, of course, is important as well as the need to decide which games you plan to play the most, because the games ultimately determine how to make trade-offs. Fortnite? You really don't require a strong GPU, so that's a great place to save money. AAA game fan? You're better off with a big, ugly model that has the most powerful GPU and (at a minimum) quad-core CPU you can afford.  

Keep in mind that some aspects are more sensible to sacrifice than others. For instance, you can always get a cheap keyboard and mouse if the ones in the laptop suck. You can always subsequently buy a cheap monitor if the laptop's dim, low-contrast screen starts to drive you crazy. If the 256GB drive feels cramped, as it inevitably will, there's always external storage. (But your primary drive should always be an SSD if you can afford it.)

The two things you won't be able to change: processor and graphics chip. You don't really need more than a quad-core processor unless you're worried about future-proofing, in which case a six-core might be a wise option, but dual-core probably isn't a great idea. As for the brand, AMD's CPUs prior to the Ryzen 3000 series are OK, especially if they're in a model that's significantly less expensive than one with the Intel equivalent. But the new Ryzen 4000 series in forthcoming laptops looks like it's turning out to perform better than Intel's latest similarly priced competitors; we'll have to see how the prices ultimately fall, though.

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The $650 Acer Aspire 5 has Nvidia's MX250 discrete GPU, which is good enough for 1366x768-resolution gaming at medium quality settings. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

For mobile graphics, unless your games have really non-demanding requirements, avoid integrated-only and Nvidia's MX line (which are barely a step up). Nvidia's GeForce chips still outperform AMD's Radeon line and, if you can afford it, the GeForce 1660 Ti is notably better than the GTX 1650 and to some extent, the 1660. You definitely want at least 2GB of video memory on the card.

And if you do care about the screen quality, one that uses IPS screen technology looks a lot better than one that uses TN; however, if you need really good response time for games with a lot of fast-moving action, TN is probably a better choice than a cheap IPS.

For more budget gaming suggestions, see our favorite gaming laptops under $1,000, or if you feel like going high-end, see our top  high-end gaming desktop picks

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