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TekSpek Laptops
Gaming Laptops

Gaming Laptops

Date issued:

Gaming on PCs used to be restricted to desktop computers equipped with a dedicated graphics card connected to a display, much in the same way that a games console works with a TV. Recent advances in technology have enabled manufacturers to equip laptops with increasing levels of graphics power without them being too bulky or heavy. The gaming laptop segment is one that has arguably seen the most innovation in the last five years, so the purpose of this TekSpek is to educate you as to the different types of gaming laptops available in 2017.

Form Factors

Ever-increasing efficiency from NVIDIA, the main graphics card manufacturer, is enabling laptop designers to release gaming machines that are thinner and lighter than ever before. Popular laptops in this category are the HP Omen, Asus RoG, Gigabyte Aero 15X, and Razer Blade. Taking the Blade as a good example of the form factor a decent gaming laptop can deliver, the machine adopts a 14in screen and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 graphics but weighs just 1.86kg and is only 18mm thick. Such a laptop is capable of running the latest games at a 1080p resolution with ease. You can find the full range of GeForce 1060 Gaming laptops on our website

Razer Blade Gaming Laptop

However, installing leading-edge performance that can rival the best desktops is also possible in the latest slew of high-end gaming laptops. These beasts are known as desktop-replacement laptops and often house a 17in screen, multiple hard drives, a mechanical keyboard, and high-quality audio. More importantly, they are able to accommodate high-performance GPUs from the upper echelons of the GeForce 10-series range. A good example of such a laptop is the GeForce GTX 1070-toting Aorus X7 v7 17in gaming laptop measuring 428mm x 305mm x 22.9mm and weighing in at 3.2kg.

There is also plenty of choice between these two ends of the gaming spectrum, often housing a 15in screen and high-quality graphics. In short, you can purchase a competent gaming machine that weighs between 1.7kg and 3.5kg. Largely gone are the days when notebook performance meant juggernauts nearing 5kg.

CPU Options

The driving force behind these laptops, be they big or small, is the CPU. Intel holds significant market share in this regard. By far the most popular choice for gaming laptops is the Core i7-7xxx series, outfitted with four cores and eight threads. Premium machines are often equipped with either the Core i7-7700HQ or Core i7-7820HQ, depending upon form factor, and both chips feature a base 45W TDP that can be reduced to 35W for thermally-constrained, thinner chassis. Doing so often reduces the peak frequencies a touch, but with a 4C/8T topology, there is enough muscle to drive the graphics card with ease.

Up until October 2017, the laptop and desktop Intel Core CPUs used the same number of cores and threads, albeit with the latter able to run at higher frequencies due to more room and better cooling potential in desktop chassis. This meant that straight-line performance between premium gaming laptops and mainstream desktop PCs was broadly similar. However, Intel has since launched the 8th Gen Core processors for the desktop, with the Core i7 version now using six cores and 12 threads. The general performance uplift in many CPU-centric scenarios is close to 50 per cent when compared with the previous generation.

It is unlikely that Intel will move premium gaming laptops' CPUs over to the same 6C/12T architecture, and the reason for this is that games don't benefit significantly from having more than four physical cores in the machine. Running a six-core mobile chip would also likely require more cooling potential than laptop manufacturers have currently designed for. Put simply, expect to see a quad-core Intel CPU at the helm of any good gaming laptop for the foreseeable future.

GPU Options

This is where the fun really starts. As we mentioned above, it is possible to shoehorn a GeForce GTX 1060 GPU inside a chassis that is less than 20mm thick and weighs below 2kg. Said GPU is the first of the really serious gaming cards, and you can expect it to score around 2,500 marks in the popular 3DMark Time Spy DX12 test.

Putting its gaming potential into more readily digestible form and evaluated at the ubiquitous 1080p resolution, one can expect around 50 frames per second when running a graphically intensive game such as Deus Ex: Mankind Divided at high-quality settings, 70fps at high-quality settings in a game such as Hitman, DX12, while it is able to hit 75fps in titles such as Rise of the Tomb Raider. In other words, the GPU is more than capable of delivering a rich, immersive experience at 60fps in most titles.

Moving on over to the next GPU up, GTX 1070, often found in the larger gaming laptops featuring 17in screens, performance rises by approximately 50 per cent. This means it can deliver the 1080p-like frame rates at a 2,560x1,440 resolution, translating to better-looking visuals with the same level of fluidity. If frame rate is of key concern, as it is in many first-person shooters, GTX 1070 is able to hit 100fps at 1080p in most titles... without unduly sacrificing image quality.

The current king of the hill is the GeForce GTX 1080, found in true desktop-replacement machines comfortably costing north of £2,000. One can expect another 20-30 per cent on top of the GTX 1070's already excellent performance, extending the frame rate to easily over 60fps at 2,560x1,440 even when all the graphical bells and whistles are turned on. This no-compromise solution is reserved for the best of the best.

Aorus Gaming Laptop

Muddying the waters to a certain degree, Nvidia has introduced a number of GeForce GPUs with what is known as Max-Q technology. These GPUs have been re-engineered to offer the next level of performance at the same power level. The great benefit of doing so is that gaming laptop manufacturers can accommodate even greater graphical goodness in thinner and lighter chassis. As a case in point, the Gigabyte Aero 15 is a high-quality, 15.6in gaming laptop featuring a GeForce GTX 1060 GPU. Measuring under 20mm and tipping the scales at 2.1kg, it is able to score the same kinds of frame rates as the Razer Blade we referred to above. However, the enhanced version, using the same chassis, also houses a GTX 1070 Max-Q GPU.

The Max-Q model is almost 30 per cent faster at 3DMark Time Spy, 25 per cent faster in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided at the same settings, and a whopping 36 per cent faster in Rise of the Tomb Raider. Such prowess enables the gamer to either increase the image-quality level by a notch or enjoy substantially higher frame rates... for a small price premium.

Think of GeForce GTX 1060 as good, GeForce GTX 1070 as better and GeForce GTX 1080 as best. Anyone looking for the most performance in a thin-and-light form factor is advised to consider a Max-Q-equipped gaming laptop.

Screen Considerations

The gaming laptop screen has a big impact on the overall experience, too. Thin-and-light laptops tend to have a 14in screen running a 1,920x1,080 (1080p) resolution. The aforementioned Razer Blade is an excellent example of such a machine. Jumping on up to something a little larger, 15.6in, per the Gigabyte Aero, represents the next size up, often with the same 1080p resolution. The resolution choice is largest with full-on desktop replacements featuring a 17.3in screen, where you can get 1080p, 1440p (2,560x1,440) or 4K (3,840x2,160) panels.

Increasing the resolution adds more detail to an image but makes it understandably more difficult to render as the GPU is forced to draw more pixels. This is why it is sensible to pair a GTX 1060 GPU with a 1080p screen, a GTX 1070 with a 1440p screen, while even a GTX 1080 is not nearly powerful enough to drive a 4K screen at 60fps.

A technology known as adaptive frame rate control also improves the gaming experience. Having a laptop outfitted with such technology means that the frame rate of the GPU is matched by the screen refresh rate, keeping everything in synch. This matching eliminates the tearing and stuttering you sometimes see when the GPU output and screen refresh rate are at odds with one another, and as the saying goes, it has to be seen to be believed. This smoothing technology is called G-Sync for NVIDIA GPUs and FreeSync for AMD ones, and we would recommend it if you can afford the price premium.

Lastly, the panel technology also has a bearing on the gaming experience. TN-type panels have high refresh rate capability, which is great for gaming, but can look washed out, lacking in punch. Their viewing angles aren't great, either, though that shouldn't be a problem on a laptop. IPS technology, meanwhile, produces punchier colours, is better for 2D work, but often the technology doesn't run at stratospheric refresh rates demanded by some gamers. For most, we'd recommend a high-quality IPS panel outfitted with some form of adaptive frame rate technology. Acer, Asus, and MSI tend to be the most popular manufacturers using such screens.

Thunderbolt 3 To The Rescue?

It is still possible to game on a laptop without having a high-performance GPU inside. Such an approach takes the form of connecting a laptop to an external box holding a powerful desktop graphics card. The laptop and external box are usually connected via a Thunderbolt 3 interface that offers oodles of bandwidth in either direction.

There are many laptops in 2017 that feature a Thunderbolt 3 connection run over USB Type-C. Most Ultrabooks feature them, and mating a high-performance card with a powerful box seems like a great match - a supremely thin-and-light laptop by day, a base for a potent gaming machine by night. The reality is not that simple because most Ultrabooks feature comparatively weak CPUs that are not able to adequately drive the performance of the externally-housed graphics card properly. Such a solution routinely loses up to 40 per cent of the performance of a desktop machine harbouring the same graphics card.

The situation is likely to get better in this regard as more Ultrabooks are transitioned over to the 8th Gen Core family of processors that offer more cores and CPU-centric performance than ever before, and Scan expects that the add-in box market to become more popular as a result. Other, more powerful laptops featuring a Thunderbolt 3 port also house their own dedicated graphics cards, rendering an external box mostly moot.

Speaking of the enclosures, the Razer Core, Asus XG Station 2 and the Aorus Gaming Box are good examples of how to accommodate an external PCIe-based graphics card into a Thunderbolt 3-connected enclosure. The obvious downside is cost, as enclosures, which also house a PSU, aren't cheap, whilst you will usually need to also provide the graphics card, too.

The bottom line is that external, GPU-housing enclosures can only make sense if the laptop they're connected to has a high-performance CPU. It will be interesting to see how a latest generation Ultrabook featuring a Core i7-8650U - four cores, eight threads - will perform with a decent enclosure.

The Wrap

Gaming laptops have never been more powerful or had so much choice. The blurring of the performance lines between desktop and mobile GPUs, combined with the advancements made by Intel with respect to laptop CPUs, has really opened up the path for high-quality gaming in sexy, sleek form factors.

The laptop size largely predicates performance, but do remember that it is now possible to have a 2kg laptop featuring a GeForce GTX 1070 Max-Q GPU which is capable of stunning gameplay in the latest titles.