Tech Advisor

Best gaming laptops

The gaming laptop landscape is experiencing an earthquake-like shift. With advances in laptop CPUs and graphics technologies, you can now get great gaming performance in sizes from slender to huge, and prices from budget to sky-high. That’s where this buyer’s guide come in. We’ll name the best gaming laptops currently available. But before we get started, we’ll highlight what to look for when buying a gaming laptop.

HOW TO PICK THE PERFECT GAMING LAPTOP

The ‘best’ screen for a laptop

When you buy a gaming laptop, one of the most important decisions you’ll need to make regards the screen. After all, what you get on day one is what you’re stuck with until you replace the device. You could run an external monitor but then, what’s the point of a laptop?

Screen size

The size of the screen dictates the size of the laptop itself, and thus weight. You can’t, for example, get a 17in gaming laptop that’s under 2kg, so think long and hard about whether you’re willing to take the weight penalty in exchange for the screen real estate.

If the laptop is going to be your only gaming machine, having a 17in screen might be ideal. We should also add that a 17.3in screen is easier on weaker eyes than a 15.5in screen. This is very much a matter of personal preference.

Screen resolution

The buzzword today is ‘4K’. That high resolution delivers sharper photo viewing and more space for video editing, but that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. Anything not using the panel’s native resolution of 3,840x2,180, such as games running at lower-than-4K resolution, won’t look quite as sharp unless you exponentially increase the graphics power of the laptop.

If you’re running at 1,920x1,080 resolution because your GPU can’t hit 60 fps at 4K, that feature is moot. For many gamers, 1,920x1,080 (1080p) or 2,560x1,440 (1440p) is more optimal.

IPS vs TN vs OLED

The panel technology is also a key feature. IPS (in-plane switching) generally produces much greater colour accuracy and superior off-axis viewing, but tends to lag in response times, which can lead to blurring. TN (twisted nematic) panels can offer far higher refresh rates and usually better response times than IPS, but can look washed out or just blah.

A middle-ground technology that’s appearing more often is VA (vertical alignment). VA is sometimes alternately referred to as ‘wide viewing angle’ technology. (Many assume this to spec to be IPS, but it’s not). In our experience, we’ve found VA panels to run the gamut from being worthy competitors to IPS to being worse than the better TN panels.

Generally, if colour accuracy is important, go IPS (a trademark of Sharp), and if you want the fastest response times go for a gaming-oriented TN panel. With the variability of VA, we recommend you check feedback from reviewers and users of a particular model.

The wild card in all this is OLED. OLED-based panels have been used in phones for years but have recently migrated to larger screens in laptops. IPS, TN and VA all use LEDs behind the screen or along the edges. ‘Black’ is produced by a shutter-like mechanism that blocks light from coming through. As you can imagine, there’s usually some light leakage, which means the black tends to be grey.

OLED panels don’t rely on edge-or backlighting. Instead, each pixel generates its own light. To produce black, it just switches off the light. This amounts to truly stunning contrast ratios and vibrant colours. OLEDs also offer fantastic response times.

The negatives include smaller screen sizes (we haven’t seen anything larger than 15.6 inches yet), higher cost, and lack of support for variable refresh rate. OLED panels can also use more power than conventional methods if the image is on a white background.

G-Sync and FreeSync

Okay, we called this section G-Sync and FreeSync, but the reality is, when it comes to beefy gaming laptops, it’s a GeForce GPU world. And that means it’s a G-Sync world. In a nutshell, Nvidia and AMD’s respective variable-refresh-rate technologies help synchronize the monitor and the GPU to greatly reduce screen tearing. Variable refresh rates can make gaming at 40fps far smoother to your eyes than a screen without it.

The first variable-refresh-rate panels for laptops maxed out at 75Hz, only marginally better than the standard 60Hz. More recently, we’ve begun to see laptop panels that can push 120Hz, 144Hz and even 240Hz. This generally means smoother and sharper gaming to your eyes. It even helps smooth out everyday tasks such as scrolling a browser page or Word document.

The downside of high-refresh rate panels is the technology it’s available on: TN. As we said earlier, TN generally looks less vibrant and less accurate than IPS. The off-axis view is generally inferior, too. You’ll also need a far more powerful GPU to feed that high-refresh rate monitor at its native resolution.

One last very important note: G-Sync screens have to be connected directly to the laptop’s discrete GPU, which means a large hit in battery life. In most laptops without G-Sync, the Intel integrated graphics is connected directly to the screen, so the GPU can be turned off when not being used. So while G-Sync is beautiful to behold, the cost in battery life is huge.

Which is right for you? If it’s primarily a gaming laptop, go for a high refresh rate and G-Sync (or FreeSync, if you can find a laptop that supports it with a Radeon GPU). If you tend to also push pixels in Photoshop or do any colour-critical work, skip variable refresh for an IPS panel.

Keyboard and trackpad

A new trend in gaming laptops is the offset trackpad, which is more conducive to gaming than a dead-centre trackpad. The concept is sound, but anyone who actually cares about PC gaming will just plug in a mouse. The worst thing about that offset trackpad is when you try to use it for non-gaming purposes.

As far as keyboards go, the most important gaming feature is n-key rollover. This means the keyboard physically scans each key separately. If you wanted to, you could press 20 keys simultaneously and they’d all register, as each is independently wired. That probably sounds excessive, but keyboards that lack this feature can suffer missed keystrokes, which both ruins gameplay and hurts in everyday tasks. Anyone who’s used an Adobe product that might require

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