How to choose the best gaming laptop
By Michael Passingham
The best gaming laptops are versatile enough to keep you entertained and handle all your day to day tasks. Find how to pick the best model from brands like MSI, Asus, Dell and HP
In this guide:
- Our pick of great gaming laptops
- How much do gaming laptops cost?
- How to choose the best laptop for gaming
- How to speed up your games
- Gaming laptop deals
- Best gaming laptop brands
Whether it’s Minecraft, Fortnite, Apex Legends or Call of Duty, gaming has never been more popular and – perhaps – more befuddling for outsiders. But if you’ve been handed the daunting task of buying a gaming laptop, or helping someone choose a one, don’t panic.
In this guide, we’ll take you through everything you need to look for when choosing a laptop that will be great for gaming.
Browse our pick of the very best laptops to see the models that impressed in our labs.
What is a gaming laptop?
A gaming laptop is a model that's designed to run graphically intensive software such as 3D games. Most have dedicated graphics cards (see below) and powerful processors, and high-end models have extras like keyboards tuned for more responsive gaming.
Many of the laptops that go through our test labs are suitable for gamers. Below is a list of models that are capable of playing games, and any relevant pros and cons.
The Dell XPS 15 is one of the most desirable Windows laptops around, with huge performance claims and a svelte design that stands out from the crowd. Dell has updated the XPS 15 for 2018 with new specifications, calling it the 9570, and our full lab test finds out if these modifications are for the better. Read on to see our verdict of this laptop.
This mid-range gamer comes in at a decent price and performs well where it counts when it comes to gaming thanks to its decent graphics chip. Like other mid-range gaming laptops, though, its screen isn't up there with the best you can get for the money.
In brief: £500 can get you a good gaming experience, but £800 is a safer bet
If you don’t have time to read our in-depth advice below, here are some very broad recommendations for popular games, the amount you could spend on a laptop to play those games and the specification you should look for. Keep in mind that there’s lots more detail and jargon explained further on in this article.
Laptops for Minecraft and retro games: You can probably spend as little as £300 on a basic laptop that should be able to handle the popular game Minecraft. If you’re looking to dig out some of your old game collection from the mid-2000s you could buy yourself a second-hand laptop with a dedicated graphics card (see next section) for under £500.
Laptops for Fortnite, World of Warcraft, Apex Legends, FIFA, Rocket League and similar: For these games, you can spend around £500 on a new laptop. Look for an Intel Core i3 or i5 processor and integrated Intel HD 620 graphics, or AMD Ryzen 3 with Vega 3 graphics. These won’t offer a brilliant experience; you’ll have to turn down all your graphics settings and resolution to get something even remotely smooth, but they will be playable. Look to spend around £600-£700 on a laptop with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 or AMD RX 560 for a good-looking and smooth-playing gaming experience.
Laptops for Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, Tomb Raider, Far Cry 5, GTA V, Formula One, Call of Duty Black Ops 4 and similar: For a playable gaming experience, spend £600 at minimum, looking for at least an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 and AMD RX 560. For a great experience at higher resolutions and better graphics settings, spend more than £800, looking for Nvidia GTX 1650, 1660 or 1660Ti and AMD RX 580. We wouldn’t recommend playing these games on laptops with integrated Intel or AMD graphics.
For these games you may also need to consider what CPU your laptop comes with, as this can make a difference to your gameplay experience. Pick a laptop with an Intel Core i5 or i7 or AMD Ryzen 5 or 7 processor to ensure you get the best experience possible.
In brief: Consider the games you want to play, as well as your budget. Some are more strenuous for laptops than others.
You can’t just buy any old laptop to play games on. The more you spend, the more games the laptop will be able to run smoothly. Just because a game ‘works’, doesn’t mean it’ll be an enjoyable experience.
How much you should spend very much depends on the game that the laptop is going to be playing. Minecraft, for example, can be played on practically any laptop while a game like Fortnite will only work on more powerful – and thus more expensive – machines. Keep in mind that almost all games have adjustable settings – turning down the graphical fidelity (more on that later) helps less powerful laptops play advanced games by making them look much less realistic, less shiny and with fewer special effects such as explosions and dust, for example.
This doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot to get what you need, but you should realise that spending less might result in a laptop that doesn’t do everything you want it to do. With that in mind, read on to learn some general rules of thumb on what to look for, and after that we’ll dive into a few very popular games and provide some checklists of what to look for when buying a brand-new laptop.
‘Minimum’ and ‘recommended’ system requirements on games
In brief: Don’t rely on recommended and minimum specifications – they don’t tell you the whole story
If you’re buying a laptop for a specific game, it’s often suggested that you should search the web for a game’s ‘recommended system requirements’, which is usually a list including Ram and storage space as well as a graphics card and a CPU (processor). But this is only useful if you’re quite familiar with computers not just of today, but of several years ago. These lists normally only mention one example of each, leaving you to figure out whether the CPU you’re looking at is newer and more powerful.
Even worse, the difference between ‘recommended’ and ‘minimum’ is enormous; a game running on the bare minimum of specifications won’t be pleasant to look at and it probably won’t be all that much fun to play. Plus, if you’re going to be buying more games in the future, games released at a later date almost certainly won’t run very well.
The most important factor that decides whether a game will work is the graphics card. It’s responsible for calculating and creating the images you see on screen in 3D games. For most games it’s a safe bet to look for what’s known as a ‘dedicated’ graphics card rather than one that’s ‘integrated’. The pros/cons list below gives you the basic pros and cons, then we'll go into a bit more detail.
Gaming with Intel HD, AMD and Nvidia: dedicated vs integrated graphics
In short: Look for dedicated graphics from AMD and Nvidia for a better chance at great gaming performance.
To get the best gaming experience, you should pay careful attention to the graphics capabilities of any laptop you consider buying. It'll have either dedicated or integrated graphics.
Dedicated cards are a separate piece of kit inside your computer solely responsible for creating graphics to display on screen. This makes games perform better than on an integrated model (see below) and also means your laptop is more likely to be able to play games in the future, as games get harder for laptops to run as time goes on.
Integrated graphics cards
Integrated graphics are part of your computer’s CPU and has to share resources such as cooling fans and Ram with the processor. That’s not to say integrated chips should be avoided. Simple games such as Minecraft, and old games will play just fine.
If you have a particular game in mind and are choosing between dedicated and integrated graphics, look at videos of a game on YouTube to understand how advanced it is. The better and more realistic it looks, the more likely it is you’ll want to pick a laptop with a dedicated graphics card.
Intel HD integrated graphics
If you see Intel graphics, this means it’s an integrated graphics chip – performance will be far lower here than with dedicated chips from AMD and Nvidia. This doesn’t mean you can’t play more advanced-looking 3D games such as Fortnite at all, but you’ll have to use the game’s Options Menu to turn various ‘Graphics Settings’ to ‘Low’, and also turn down the resolution the game runs at to something like 1,280 x 768. Every game is different, but almost all have adjustable options to help run games on almost any computer.
AMD integrated and dedicated graphics
AMD makes both integrated and dedicated graphics chips. Look for ‘AMD Radeon RX’, if you want dedicated graphics. Those labelled with things like ‘Vega’ 6 and 8 are integrated. These are generally faster than Intel’s own integrated graphics, but will still limit you to playing more advanced 3D games at lower settings.
Nvidia dedicated graphics
Nvidia only makes dedicated graphics cards. The latest models you’ll find in laptops are branded GeForce, then the letters GTX or RTX, then either the numbers 10 or 20 followed by two more numbers (such as GeForce GTX 1060). As a general rule, the higher the numbers go, the more powerful they are. The most expensive top-end graphics cards can be found in laptops costing in excess of £2,000.
In short: For the best value, shop for a gaming laptop that’s at least three months old.
Laptops for gaming drop in price more significantly than any other type of laptop, especially once they’ve been on the market for a few months. It’s almost never worth buying a gaming laptop when it first launches.
This is particularly true when a laptop is showcasing new technology such as a recently-launched graphics card. There’s often a premium on picking one of these models in the first few months of it going on sale. It’s also always worth scouting the market to get used to how much laptops cost so you can better spot a deal when they come around.
Most of the biggest laptop companies operate gaming-specific brands, and there are some niche players as well. Here are the names you should be watching for:
- Acer: Acer sells gaming laptops under both Acer and Predator brands. Acer-branded gaming models typically end with the letter G, while Predator laptops are all for gamers.
- Asus: Asus has two gaming sub-brands, called TUF and RoG (Republic of Gamers). TUF models are generally mid-range gaming laptops while RoG represents higher-specification gaming laptops with more bells and whistles such as coloured lights and aggressive designs.
- Dell: Dell’s basic gaming range is known as the G Series. It also owns the Alienware brand, which consists of very high-end laptop with flashy designs.
- HP: HP’s Pavilion Power range of laptops is its mid-range brand, many of which are suitable for gaming. It also owns the Omen brand, which is for expensive gaming laptops.
- Lenovo: Most of Lenovo’s gaming laptops are sold under the Legion brand. These are typically high-end and have much more businesslike designs than some of the outlandish gaming brands outlined here.
- Razer: American brand Razer is less familiar to everyday laptop buyers; and it’s known for its thin and light gaming laptops. They all come at a high price and are made from premium materials, high-specification screens and powerful internals.
- Gigabyte: Predominantly a gaming brand, Taiwanese firm Gigabyte markets gaming laptops starting from under £1,000.
- MSI: Similar to Gigabyte, you’ll find a huge variety of MSI gaming laptops at a range of prices, from basic mid-range models all the way up to monstrous hardcore gaming laptops costing multiple thousands of pounds.
Yes, but it depends on the laptop and the game. Newer MacBook Pro models only have integrated Intel graphics, aside from the very top-end 15-inch models that cost upwards of £2,000. You can add an external graphics card by using an ‘eGPU’ dock, but these are very expensive.
There are plenty of Mac-compatible titles on the online games store Steam, but the selection is far smaller than what you can find on Windows.
You can install Windows 10 on a MacBook using Boot Camp, which is Apple’s official tool for installing other operating systems alongside its own MacOS. But that won’t solve your problem of the low-performance graphics hardware, so be aware of its limitations.
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How we test gaming laptops
Every Windows 10 laptop we’ve tested since July 2019 has gone through the same gaming tests, whether or not the manufacturer makes any claims about gaming performance.
While a laptop’s gaming performance isn’t factored into its overall Which? percentage score, every laptop receives a gaming star rating that can be found on its ‘Test Result’ page so you can see how capable the laptop you’re looking at is at playing games.
The test we conduct is representative of industry-standard software that simulates the challenges a laptop has to go through in order to play complex games. It tests the graphics card, processor and Ram.
What our gaming star ratings mean:
1-2 stars: This laptop will be able to play old, retro games but it will struggle with the very latest big-budget games – such as Call of Duty. It should just about be able to play eSports titles like Fornite, but at low resolutions and graphics settings and won’t always run smoothly. Laptops with Intel HD graphics will generally score in this range.
3 stars: This laptop will be able to play eSports titles like Fortnite and PUBG at an HD resolution and Low settings, and it should run relatively smoothly. It won’t excel at big-budget, complicated games like Battlefield and may struggle to play them at all. Laptops with some integrated AMD graphics and low-end Nvidia graphics typically score three stars.
4 stars: A laptop that can play recent games smoothly, but with a reduction in resolution and graphics settings – probably ‘Low’ settings and 720p resolution. Low-end dedicated AMD graphics cards should be able to achieve this. These laptops will play eSports-type games such as Fornite quite easily.
5 stars: Laptops designed for gaming, starting at around £700, are expected to achieve this. They won’t be able to play all games at the best settings, but you’re unlikely to find a game that these laptops won’t be able to play at all. A laptop with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 should achieve five stars, as should an AMD Radeon RX 560.
Beyond star ratings, we will always comment on gaming performance in our reviews of any laptop that claims to be able to play games, so you have a better idea of what to expect.
Our tests also feature scores for how quick each laptop is at doing other tasks, such as browsing the web and editing photos, and we also look at how loud a laptop’s cooling fans are when they’re being pushed to their limits. This ensures your new laptop won’t irritate you with whining and buzzing, and also won’t become too hot to touch in fast-paced gaming sessions.