Laptops are in an odd spot when it comes to gaming. Their size/form factor used to be somewhat limiting on what kind of hardware they can pack, but now that we're in the early months of 2013, we are seeing incredibly spec'd laptops getting released. Now technology is at a point where the performance of desktops and laptops are converging. Desktops still have incredible abilities such as linking together multiple video cards and rendering over multiple monitors at insane resolutions, but most tech consumers will never need that level of performance.
Of course, high-end gaming laptops comes at a cost, usually with a hefty price tag of around $1500 taking into account taxes.
In this article, I'm going to assume that you want to save money. I'm going to assume that you want the best value with what you pay, and that you're willing to do the research in order to make a purchase you will not regret. Here, I'll put out several guidelines for various different types of users/gamers to help you choose the right gaming laptop.
One of the most important aspects to understand about laptops is their integrated graphics capabilities, which are designed to be power savers, not performance beasts. Anyone who's tried their best to run games on old Intel HD integrated graphics systems know how frustrating the experience can me. League of Legends struggles to hit 30fps. First person shooters just don't run fast enough for you to demonstrate your twitch aiming skills. The latest integrated graphics chipset, the Intel HD 4000, is fairly competent at playing low end games, but it is difficult to enter mid-range gaming with comfortable performance.
If your games mainly consist of less-demanding games such as World of Warcraft, League of Legends, or browser games, your search for the perfect gaming laptop can stop here. Obviously laptops with integrated GPUs are cheaper than those with dedicated (which can add up to $150 on top of non-dedicated models). One can find laptops with such specifications anywhere from $5000 to $1000 (or over, if one would like). However, even if you are sure that you do not want integrated graphics in your gaming laptop, I encourage you to make the consideration through the points I will be making in the next paragraph.
(above: a slive from Intel's CES presentation showing off Haswell's capabilities)
Intel consistently makes improvements with their chips, increasing processing power and power efficiency consistently year after year, but graphics performance never seemed to be a priority – until now. Their 2013 presentation consisted of showing off the capabilities of their new Haswell chips, which significantly reduce power consumption, but most importantly, give integrated graphics capabilities a huge boost.
Intel has been spotted comparing their new chipset to the graphics capabilities of NVIDIA's dedicated card GT 650m. Based on this, it is clear that Intel's Haswell graphics will be able to run the majority of, if not all, modern games. Running Call of Duty on near-maximum settings will be a given on these graphics chips (considering that the games never had high requirements anyways), and Battlefield 3 on medium settings at comfortable frame rates of 30 to 40 can be expected. Of course, every less-demanding game can be expected to run flawlessly on these machines. If this level of performance is good enough, then I would recommend waiting out for a few months until Intel and it's partner PC OEMs roll out their next generation of laptops and ultrabooks. As an added bonus, the battery life on these laptops will be massively improved upon due to Intel's aggressive moves towards the ideal 'all day battery life'. The prices on these new models should range from $700 to $1200.
As a sidenote, the Haswell integrated graphics laptops are what I'm personally on the lookout for, as they will suit my mobile gaming needs fairly well.
Now, if you are looking for quite the beast of a laptop, I will be going over dedicated video cards in this final section. Dedicated graphics offer some serious gaming performance over their integrated counterparts, but come with their downsides. If the laptop is not designed to deal with high CPU and GPU temperatures as well as offer excellent ventilation, consistent gaming can reduce the life-span of the machine. Be on the lookout for poorly constructed cooling systems on laptops, as they can be the doom of your expensive investment. On the bright side, battery life if never really an issue whether there are dedicated graphics or not, as laptops from a year or so ago have begun to implement NVIDIA Optimus, which intelligently switches from dedicated in integrated to preserve battery life. The few exceptions are laptop models such as the Lenovo Y400 and Y500.
(above: the Lenovo Y500, which has an estimated 4 hours of battery life due to the lack of graphics switching technologies)
One thing that may mislead laptop buyers is the naming convention used for these dedicated graphics card. In 2013, most dedicated cards from NVIDIA will still start with 6, so many consumers will tend to assume that the 600 models are automatically better than the 500 ones. Wrong. Graphics card manufacturers have the tendency to re-brand video cards, making minor adjustments such as improving power efficiency or cranking the clock speed a bit up (or even down). For NVIDIA cards, the second number is what you are looking for – the higher the better. The GT 660m will be able to handle a lot more than the GT 640m, but not necessarily a whole lot more than the GT 560M. Also, take into account that graphics chips from previous generations will be a lot cheaper than new ones.
If you search for websites such as notebookreview, you will be able to find dedicated graphics benchmark rankings to have a good grasp of where your prospective laptop's GPU stands.
Assuming that you are a serious gamer who wants to be cranking up the settings on all new and upcoming games, you should be looking for dedicated cards that are in the Class 1 or 2 category (Class 2 cards will be very sufficient for most games). A word of advice though, laptops holding such video cards are difficult to find in common electronic retail stores such as Best Buy. They will more readily be found in smaller stores such as NCIX or through online retailers. If you have some additional funds, you may want to go the custom built route, where you can tell the company specifically what kind of components you would like in your machine.
(above: the Samsung Series 7 Chronos, with a dedicated Radeon HD6750M graphics card, holding the hefty price tag of $1150)
Be smart about purchasing a gaming laptop. Know what segment of the gaming audience you are a part of (casual, hardcore, enthusiast). Even if your funds are high up there, do not jump on the highest priced, nicest looking device without doing the research. It will pay off at the end. Nothing sucks more than regretting your expensive tech purchase.