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The four tiers of gaming laptops

QuizzicalQuizzical Member LegendaryPosts: 21,832
A lot of people want a gaming laptop.  Some of them come here asking for advice on what to buy.  That can depend a lot on what OEMs decide to offer and at what price, of course.  Which particular laptop to buy can depend greatly on your preferences on monitor size and type, storage capacity, keyboard, and some other things.

Even so, the devices that could plausibly be called a gaming laptop generally fit into one of four categories based on the CPU and GPU.  Knowing which category you're looking for can help narrow down the selection a lot.  In order of increasing performance:

1)  Ryzen Mobile with no discrete GPU
2)  Any CPU with a relatively lower end discrete GPU
3)  Nvidia Max-Q
4)  The high end

Right up front, I'm going to advise against buying from category (3), for reasons that I'll explain later.  That's not a generalized recommendation against Nvidia.  Most people who want a gaming laptop today should get an Nvidia GPU in it, and that has been the case for most of the last 15 years.  That's a recommendation against one particular subset of Nvidia's lineup.

First off is the integrated GPU approach.  For that, you want Ryzen Mobile, not anything from Intel, and not anything older from AMD.  The 4000 series is far, far better than the 2000 or 3000 series.  The 3000 series was a little better than the 2000 series, but not much.  As of this writing, 4000 series parts are just starting to show up, but there are lots of 3000 series laptops out there already.

The primary advantage of an integrated GPU with no discrete GPU is that it is much lower power than any of the alternatives.  That is a huge deal if you want to play games while running on the battery.  It also has the nice benefit that the laptop won't get very hot, as it doesn't have to dissipate very much heat, which can matter quite a bit if you want to use the built-in keyboard.  That also makes it possible to make the laptop thin and light, without causing overheating problems.  It's also the cheapest category of laptop.

The big disadvantage of an integrated GPU is that it is much lower performance than the other options.  The technology has advanced to the point that nearly any game will be playable.  In a lot of games, you'll have to turn settings way down, however.  Some people will see that as far more of a problem than others.  Another drawback of an integrated GPU is that you're relying on system memory to feed that GPU, which will be constrained for memory bandwidth.  That makes it important to get a laptop with properly matched memory channels, which a lot of laptop vendors don't do.

Second is using a relatively lower end discrete GPU.  This could mean an Intel CPU or an AMD CPU.  At the moment, it mostly means Intel, though the Ryzen Mobile 4000 series is so good that I expect AMD to become a lot more common in the near future.  Regardless, either an Intel CPU or AMD is fine.  At the moment, this also usually means an Nvidia GPU.  There are some AMD options for the video card, and there will remain so for the foreseeable future.  But I expect this market segment to remain mostly Nvidia for the foreseeable future.

The big advantage of this category over (1) is that you can have greatly improved gaming performance, without having to spend very much more money.  The lower end discrete cards just aren't that expensive, so you might be adding something like $100 or $200 to the price of a laptop.  Power consumption will be a lot higher than you'd get from an APU, but it's still possible to keep the laptop relatively portable while keeping it adequately cooled.

This category is much cheaper than (3) or (4), though that comes at the expense of lower performance.  It's also far more portable than (4).  The advantages and disadvantages here depend on what you're comparing it to, but it's an intermediate option that makes sense for a lot of people.

The third category is a laptop with an Nvidia Max-Q video card.  The idea is that you can get portability comparable to class (2), with higher gaming performance because it has a higher end video card.  You give up some performance as compared to (4), in spite of paying a comparable price tag.  But you get something much more portable than what vendors can offer in category (4).

The problem with the Max-Q approach is that the increased GPU performance requires increased power consumption, and hence heat output.  That means that the laptop must have a far more robust cooling system to avoid overheating.  The weight and thinness requirements of a Max-Q laptop preclude that more robust cooling system.  That leads to a laptop that will run very hot while commonly making hardware throttle performance way back.  And that's when the laptop is brand new; let some dust accumulate and it gets much worse.

Even so, I think it's good that the Nvidia Max-Q laptops are clearly labeled as such.  You can look for that label as a way to filter out a bunch of relatively high performance gaming laptops that you don't want.

The fourth category is the true high end.  At the moment, this is mostly an Intel CPU and an Nvidia GPU.  I expect AMD CPUs to become a lot more common in this segment, but expect that the GPUs will mostly remain Nvidia for the foreseeable future.  Over the course of the past decade, there have sometimes been AMD GPUs offered here and sometimes not.

The obvious advantage of the high end laptops are that you can get more performance by packing in a higher end CPU and especially GPU.  That comes at the expense of burning more power, and hence, putting out more heat.  That's fine so long as the laptop has an adequate cooling system.  That cooling system adds a lot of thickness and weight, however.  High end gaming laptops tend to be well over an inch thick, and often weigh in around 10 pounds.  Keeping the laptop adequately cooled offers the advantage of having much less thermal throttling than a Max-Q laptop would have, and hence higher performance.

The two big disadvantages of high end gaming laptops are the high price tag and the large size.  The price tag isn't necessarily much different from a Max-Q version of an otherwise similar laptop.  It is a lot more expensive than the first two categories, however, and you should expect to pay well over $1000 if you want to shop in this market.  Whether the weight or thickness are a problem depends on your use case.  For the business traveler who wants to play games after work in his hotel room and will leave the laptop there, it's not a big deal.  For the person who wants to carry around his laptop all day, 10 pounds is quite a lot.

If you want to buy a gaming laptop yourself, the place to start is by determining what you want.  That includes the required storage capacity, what your preferences on a monitor or keyboard are, and some other things.  And which of the four categories you want from here is also an important thing to choose, as it will help you narrow down what you're looking for.
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Comments

  • RidelynnRidelynn Member EpicPosts: 7,011
    There is a somewhat overlooked option of GPU over Thunderbolt. 

    I think if I were considering another gaming laptop (I have not in maybe 15 years), that would probably be what I would consider: a very portable and sensible laptop with IGP, and then if I wanted to game, I could set it up for not-too-many-compromises gaming while plugged into an outlet with an external keyboard and mouse...  and possibly monitor.

    It’s expensive, it’s only portable in the literal sense of the word, and it doesn’t really make sense if you could just Run a desktop... but I would say that about a lot of laptops purchased from your Tier 3/4 as well.

  • DMKanoDMKano Member LegendaryPosts: 22,496
    edited April 4
    Ridelynn said:
    There is a somewhat overlooked option of GPU over Thunderbolt. 

    I think if I were considering another gaming laptop (I have not in maybe 15 years), that would probably be what I would consider: a very portable and sensible laptop with IGP, and then if I wanted to game, I could set it up for not-too-many-compromises gaming while plugged into an outlet with an external keyboard and mouse...  and possibly monitor.

    It’s expensive, it’s only portable in the literal sense of the word, and it doesn’t really make sense if you could just Run a desktop... but I would say that about a lot of laptops purchased from your Tier 3/4 as well.


    At that price point a small portable PC is a much better option - better performance and you dont have to deal with weird limitations that external GPUs have

    Ozmodan
  • AmazingAveryAmazingAvery Age of Conan AdvocateMember UncommonPosts: 7,163
    edited April 4
    It would be better to categorize by price point. What $$ buckets do you associate against your categories?

    Also depending on budget -  Intel Comet Lake and new Max Q cards or Ryzen 9 4000 series plus new Nvidia Max Q 2060 look light in weight and under $1500



  • QuizzicalQuizzical Member LegendaryPosts: 21,832
    It would be better to categorize by price point. What $$ buckets do you associate against your categories?

    Also depending on budget -  Intel Comet Lake and new Max Q cards or Ryzen 9 4000 series plus new Nvidia Max Q 2060 look light in weight and under $1500
    Categories (1) and (2) have a lot of overlap on the price point.  So do categories (3) and (4).
    Ozmodan
  • QuizzicalQuizzical Member LegendaryPosts: 21,832
    DMKano said:
    Ridelynn said:
    There is a somewhat overlooked option of GPU over Thunderbolt. 

    I think if I were considering another gaming laptop (I have not in maybe 15 years), that would probably be what I would consider: a very portable and sensible laptop with IGP, and then if I wanted to game, I could set it up for not-too-many-compromises gaming while plugged into an outlet with an external keyboard and mouse...  and possibly monitor.

    It’s expensive, it’s only portable in the literal sense of the word, and it doesn’t really make sense if you could just Run a desktop... but I would say that about a lot of laptops purchased from your Tier 3/4 as well.


    At that price point a small portable PC is a much better option - better performance and you dont have to deal with weird limitations that external GPUs have

    A small, portable PC makes sense for some purposes, but doesn't let you just disconnect a video card and have a portable laptop.  A portable laptop with an external GPU does let you do that.  If that's what you want to do sometimes, that makes a huge difference.
    Ridelynn
  • gothagotha Member UncommonPosts: 1,070
    Do the zepharuses, strix,  MSIG65 count in category 3 even though they are not labeled max q?
  • QuizzicalQuizzical Member LegendaryPosts: 21,832
    gotha said:
    Do the zepharuses, strix,  MSIG65 count in category 3 even though they are not labeled max q?
    It depends on the particular laptop.  Nvidia only makes Max-Q versions of their higher end discrete GPUs, as the lower end ones are low enough power to not need an extra low power version.  An OEM's line of gaming laptops could easily straddle both, and have some belong in category 2 and some in category 3.
  • AmazingAveryAmazingAvery Age of Conan AdvocateMember UncommonPosts: 7,163
    Quizzical said:
    gotha said:
    Do the zepharuses, strix,  MSIG65 count in category 3 even though they are not labeled max q?
    It depends on the particular laptop.  Nvidia only makes Max-Q versions of their higher end discrete GPUs, as the lower end ones are low enough power to not need an extra low power version.  An OEM's line of gaming laptops could easily straddle both, and have some belong in category 2 and some in category 3.
    https://videocardz.com/newz/nvidia-quietly-refreshes-more-geforce-rtx-20-mobile-graphics-cards


    There are Super and refreshed to consider now for Nvidia. 



  • xD_GamingxD_Gaming Member EpicPosts: 2,443
    edited April 11
    https://www.newegg.com/Gaming-Laptops/Category/ID-363


    Seems Ryzen 7 paired with gtx20 series is king. #rip 
    Kind of why Intel has started looking at even smaller devices like phones and handhelds with their new 3D fabrication technology
    There is a multiverse inside our minds which millions live.
    Twitter : @xD_Gaming_Merch
    xD Merch : https://bit.ly/2v13MT8
    "Dragons are tilly folly !"
  • VrikaVrika Member EpicPosts: 6,233
    xD_Gaming said:
    https://www.newegg.com/Gaming-Laptops/Category/ID-363


    Seems Ryzen 7 paired with gtx20 series is king. #rip 
    Kind of why Intel has started looking at even smaller devices like phones and handhelds with their new 3D fabrication technology
    Smartphone sales are much larger than PC sales. It's a market that (comparatively) small PC manufacturers dream of expanding into, not a market you could expand into to escape competition.
    xD_Gaming
     
  • xD_GamingxD_Gaming Member EpicPosts: 2,443
    edited April 12
    Vrika said:
    xD_Gaming said:
    https://www.newegg.com/Gaming-Laptops/Category/ID-363


    Seems Ryzen 7 paired with gtx20 series is king. #rip 
    Kind of why Intel has started looking at even smaller devices like phones and handhelds with their new 3D fabrication technology
    Smartphone sales are much larger than PC sales. It's a market that (comparatively) small PC manufacturers dream of expanding into, not a market you could expand into to escape competition.
    I guess we won't really know until 2021.
    There is a multiverse inside our minds which millions live.
    Twitter : @xD_Gaming_Merch
    xD Merch : https://bit.ly/2v13MT8
    "Dragons are tilly folly !"
  • QuizzicalQuizzical Member LegendaryPosts: 21,832
    Quizzical said:
    gotha said:
    Do the zepharuses, strix,  MSIG65 count in category 3 even though they are not labeled max q?
    It depends on the particular laptop.  Nvidia only makes Max-Q versions of their higher end discrete GPUs, as the lower end ones are low enough power to not need an extra low power version.  An OEM's line of gaming laptops could easily straddle both, and have some belong in category 2 and some in category 3.
    https://videocardz.com/newz/nvidia-quietly-refreshes-more-geforce-rtx-20-mobile-graphics-cards


    There are Super and refreshed to consider now for Nvidia. 
    My real objection to the "Max-Q" cards is not so much the video cards themselves as that Nvidia requires laptop vendors to make the laptops that use such cards unreasonably thin, which precludes the possibility of adequate cooling.  If they keep doing that with the refreshed cards, then that will kill the utility of any laptops that use them.  And if they don't, but rather let laptop vendors add a couple of pounds and a quarter inch of thickness to cool the parts better, then that could lead to a lot more good options of relatively higher end gaming laptops.
    xD_GamingOzmodan
  • QuizzicalQuizzical Member LegendaryPosts: 21,832
    Vrika said:
    xD_Gaming said:
    https://www.newegg.com/Gaming-Laptops/Category/ID-363


    Seems Ryzen 7 paired with gtx20 series is king. #rip 
    Kind of why Intel has started looking at even smaller devices like phones and handhelds with their new 3D fabrication technology
    Smartphone sales are much larger than PC sales. It's a market that (comparatively) small PC manufacturers dream of expanding into, not a market you could expand into to escape competition.
    Recall that both Atom and Tegra were originally aimed at phones.  They failed there before going on to search for other markets.  AMD's approach to getting into phones is to license their GPU to Samsung, so that a Samsung Galaxy whatever with Radeon graphics is probably coming within a few years.
    Ozmodan
  • OzmodanOzmodan Member EpicPosts: 9,672
    Had a friend buy a Max-Q laptop and he took it back after a week.  A game would start up and run fine for about 10 minutes then the system would throttle and he would end up dialing back the graphic settings.  The bottom of the laptop would also get quite hot, precluding using it while sitting on the couch.


  • jamesparkhurstjamesparkhurst Newbie CommonPosts: 1
    edited April 25
    I am using the Razer Blade 15. One of the best laptops Ive ever bought. Compared to my previous laptop, I never had to set the graphics to low to get a decent gameplay. For more high end laptops check out this site. This is where I got the idea on what laptop to buy. 
    Post edited by jamesparkhurst on
  • Asm0deusAsm0deus Member EpicPosts: 3,149
    edited April 19
    If I wanted a used laptop, windows OS, to browse the web, keep my twitch page up or/and run a twitch app or/and be logged into streamelements etc with decent battery life and also be able to use it to plug into a hdtv via hdmi to watch movies off its SSD cuase yes it would need to run on a SSD  no hdd wanted.... 4 to 8gb ram

    What should I be looking for that say  200$ or less.


    Brenics ~ Just to point out I do believe Chris Roberts is going down as the man who cheated backers and took down crowdfunding for gaming.





  • VrikaVrika Member EpicPosts: 6,233
    Asm0deus said:
    If I wanted a used laptop, windows OS, to browse the web, keep my twitch page up or/and run a twitch app or/and be logged into streamelements etc with decent battery life and also be able to use it to plug into a hdtv via hdmi to watch movies off its SSD cuase yes it would need to run on a SSD  no hdd wanted.... 4 to 8gb ram

    What should I be looking for that say  200$ or less.
    Adjusting your requirements.

    Either double your budget, or see if a Chromebook would be good enough for you.
    Ozmodan
     
  • RidelynnRidelynn Member EpicPosts: 7,011
    Hard to price used equip because the price spread is all over the place
  • Asm0deusAsm0deus Member EpicPosts: 3,149
    My son has s chromebook from school and while it's okay I am not a fan.... pages are slow to open videos too etc.  TBH I dunno how to adjust my requirements to be any more basic than that.  I don't want to run games on it, I don't want to run OBS on it.

    I just want to be able to use it to watch videos on a big screen and when not doing that view website in the kitchen when cooking or watch my streams on twitch and keep an eye on twitch chat etc so I don't have to do that on my main PC which would be running games OBS etc



    Yeah prices are damned nuts used ...I am not paying 600$ for a 10 year old used laptop ..lol

    Brenics ~ Just to point out I do believe Chris Roberts is going down as the man who cheated backers and took down crowdfunding for gaming.





  • VrikaVrika Member EpicPosts: 6,233
    edited April 19
    Asm0deus said:
    My son has s chromebook from school and while it's okay I am not a fan.... pages are slow to open videos too etc.  TBH I dunno how to adjust my requirements to be any more basic than that.  I don't want to run games on it, I don't want to run OBS on it.

    I just want to be able to use it to watch videos on a big screen and when not doing that view website in the kitchen when cooking or watch my streams on twitch and keep an eye on twitch chat etc so I don't have to do that on my main PC which would be running games OBS etc
    If you don't need battery duration, you might get some old Windows laptop that used to be powerful years ago cheap.

    Otherwise at that budget a Chromebook is better. Its OS and programs are designed to run on lower resources than Windows equivalent and they run better on really slow computers. The problem with your son's computer isn't Chromebook, if it were running Windows it would run even slower.
    Post edited by Vrika on
    Ozmodan
     
  • VrikaVrika Member EpicPosts: 6,233
    edited April 19
    Continuing from my previous post:


    If you want to have Windows laptop with decent battery life at $200 actually there are some alternatives.

    For example this:
      https://www.ebay.com/itm/CHUWI-HeroBook-14-1-Laptop-Windows10-4G-64G-256G-SSD-borderless-Notebook/333388494982

    But the problem with these kinds of computers is that the $200 laptop has specs comparable to a $200 mobile phone.

    For example that laptop I linked has Intel Atom X5-E8000 processor. It scores 1 116 points in Passmark, compared to for example Ryzen 3 3200 U's score of 4 205 points despite Ryzen 3 being AMD's current low end laptop CPU.
       https://www.cpubenchmark.net/cpu.php?cpu=Intel+Atom+x5-E8000+%40+1.04GHz&id=2740
     
  • OzmodanOzmodan Member EpicPosts: 9,672
    Yeah for what you want, you need to come into the $400 range.  Used laptops are usually not very good deals as the battery in them is usually on the last leg and then you are talking about another $100 at minimum to fix it.
    Asm0deus
  • Asm0deusAsm0deus Member EpicPosts: 3,149
    edited April 21
    Gah missed out on this deal as I found out about it too late!


    I think this would have been just great for what I want and it was under 300$CAD..well it would have been just a little over 300$CAD with taxes and it's brand new.

    Brenics ~ Just to point out I do believe Chris Roberts is going down as the man who cheated backers and took down crowdfunding for gaming.





  • VrikaVrika Member EpicPosts: 6,233
    edited April 21
    Asm0deus said:
    Gah missed out on this deal as I found out about it too late!


    I think this would have been just great for what I want and it was under 300$CAD..well it would have been just a little over 300$CAD with taxes and it's brand new.

    Here's one clearence sale that would be good if you can get it:

     https://www.bestbuy.com/site/lenovo-ideapad-330s-15-6-laptop-intel-core-i3-4gb-memory-128gb-solid-state-drive-midnight-blue/6323662.p?skuId=6323662

    But I doubt you can get it.



    EDIT: Here's one that you can get open box for $273 or new for $300 USD.

    https://www.bestbuy.com/site/asus-imaginebook-mj401ta-14-laptop-intel-core-m3-4gb-memory-128gb-solid-state-drive-textured-white/6375336.p?skuId=6375336

    But that's nearly 50% more than you were willing to spend.
     
  • Asm0deusAsm0deus Member EpicPosts: 3,149
    edited April 21
    Yeah .com tend to be USA links and are not places I can buy from, far too much hassle.

    I have to shop at .ca site's like bestbuy.ca or amazon.ca

    I can go as high as 300$ CAD, that asus is like 650$ cad and far over budget for what I want to do with it.

    Pretty sure with the new ryzen based laptop cpu's coming soonish we should see more "clearance" sales. 

    Brenics ~ Just to point out I do believe Chris Roberts is going down as the man who cheated backers and took down crowdfunding for gaming.





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