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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.

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

Sarah Tew/CNET

High-end gaming laptops like the Alienware m17 R4 and Razer Blade 17 are fun to test because of their amazing performance and ground-breaking 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 upward 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 reliable 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. Keep in mind, though, that the current chip shortage means some models are in short supply and is driving up prices, too. Also, 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 continues to be one of the best values in gaming laptops.

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 1650, 1650 Ti or 1660 Ti (if you can find it), which will give you good gaming performance on newer graphics-intensive games at medium or high settings. Nvidia's GeForce RTX 3050 might sound better in a higher-number-equals-better-performance way, but that's not the case. The RTX 3050 Ti, on the other hand, is worth seeking out at or around $1,000. 

Beyond the graphics chip, look for: 

  • AMD Ryzen 4000- or 5000- series or 10th- or 11th-gen Intel Core i5 or i7 CPU 
  • At least 8GB of memory
  • At least a 512GB solid-state drive or a combo of a 256GB SSD and hard 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 G15, 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. 

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 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 and some even have a 120Hz or faster refresh rate, 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 isn't a good idea. If you play simulations, those are especially CPU intensive, so you probably want to try to divvy up your dollars more in that direction.

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

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 latest Ryzen 5000 series performs better than Intel's latest similarly priced competitors.

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). Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending upon your point of view, Nvidia's GeForce chips and AMD's Radeon line both tend to be better on some games than others, so it's hard to say "this one's the best option." 

If you go AMD, it should really be a current generation RX6000-series CPU; they perform notably better than previous generations. If it's the RX5000 series, then Nvidia is a better choice. 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, but 4GB is frequently essential for high-quality 1080p on all but the most demanding games.