For many years, the speakers built into gaming laptops did not provide sufficiently good audio quality to take full advantage of a video game’s sound effects and in-game music. Nowadays, some gaming laptops integrate a very sophisticated audio system capable of offering advanced performance, deep bass tones, and adequate power (some examples include the Asus Rog Zephyrus and the MSI GS65 Stealth). For lower-end computers, there is always the possibility of connecting external Bluetooth/WiFi speakers or a good pair of headphones.
Many PC gamers rely on a high-tech gaming mouse for fast, precise aim in FPS and other games. These mice can also allow for more comfort than PC gaming controllers during extended game sessions, with less cramping in the hand and fingers, especially when paired with complementary gaming keyboards. And since a gamer mouse is, of course, a mouse, it can also perform double duty for everyday computing.
Still, depending on the kind of games you play and how fussy you are, sometimes a laptop doesn't have to pretend. On some level, almost any recent notebook PC can work as a gaming laptop. Current laptops using Intel's 7th or 8th Generation ("Kaby Lake" or "Coffee Lake") Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs, or AMD's less commonly seen A10 or A12 chips, can play basic game titles passably if you roll back the screen-resolution and graphical-detail settings far enough. These chips have modest graphics acceleration built in, and that's all you need for casual or Web-based games. Plants vs. Zombies, here you come.
Refresh rate: Most laptops you’ll see will have 1080p resolution and a 60Hz display. And for many gamers, that’s absolutely enough. Higher resolution displays (2560 x 1440, 3840 x 2160) are pretty, but top out at 60Hz. That’s why for some gamers, 1080p may be the best option. Some vendors offer FHD displays with a faster, 144Hz refresh rate for smoother gaming. Of course, you need a great GPU and to play on settings that emphasize frame rate over graphical fidelity to take advantage.
There are not all that many graphics chips to choose from (Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050, 1050 Ti, 1060, 1070 or 1080…). Your selection will depend on your particular needs and budget. A GTX 1070 or 1080 would probably be overkill for gamers interested in playing MMORPG games such as World Of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2 and would only prove useful when connecting to an external 4K display. Facing off against the GTX 1050 and 1060 can be found a few computers employing a Radeon RX 560, 570 or 580 graphics chip – but not all that many.
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All of the major (and some of the minor) gaming-gear manufacturers have developed their own mouse-control customization software, which usually encompasses advanced macro programming. Often, the software also enables you to control and customize a gaming keyboard of the same brand. In addition to recording macro commands, these software dashboards let you activate premade, game-specific profiles; create your own profiles; and adjust any on-mouse lighting/LED bling. Many also offer presets for non-gaming use, letting you leverage your mouse's programmability in Excel or Photoshop when you're not blowing up starships or hapless zombies.
But if you want to play new games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey on ultra settings, you’re better off with a desktop or a gaming laptop with more powerful graphics. A $1,200 desktop is much more powerful, and you can easily upgrade it in the future. And if you opt for a higher-end gaming laptop, you’ll be able to crank up those graphics settings for years—rather than months—to come.
Updated Nov. 25 at 5:45 a.m. ET: You can snag some inexpensive gaming laptops for great prices through Cyber Monday. The Lenovo Legion Y530 is on sale for $100 off from Best Buy, while the 15.6-inch Dell G3 can be had for $649 from Walmart — a savings of $350. The Dell G5 is also on sale for $899 from Walmart ($400 off!) A sale at eBay knocks the MSI GL63 down to $969, for a savings of $229. Check out our Cyber Monday hub for more fantastic deals.