Gaming Laptop Buyer’s Guide – A One Year Retrospective
I officially joined the Everyday Gamers Podcast crew around June/July of 2011. After over a year of constantly hearing how “ridiculously amazing” PC gaming is – the graphics, the sales, the free online, the sales… I decided to join the infamous and intimidating “PC Elite.” I discovered that a gaming laptop was the best fit for my environment, so I set out to procure my dream machine. This gaming laptop buyer’s guide is being published approximately one year after buying my rig, so the following will take you through the process of spec’ing and purchasing a gaming laptop as well as providing what I hope is a valuable retrospective after a year of ownership and usage.
Decision #1 – Desktop or Laptop?
It is no secret that, if you want the most beastly gaming PC for the lowest price, building your own desktop is the way to go. My friend Jason Evangelho (@killyourfm) penned two excellent articles on building amazing desktops for around $750, but that’s not why you’re here, is it? For me, portability was worth a premium price. With a wife and two kids at the time (now four, yay twins), I knew that I would not be able to recluse myself to “the office” for hours on end and that the main TV would likely be playing either “Yo Gabba Gabba” or “Real Housewives” at any given time. Occasional business travel and periodic beach excursions also weighed into a more portable solution, but the home environment was #1.
Just in case you are interested in Jason’s PC builds, check out “How to Build a Powerful PC for $750” and “Return of the $750 Gaming PC.” The articles are slightly dated, but they are still a good read.
Decision #2 – Budget and Specs
Let me say this: be patient. You could find a “budget gaming laptop” or sacrifice performance, storage, etc, but let’s be honest – if you’re going to drop this kind of coin on a rig, you want something that you will be happy with and will last you quite a while. When you start poking around sites like www.xoticpc.com, you can get overwhelmed with all the different brands and configurations. Rather than bullet-pointing each little option, I will walk you through my decisions. My final budget ended up being $1500, and I purchased a PowerPro R 6:8-770 gaming laptop from www.powernotebooks.com. Here’s how I arrived there.
First, every Best Buy laptop I have seen is a glossy screen. Unless you only game at night, I would highly recommend a matte screen; it does not degrade graphics nearly as much as “glossy glare” will, I promise. For screen size, I initially planned on the standard 15.6”, but after shopping around a bit, I found that jumping up to a 17.3” display was not too cost prohibitive, providing that I was patient and saved a bit longer. Having owned it a year, I am SO glad I went with the 17.3” screen. As sleek as the 14” Razer rigs are, I can’t see myself preferring that over the 17.3” 1080p matte screen. Everyone has different tastes, though, so if the slim Razer design is more to your liking, or you prefer a 15.6″ that fits in your standard laptop carrying case, go for it.
Let’s get GPU out of the way: NVidia or AMD, right? I chose NVidia because of their GEForce Experience (which now includes ShadowPlay and GameStream for mobile GPUs). AMD’s Mantle has improved as well in recent months, but with my coming from a console background into the PC Realm, I chose NVidia. A year ago, they had just announced the 700-series mobile GPUs, and performance and budget-wise, the GTX-770 was the best fit. There is approximately a $275 jump from the current 870 to the 880, so it’s a hefty price tag for that (very respectable) performance increase.
Screen size and GPU choice will narrow down your choices significantly, but the remaining decisions are also important. I started with 8GB RAM (2x4GB) and added an additional 8GB a few months later. SSDs are fast but still rather expensive for the price per GB. I opted for a 1TB Seagate SSHD. Hybrid drives like these store the most frequently used data on SSD and the rest on a standard HDD. If you’ve got the coin, you could choose a dedicated SSD for your OS and frequently-used programs/games and have a standard HDD for additional storage. Further, we are not far from 4TB external HDDs being priced around $100, but who wants to lug that around everywhere they go?
Wrapping up the ancillary items, I passed on Blu-Ray and got a standard DVDRW optical drive (but some people are even foregoing any optical drive these days). I hope that puts some perspective into what you’re getting for that hard-earned hard-saved $1500, but please read on to see how it performed over the course of a year.
But… but… you can’t upgrade a laptop like you can a desktop!
I look at gaming laptops much like a standard console cycle. While you can’t easily upgrade a graphics card or power supply like you could with a desktop, if you “build smart” you won’t need to worry about it for a good long while. After a year, my GTX-770 discreet video card with 3GB RAM plays most games on High or Ultra settings at a stable 50-60 FPS. For the benchmark gurus, it scored a 429 on Heaven at 1080p/8xAA/Ultra Quality/Extreme Tesselation; a 3105 on 3DMark Basic ed. (Firestrike); and a 4471 on PCMark7. If that means nothing to you, that’s okay. In real terms, games like Tomb Raider, Grid 2, Titanfall, FarCry 3, and BioShock Infinite look amazing. Are they all pegged to Ultra? No, but I also didn’t drop a few grand on a Titan Z or dual 780-Tis. I can confidently say, though, that a year later, I do not feel like my GPU is outdated, nor will it be in the near future, and the chart above reflects that the 800-series mobile GPUs are definitely pulling their weight and have more on-board RAM.
Worth the Investment?
With my $1500 budget, I could buy an Xbox One, PS4, WiiU, and have some spare change for games and controllers. So was it worth it? Absolutely. If you’re patient enough to save the money to buy a gaming laptop, you should be patient enough to wait on good PC game sales. Between the www.humble.com bundles and Summer/Winter Steam sales (and Green Man Gaming, and Amazon, and Desura, and Gamefly… you get the idea) there are numerous opportunities to snag AAA games for dirt cheap. Then, while you’re playing through that 60-hour game you paid $5 for (Kingdoms of Amular says “hi”), you can let those hot new releases drop from $60 to $40 to $30 to $15 to $7.50. Your backlog will work for you like compounding interest, “buying” you time to wait for those amazing sales. Assuming you play a decent amount of games, the initial investment will more than pay for itself in a year or two. Not to mention, you will have some amazing gaming experiences that you would not have otherwise. I’ll never forget playing Tomb Raider from the NICU room of my twin boys, Hearthstone from my couch with my family by my side, or Marvel Heroes and Batman: Arkham Asylum on the balcony of a condo at the beach. A desktop would have robbed me of these memories.
As a consumer, you hold the dollars and therefore the power. Take your time; figure out what you want that you can afford, and if there is no overlap of that Venn diagram, just wait. Also, the sales folks at places like XoticPC and PowerNotebooks (or your preferred vendor) are more than happy to help guide you through the “build/spec” process. Gaming laptops are a niche market themselves, but for me, the combination of power and versatility has made it one of the easiest big purchases I’ve made in recent years.