How to choose a gaming laptop

If you're unsure how to choose between different gaming laptops in 2020, this guide should help you out

Last edited on the 25th of September 2020
How to choose a gaming laptop

This article is sponsored by HP Omen.

PC gaming is becoming more and more synonymous with laptop gaming these days. This is thanks to developments over the past few years that have made laptops viable gaming options for reasonable prices. Back in the day, getting a gaming laptop would mean paying twice the price for half the performance of an equivalently priced gaming PC, but that’s no longer the case. Sure, there is still a slight premium for the portability a laptop affords you, but the difference isn’t astronomical like it used to be.

But there’s still a lot to consider when deciding on a gaming laptop to buy, just like there is for choosing a pre-built gaming PC. In fact, there’s often more to consider, since thermal throttling, power performance, and battery life all play a part, as do laptop-specific design metrics like keyboard quality and frame sturdiness. At the heart, though, it’s the same process as choosing a pre-built gaming PC.

The process that we’ve found works best for comparing gaming laptops is to start with the core specs: the CPU, GPU, RAM, storage, and screen. If one laptop is significantly better than another in any of these regards then this should probably sway your decision more than a slightly sturdier bezel or clickier keyboard - we’re talking about a /gaming/ laptop, after all, and what matters more than gaming performance for a gaming laptop?

We’re here to help guide you through this process. We’ll take you through some budget, mid-range, and high-end gaming laptop options to give you an idea of how to compare them and decide what’s best for you.

CHOOSING A BUDGET GAMING LAPTOP

At the budget end of the gaming laptop spectrum, you’re going to want something that will simply get you playing games at 60fps at 1080p resolution. You’re probably not going to be able to play the latest and greatest games on ultra settings at a steady 60fps at 1440p resolution, but you should at least be able to hit 60fps by dropping the settings down a little.

You should look for something with 4GB (but preferably 8GB) RAM, a CPU with four (or more) cores, an SSD for storage, and a GPU that can handle modern titles reasonably well. For a budget laptop, you should only expect a 60Hz or 75Hz 1080p screen. After looking at these criteria, you can compare other relevant metrics like laptop durability, battery life, screen quality, keyboard quality, and aesthetics.

Comparing two great budget gaming laptops

To give you an idea of how you might compare two budget gaming laptops, here are a couple of great ones we found. First, there’s the HP Pavilion 15t-dk100 Gaming Laptop, currently on sale for $779.99 ($20 off). By default, this comes with an Intel Core i5 10300H CPU, 8GB DDR4 RAM, a 256GB NVMe SSD, Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 GPU, and a 15-inch, 1080p IPS screen with a 60Hz refresh rate.

There’s also the HP Omen 15t-dh100 Laptop, currently on sale for $929.99 ($100 off). By default, this comes with an Intel Core i7 10750H CPU, 8GB DDR4 RAM, a 512GB NVMe SSD, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Ti GPU, and a 15-inch, 1080p IPS screen with a 60Hz refresh rate.

It should actually be pretty easy to decide between these two gaming laptops. The first is more firmly planted in the ‘budget’ range, whereas the second could be considered a mid-range laptop, but it’s certainly on the cusp given laptop prices in general. If you only want to spend less than $800 then the first is the only option - but if you can afford the extra $130, the second option is a much better choice.

The Omen laptop is much better than the $130 price increase should justify - you’re getting a bargain when compared to the first, in other words. The Omen’s CPU offers six cores and 12 threads with a turbo frequency of up to 5GHz. The Pavilion’s, on the other hand, only offers four cores and eight threads with a turbo frequency of up to 4.5GHz. 

The Omen’s GPU is also significantly better, allowing for 60fps on high settings at 1080p which the Pavailian’s would struggle to achieve. Add to this double the storage capacity and you have a laptop that performs much better. If you can afford the extra $130 the Omen 15T is a much better choice.

CHOOSING A MID-RANGE GAMING LAPTOP

Just like when choosing a mid-range pre-built gaming PC, there’s more variety when it comes to mid-range gaming laptops. Things are often better value for the price overall, and discovering the best value offering becomes much harder. You also have more options: you’re no longer restricted to budget 60Hz screens and an either/or choice between performance and build quality. It’s rougher territory.

For a mid-range gaming laptop, you should look for one with a CPU with six cores (or more), at least 8GB of RAM but preferably 16GB, an SSD with at least 250GB capacity, and a GPU that can easily play modern games at 60+fps on high settings at 1080p resolution. At the mid-range you can also start looking for laptops with better screens - ones that are 144Hz or 1440p resolution.

Comparing two great mid-range gaming laptops

Here are a couple of great mid-range gaming laptops we found. First, there’s the HP Omen 15-ek0019nr, currently $1,099.99 on the HP store. By default, this comes with an Intel Core i5 10300H CPU, Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 GPU, 8GB DDR4 RAM, a 256GB NVMe SSD, and a 15-inch, 144Hz, 1080p IPS screen.

There’s also the HP Omen 15t-dh100 currently on sale for $1,199.99 ($150 off). By default, this comes with an Intel Core i7-10750H CPU, Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti GPU, 16GB DDR4 memory, a 512GB SSD, and a 15-inch, 144HZ, 1080p IPS screen.

Deciding between these should also be pretty simple - this is the benefit of big discounts like the one currently applied to the Omen 15t-dh100. For only $100 more, you’re getting a much better CPU (more cores, threads, and higher clock speeds - the first uses a fairly entry-level CPU like some of the budget gaming laptops), double the RAM, double the storage, the same screen, and a GPU that’s only slightly worse than the 2060 - but at 1080p this slight difference between the RTX 2060 and GTX 1660 Ti shouldn’t be too noticeable. The second option is much better value. 

However, if you want the slightly better GPU for what will likely lead to a few extra frames in those few games that don’t need more than 8GB of RAM, then the first option is fine, providing you understand what you’re sacrificing to get the slight improvement in frame rates. The RTX 2060 also has ray tracing capability, whereas the 1660 Ti does not. The second laptop makes a much better all-round choice, but if you won’t be playing games that require a lot of memory, you might get slightly better frame rates from the first.

CHOOSING A HIGH-END GAMING LAPTOP

The more money you spend, the more you should consider different options for value. For instance, it might be worth looking at what you thought was a lower-end laptop and seeing if you can configure the specs to upgrade it for an extra cost. If you’re spending a lot of money on a gaming laptop, we’d recommend you go for something that’s very well-rounded. You don’t want something with the best CPU and GPU if it has an SSD with almost no capacity and a screen that can’t display all those frames in their best light. You want something with no compromises.

For a high-end gaming laptop, you should look for one with a CPU with six cores (or more), 16GB RAM (or more), an SSD with 500GB capacity (or more), and a GPU that can play pretty much any game on ultra settings at a high frame rate. You should also make sure the screen is at least 120Hz with an IPS panel at this price range.

Comparing two great high-end gaming laptops

Here are a couple of great high-end gaming laptops we found. First, there’s the HP Omen 15t-dh100, on sale at its default configuration for $1,199.99 ($150 off). You might remember this laptop from the previous mid-range selection - but this is where the customisable specs come in. You can upgrade this laptop for an extra $370 to give it an Intel Core i7 10750H CPU and Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 Super Max-Q GPU. It also comes with 16GB DDR4 RAM, a 512GB SSD, and, for an extra $40, a 15-inch, 300Hz, 1080p IPS screen. For these upgrades the total becomes $1,609.99.

There’s also the HP Omen 15-dh1099nr, currently on sale for $1,299.99 ($50 off). This comes with an Intel Core i7-10750H CPU, Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 Max-Q GPU, 8GB DDR4 RAM, a 256GB NVMe SSD, and a 15-inch, 144Hz, 1080p IPS screen.

So, we can see that having a second look at some lower-end laptops can be useful even when we want a high-end one, because many of them can be customised and upgraded. For the $310 price difference between the upgraded 15t-d100 and the stock 15-dh1099nr, you’re getting a 300Hz rather than 144Hz screen, twice the RAM, and twice the SSD storage space. 

It’s ultimately down to you whether you think this would be worth the $300 price hike, but our input would be that 8GB on the cheaper one isn’t really enough for a high-end gaming laptop (and the 15-dh1099nr doesn’t allow for customisation before purchase). 16GB DDR4 RAM should be a baseline standard for modern high-end gaming systems. Add to this more storage and a 300Hz screen and you have a much more well-rounded system. The CPU and RAM should also mean the laptop is speedy when performing tasks other than gaming. For this reason, the upgraded 15t-d100 is a better, and more well-rounded, choice.