PC gaming has been a big business for more than two decades but gaming laptops are a relatively new addition. The first laptop purpose-built for gaming was from Razer, released in 2010.
Since then, gaming laptops have come a long way and can give desktop PCs a run for their money. Let’s look at video gaming technologies in modern laptops and how to choose the right model for your needs.
What’s Different About a Gaming Laptop?
You might be wondering what’s different about gaming on laptops compared to any other applications you might use them for. After all, the whole point of a laptop is portability — why is gaming any different than other apps?
There are two significant differences on a gaming laptop. The first, and probably most important, is the graphics processing unit (GPU).
Modern games with high-resolution 3D graphics and virtual reality (VR) features need a powerful GPU to run at good frame rates. Typical laptops have less capable GPUs so they can’t keep up.
Gamers are usually less concerned about battery life as well. If you use a laptop for school or work, you may need it to run from battery power for most of the day but the powerful GPU and CPU in most gaming systems chew through the battery pretty fast.
You may only get two to three hours on a charge but that’s a reasonable trade-off for the extra horsepower.
Specifications to Consider When Choosing a Laptop
Buying a gaming laptop isn’t that much different than any other type of PC. There are several specifications that you’ll need to consider, including:
- Processor type (CPU)
- Graphics card
When you’re looking at true gaming laptops like the ones available from Lenovo.com, they’ll all have faster processors and graphics cards than general-purpose laptops but there are still different options to consider.
Gaming CPUs are available from both Intel and AMD. They each have several versions of their processors to choose from.
The Core “i” series chips are the best for gaming in Intel’s lineup. The Core i5, i7, and i9 are all fast CPUs that can run modern games very well.
The i5 and i7 are both six-core processors while the i9 ranges from 10 to 18 cores. The i7 and i9 both support Hyperthreading, which lets each core run two processes, effectively doubling the number of cores.
AMD’s Ryzen series of CPUs is also a very capable gaming CPU but it does use a bit more power. If battery life is a concern, the Intel chips are the better choice.
RAM is the memory where games and other applications get loaded when you’re running them. It also has to hold the operating system, any files you’re working on, and other data that’s needed while the computer is running.
The smallest amount of RAM you should consider in a gaming laptop is 8GB but 16GB or even 32GB will improve its performance. Buying more RAM also helps future-proof your laptop by giving you room to grow.
The graphics card, or GPU, is one of the most important components in a gaming laptop. NVidia and AMD are the two main brands of GPU in the gaming market, with NVidia being the most popular of the two.
One of the limitations of a laptop compared to a desktop PC is that it’s much less expandable. On a desktop PC, you can easily replace the GPU with a faster model in the future but the GPU on a laptop is built into the mainboard and can’t be swapped out.
The best bet is to avoid the lowest-end GPU if possible. Buying a mid-to-high-end GPU today means it will be able to keep up with new games for at least a couple of years.
There are two types of storage memory in gaming laptops – HDD (hard disk drive) and SSD (solid-state drive). SSD storage is much faster than HDD so your games will load faster and the computer will seem much faster overall.
The disadvantage of SSD storage compared to HDD storage is the cost. A comparably-sized SSD costs are considerably more than an HDD.
It’s not as common in laptops as on desktops because of the size limitations but some models do come with both types of storage. The HDD is larger so you have more storage to work with but the SSD gives you faster performance for important games and applications.
Types of Laptop Displays
Laptop displays are available in various sizes and resolutions. The most common sizes are 15-inch and 17-inch although you can find some models with even larger 18-inch screens and a few more compact gaming laptops with 14-inch displays.
Since ultra-portability isn’t necessarily the top priority for a gaming laptop, having a larger screen isn’t as much of a problem as it might be on a more general-purpose device.
Laptop screens are available with resolutions ranging from 1080p (1920×1080 pixels) to 4K (3840×2160 pixels). You’ll also see some models that land in between with a 2560×1440 pixel display.
Resolution isn’t the only factor to consider though. The refresh rate is also important since a higher refresh means games with a lot of on-screen action will run smoother.
Display Speed vs. Resolution
Basic gaming laptops will have a 1080p display running at 60Hz. If you move up to a better display, you’ll need to consider the refresh rate and the resolution.
For example, you might move up to a 144Hz or 240Hz display that still runs at 1080p or you might look at a 4K display that still runs at 60Hz.
Higher resolutions and higher refresh rates need a more powerful GPU. And the combination of both needs even more power. As a result, you’ll end up paying quite a bit more for a laptop with a better display because other components have to change to keep up.
The Keyboard is Important for Gaming
Having a good keyboard is critical for PC gaming. Even if you use a mouse, gaming controller, or joystick to play games, you’ll still need to use the keyboard for some controls.
There are a few important factors in a good gaming keyboard:
- Key travel (how far you can press a key) and actuation (how much force is needed to press it)
- Macro keys for setting up one-touch shortcuts in your games
- Anti-ghosting and n-key rollover to ensure the keyboard doesn’t miss any of your keystrokes
You can always connect an external gaming keyboard to your laptop to get these features but since the whole point of a laptop is portability, you’ll be happier if the built-in keyboard supports them.
External Video Gaming Technologies for Your Laptop
While laptops are limited in how far you can expand them internally, you do have some options for external expansion. This defeats the purpose of having a portable computer to some degree but it can be a good way to add new technologies as your laptop ages.
We mentioned earlier that the GPU in a gaming laptop can’t be swapped out. That’s true but you can work around this limitation by connecting an external GPU (eGPU) with a newer graphics card.
These devices are external boxes that have one or more expansion slots, similar to the slots you would have on a desktop PC. You can connect standard desktop graphics cards to them and plug the eGPU into your laptop.
These devices connect through a Thunderbolt 3 port on the laptop so if this is something you want to be able to do in the future, make sure the laptop you buy has the right types of ports.
Keyboard and Mouse
A gaming laptop will have its own keyboard and pointing device, usually a trackpad, but you can also connect external devices if you want to use a full-size keyboard or a standard gaming mouse.
These devices connect with either a USB cable or through the Bluetooth wireless protocol. All modern gaming laptops should have both so you can use any type of keyboard and mouse you prefer.
You may also want to use an external monitor with your laptop to get a larger display. Combined with a keyboard and mouse, this lets you use a gaming laptop as a desktop PC when you’re at your desk. If you want to take it with you, just disconnect the external devices and pack it up.
Most laptops will have either an HDMI connection or a DisplayPort connection. They’re both digital connections so the quality isn’t any different but there are a few differences between the two, the biggest of which is the connection.
You’ll need to match the connection to the type of monitor you’re going to connect.
Gaming on Laptops Can Equal a Desktop PC
Many video gaming technologies that started on the desktop are available in today’s laptops. And most of the features that you can’t get built-in can be added separately.
Don’t feel like you’re stuck buying a desktop if you want to play the latest games. A good gaming laptop works just as well but lets you pack it up to play anywhere the mood strikes.
Be sure to check out our Computer and Gaming Tips categories for more interesting posts about PC gaming.