Gaming laptops have come a long way in recent years. No longer is a massive jet engine or two required to cope with the heat output of mobile graphics chips. As such, notebooks have slimmed down considerably to offer desktop-class graphics in an actually-portable form factor.
This is thanks in large part to Nvidia's Pascal GPUs. The 10-series of graphics cards are more powerful and efficient than ever. With higher clockspeeds and lower temperature output than previous generations, it's now possible to pack GTX 1060 and 1070 GPUs into laptops that measure around or sometimes less than an inch thick. Even better, those 10-series cards aren't tuned-down mobile variants but rather every bit as powerful as their desktop counterparts. Taking things a step further, Nvidia's new Max-Q design philosophy does sacrifice a bit of performance to get power draw even lower. These systems are thin, light, and quiet, yet still powerful. You'll find our favorite pick in that category here, and we have a dedicated Max-Q buying guide as well.
Just as impressive, laptop screens are getting closer and closer in feature set to their desktop counterparts. Features such as high refresh rates, 1440p or 4K resolutions, and G-Sync technology are no longer limited to the tabletop form factor. And perhaps best of all, a modest combination of these features and performance can be had at non-insane price points.
In testing for this guide, we called in a literal stack of gaming laptops from various hardware manufacturers. We limited our overall choice to laptops featuring a GTX 1070 GPU, as systems with that spec have the best balance of performance, features, and price for most gamers, while the the budget category was limited to laptops featuring a GTX 1060 GPU. For slim Max-Q systems, we've focused on the more reasonably-priced GTX 1070 variants, but will be evaluating high-end GTX 1080 Max-Q systems soon.
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.
Most of the laptops we tested for the overall best category offer similar internals: an Intel Core i7-7700HQ processor, Nvidia GTX 1070 GPU, 16GB DDR4 RAM, and a 1080p G-Sync screen. Similarly, laptops in the budget category feature an Intel Core i7-7700HQ CPU, Nvidia GTX 1060 GPU, 16GB DDR4 RAM, and a 1080p screen—though G-Sync functionality varied some. The main difference between models usually comes down to storage options, weight and dimensions, screen features, and of course, price. The similarity in components resulted in relatively similar benchmark scores, with the difference between lowest and highest scores not varying considerably.
We run the following tests to measure performance and productivity on gaming laptops:
- Cinebench 15
- Tech ARP x264 HD
- CrystalDiskMark64 4K Read and Write
- 3DMark Fire Strike
- PCMark 8 Creative
For gaming, we use the built-in benchmarks on Rise of the Tomb Raider, Far Cry Primal, and The Division. Tests are performed at 1080p using the highest available graphics preset, with V-sync and G-Sync disabled. All tests are run multiple times to ensure that thermal throttling doesn't occur. In the event that scores drop on subsequent tests, the lower (throttled) scores are used.
HP Omen 17
HP's gaming division Omen has a nice offering in the laptop space, focusing on top-tier graphics while cutting corners elsewhere to keep prices down. It's the most competitive with the GL502VS when it comes to price, actually coming in $100 cheaper when on sale for a similarly-spec'd system. It's also available with a 4K screen upgrade, if that's something you care about, but we recommend staying away from attempting 4K on a laptop, as running that high of a resolution in games requires much more graphical horsepower than the GTX 1070 can offer. We still like the GL502VS more than the Omen 17, as it comes in a 15-inch form factor and was the only laptop we tested to offer a 120Hz screen.
True to the company's namesake, the Alienware 15 (also available in 13 and 17-inch form factors) is the most gaming-focused in design of all the laptops we tested, with aggressive styling, bright LEDs along the panel, and a backlight behind the touchpad that gives it an eerie alien-like glow. It's also one of the bulkiest, especially for a 15-inch, weighing 7.8 lbs. It's an overall solid machine, held back by price—no doubt a premium you're paying for the Alienware name and styling—costing almost $300 more for a system spec'd similarly to the GL502VS.
Aorus X5 v6
I want to love the X5 v6, I really do. Gigabyte's gaming division Aorus has been ahead of the curve when it comes to thin-and-light portable powerhouses, and the X5 v6 laptop nearly delivers on that promise. At a glance, it has everything I want—It's an extremely powerful laptop in one of the smallest frames I've seen, and will probably continue to hold that title until the next-generation Max-Q laptops hit the streets later this year. Of course, its space-saving engineering comes with a price premium—at $2,249 (on sale), it's the most expensive GTX 1070 laptop we tested. Even so, the price might be worth it, as it ships with a gorgeous 3K (2880 x 1620) resolution screen—better than 1080p but not so demanding as 4K—and the form factor is really spectacular.
My main issue is the keyboard. I went through multiple test units of the X5 v6, and each time had an issue with the keyboard (which has full RGB backlight control, by the way). The first time, several keys suffered from an annoying double-tap problem, while the second unit's keyboard felt spongy in construction, and often wouldn't register keypresses. (And before you ask, yes, I was fully up-to-date with proper drivers.) A cursory search finds that I'm not the only one with issues. YMMV, but QC seems to be an issue here.
Acer Predator 17
Acer's Predator 17 laptop is more in competition with the larger G752VS I mentioned above, and at $1,899 it offers a compelling case. It's a solidly built laptop if you don't mind the heft (9.4 lbs) and the aggressive Predator styling, but it's not without problems. I experienced the same issue on two review units where the screen would flicker at lower brightness settings. This was mostly forgotten once I left the brightness near max, but distractingly annoying for times when I didn't want as much glow in a dark room or wanted to save on battery life. Like the Aorus's keyboard, I don't know how widespread the issue is, but it's something to keep in mind, especially since Acer has had QC issues with its displays in the past.
MSI GT62VR 7RE Dominator Pro
MSI's GT62VR comes from the school of bulkier laptop designs, though it's a clear improvement over MSI's older GT6 series from several generations back. It matches up well with the GL502VS in most areas, including the option for a 120Hz 1080p IPS panel. The catch is the panel isn't G-Sync enabled, but there are 1080p75 G-Sync and 4Kp60 alternatives—again, I'd steer clear of 4K. The RBG backlighting, aggressive red accents, and MSI's Dragon Army logo on the cover make this an obvious gaming notebook, which may not fit in so well in business meetings. Tipping the scales at 6.5 pounds, it's not the heaviest of the group, but but at 1.57 inches (39.8mm) it is one of the thickest. If you don't mind a bit of extra thickness or the gaming aesthetics, MSI offers a good alternative to Asus. The GT72VR 7RE Dominator Pro is an even larger notebook with otherwise similar specs and design language.
MSI GE62VR Apache Pro
MSI's GE62VR Apache Pro brings a lot to the table. It's specs and performance are near identical to our winner, the Helios 300, but at a price several hundred dollars more expensive. The build quality is very similar, with a metal chassis and good-feeling touchpad. The one thing it offers that the competition lacks is a built-in Steelseries keyboard with per-key RGB lighting. But as it was competing in the budget category, the Helios 300's lower price ultimately won out. The GE62VR Apache Pro is a well made laptop, and very worth consideration if prices drop or you can find one on sale.
Asus ROG Strix GL502VM-DS74
The ROG GL502VM-DS74 is the little brother of our top overall gaming laptop pick, the Asus ROG Strix GL502VS-DS71. The two laptops are virtually identical, save for the GL502VM's GTX 1060 in lieu of its big brother's GTX 1070. The lower-spec GPU also lets the GL502VM squeeze into a smaller frame, measuring less than an inch with the lid closed, making it one of the thinnest GTX 1060 laptops we tested. Also, like the GL502VS, it features Nvidia's G-Sync tech in the screen, though only with a 60Hz refresh rate. G-Sync is very worthy of consideration, but the extra price is hard to justify in this budget category.
The Razer Blade is a bit of a wild-card. Its internal spec features a GTX 1060 GPU, which puts it, performance-wise, in competition for the best budget laptop category. The only problem is that the Blade's greatest strength—it's a truly thin-and-light gaming laptop that looks and feels almost identical to a MacBook Pro—gives it a significantly higher price tag: just shy of $1,900 for the cheapest model. There's a lot to love about the Blade. It was by far the most portable of all the machines I tested, easily handling both my daily commute and multiple trips through airport security—a feat that rarely can be accomplished while still having a dedicated GPU. But it's not without concessions, too. The screen is only 60Hz and lacking G-Sync, a feature I would expect at that price point. It's also lacking a dedicated Ethernet port, though that can be solved by a USB dongle. Performance-wise, it offers similar results to other GTX 1060 laptops, though falling at the bottom of the pack—unfortunately also with some of the loudest fans. Having said that, I'm still a big fan. If you're looking for an ultrabook form factor with a dedicated GPU, the Blade makes a strong case.
MSI GS63VR Stealth Pro-078
MSI's Max-Q offering is one of the cheaper options available, retailing at $2,099 but able to be found for $1,975 on Amazon). Speccing similar to the competition, the base of the system is an Intel Core i7-7700HQ CPU and GTX 1070 Max-Q GPU, though it offers a smaller and slower SSD than the Aero 15X, but also comes with a 1TB HDD for additional storage needs. The GS63VR has the best-feeling keyboard, thanks to MSI's partnership with SteelSeries, and also offers a 120Hz screen that looks great. But with a chassis width of 15 inches, it feels bulky to carry, despite the rest of the system's thin and lightness. It also performed inexplicably poorly—by about 20 fps—in Rise of the Tomb Raider, despite bearing the same GPU as the competition.
Eurocom's entry in the Max-Q space is a bit of a weird one. Its barebones base spec starts at just $1,599—by far the cheapest of all the Max-Q systems I tested—but that also strips out most components (and the operating system). Once you start customizing the system to reach spec parity with the competition, the price quickly balloons to well above $2,000. The system I tested clocked in at $2,499, making it one of the most expensive.
Price aside, I wasn't terribly impressed with the Q5. It matches the Aero 15X in gaming and performance benchmarks, but also runs significantly hotter and louder than the rest of the systems. It does offer a 120Hz option for the screen, but only on a TN panel that doesn't look good at all. The Q5 is a good option if you value customizability above all, but we'd still much prefer the Aero 15X.
There's a lot of gaming laptops out there, and we certainly didn't get the chance to test them all. We're currently testing high-end GTX 1080 laptops, as well as GTX 1080 Max-Q designs for maximum performance inside a minimal footprint. If you have a specific laptop you think we should evaluate, be sure to let us know in the comments.
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