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.
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.
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
Although we tapped three solid winners, all of the laptops we looked at have strengths that warrant consideration.
Take Sager’s NP9870, 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 NP9870 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 woouldn’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.
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