For gamers on a tight budget, the trick to finding the right gaming laptop is getting enough performance to play 3D games without sacrificing too much in other areas like the display and overall build quality -- while also avoiding older models on sale with outdated or soon-to-be-outdated parts. Here's our expert advice on what to consider to get the most gaming laptop for your money.
The search for an affordable gaming laptop for most people starts with price. The good news is you can find a perfectly serviceable gaming laptop with modern components capable of playing today's games for roughly $1,000. And sometimes less than that if you find a model on sale. Dell, HP, Lenovo and other manufacturers are constantly rotating discounts, so you can lock in a great deal if you time it right.
If your budget allows you to spend more than $1,000, you'll find models with more powerful components and brighter and faster displays along other bonuses like per-key RGB lighting and thinner designs.
While MacBooks running Apple's MacOS are popular for home, work and school use, Microsoft Windows is the choice for gaming laptops, especially budget gaming laptops. You can run some games on higher-end MacBook Pros, but they're expensive compared with cheap, Windows-based gaming laptops.
If you are on a tight budget, you could consider a Chromebook. ChromeOS is a different experience than Windows -- more streamlined and easier to use. But limited in that basically everything runs through the Chrome browser. Still, there are some Chromebooks for gamers.
Most gaming laptops feature either a 15-inch or 16-inch screen, although you'll see some smaller 14-inch models as well as a few 17- and even 18-inch behemoths. Newer 16-inch models with taller 16:10 aspect ratios are starting to replace 15.6-inch models with a more traditional 16:9 widescreen ratio, and we generally favor the boxier 16-inch models. You'll likely do most of your gaming at a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution, which has a 16:9 ratio, but the more vertical space afforded with a 16:10 display makes the laptop more useful outside of gaming when you are scrolling through web pages and long documents.
Another important display spec for gamers is refresh rate -- the number time times per second a display refreshes its image. Most gaming laptops, even cheap ones, have displays with variable refresh rates that can sync to the frames per second of a game to prevent artifacts like tearing (where it looks like parts of different screens are mixed together) and stutter (where the screen updates at perceptibly irregular intervals).
All the major companies have bumped their flagship 1080p configurations to 360Hz, but for many gamers, they're not essential: 240Hz max should be fine for those few times you can get frame rates above 240fps. On cheaper gaming laptops, you'll generally see 120Hz, 144Hz and 165Hz refresh rates, which should suffice if you have a lower-end GPU that won't push frames rates past 165 fps.
Even if you don't plan on playing games at resolutions higher than 1080p, we suggest getting the highest resolution you can afford. Because on a larger 15 or 16-inch laptop display, text and the edges of images can look fuzzy on a 1080p -- or a 1,920x1,200-pixel resolution on laptops with a 16:10 aspect ratio. A Quad HD (QHD) resolution of 2,560×1,440 pixels (2,560×1,600 on a 16:10 display) will result in crisper text and images, and you can always choose to play games at a resolution lower than the maximum.
The processor, aka the CPU, is the brains of a laptop. Intel and AMD are the main CPU makers for Windows laptops. Both offer a staggering selection of mobile processors. Making things trickier, both manufacturers have chips designed for different laptop styles, like power-saving chips for ultraportables or faster processors for gaming laptops. Their naming conventions will let you know what type is used. You can head to Intel's or AMD's sites for explanations so you get the performance you want. Generally speaking, though, the faster the processor speed and the more cores it has, the better the performance will be.
The graphics processor, or GPU, handles all the work of driving the screen and generating what gets displayed, as well as speeding up a lot of graphics-related (and increasingly, AI-related) operations. For Windows laptops, there are two types of GPUs: integrated (iGPU) or discrete (dGPU). As the names imply, an iGPU is part of the CPU package, while a dGPU is a separate chip with dedicated memory (VRAM) that it communicates with directly, making it faster than sharing memory with the CPU. All gaming laptops will feature a dGPU from either Nvidia or AMD. Nvidia is the more popular of the two. For budget gaming laptops, you'll see many models with the entry-level RTX 4050 GPU or step-up RTX 4060 GPU as well as older models with previous-generation RTX 3050 or 3060 GPUs.
For memory, we highly recommend 16GB of RAM, with 8GB being the absolute bare minimum. RAM is where the operating system stores all the data for currently running applications, and it can fill up fast. After that, it starts swapping between RAM and SSD, which is slower. Also, many laptops now have the memory soldered onto the motherboard. Most manufacturers disclose this, but if the RAM type is LPDDR, assume it's soldered and can't be upgraded.
Some PC makers will solder memory on, however, and also leave an empty internal slot for adding a stick of RAM. You may need to contact the laptop manufacturer or find the laptop's full specs online to confirm. And check the web for user experiences, because the slot may still be hard to get to, it may require nonstandard or hard-to-get memory or other pitfalls, including voiding the warranty.
You'll still find cheaper hard drives in budget laptops and larger hard drives in gaming laptops, but faster solid-state drives have all but replaced hard drives in laptops. They can make a big difference in performance. For a gaming laptops, we don't recommend going with less than a 512GB SSD unless you really like uninstalling games every time you want to play a new game.