Not too long ago, buying a gaming laptop was something only a small slice of users could justify. They simply cost too much for too little return. Modern gaming laptops are a different story and are actually a great deal.
The Bad Old Days of Gaming Laptops
The only reason you would buy a gaming laptop in the past was that you absolutely needed a mobile gaming system. You’d have to pay exorbitant amounts of money for the privilege and then put up with CPUs and GPUs that were a generation or two behind.
In other words, you’d be getting budget desktop gaming performance for cutting-edge gaming desktop prices. So, unless you were a well-heeled executive who absolutely had to get their gaming fix while staying at a hotel, it was very hard to recommend these overpriced and underpowered systems to anyone.
The Turnaround Point
There are two big developments that have changed the value proposition of gaming laptops dramatically. The first began after the introduction of Intel’s 2008 Nehalem CPU architecture. This was the basis of the first “i” CPUs (i3, i5, i7, etc.) and offered a 30% reduction in power consumption for the same performance as the previous generation of CPUs. Since then, CPUs have continued to increase performance while their performance-per-watt figures have just gotten better. The CPU in a modern laptop is fundamentally the same as its desktop counterpart. It has the same features and the same architecture. The main difference comes down to how much power you can feed it and how well you can manage heat. While a gaming laptop can’t match a desktop system in either power or heat, the power and heat envelopes that are possible offer more than enough performance for a potent gaming experience.
The second major breakthrough happened with the 2016 introduction of NVIDIA’s 10-series GPUs. These GPUs offered a big leap in performance while also dramatically reducing heat and power consumption. So, just as with modern CPUs, you can now have a GPU in your gaming laptop that’s of the same generation and architecture as the latest gaming desktops. Once again, performance is limited by how many Watts of power the GPU can access and how well the laptop can cool things down. Since the performance-per-watt figures are so good, this isn’t too much of a practical issue, since modern laptops run games exceptionally well.
Gaming Laptops Are Price Competitive
It’s great that the gaming laptops of today are in the same performance ballpark as modern gaming desktops, but that doesn’t mean much if they are unaffordable! The thing is, a gaming laptop isn’t that much more expensive than an equivalent desktop system.
Take the 2021 Acer Predator Helios 300 laptop as an example:
- Intel Core i7 11800H: 8-cores, 16-threads.
- 16GB of RAM.
- RTX 3060 Mobile.
- 512GB SSD
All of this for just under $1300 seems like a great deal. Trying to find a desktop equivalent build can be challenging for several reasons, but assuming the 3060 mobile GPU is running at its highest power design level, it’s in the same performance class as the desktop RTX 2060 GPU, with a better generation of ray tracing and machine learning technology. The 11800H CPU has similar performance approaching the desktop Core i9 9900, depending on the power and cooling solution in a given laptop model.
Considering that you’re getting a complete system that includes a high-refresh display, this is an objectively great deal. As we write this towards the end of 2021, there’s a massive GPU shortage that has pushed the prices of discrete cards through the roof. So even a relatively entry-level gaming card such as the old RTX 2060 or the new RTX 3060 cost nearly as much as this entire laptop.
During “normal” times this situation would be reversed, but the additional price tag on the laptop over a desktop system is marginal, especially if you factor in not strictly needing a monitor.
Acer Predator Helios 300
A potent gaming machine for a great price. All but the most demanding gamers will be blown away by this mid-range monster.
Do Gamers Actually Upgrade Their Desktops?
The most common criticism leveled at gaming laptops is that they have limited upgradability. It’s true that usually, you can only upgrade the RAM and storage capacity of a laptop, but how often do desktop users actually upgrade single components?
Upgrading isn’t always as cost-effective or sensible as it may seem. If your desktop PC was already well-balanced in terms of component performance, then adding a newer GPU, for example, could simply lead to bottlenecks, as other older components struggle to keep up. If you’re changing all the major performance components to avoid this, you’re entering a situation where you’re only reusing the power supply and chassis of the old computer.
We’re not implying that upgrading doesn’t happen or that it never makes sense, but it’s unlikely all those PC gamers who are still running quad-core computers with GTX 1060-class GPUs will move to the latest generation of hardware via individual component upgrades. So if you’re the sort of person that buys or builds a gaming desktop system, uses it for five or more years, and then completely replaces it with a new system, a gaming laptop may make sense for you.
eGPUs and GPU Modules Are an Option!
As a brief aside, things have changed on the GPU upgrade front in the laptop world. Some laptops, equipped with Thunderbolt 3, now support eGPUs. These are external GPUs that give you access to high-end graphics when at a desk and hooked up to mains power. So you can take your laptop on the road and perhaps make do with its internal GPU, but really get the “ultra” experience when home. If you are thinking about eGPUs as a potential solution, you may want to hold out for a laptop with Thunderbolt 4, which doubles the amount of bandwidth available for eGPUs and should really open up performance!
There are also laptops that use MXM GPU modules. The GPU is removable as a unit and can be replaced with an upgraded model later. Unfortunately, you need to buy these from the laptop manufacturer and they can be quite expensive. Also, there are no guarantees MXM modules will be offered for your laptop model in the future. It also seems as if the MXM standard is effectively dead in the water. The last MXM cards were from the NVIDIA RTX 20-series and since then there’s been nothing.
The Pros and Cons of Gaming Laptop Ownership
As we’ve shown, modern gaming laptops are a viable alternative to gaming desktops now. That’s true during abnormal shortage pricing for components like desktop CPUs and GPUs, but it’s also true during more typical market conditions.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have their problems, so let’s weigh up the pros and cons of walking the gaming laptop route.
- It’s an all-in-one system, ready to roll out of the box.
- Components are (usually) selected to work well together, and avoid CPU/GPU bottlenecks.
- They can be noisy.
- Under normal market conditions, you’re getting slightly less performance per dollar compared to desktops.
- Limited upgrade options.
As CPU and GPU technology continues to get cooler and use less power, we expect the price and performance gaps between gaming laptops and desktops to narrow even more, but we think that even today it’s definitely an option that should be on the table when you buy your next gaming system.