How to buy a gaming laptop in 2018 (and where to get them cheaper)

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A lot of the advantages of a powerful laptop are immediate and obvious. You can take even demanding PC games with you on your commute or to the coffee shop, all in the same package that gives you easy internet access and the ability to work, catch up on homework, or tune up your screenplay. 

But there are some other advantages to the portability of a highly capable laptop that might not jump out at you. Having a PC on your lap means you can curl up in the living room and jump into Overwatch matches or a Monster Hunter World hunting party while you stream Netflix on your TV. It also gives you the option to tote a PC to a friend’s place to jump into some LAN action or play some of Steam’s burgeoning selection of local multiplayer games. Or you can tuck into bed with it at night with the lights off and tick off a few turns in an epic 4X strategy game before you drift off to slumberland. A great gaming laptop is like a larger Switch with access to the insanely deep and varied library of PC games. 

But there are a ton of options available, and the differences in each range from major gulfs in performance to really subtle, minor differences that over time may feel even more important. So where do you start when you’re in the market for a shiny new gaming laptop?

 Decide what you need... and what you want 

Are you looking for a portable supplement to your existing desktop? Or do you want to fully replace your home PC (or don’t own one in the first place)? Do you need the ability to play every high end game as it comes out, and won’t settle for less than maximum settings, or do you just want to mess around with casual and puzzle games while you’re on the go?

Answering these questions will shape how much you need to spend and what end of the laptop pool you’ll be dipping into. If you’re just looking for a secondary PC you can carry with you and don’t need to run cutting edge software or games on ultra, you can skimp on hardware and save yourself some money. A lot of games will run just fine on an integrated graphics chip, for instance, and you won’t need a blazingly fast CPU; I would advise, though, if you go this route, to pick a machine that leaves you some room to upgrade, in case you change your mind later and want to bulk up your machine’s performance. Many laptops are sold as closed systems, without the option to later expand or add components, so if you do go bargain hunting make sure you know what you’re buying and how much it’s future proofed, if at all.

 Prioritize your hardware 

Even after you’ve decided what range of laptop fits your needs, you need to consider what specs matter most to you. If you’re going to be working extensively on your laptop as well as gaming, you’ll need a competent CPU to handle the load. On the other hand, if you’re buying your machine purely to game on, you can save a little money on the processor and focus on a powerful graphics card. Luckily, mobile cards for laptops have come a long way, and investing in a solid GPU doesn’t have to burn your entire budget. Also, if you’re replacing your desktop, chances are you’ll want to opt for a larger, higher quality screen, maybe something in the 17” or 18” range, whereas if you’re looking to take your PC on the go, a lighter more compact model is likely a better choice.

There are also some very important, often overlooked considerations when shopping for the perfect laptop that don’t apply to traditional desktop PC shopping.

There are also some very important, often overlooked considerations when shopping for the perfect laptop that don’t apply to traditional desktop PC shopping. 

 Be aware of heat 

If you plan on actually using your machine in your lap, or resting on you while you’re lounging around in bed, you’ll need something that doesn’t feel like a nuclear inferno blossoming against your skin. Check reviews carefully or feel around the bottom and sides of the display models at retail stores; if the case feels uncomfortably warm, it’s going to feel even worse after several minutes in your lap.  

 Extras are sometimes as important as the core features 

A lot of laptop shopping comes down to taste. If you prefer a touch screen, need robust video out options, or prefer a great touchpad to a mouse, those extras can be make or break. And one frequently overlooked but wildly important piece of every laptop is the keyboard—how does it feel? How the is actuation, the key height? Is it clicky and responsive or smooth and silent? Some people demand mechanical keys, which are becoming increasingly available in laptops. If some of these extras are important to you, choose accordingly, and don’t hesitate to go into a brick and mortar store and experiment with some of the popular models they’re displaying. On the other hand, if you don’t need these bells and whistles, they represent another place where you can trim off some of the final expense. 

 Size and weight vary a lot  

This may seem obvious, but the size and weight of any portable is huge important. If you’re going to be lugging your laptop around with you, or it’s going to spend a lot of time on your lap, you want something slight and easy to carry; if it’s going to find a semi-permanent home on your desk, dimensions aren’t nearly as important, feel free to go bulkier and heavier (with the concomitant increase in power and screen size). Even models that boast the same size screen can vary considerably in terms of weight and overall dimensions, so make sure if you can’t personally get your hands on the machine you want, you at least take a peek at the spec sheet.  

 Some suggested models 

If you’re looking for some quick picks of options in different ranges, the models below are good options; as always, though, I recommend you do your research and know what you’re getting into. A laptop is a personal investment that you’ll like end up carrying around a great deal, so you need to know what you’re getting into.  

1. MSI GS65 Stealth 

The Stealth is a great, mid-high range option for those looking for a permanent replacement for their desktop PC or a powerful machine on which to do the majority of their gaming. It’s got a gorgeous screen with slender bezels, and packs an incredible amount of power (fueled primarily by a Nvidia Geforce GTX 1070) in a slim, lightweight package. It does get warm when you’re pushing it during an intense marathon gaming session, however, so if you’re looking for a machine to perch in your lap, the Stealth may not be the best choice. 

 2. Razer Blade 15 

The Razer Blade 15 is an excellent choice because it represents a range of options rather than one pre-determined build. It can be customized to suit a variety of needs and budgets, and it’s one of the sleeker looking gaming laptops available. Razer’s attention to detail and commitment to new tech and accoutrements is admirable, and it’s reflected in a high quality screen, an excellent keyboard, and a sensitive, responsive touchpad.  

 3. Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 

If you’re hunting for a great laptop that you can carry with you and that won’t break the bank, Dell’s XPS 2-in-1 is a versatile solution that matches laptop power with the touch screen and (nearly) the portability of a tablet. It packs a great keyboard, too, which is a bit of a rarity in the 2-in-1 space, but is nowhere near as bulky as a traditional clamshell laptop.   

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