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Guidemaster: Navigating the hazy world of gaming laptops in 2019

Amid the chaos of the Ars Gaming Week testing lab, we took a moment to snap a photo of <em>some</em> of our preferred gaming laptops. But are they right for you? Not necessarily! Hence, here's our careful guide on the topic.
Enlarge / Amid the chaos of the Ars Gaming Week testing lab, we took a moment to snap a photo of some of our preferred gaming laptops. But are they right for you? Not necessarily! Hence, here’s our careful guide on the topic.

Valentina Palladino

Welcome to Ars Gaming Week 2019! As a staff full of gamers and game-lovers, we’ll be serving up extra reviews, guides, interviews, and other stories all about gaming from August 19 to August 23.

Putting together an ideal gaming desktop computer isn’t always the easiest task, but at least it’s a controlled kind of chaos. When building a PC, we can individually rank each component type—from CPUs to GPUs, from speakers to monitors—and aspiring builders can feel out their options for each within hearty system-builder guides. Barebones budgets, small form factors, pricey beasts: we can offer tips for each, then let shoppers mix and match those recommendations as they see fit.

The same cannot be said for gaming laptops. There’s no simple way to break out and individually test laptops’ big-ticket components, and singling out one gaming laptop is tough in a sector that has often suffered from bulk, heft, expense, and ugly designs. When you buy into one good thing in a gaming laptop, you’re buying into its every other element, good and bad, with no ability to swap. How much worse does that get when you’re stuck with a firm budget?

The resulting landscape isn’t necessarily ripe for a “one laptop fits all” recommendation. Instead, for this Ars Technica Guidemaster, I want to take those realities into account and offer a “state of gaming laptops in 2019” guide that will help you make as informed and comfortable a purchase as possible.

Table of Contents

The state of laptop power in 2019

I would argue that it’s an incredible time to dive into gaming laptops for two related reasons: flattening performance in the world of 1080p gaming, and Nvidia’s seriously powerful wave of notebook GPUs over the past few years. This isn’t just limited to the impressively thin “Max-Q” line of notebook GPUs. Every GTX notebook option from the 1050 on has delivered on promises of comparable performance to their desktop siblings.

As a result, pretty much every recent gaming laptop we’ve tested in our home offices or at events has included an Nvidia card. I’ve yet to see any of these cards struggle to run modern 3D games at 1080p resolution, and they’ve let laptop manufacturers trim the heck out of their chassis.

In bad news, we’re not sure that AMD will beat down on Nvidia’s mobile-GPU lead any time soon. If AMD has aspirations to butt in with its new line of Navi cards, we’ve yet to see official word about any notebook-appropriate Navi models. Leaked spec sheets about possible new AMD cards don’t include clear hints of such products. Hence, that likely means fewer competitively priced mobile GPUs.

But many gamers can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that two-year-old Nvidia notebook GPUs are neck-and-neck with the newest ones in terms of solid 1080p performance (or 1440p, for the few gaming laptops that go so dense). Desktop GPUs have been battling to compete at the 4K level, but that resolution is a hard sell for gaming laptops’ 13-inch and 15-inch panels, so we can largely ignore that target. And while I am a fan of RTX-powered effects like ray tracing and global illumination, those are the exact kinds of effects I’d advise laptop buyers to skimp on to save a few hundred bucks.

If you’re happy to run modern 3D games at 1080p resolution, “medium-high” settings, and 60 frames per second, most any Nvidia model from the GTX 1060 and up is going to suffice. This opens up your buying potential to a full two years worth of laptops.

A 2019 sales pitch: 144Hz displays?

There is one notable exception when it comes to mobile power, and we’d be remiss not to point out how many manufacturers are angling towards it in the pricier spectrum: higher frame rates. After all, the 1080p/60fps threshold has been generally locked down, and, again, 4K resolutions are overkill at screens smaller than 27 inches. Thus, laptop manufacturers see 144Hz monitors as the next level for sales. How does that work out in practice?

Let’s begin with the sales pitch. Yes, at frame rates above 60fps, the noticeable improvements become less and less discernible to the human eye than, say, the jump from 30fps to 60fps. But a locked 144Hz refresh can effectively cut unnatural motion blur and button response in half, particularly in first-person shooters. If you have designs on playing competitive shooters like Counter-Strike or battle royale games, that performance boost could be meaningful. (Just because an online game’s server tick rate falls short of 144Hz doesn’t mean your local controlling environment shouldn’t run smoother.)

Ars Technica has received a few gaming laptops with 144Hz panels attached, and one of these, Dell’s Alienware m15, serves as a clear reminder that it’s not just about the maximum frame rate. What about its ability to juggle frame rates in between?

This late-2018 laptop, powered by a 1070-Q and an Intel i7-8750H CPU, has enough power to run classic shooters like Counter-Strike at a locked 144Hz refresh rate with most settings cranked up (which, admittedly, is overkill; competitive players famously disable visual boosts for the sake of frames and visibility). But once you dive into more handsomely rendered games from the past few years, you’re likely not going to lock to even a 120Hz refresh at this performance level, let alone 144Hz. The result in action, when you opt for unlocked frame rates, is either judder or screen tear, since uneven frame counts fail to divide evenly.

If the choice doesn’t break your budget one way or another, VRR support is always the easier call…

That’s where a variable refresh rate (VRR) panel comes in handy. Should your laptop come with this feature, its GPU will render each new frame of animation the instant it’s ready, as opposed to sticking to a hard-coded refresh cycle (which might otherwise be divided into 12Hz chunks, or even 30Hz ones). Play a somewhat recent game with higher settings toggled, and you may barely notice as its frame rates jump up and down between 60fps and 105fps, sometimes at a moment’s notice. (You’ve likely heard of VRR thanks to branded variants like Nvidia’s GSync or AMD’s FreeSync.)

I point all of this out because your gaming laptop needs may very well determine how much you care. If you can save a few bucks picking a non-VRR 144Hz option, double-check which locked refresh rates you can toggle. You might get in-between options in those laptops’ GPU control panels like 120Hz, 90Hz, or even 72Hz, which you can then combine with a more demanding game’s v-sync option before returning to 144Hz glory for the sake of old-school fragging.

Conversely, if the choice doesn’t break your budget one way or another, VRR support is always the easier call, in terms of giving you a set-and-forget standard. Simply disable v-sync in any game you’re playing, and VRR should just work.

Above all, the jump from 60Hz laptops to 144Hz models, with or without VRR options, could break your bank. A lower-powered, 60Hz version of last December’s HP Omen 15 laptop launched at an MSRP of $979, while its 144Hz+VRR sibling launched at $1769. This nearly $800 upgrade also included a jump in CPU, GPU, storage, and RAM, but the chassis, ports, and display resolution remained the same between those models. And while I like 144Hz displays as much as the next person, I wouldn’t insist that laptop buyers prioritize that rate—unless, again, they’re pro gamers who want something powerful to lug to events, conferences, and the like. If that isn’t you, take a breath… unless you see a crazy discount on a VRR-enabled laptop.

Crucial laptop specs

With all of this in mind, let me offer a few spec recommendations.

Graphics

The GPU department is a bit easier to single out. I’ll start with the GTX 1060 and GTX 1650-Q, which we’d rank right around the bottom of the “comfortably weak” spectrum of discrete notebook GPUs. Neither of these requires too many visual sacrifices to get modern games up to a comfortable 1080p/60fps standard. A few newer titles make this a trickier prospect, particularly the demanding behemoth that is Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, but you can still expect to run that demanding game on a lower-end gaming laptop without making it look like a game from 2009.

Go any lower than that—meaning, the 1050, 1050Ti, or any GTX 900-series cards—and that’s where you will likely have to poke and prod at your settings more intensely to avoid a dreaded 30fps target. Yuck. But if you don’t mind shaving some pixel resolution to save some dollars (perhaps down to 768p), you could very well make those older, weaker cards work for modern, portable gaming.

Processors

Much like in the desktop gaming space, your notebook gaming experience will largely revolve more around your GPU than your CPU. And the GHz slowdown inherent in Moore’s law has led to an unexciting decision in this sector, largely decided for you by laptop vendors. Nobody’s pairing newer RTX 2070-Q cards with the Intel Celeron 3855U.

What’s more, Intel dominates this side of the gaming-notebook equation, and that means we’re looking at years of Kaby Lake processors, all offering solid multithreaded performance in a healthy span between 3.1-4.5GHz at “boost” clock value. Where your CPU performance may really matter is if you plan to doubly apply your gaming laptop to productivity purposes like video editing, at which point more cache, more threads, and more cores will have a serious effect on your time spent waiting for tasks to finish or render. But if you’re simply looking for a machine that can handle solid gaming on top of typical office and browsing software, just aim higher than a Celeron or Pentium to guarantee you don’t get stuck with CPU-bound limits in modern games.

RAM and storage

Another budgetary consideration: If you’re sticking with 1080p resolution and want to save a few bucks, you can get away with 8GB RAM in a lot of modern games. I hate telling anyone to go beneath 16GB of RAM, as that number has proven to be particularly safe throughout this generation of PC gaming, but a limited laptop budget is arguably better spent on guaranteeing ample storage. Should you simply fill your gaming laptop with the best free-to-play shooters on the market, you’ll fill up a 512GB hard drive (already crammed full of Windows 10 files) before you know it.

Many manufacturers offer a mix of solid-state and SATA hard drives in their laptops (usually one of each), and the result is a pretty solid combination of the best of both worlds: at least 128GB of high-speed drive access, and at least 1TB of 7,200RPM goodness. You can expect to pay even more for M2-connector hard drives, whose tiny, thin profiles are perfect for ultra-slim gaming systems. If your budget has room for one of these bad boys, don’t hesitate to take that plunge, as they combine tiny sizes with incredible read/write performance.

The touch, the feel of… trackpads and keys

All of those elements can fall apart when they’re packed into a chassis that fails for even one reason. Let’s start with the most obvious hardware consideration for a potential daily driver: keyboard and mouse.

Hardware vendors sometimes treat a gaming laptop’s trackpad as a throwaway item, making the faulty assumption that its target audience will always lug a high-DPI mouse around, so why bother? Thankfully, more hardware manufacturers have wised up about this, especially since Microsoft gave manufacturers the gift of the solid Precision Touchpad spec.

In our experience, MSI and HP have stepped up with some of our favorite gaming laptop trackpads in recent models. I specifically took HP to task over its late-2016 wave of lousy HP Omen trackpads, and thankfully, the laptop line’s late-2018 refresh came with an upgrade that included two rigid mouse buttons and improved palm detection. MSI has also consistently shipped gaming laptops with solid-performing trackpads, either with clicky buttons or, in the case of our recently reviewed GS65 Stealth, extra-wide trackpads without physical buttons.

The nice thing about both of these manufacturers is that their trackpads split a crucial difference in positioning. If you want to glance either of your thumbs to the trackpad while typing from the home row, that works fine. In addition, their trackpads are placed just so to enable comfortable mouse-aiming with the right hand while leaving your left hand on WASD. That’s not to say we ever recommend a trackpad as a suitable aiming option in ultra-fast games, but in a pinch, it’s nice to comfortably skip the mouse in slower, turn-based fare like XCOM or Civilization. (MSI GS65 Stealth’s ultra-wide trackpad is particularly solid in this use case.)

Key placement also matters when gaming laptop manufacturers get cute with their designs. In 2017, Asus began selling the Zephyrus, which we took criticized for its abomination of a squished keyboard and odd trackpad placement. But there’s also the matter of the Lenovo Legion Y740, a powerful, thin, and handsome 15″ system complete with a RTX 2070 Max-Q. However, I struggle to recommend it as a gaming laptop for one reason: its stupid left-aligned shortcut keys.

The Lenovo Legion keyboard is set off by a left-hand column of keys, roughly 0.8cm from the QWERTY array. It's too easy in practice to accidentally reach fingers over to them mid-game, which I absolutely don't want in a dedicated gaming laptop.
Enlarge / The Lenovo Legion keyboard is set off by a left-hand column of keys, roughly 0.8cm from the QWERTY array. It’s too easy in practice to accidentally reach fingers over to them mid-game, which I absolutely don’t want in a dedicated gaming laptop.

Sam Machkovech

This array of extra keys is set off roughly 0.8cm from the left edge of the standard QWERTY array, and it’s a puzzling column: one “enable game streaming” button, two customizable macro keys, and two keys that adjust the keys’ backlighting. None of these keys can be quickly or neatly reached by rotating the left wrist, and none of them include physical indicators (notches, textures) to indicate which is which. I love a built-in macro option for hardcore gaming, but this implementation clearly wasn’t tested to be mindful of accidental presses or general comfort and usability. Accidentally pressing the wrong key when reaching over is all too easy.

I’m singling this otherwise solid system out to remind gaming laptop shoppers: if your potential new system has a funky keyboard layout, just say no.

From what we can tell, gaming laptops are still a ways out from delivering keys akin to a dedicated, mechanical keyboard. The sector is by and large opting for chiclet keys, and Dell’s Alienware products in particular have shifted away from deeper, mushier switches in favor of chiclets. Having tested both the 2017 Alienware R13 and last year’s Alienware m15, I can confirm that at least one manufacturer’s switch to chiclets was the right call, in terms of gaming-specific responsiveness. I liked typing long articles a bit more on the R13’s mushier keys, but the newer model’s improved responsiveness charmed me enough.

Our hopes for true mechanical switches on gaming laptops grew recently for a weird reason. We’ve yet to go hands-on with Logitech’s new $249 G915 Wireless Gaming Keyboard, designed for desktop use, but it’s as slim a profile in “chunky” desktop keyboards as we’ve ever seen—and that gives us hope these kinds of keys could find their way to gaming laptops within the next 1-2 years. Not yet, though.

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