Gaming laptops are much better now
The world of gaming laptops has never been better than this year’s batch of PCs. They’re thinner than you’d expect, yet they still have VR-ready GPUs, six-core Intel Core processors, and vibrant, high refresh rate displays. Pricing for these laptops remains high, nearing $2,000 or more, but what you get for that cost is a laptop that can handle all of the aspects of professional work and the most popular PC games.
The main differentiators for a gaming laptop in 2018 are GPUs and displays. The more conventional laptops come from Asus, which use dedicated mobile graphics from Nvidia and are capable of playing all (or most) popular gaming titles at their highest settings. Meanwhile, gaming laptop displays have evolved to use higher refresh rates, 100 percent sRGB and Adobe RGB compliance, and have bezel-less displays.
However, if you want a 15-inch form factor similar to a MacBook Pro, you’ll probably end up with a machine that uses an Nvidia Max Q graphics card. As underclocked variants of mobile graphics cards (read: weaker), Max Q graphics can run and be cooled reliably in a thinner chassis. While graphics power sacrificed nets in a performance drop of around 10–15 fps, most laptops using Max Q chips still do very well in real-world gaming tests. They just cost more.
We believe the best gaming laptop for most people will be one that fits in this emerging “thin and light” category with Max Q graphics. The market is definitely heading in that direction. We’ll also look at a few more “traditional” gaming laptops, too.
The best gaming laptop: Razer Blade 15
The Blade 15 is the best gaming laptop for professionals who want a gaming laptop for two reasons. First, it fulfills the requirement of having the high-end graphics and processing power that are needed for gaming. Second, it has very good build quality, which (weirdly) is a rare trait not shared by most of the alternatives.
The Blade 15 can play nearly all the latest titles at high (or ultra) settings. It also has VR capability, thanks to its Nvidia graphics. If you’re not playing games, the 100 percent sRGB display on the FHD model or optional 100 percent Adobe RGB display on the 4K screen model give you some assurance regarding color accuracy when you’re designing on the go.
So the Blade 15 handles the gaming end well, but the thing that makes it the best for most people is the build quality. Its all-black unibody aluminum frame is familiar for both Razer and MacBook Pro users. The structural integrity earned from the design means the palm rest, lid, and keyboard don’t flex, and picking it up leaves you with the impression that it’s a weighted, well-built device. Razer also gets a lot of other little things right. Among gaming laptops, it has the most unified experience between hardware and software. The Synapse app controls the overclocking, display, and lighting effects on a clean slate version of Windows 10.
The Blade 15 does have one issue: under heavy workload, it can get pretty hot to touch underneath or on the row above the keyboard. This goes for the less-powerful GTX 1060 option and the top-tier GTX 1070 chip. It is absolutely the biggest knock on the build quality, but it might not be a deal-breaker because the heat doesn’t spread throughout the palm rest. It’s also very expensive: the starting model retails for $1,899, but any desirable configuration starts at $2,199, and it goes up from there.
If you can accept the price, you’ll find that the Blade 15 also handles the basic requirements for a laptop, which is another strangely hard thing to find in the gaming laptop world. Given the high-end specs, nearing five or six hours of battery life for a beast like this is acceptable. The display certification for creative users, top-tier performance, attention to aesthetics, and good speakers make the Blade 15 the most complete experience in this class of thin and light gaming laptops.
Cheaper but with a flimsy chassis: MSI GS65 Stealth Thin
If the MSI GS65 had a sturdy, metal chassis without the degree of flex its plastic body has, then it would outrank the Blade 15. Unfortunately, while the design is clean and the “gaming aesthetics” — gaudy logos and lots of backlighting — are kept to a minimum, build quality is what holds the MSI GS65 back.
If you can get over the choice of materials, the MSI GS65 can go toe-to-toe with the Blade 15 any day. After all, it’s the thinnest and lightest laptop in this category. The display has minimal bezels, with 144Hz refresh rate, great contrast, and bright colors. It rips when it comes to performance, averaging more than 100 fps for some popular titles. It has a plethora of ports, a decent battery life of around five hours, a solid Precision touchpad, and it mostly stays cool.
Pricing is a bit more forgivable than a similarly equipped Blade 15, with a top-tier configuration retailing for $1,999 at Best Buy. The speakers are good but subpar compared to Asus and Razer’s built-in speakers. However, they will still get the job done without sounding like a tin can.
The MSI GS65 Stealth Thin covers the bare essentials of a thin and light gaming laptop. It’s one of the lightest of the bunch, and it has ample processing power. What helps make the GS65’s case is it’s priced aggressively compared to the competition, and it only really sacrifices a nicer metal chassis.
Here are all of the other gaming laptops I’ve tested for 2018. The best traditional gaming laptop (slightly thick and heavy) is the Asus ROG Strix Scar II — a mouthful indeed — which has edgeless bezels, solid performance, a full-size GTX 1070, a six-core processor, and even an SD card slot. It’s thicker and heavier than others in the bunch at 1.02 inches thick and 5.2 pounds. It’s priced at $1,999 with similar performance to Asus’ Zephyrus GM501, which retails for $2,199 but has ridiculously thick bezels.
If you’re on an under-$1,000 budget, Acer’s Nitro V is an excellent $799 option for playing most games on medium settings with full HD and an aim of 60 fps. It’s definitely not the most powerful laptop, and it won’t be capable of playing games at their highest settings, 144Hz, or in VR. But it serves as a secondary machine if you don’t want to spend $2,000 on a primary laptop.
The rest of these systems are powerful and portable, but they have other glaring issues, like overly thick bezels, dim screens, or poorer battery life.
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