By Kimber Streams, TheWirecutter.com. The Wirecutter is a tech site that spends hundreds of hours testing gear to find the best of the best. To support The Wirecutter's in-depth research, consider checking out their longer piece on Best Laptops and buying through their site.)
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Gaming laptops are the perfect solution for a very specific group of people—they're ideal for serious gamers who need a rig that can play demanding games while remaining somewhat portable for frequent travel or LAN parties. They aren't slim battery life champions, and building a desktop will always get you more raw gaming power for less money, so gaming laptops aren't the most practical solution for all gamers.
That said, a great gaming laptop can play the latest games on high to ultra settings with a good 1080p screen, keyboard, and cooling system. Less than $2000 can get you a machine that can play all this year's games on High settings, and even a few on Ultra.
At $1800 (~£1130), the Asus G750JS-DS71 is our favorite gaming laptop on the market. The JS-DS71 configuration has an Nvidia GeForce GTX 870M graphics card, a quad-core Intel Core i7-4700HQ processor, and 16GB of RAM, along with a 256GB solid state drive and a 1TB hard drive to store tons of games. Even better, it doesn't get magma hot like some other gaming laptops thanks to a great cooling system.
If you're looking for a gaming laptop with that will be future-proof for several years, and can play all this year's games perfectly on Ultra, you'll have to go for something more expensive: $2000 plus (or ~£2000). Cheaper gaming laptops won't be as future-proof, and will also have lower build quality, but the cost is more reasonable—around $1300.
I came to the conclusion that the Asus G750JS is the best gaming laptop over the course of 90 hours of research and testing for The Wirecutter. I researched to find the an ideal configuration balancing price and gaming power. I scoured manufacturer's websites to create a list of all the gaming laptops currently for sale, and I read reviews by trusted reviewers and outlets, eliminating any laptops with poor heat management or other serious problems. Then I did some testing of my own by benchmarking the Asus and the Alienware 17 using PCMark and 3DMark and playing a variety of games, some graphically demanding and some not.
The Asus G750JS-DS71 is our favorite laptop right now because it combines powerful specs and good build quality without an outrageous price tag. Its Nvidia GeForce GTX 870M graphics card isn't the most powerful, but it is way cheaper than the top-of-the-line GTX 880M, will play nearly every game on High settings and quite a few on Ultra, and has the biggest performance jump over last year's 770M. The G750JS' Intel Core i7-4700HQ processor and 16GB of RAM are powerful enough to avoid bottlenecking the GPU without making you pay extra for unnecessary power.
CPU: 4th gen quad-core Intel i7-4700HQ (2.4GHz)
GPU: GeForce GTX 860M (2GB GDDR5)
RAM: 16GB DDR3
Display: 17.3-inch LCD (1920x1080)
Storage: 256GB SSD, 1TB 7200 RPM HDD
Optical Drive: DVDRW
Networking: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0, Gigabit Ethernet
Battery: 8-cell, 89 Whr
Connectivity: 2-in-1 media card reader, USB 3.0 (x4), HDMI 1.4, Mini-DisplayPort
OS: Windows 8.1 64-bit
Weight: 9.9 lbs (4.5 kg)
Like most gaming laptops nowadays, the Asus ROG G750JS has a matte, 1920 x 1080 TN LCD screen, which is okay, but not as great as an IPS display. When viewed straight on, colors are bright and blacks are deep, but colors wash out when the screen is tilted up and down or side to side. My biggest complaint is that the screen's matte coating is a little too thick, which creates a visible textured grid on the surface of the panel.
The G750JS's keyboard is deep and responsive. Though most gamers will use a mouse for gaming, the trackpad works well with Windows 8 gestures and has dedicated left and right click buttons that offer satisfying feedback without being too stubborn to press.
Asus' Republic of Gamers laptops have always been exceptional at managing heat, and the G750JS keeps its components and surfaces cool without its fans ramping up to distracting volumes. Gaming laptops that don't manage heat properly risk slowing down graphics performance or even damaging the laptop. In the course of my research and testing for The Wirecutter I eliminated a lot of notebooks that got way too hot during gaming.
The Asus ROG G750 has surprisingly good sound for a laptop thanks to a subwoofer on the underside of the chassis. It's a bit light on base, but still sounds good at high volumes. The underside also provides easy access to upgrades, like replacing one of the drives in the drive bay or adding more RAM.
One last note about the laptop: it's a beast and weighs nearly 10 pounds. That's common for 17-inch gaming laptops, and so is its poor battery life. It won't last very long away from an outlet, but Notebookcheck found that it had better battery life than most, lasting 5.5 hours on their Wi-Fi test and ten hours in an idle test.
Note to UK readers: model numbers vary slightly between US and UK, and the Asus G750JS-T4068H on Amazon is the closest configuration. For £1130, it includes a Blu-ray reader and a 1.5TB hard drive, but no SSD. The bottom of the laptop provides easy access to two drive bays, and if you buy this configuration, we recommend upgrading it with a 9.5mm SSD of your own.
The Alienware 17 is an even better gaming laptop than the Asus...if you have the money to pay for it. The Alienware 17 can cost more than $4600 (~£2,550)if you max out all the specs. You shouldn't pay extra for a 3D display or more RAM, but the Nvidia GeForce GTX 880M GPU option and Intel Core i7-4910MW processor will future-proof the laptop and allow you to play anything on Ultra.
CPU: 4th gen quad-core Intel i7-4710MQ (2.4GHz)
GPU: GeForce GTX 880M (8GB GDDR5)
RAM: 16GB DDR3 (1600MHz)
Display: 17.3-inch WLED (1920x1080)
Storage: 1TB 5400 RPM HDD, 80GB SSD
Optical Drive: DVDRW
Networking: 802.11ac 2x2, Bluetooth 4.0, Gigabit Ethernet
Battery: 8-cell, 86 Whr
Connectivity: 7-in-1 media card reader, USB 3.0 (x3), HDMI 1.4 (1.3 input), Mini-DisplayPort
OS: Windows 8.1 64-bit
Weight: 9.15 lbs (4.15 kg)
The $2200 configuration on Amazon includes the 880M, 16GB of RAM, an Intel i7-4710MQ, and pairs an 80GB SSD with a 1TB HDD. That's a great laptop, but we recommend buying from Dell's website if you want to upgrade to the faster i7-4910MW or add a larger SSD.
Compared to the Asus ROG G750JS, the Alienware 17 has a better screen, keyboard, and speakers. The Alienware's screen is also a matte TN panel with a blueish tint, but it doesn't have the same textured matte coating I disliked on the Asus. The keyboard is more comfortable to type on, and its speakers get much louder.
If you're looking for the most tricked out gaming laptop and don't mind paying a lot for it, the Alienware 17 is the best one there is right now. My biggest complaint: w hile testing for The Wirecutter, which you can read more about here, its fans are much louder than the Asus.
Note to UK readers: You can buy the Alienware 17 directly from Dell. We recommend starting with their mid-range model and adding an SSD and upgrading to the Nvidia 880M, for a total of £2,104.
This section by Wesley Fenlon
Kimber spent months researching and testing high-end gaming laptops, but she hasn't tackled budget gaming laptops yet. Based on my own research, the best budget gaming laptop is the MSI GE60 Apache . For a starting price of $1250 (~£1150), the GE60 is more than $500 cheaper than our favorite. $1250 still isn't exactly cheap, but it's the cheapest gaming laptop I feel confident recommending because it doesn't sacrifice gaming performance: its powerful Nvidia GTX 860M GPU can handle most demanding 2013-2014 games at 1080p, 60fps, and high settings.
If you just want a cheap laptop that can play some games, like simple 2D indie platformers or older 3D games like Half-Life 2, you aren't in the market for a dedicated gaming laptop. You should buy an Ultrabook or a budget laptop like The Wirecutter's recommended Best Budget Laptop . But those laptops are going to use integrated graphics, or extremely low-end dedicated mobile graphics, so they won't be able to play most of today's games at stable framerates.
The MSI GE60 Apache uses an Intel Core i7-4700HQ, a quad-core 2.4GHz Haswell processor—the exact same CPU found in our favorite $1800 gaming laptop. The Apache's Nvidia GTX 860M with 2GB of GDDR5 RAM is only a single step down from the 870M graphics in our main recommendation. It ships with a 15.6-inch matte 1080p screen, a 1TB HDD, and 8GB of DDR3-1600 RAM.
The graphics card is the critical component in any gaming laptop, and the 860M is a big part of why I recommend this laptop. On Notebookcheck , the GTX 860M ranks 13th out of all the single-GPU mobile graphics cards available as of September 2014. The 870M in our favorite laptop ranks 7th, while Nvidia's new top-of-the-line (and very expensive) 880M ranks 1st.
Budget gaming laptops are a tough category, since they demand powerful performance at a low price. They're also not reviewed as frequently as more expensive, flashier gaming laptops, so good data is hard to come by. To narrow the field, I talked to my colleague Jimmy Thang, who reviews laptops at Maximum PC . He recommended Lenovo and MSI laptops for the quality of their budget-range gaming lines. From there, I checked out the gaming laptops both companies make and focused on the cheap entries in the MSI GE series and Lenovo Y Series. The best budget options were the MSI GE60 and Lenovo Y50, which both use the same CPUs and Nvidia 860M.
Anandtech's detailed review of the MSI GE60 points out the laptop's strengths: its CPU, GPU, and 1080p Samsung PLS display, which offers superior viewing angles to cheaper TN screens. Here's an except from Anandtech:
“It's not the fastest or flashiest laptop around, and it's not the cheapest either, but it gets most of the important areas right when it comes to building a good gaming notebook.
Perhaps most importantly, the performance is good, the keyboard and touchpad work well, and the display also looks nice. If you want a system you could take to a LAN party or a gaming session at a friend's house/apartment, the MSI GE60 could certainly fill that need. What's more, you get a good level of performance without breaking the bank. The GTX 860M is really the star of the show here, and NVIDIA's Maxwell provides a good boost in performance over the previous generation GTX 760M while adding a few new features in the process, but let's not forget Intel's Haswell i7-4700HQ, which is fast enough for other tasks as well.”
The review called the Lenovo Y50 the most compelling alternative. The Y50's greatest strength is that it's cheaper; it costs only $1100 in its base configuration. That price includes a 1080p screen, 8GB of PC3-12800 DDR3 RAM, and a 500GB 5400 RPM hard drive with a hybrid 8GB SSD. Despite the similar on-paper specs, the Y50 has some drawbacks.
From the benchmarks I've seen of various drives with hybrid SSD storage, the performance boost is unfortunately negligible in gaming and regular use. Notebookcheck's review states that the “5400 RPM drive is rather slow with a transfer rate of just 79.9 MB/sec according to HD Tune. Faster 7200 RPM drives...can have transfer rates well above 90 MB/sec in the same benchmark. In fact, we noticed plenty of texture pop-in in some titles like Guild Wars 2 during benchmarking that would not normally occur. Crystal Disk Mark scores also show generally lower numbers across the board when compared to a more standard 7200 RPM HDD.”
CPU: 4th gen quad-core Intel Core i7-4700HQ (2.4GHz)
GPU: GeForce GTX 860M (2GB GDDR5)
RAM: 8GB DDR3 (1600MHz)
Display: 15.6" Matte PLS (1920x1080)
Storage: 1TB 5400 RPM HDD (plus second drive bay)
Optical Drive: DVDRW
Networking: 802.11ac 1x1, Bluetooth 4.0, Gigabit Ethernet
Battery: 6-cell, 49 Whr
Connectivity: SD flash reader, USB 3.0 (x4), USB 2.0 (x1), HDMI, VGA
OS: Windows 8.1 64-bit
Weight: 5.72 lbs (2.6 kg)
Laptop Mag's review also criticized the HDD performance. Lenovo doesn't offer customization options while buying online, and buying a Y50 model that includes a full SSD costs several hundred dollars more. The biggest criticism of the Y50 is its screen, which is about 220 nits—dimmer than average. Both Notebookcheck wrote that it was dimmer than average, had poor contrast, and only managed about 50% of the sRGB color spectrum.
By contrast, Anandtech noted that the MSI GE60's screen hits about 370 nits, and manages about 72% of the sRGB spectrum. It also has better viewing angles than the Y50's LCD.
Of course, the MSI GE60 isn't perfect. Anandtech takes issues with the build quality of its lid, calling it “very flexible—perhaps even bordering in flimsy.” The review also states that the battery only lasts 4.5 hours for light use, which is about the same results Notebookcheck got with a web browsing test on the Lenovo Y50. Lower build quality and shorter battery life are expected compromises for budget gaming laptops.
The MSI GE60 also has a slow 5400 RPM 1TB hard drive, but it has a secondary hard drive bay, which can be outfitted with a real SSD for as little as $70. I consider it an essential upgrade. That pushes the price of the GE60 closer to $1350, but that's still much cheaper than our $1800 favorite. You can buy the MSI GE60 from Newegg for $1250 and add your own SSD, or get a custom build from PowerNotebooks . I recommend adding a 120GB Samsung EVO mSATA drive for $100.
Note to UK readers: You can buy a similar configuration of the MSI GE60 with a 129GB SSD for £1156 on Amazon .
ASUS, who make our favorite laptop, sell a cheaper model, the ASUS ROG G750JM-DS71 , starting at $1250 on Amazon (down from a retail price of $1400). Spec-wise, it's extremely competitive—the same CPU and GTX 860M GPU, 12GB of DDR3-1600 RAM, and a 1080p screen (with a better RGB color space than the MSI GE60, but lower brightness and contrast). But it's also a 17.3-inch laptop that weighs 10 pounds, which is huge and heavy for a budget laptop. You also can't buy a budget configuration of the G750JM with an SSD online—it comes with a 1TB 5400 RPM hard drive.
If you're comfortable with making that replacement yourself, and prefer a 17-inch laptop over a 15-inch laptop, the ASUS ROG G750JM-DS71 is a strong choice compared to the MSI GE60, with similar specs, more RAM, and longer battery life. Make sure to buy a laptop SSD to pair with the slow hard drive.
I researched and ruled out other Lenovo and MSI competitors, like the Lenovo Y510p, which is also $1100 and has two GPUs in SLI. But the dual Nvidia 755Ms are actually slower than a single 860M, and it has an older processor. The MSI GP70 is a cheap $900, but its Nvidia 840M is far, far weaker than the 860M.
I also looked at Toshiba's Qosimo laptops, which are comparable in specs. The 17-inch Toshiba Qosmio X70-AST3G23 comes with an i7-4700MQ CPU, 16GB of memory, and a 3GB GeForce GTX 770M. The 770M is a fast card, and slightly outperforms the 860M in some cases, but it's a year older. I recommend the 860M, however: as Notebookcheck explains, “Although the GTX 860M has much less memory bandwidth and computing power, it can compete with (or sometimes even beat) the old Kepler-based GeForce GTX 770M while drawing significantly less power.” The 860M offers equivalent performance while running cooler and sapping less battery life. The Qosmio also ships with a 5400 RPM 1TB HDD with a hybrid 8GB SATA SSD. Toshiba doesn't offer the option to customize its laptops when buying online, which would allow us to include a build with a faster SSD.
Samsung's gaming laptop, the ATIV Book 8, is comparable on price at $1270, but runs a much weaker Radeon HD 8770M GPU.
For $1250, or about $1350 with a fast SSD added in, the MSI GE60 is a powerful enough gaming laptop to play modern games on high settings, with a better screen than the competition from Lenovo and ASUS. If you only want to play old games, or very simple games, you can buy a cheaper laptop built for portability rather than gaming. But if you want to get a true, dedicated gaming laptop, the MSI GE60 is the best balance of power and price you're going to find on a smaller budget.
If you have more to spend, though, get the Asus G750JS-DS71 —it'll give you more gaming power, last longer, and it's an all-around better-built machine.