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The best gaming laptop you can buy

Frag at Starbucks (or anywhere you want) with these potent gaming laptops

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Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Two mobile gaming behemoths sit at the top of our power rankings: The Asus ROG G752 and the Acer Predator 17. Both are massive machines with top-end hardware, but it’s the little touches that push Acer’s newcomer past the tried-and-true G752.

They aren’t the only options for mobile gaming, however. Gaming peripheral manufacturer Razer has been updating the Blade series into a portable powerhouse over the last few years. Finally, if you don’t have a few grand to throw at a laptop, the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 provides modest gaming performance at wallet-friendly $800.

Our pick

ACER Predator 17X

Why should you buy this: You want to play the latest games at the highest settings while you’re on the go.

Who’s it for: Gamers who don’t mind spending a little extra to snag the best performance on the market.

How much will it cost: $1,600 – $2,600

Why we picked the Acer Predator 17:

A better question than “what is the Acer doing right?” is “what isn’t the Acer doing right?” Its performance, powered by an Intel Core i7-6700HQ, 32GB of RAM, and Nvidia GTX graphics, excels in every one of our test areas, and even its hard drives take home top marks.

But it’s not just what’s under the hood that counts. Acer has taken the time to rethink its Predator gaming series, and the new machines it introduced at IFA in 2015 are more impressive than ever. It does look a bit on the conventional side, but Acer supplements its stereotypical matte black and red with a sturdy, spacious layout that includes a full-sized numpad. It’s a more subdued look than the G752, and one that’s sure to please the users who find the Asus too garish.

Its tested performance matches its gaming-oriented aesthetic. Its 3DMark Fire Strike score almost matches the Origin EON17-X, which includes a desktop Intel CPU and GTX 980M. It also excels in real-world gaming, pulling down 88 frames per second in Battlefield 4 at maximum detail and 1080p resolution. Those scores elevate it straight to the top of the mobile gaming food chain, and are even the envy of some mid-range desktops.

But it isn’t just the performance that helps this laptop take home the title — it’s the complete package Acer offers. The 90 watt-hour battery churns for a surprising six hours on a charge. Even the sound system, normally a weak point for laptops, boasts two subwoofers and four speakers, for full, powerful sound when it comes to movies, music, and gaming.

Like most gaming laptops, the Predator 17 starts at $1,600 for the base model, and the system we reviewed with the specifications above will cost another $1,000 or so over that. Still, it’s a bit cheaper than both the Asus and Alienware options, which seals the deal for the Acer as our favorite gaming laptop.

Our full review

The best portable gaming laptop

Razer Blade 2016

Why should you buy this: You want a gaming powerhouse with MacBook style.

Who’s it for: Gamers who need something small and light that can still pack a punch.

How much will it cost: Starts at $2,000

Why we picked the Razer Blade:

The Razer Blade offers serious gaming performance in a slim package. The newest version packs an Intel Core i7-6700HQ in with a 6GB GTX 1060, despite the system’s slim profile.

The system bolsters its slim design with an attractive, matte black exterior. The result is a system that looks a lot like the black MacBooks of yore (that’s a compliment). With its slick design and impressive, RGB-backlit keyboard and trackpad, it stands out in the crowd.

And Razer packs in performance to match. The GTX 1060 is incredibly quick, roughly equivalent to the outgoing GTX 980M. Though there are fasters laptops, there’s very few of similar size with similar hardware. The Alienware 13 is the most obvious alternative, but it’s not as slick as the Razer Blade.

Though it has many strengths, the Blade does fall victim to the limitations of its own footprint. It runs hotter and louder than competitors, and it can’t be had with an optional GTX 1070 or 1080 graphics chip. The price is also high, starting at $1,800 for a model with a 256GB hard drive.

Our full review

The best cheap gaming laptop

Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Skylake

Why should you buy this: It provides useable gaming performance for less than $1,000.

Who’s it for: Students, gamers, anyone who wants a gaming laptop but doesn’t want to break the bank.

How much will it cost: Starts at $800

Why we picked the Dell Inspiron 15 7000:

This budget-friendly laptop may not seem like a gaming powerhouse, but as one of the cheapest systems with a dedicated GPU, it can’t be ignored. It’s more modest than the other systems here, coming in with an Intel Core i5-6300HQ, 8GB of RAM, and a GTX 960M, but that doesn’t stop it from playing most games at reasonable frame rates.

It reaches 38 frames per second while running Battlefield 4 on ultra at 1080p, just over half the G752’s score. Even in Fallout 4 at ultra, the frame rate holds at around 36 FPS, a very playable score which rises to 48 FPS with the settings turned down a bit. Both games are easily playable at medium to high settings and 1080p resolution.

The Inspiron 15 Gaming does look like a budget system. Apart from the aesthetic, which is more toned down than the other systems, the plastic parts betray its budget-friendly status. The screen’s bezel bends, as does the system’s lower chassis. Plus, it just doesn’t feel as sturdy as the other systems, although the slim build is a boon.

But at just $800 for our review unit, it’s easily the cheapest system on this list, and much less expensive than other laptops that can handle modern games.

Our full review

How we test

When we test a laptop, particularly a gaming laptop, we leave no spec un-tested. Starting from look-and-feel and running all the way through individual hardware tests, laptops that enter our lab don’t leave until they’re put through their paces in every conceivable way.

On top of formal testing, we spend a lot of time with the laptops that come through out offices. We’ll use them for everyday work and web browsing, in hopes of catching any elusive issues that evaded our earlier testing. For more information on how we test laptops, you can read a full run-down over here.

What to expect out of a gaming laptop

Gaming laptops have come a long way in the last couple years. While some are still the big LED-clad behemoths we’ve come to know and love, it’s become easier and easier for manufacturers to cram some serious performance into small packages. Just look at the Razer Blade, or even the Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming. They’re no bigger than other non-gaming laptops, but they’re able to deliver some seriously impressive performance.

That said, can we expect desktop-level performance out of a notebook? Well, almost. The best gaming laptops on the market come close, but there are a few areas that desktops still have an edge.

First up, desktop gaming rigs are bigger, so they’re more spacious inside. That extra space is important for heat diffusion. Even the most high-efficiency gaming laptop will still have some issues when it comes to heat accumulation. Inside a laptop’s chassis, everything is crammed together so tight there isn’t much manufacturers can do to reduce heat, other than just pump it out as fast as possible.

Similarly, gaming desktops will almost always have better processors because they don’t need to worry about battery life or the aforementioned heat issue. They can suck down as much power as they need to run those 4.0 GHz octa-core processors without batting an eye. In the process, they’ll generate a massive amount of heat which is easily dispersed with air cooling.

So, when it comes to performance, a great gaming laptop will come close to a desktop gaming experience in all but those areas. It’s going to run hotter, and it’s going to run a little slower. The desktop is faster, but if you only want a laptop, you can make it work.

What about Freesync and G-Sync?

When your GPU is rendering a game, it sends that information to your monitor, which normally can’t communicate with the GPU itself. When a game’s performance dips, your monitor’s refresh rate – the rate at which it displays frames – doesn’t change. That results in screen-tearing — your game looks like it’s coming apart. Options like V-Sync attempt to mitigate that by locking your frame rate to your monitor’s refresh rate (usually 60Hz), but it does so blindly, without communicating with your video card.

With G-Sync and Freesync, your video card communicates directly with your display, keeping things nice and buttery smooth, even when your frame rate starts to chug. If your frame rate goes down, your refresh rate goes down to match, which keeps your screen from tearing and provides an overall better gaming experience. G-Sync is the Nvidia option, while Freesync is the AMD option, but they do essentially the same thing.

It’s a complex issue, and if you’re curious about the nuts and bolts of frame rate versus refresh rate, and how G-Sync and Freesync work in practice, check out our rundown here.