The best gaming laptops

Chris Angelini Jan 20, 2016
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Gaming laptops finally have the power to deliver great gaming experiences, and recent hardware advances like Intel's Skylake and Nvidia's GTX 980 (a desktop GPU now capable of running on notebooks) make this a good time to buy. But the endless variety of gaming laptop models makes shopping tough. We've spent months researching and testing them to sort out the best. Here they are.

Update 1/20/2016: We've completely overhauled our best gaming laptops guide with three new models for 2016. Our new favorite is the descendant of last year's best gaming laptop.

The best gaming laptop

Asus ROG G752VT-DH72

AT A GLANCE

  • Well-balanced combination of hardware
  • G-Sync IPS display
  • Impressive price tag
  • Lackluster audio

If you’re accustomed to seeing the most expensive product finishing in first place, our top choice is going to be a shocker. Asus’ G752VT-DH72 isn’t the quickest notebook in our round-up. Frankly, it’s not even the best-built. But it demonstrates a genius in component balance that’d be easy to overlook, if not for the seven other machines we’re comparing it to.

Let’s start with that GeForce GTX 970M under the G752VT-DH72’s hood. Though obviously not the fastest discrete module available, Asus connects it to a 17.3” IPS panel with G-Sync support and a 75 Hz refresh rate. So, even when the GPU can’t maintain 75 FPS, synchronization in the display subsystem keeps the output smooth. Once you spend time in front of G-Sync (or FreeSync), it’s hard not to notice the artifacts associated with turning v-sync on or off. Particularly at 1920x1080, the technology lets you get away with a less powerful graphics module, ultimately saving some money.

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Specs

CPU: Core i7-6700HQ (2.6GHz Base)
GPU:
GeForce GTX 970M 3GB
RAM:
16GB DDR4-2133
Display:
17.3” IPS LCD with 75Hz refresh and G-Sync (1920x1080)
Storage:
128GB NVMe SSD, 1TB 7200RPM HDD
Optical Drive:
DL DVD±RW
Battery:
66Wh
Connectivity:
mic in, S/PDIF/headphone out, line out, 4x USB 3.0, 1x USB 3.1 Type C, 1x mini-DP, 1x HDMI, 1x RJ45, SD card
OS:
Windows 10 Home 64-bit
Weight:
4.00kg

The rest of the platform falls into place nicely. Intel’s Core i7-6700HQ operates at a modest 2.6 GHz and only includes 6MB of shared L3 cache. But the quad-core CPU is still a screamer (even if we would have preferred the -6820HQ, which Intel claims is similarly-priced). Sixteen gigabytes of DDR4-2133 memory split across two SO-DIMM slots are fairly standard. If you find yourself needing more, a panel on the chassis’ undercarriage pops off to reveal a pair of vacant slots.

Asus smartly built a tiered storage subsystem consisting of Samsung’s 128GB PM951 and a 1TB HGST Travelstar. The SSD, equipped with triple-level-cell NAND, is nowhere near as fast as the flagship SM951. However, it does communicate over a four-lane PCIe link using NVMe. Asus offers another configuration with a 256GB SSD and 24GB of RAM for an extra $200, but enthusiasts looking for more capacity can manually upgrade the 128GB version too (the aforementioned panel also reveals an empty M.2 2280 slot).

We certainly get what Asus is trying to do here. By keeping the G752VT-DH72’s SSD small, yet functional, and its graphics powerful, but not overkill, the company can sell this thing for about $1,650. Six other systems in our round-up cost more. Plugged into the wall, G-Sync keeps the action enjoyable. Away from it, Nvidia’s Battery Boost technology throttles you back to 30 FPS by default. Just don’t expect a ton of game time on the road. Our loop of Unigine Valley at 1920x1080 only lasted 43 minutes before the G752VT-DH72 shut itself off, landing in last place.

A somewhat meager battery is but one compromise you make in going the budget route. Asus hasn’t done much to improve its audio over the last Republic of Gamers notebook we reviewed, either. High frequencies lack crispness, while lows sound muddled. Tweaking around in the Sonic Studio II app helps, but you’re going to want a good headset.

I’m also not a fan of the updated chassis; it employs more angles, less soft-touch material, and a brushed silver/copper color scheme. Fortunately, none of the surfaces attract finger oils. The top panel does flex quite a bit, and our sample had noticeable gaps between the screen and bezel. There is a smoked plastic window across the undercarriage, which gives you a nice view of Asus’ cooling solution. However, it was already pretty scratched up on the unit we received.

Though several of the G752VT-DH72’s competitors serve up more peripheral connectivity, we didn’t feel like we were missing anything crucial. Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI, mini-DisplayPort 1.2, four USB 3.0 ports, one USB 3.1 Type C port with Thunderbolt 3 support, digital and analog audio I/O, an SD card reader, and a dual-layer DVD±R/RW drive cover the bases well. You also get a built-in Intel Dual-Band Wireless-AC 7265 adapter with Bluetooth 4.0, plus an integrated 1.2 megapixel webcam.

Naturally, gamers will want to use the G752VT-DH72 with their own mice. But the oversized trackpad suffices in productivity apps. Its right- and left-click buttons have just the right amount of travel and depress uniformly. We prefer this to buttons that are raised on one side. Asus’ keyboard is similarly executed well, though its red backlight doesn’t match the new silver/copper color scheme as well as the old black/red design. Function keys along the top make it easy to adjust backlight intensity, disable the trackpad, switch display outputs, or put the notebook to sleep.

Despite our smattering of critiques, the bottom line is that Asus’ G752VT-DH72 delivers smooth gaming performance at an impressive $1,650 price point. G-Sync technology, a GeForce GTX 970M, the SM951 SSD, and Intel’s Skylake architecture come together in a package that Goldilocks would call “just right.”

The best desktop replacement gaming laptop

MSI GT72S Dominator Pro G 29th Anniversary Edition

AT A GLANCE

  • Overclockable enthusiast platform
  • G-Sync IPS display
  • Plenty of peripheral connectivity
  • Degree of expandability
  • MSI's dragon motif highly subjective
  • SSDs in RAID 0 riskier than single drive

Given the efficiency of today’s CPUs and GPUs, it’s easy to build a gaming notebook capable of displacing high-end desktops. Alright, “easy” marginalizes the task a bit. But enterprising OEMs certainly fit gobs of performance into the power budget of a mobile platform. The bigger challenge is crafting a laptop that’s so comfortable to use, enthusiasts don’t mind kissing their desktop PCs goodbye. Of the systems in our round-up, MSI’s GT72S Dominator Pro G 29th Anniversary Edition comes closest to compelling us.

Make no mistake, the competition in this segment is stiff. Alienware sent in its 17 R3 with a 4K panel and Graphics Amplifier—an external housing that takes an add-in graphics card for unmatched performance. Sager shipped its P870DM sporting Intel’s desktop Core i7-6700K processor and a GeForce GTX 980 with 8GB of memory. MSI differentiates with stylish looks, solid audio, expandability, and a keyboard we wouldn’t mind using for extended gaming sessions, plus its own selection of high-end hardware.

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Specs

CPU: Core i7-6820HK (2.7GHz Base)
GPU:
GeForce GTX 980 8GB
RAM:
32GB DDR4-2133
Display:
17.3” IPS LCD with 75Hz refresh and G-Sync (1920x1080)
Storage:
2x128GB NVMe SSD, 1TB 7200RPM HDD
Optical Drive:
Blu-ray BD-RE
Battery:
83Wh
Connectivity:
mic in, headphone out, line in, line out, 6x USB 3.0, 1x USB 3.1 Type C, 1x mini-DP, 1x HDMI, 1x RJ45, SD card
OS:
Windows 10 Home 64-bit
Weight:
3.90kg

Like Alienware, MSI leans on Intel’s Core i7-6820HK, the only Skylake-H processor with an unlocked multiplier. The notebook’s Shift technology is supposed to facilitate dynamic overclocking from within Windows, but our tests didn’t reveal any difference between the standard Comfort mode and Sport. Fortunately, you do get access to clock rate and voltage controls through the UEFI. Five profile slots store favorite configurations for use later.

A 2.7 GHz base frequency and 3.6 GHz peak Turbo Boost mode keep the quad-core CPU spritely in most workloads, even without overclocking. You’re much more likely to run out of graphics horsepower in a modern game. To combat this, MSI deploys Nvidia’s fastest mobile solution, the GeForce GTX 980—a near facsimile of the desktop GTX 980. Both employ a fully-enabled GM204 with 2048 CUDA cores. And while official specifications list the laptop-bound version at slightly lower clock rates, the GT72S’s cooling is good enough to allow GPU Boost speeds in excess of the add-in board.

You might say the 980 is overkill for a 17.3” screen at 1920x1080, and indeed its average frame rates typically exceed the 75 Hz display’s native refresh. But we’d point out that MSI’s specs do satisfy the minimum requirement for Oculus’ Rift headset. And when you’re not immersed in virtual reality, it’s hard to complain about G-Sync support on an IPS panel.

It’s also easy to fall in love with the two 128GB Samsung SM951s that MSI stripes together in RAID 0. Individually, those PCIe-based SSDs are capable of 2GB/s sequential reads and up to 650 MB/s sequential writes, so you’re looking at incredible storage performance. Unfortunately, the two vacant M.2 slots under the hood cannot be populated with SATA drives, so long as the PCIe SSDs are installed. Should you fill up the SM951s and 1TB HGST Travestar, you’ll have to start swapping in larger drives. MSI does populate all four of its memory slots—this configuration includes 32GB of DDR4-2133. We don’t think you’ll mind the lack of available expansion there.

Nobody expects a desktop replacement to do its business away from a wall socket, but the GT72S Dominator Pro does last almost 10 minutes longer than Asus’ G752VT-DH72 in our Unigine Valley loop. Of course, the massive nine-cell power source also adds considerable weight—we measured the notebook at 3.90kg (versus MSI’s 3.78kg specification). For comparison, Alienware’s 17 R3 is a little lighter at 3.68kg, while Sager’s P870DM tips the scale at 5.00kg.

Whereas MSI keeps the GT72S’ heft under control, the company gets fairly flamboyant in the aesthetics department. You’re either going to love or hate the red cover with its dragon profile and LED-lit eye. The dragon makes its return on the palm rest, though your eyes will probably be diverted by the full-color backlit keyboard. Unfortunately, the driver on our review unit wouldn’t load, but we’re plenty familiar with SteelSeries’ technology and the comfortable island-style layout.

A larger chassis means more room for peripheral connectivity. You get six USB 3.0 ports, one USB 3.1 Type C port with Thunderbolt 3, audio I/O, an SD card reader, gigabit Ethernet, HDMI 1.4, mini-DisplayPort 1.2, and a Blu-ray writer (a built-in Killer Wireless card covers 802.11ac networking as well). The roomy enclosure also leaves plenty of room for cooling. By default, the GT72S idles along quietly, spinning up only when you hit it with a gaming load. We never found it necessary to activate the keyboard’s fan boost button; maximum performance was easily achievable out of the box.

Plenty of desktop replacements tantalize with more exotic specifications, but MSI’s GT72S Dominator Pro G 29th Anniversary Edition gets us great gaming performance, plenty of power for productivity apps, ample connectivity, reasonable upgradeability, and a fair price.

The best thin and light gaming laptop

Razer Blade

AT A GLANCE

  • Well-built aluminum chassis
  • Impressive battery life from thin-and-light form factor
  • Surprisingly strong game performance at 1920x1080
  • Touch-capable 3200x1800 IGZO display
  • Aging Haswell-based platform
  • Steep price compared to more modern competition

Although we have an affinity for value, there’s also something to be said for craftsmanship. By modern standards, Razer’s Blade is, well, outdated. Its Core i7-4720HQ processor was eclipsed not one, but two generations ago. And as a result, there is no provision for PCIe-based storage—the compact system utilizes a SATA-based SSD, suffering the performance ceiling that interface imposes. You don’t get power-saving DDR4 memory either. Razer plans to rectify all of that with its upcoming Razer Blade Stealth, though that’s a very different sort of notebook.

So why continue fawning over this thing? In a word, it’s beautiful. As superficial as that sounds, when you line the Blade up against seven purpose-built gaming notebooks, its .7” height and 2.05kg weight really come into perspective. Razer leans on the same black anodized aluminum body it used a generation earlier. It’s absolutely solid. There’s no flex. The lid’s hinge moves and holds position confidently. Age aside, it’s an elegant-looking platform you wouldn’t expect could game.

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Specs

CPU: Core i7-4720HK (2.6GHz Base)
GPU:
GeForce GTX 970M 3GB
RAM: 16
GB DDR3L-1600
Display:
14” IGZO LCD with 60Hz refresh (3200x1800)
Storage:
256GB Lite-On SATA 6Gb/s SSD
Optical Drive:
None
Battery:
70Wh
Connectivity:
headphone/mic combo port, 3x USB 3.0, 1x HDMI
OS:
Windows 10 Home 64-bit
Weight:
2.05kg

And yet it does. A GeForce GTX 970M isn’t going to drive the 14” 3200x1800 IGZO display smoothly at its native resolution, but we coaxed plenty-fast frame rates from it at 1920x1080. And when you’re not gaming, the touch-enabled screen is so much easier to use than any trackpad in our round-up. Don’t worry, you won’t be squinting at tiny icons—Windows 10 goes a long way in improving icon scaling.

An aging HM87 chipset takes a toll on storage interfaces and expandability. Our review sample came with a 256GB SATA-based Lite-On L8T-256L9G SSD (other options include 128 and 512GB SSDs). Frankly, it’s plenty fast. The latest NVMe-capable drives can be quite a bit quicker, though. There’s also no secondary disk for user data. Should you fill the factory SSD, your only recourse is replacing it with something larger.

The year-old Blade is also missing much of the peripheral connectivity in vogue on newer systems. Three USB 3.0 ports ensure you’re covered for a mouse, headset, and flash drive, while HDMI output works for hooking up to an external display, though sadly HDMI 2.0 isn’t supported. There’s a 3.5mm headphone/mic combo jack and a Kensington security slot, but that’s it. No DisplayPort, USB 3.1 Type C, Thunderbolt, or even GbE. Still, for most of us, 802.11ac is plenty, and the Blade has it. Our sample also includes 16GB of DDR3L-1600 in a dual-channel configuration.

I’m an admitted sucker for touch-capable displays like Razer’s. With that said, the Blade’s trackpad isn’t half-bad either. It’s large relative to the notebook’s form factor, and the two buttons click authoritatively across their entire length. In a strange twist, it’s the keyboard I’m not as fond of this time around. The chiclet-style keys are spaced well and their travel is as-expected. But a combination of the green backlight and non-standard font had me making more typos than usual. The tiny up/down arrows confuse unaccustomed fingers searching for where those keys are normally found.

Noise and heat are where you’d expect a compact notebook packed with gaming hardware to come up short. Razer’s Blade and the Gigabyte P35W v5 we’re also reviewing struggle in both disciplines. Under a heavy 3D load, their GeForce GTX 970Ms heat up to around 85 °C, and fans respond by spinning up like miniature turbines. On the aluminum Razer, heat accumulates around the top of the keyboard, close to the power button. This is deliberate. The idea is to keep the areas you touch cooler.

The Blade we reviewed costs $2,400. No doubt that’s a lot to pay for a notebook launched almost one year ago, particularly when the Razer Blade Stealth can be ordered for a thousand bucks less. Just remember that the Blade Stealth has half the memory, Intel HD Graphics 520, and a dual-core CPU. It’s an Ultrabook with an external graphics option. Gigabyte’s P34W v5 is a better comparison at $1,800. That machine includes a Skylake-based CPU, DDR4 memory, and a 128GB Samsung SM951 SSD. You don’t get a touch-sensitive display though, and the build quality isn’t as high. For the extra $600, Razer won us over with wow factor. 

How we test gaming laptops and others we tested

What makes one laptop more attractive than another in the eyes of a gamer? Is it light weight, for portability in between LAN parties? How about high-end hardware to facilitate the fastest frame rates? Surely connectivity matters. External displays, gaming peripherals and direct-attached storage can make you forget you’re even using a notebook. Or maybe value is what matters most. For a low-enough price, we’re all willing to compromise on graphics quality, right? Right?

Of course not, which is why the best builders cram in as much processing muscle as possible, even when money is tight. And at the top of the range, desktop-class components in mobile enclosures set new performance records with every generation.

The last time we rounded up gaming notebooks, Intel was touting its Haswell architecture and Nvidia had the market locked down with Maxwell-based GeForce GPUs. So much has changed. We’ve skipped right over fifth-generation Core CPUs, landing among Core i7s built on the Skylake design. Nvidia's Maxwell remains prevalent, though there’s a new sheriff in town: the GeForce GTX 980…for notebooks. And you’ll notice a lot less emphasis on SATA 6Gb/s SSDs. Today’s gaming laptops increasingly come equipped with PCIe-attached storage, supercharged through the low-latency NVMe interface.

When you add a year’s worth of mobile display innovations (like G-sync and 4K panels) to those go-fast components, it’s no wonder that choosing a favorite configuration is so difficult. We ran a battery of tests on eight attractive models to help you pick the best.

Best gaming laptop benchmarks

Best gaming laptop chart update - 3DMark Firestrike

Best gaming laptop chart update - Unigine Valley

Best gaming laptop chart update - Metro Last Light

Best gaming laptop chart update - Tomb Raider

Best gaming laptop chart update - Grid 2

Best gaming laptop chart update - Thief

The competition

Although we tapped three solid winners, all of the laptops we looked at have strengths that warrant consideration.

Sager P870DM

Take Sager’s P870DM, for example. Unquestionably the most desktop-like of our desktop replacements, it wields a 91W Core i7-6700K processor, the unfettered GeForce GTX 980 with 8GB of GDDR5, 32GB of DDR4-2133 memory, and Samsung’s 256GB 950 Pro SSD. That list reads like an actual high-end gaming desktop’s specs. It then goes so far as to incorporate the same 17.3” IPS panel as MSI’s GT72S, enabling G-Sync for stutterless and tear-free gaming. It only costs about $100 more than the MSI, too. Dual GbE ports and a second mini-DP output sweeten the deal. The P870DM is just so heavy, though. Surprisingly, the big bruiser doesn’t have an optical drive bay. And its beveled keyboard isn’t as comfortable to use. Then again, if the true desktop-class CPU is important to you, Sager could be the way to go.

Alienware 17 R3

Alienware deserves special recognition, if only for a bit of innovation unmatched elsewhere in the field. Its Graphics Amplifier hooks in through the back of the 17 R3, letting you add your own PCIe-based card to supersede the laptop’s GPU. Of course, the graphics card is purchased separately, and given the GeForce GTX 980M inside of the 17 R3, a GeForce GTX 980 Ti is really the only sensible step up, so add $650 to the laptop’s $3,300 price tag.

In Unigine Valley and at 1920x1080, the upgrade yields 55%-higher average frame rates. In Metro Last Light, the jump is 42%. More important, stepping up to Nvidia’s fastest GPU makes it possible to game at the 17.3” panel’s native 3840x2160 resolution. We’re not sure that fact alone is worth a big price premium, particularly when you don’t get G-Sync support. But if you want a desktop replacement on the road and an even sweeter gaming experience when you get back home, Alienware’s 17 R3 is in a league of its own.

Acer Predator 15

Enthusiasts unwilling to compromise performance, but still concerned about mobility should give Acer’s Predator 15 a look. It retains the potent GeForce GTX 980M with an ample 4GB of GDDR5, pairing it to a Core i7-6700HQ processor and 32GB of DDR4-2133 memory. The platform’s monster specs are rounded out by a 512GB Samsung SM951 SSD and 1TB HGST Travelstar—the most generously-sized storage subsystem in our round-up. Aesthetically, this is 100% a gaming notebook. Its W, A, S, D, and arrow keys sport red bezels; everything else is backlit in red; and the 10-key pad off to the right is backlit in blue. A gaming mode button next to the touchpad turns the control surface on and off, simultaneously toggling Windows key functionality. Its LED is green by default, so you end up with a somewhat discordant color scheme. More egregious is the Nvidia G-Sync monitor support sticker on the palm rest. The Predator’s 15.6” FHD panel isn’t G-Sync-capable. Rather, if you connect an external screen imbued with the technology to the DisplayPort output, G-Sync will work. Gotta be careful with that marketing…

Gigabyte P34W v5

Smaller still is Gigabyte’s P34W v5, which valiantly does battle against the Razer Blade. In many ways, the P34W v5 is actually a better platform. It benefits from a more modern Core i7-6700HQ processor, an NVMe-attached 128GB Samsung SSD plus a 1TB disk drive, and 16GB of DDR4 memory. You even get a USB 3.1 Type C port, three USB 3.0 ports, GbE, HDMI 2.0 out, and a card reader. And Gigabyte’s platform sells for $600 less, landing right around $1,800 for the configuration we reviewed. But its chassis isn’t as sturdy, you lose touch functionality, and the panel “only” offers QHD resolution (that’s sarcasm—2560x1440 is plenty, verging on retina-class pixel density from 16 inches away). We did discover that Nvidia’s own Game Ready notebook driver won’t install, though. Updates need to come from Gigabyte instead. Lastly, the trackpad’s right- and left-click buttons are fashioned from a single piece of plastic that rocks on one side or the other. Varying travel across the buttons makes for an inconsistent experience.

Lenovo Y700 Touch

Shave $500 off of the P34W v5’s price and you get Lenovo’s Y700 Touch. There are actually several different configurations ranging from $1,100 to $1,700, but our review unit lands at $1,300. It’s armed with a Core i7-6700HQ, GeForce GTX 960M, 16GB of DDR4 memory, a 128GB Samsung SSD, a 1TB hard drive, and a touch-enabled FHD display. Naturally, that GPU is the Y700’s biggest bottleneck, so don’t expect smooth frame rates in the latest titles at 1920x1080. Dial back the detail settings, though, and you should be able to strike a balance between performance and graphics quality. Outside of games, Lenovo’s Y700 Touch is an exceptional general-purpose machine. The 15.6” form factor and 2.88kg weight are mobile enough, while the red-backlit keyboard is a pleasure to type on. Lenovo’s fit and finish is consistently solid. And although there’s a bit of flex in the lid, you’d never guess that this is a value-oriented laptop by looking at it.

How we tested

Many of the conclusions drawn in laptop reviews are subjective. They depend on a reviewer’s preferences, and it’s unavoidable that we’ll have differences in opinion. Wherever possible, though, we rely on benchmark data to evaluate the quantifiable aspects of performance.

Each of the samples in this round-up was loaded with a gaming suite, including Unigine Valley, 3DMark, Metro Last Light, Tomb Raider, GRID 2, and Thief (all of which have a benchmark function). Each test runs three times, and their results are averaged. Plugged in to the wall, we disable G-Sync before generating frame rate data. Away from it, we leave Nvidia’s Battery Boost technology set to its default 30 FPS ceiling, if only to gauge whether a graphics system can maintain that frame rate.

Our battery life test involves calibrating every notebook’s screen to 120 cd/m² brightness and running Unigine Valley at 1920x1080 in a loop until the power source is depleted. Each system is set to its Balanced power profile with sleep mode disabled.

Where necessary, the notebooks are also disassembled to confirm configuration and expansion options.

A note on affiliates: some of our stories, like this one, include affiliate links to stores like Amazon. These online stores share a small amount of revenue with us if you buy something through one of these links, which helps support our work evaluating PC components. 

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