If you're in the market for a cheap gaming laptop, you already know how confusing the search can be. It feels like there's a million different machines out there, but your biggest question is probably just, "Can I run this game?" Our laptop buying guide will help you sort through the specs and models to find the best gaming laptop for you.
Determining whether you're into indie titles, AAA content, or top-tier performance will help you set a budget and narrow down your search. But before we get into the details, let's talk about specs.
What Makes a Good Gaming Laptop?
You're going to buy a PC, and it's going to be running Windows 10. The MacBook Pro can run some video games if you force the discrete graphics card to run full time. However, your battery life will suffer, and you still won't get the performance you want. Now here's what else to look for.
A Discrete Graphics Card
Lots of computers come with graphics capabilities built into their CPUs, but those chipsets are optimized for budget and power savings — not performance.
You may get lucky with less demanding titles, but if you actually want to game on your laptop, you need a discrete card. A laptop with no discrete graphics card will keep you from playing anything more complicated than Minesweeper.
Technically, you don't need a lot of RAM right away, but you'll want it eventually. If you buy a laptop with less than 16GB of RAM, make sure it's upgradeable. Your laptop's spec page should have your machine's current RAM, as well as your maximum RAM.
Just because you can buy a laptop with a platter drive, doesn't mean you should. If you must, make room in your budget for an SSD replacement as soon as possible. The difference in speed is unreal.
SEE ALSO: What Graphics Card Should You Buy?
PC Gaming Accessories
You'll immediately want to buy a gaming mouse; even the nicest touchpads are garbage for gaming. The Logitech G series has been the gold standard for years; Razer makes well-reviewed mice, too. Depending on how hot your laptop gets, you may want a cooling pad, as well. And if you've sprung for a pricier laptop, you may want a second monitor for some games.
Now that you know the basics, let's look at some specific models.
The Best Gaming Laptop for YOU
Indie Gamers Need a Budget Laptop
If you'd rather spend your money on Humble Bundles than hardware, then you don't actually need a hardcore gaming laptop. Along the same lines, if you're looking for a Minecraft box for the kids, you don't need to spend the money attached to the phrase "gaming laptop." A machine with a discrete graphics card, an SSD, and 8GB of RAM should take care of you.
That said, a cheap gaming laptop will also fit the bill. For example, Best Buy sells the Acer Nitro 5 with an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM (upgradeable to 32GB), and a 1TB platter drive (which you should upgrade to an SSD) for $700.
If you don't mind the angular plastic design, it'll get the job done. Ultrabookreview.com, for one, gave the Nitro 5 a 4 out of 5. The review notes that this rig "runs cool and quiet with daily use" and features nice design lines, but has a rather dim screen, as well as loud fans when it's under load.
As far as other options go, there's a small horde of business productivity machines and previous-gen gaming laptops available in the $700 to $1,000 range; any of these should more than take care of the average low-res gamer.
Buy a Future-Proof Laptop for AAA Games
If you want AAA performance and have a little money to spend, consider the (now previous-gen) $1,800 Razer Blade, which brings the literal heat — as in, consider a cooling pad. With an Intel Core i7-7700HQ and 16GB of RAM, and at just over 4 pounds, it's less than half the weight of the Alienware 17 R5. The downside: Razer's unsubtle snake logo screams, "I'm not doing work!"
Looking for something more bleeding edge? A new version of the Razer Blade just came out. It features an 8th gen Intel Core i7 processor, and starts at $1,900. In its review of the 2018 Razer Blade, CNET gave the machine an 8.6 overall, bemoaning its high price but saying this rig "moves the bar on slim gaming laptops, with better hardware and a bigger screen."
If you want to save a little money, consider Dell's G Series laptops. Equipped with 15" or 17" screens, the G Series starts at $750 for the G3 and goes up to $1,600 for the top-of-the-line G7 with an Intel Core i9 processor.
The Best Gaming Laptops of 2018
If you want the best, you're going to lose out in one big area: portability. Raw power often comes with a high price tag, heavy weight, and low battery life.
If money is no object, set your sights on the Acer Predator 21 X (if you can find one!). The madman's ultimate gaming rig comes with a pair of GTX 1080 SLI graphics cards, 64GB of RAM, a 21" curved screen, and an integrated eye tracker. There's even three hard drives — a 1TB platter drive and dual 512GB SSDs. Even better, you'll get a full complement of Cherry MX Brown keyboard switches and a custom Pelican rolling case.
If you didn't expect almost 19 pounds of backbreaking bulk and a $9,000 price tag, you weren't paying attention. There's no kill like overkill.
Once you've come back down to earth, consider Dell's Alienware 17 R5. It's widely regarded as one of the highest-performing gaming laptops on the market, and you can spec it out with an Intel Core i9 processor, a GTX 1080 graphics card, and a staggering 32GB of RAM. The laptop weighs in at nearly 10 pounds, and at max specs, it'll cost you a comparatively reasonable $3,500.
Digital Trends gave the R5 one of its Editors' Choice awards. The reviewer praised its build quality, "high refresh rate display," and superior gaming performance, but did call out its heaviness and not-so-great battery life.
Readers, what gaming laptops do you drool over? What brands have you had success with, and whose machines will you never touch again? Let us know in the comments!