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You think you want a ‘budget’ gaming laptop, but trust us – you don’t

Gaming performance is becoming a standard feature in laptops, in part because it’s cheaper than ever for manufacturers to pack powerful graphics cards into their products. That’s given rise to a new breed of budget gaming laptops that appear, at a glance, far more capable than those available just a few years ago.

Like jumbo shrimp, a budget gaming laptop might seem a contradiction. Yet major manufacturers like Dell and Acer have dedicated serious resources to developing affordable gaming laptops in the sub-$1,000 range. Unfortunately, like every laptop under $1,000, these systems often cut corners to deliver usable products at affordable price points. And that’s the real problem.

Cutting more than costs

A budget laptop offers the bare minimum you need to get work done on the go, while a gaming laptop is a luxury item. Establishing a middle ground between the two presents some unique problems.

Gaming laptops are powerful, portable computers that allow you to play games you’d normally need a big, bad desktop rig to enjoy. They let you do something you can’t with a normal laptop, thanks to their emphasis on powerful hardware and durable industrial design.

With that in mind, cutting corners in one area to deliver in another is an exercise in self-defeat for budget-minded rigs. They’re trying to reconcile two contradictory forces — and they suffer for it.

The budget gaming laptops that have come through our offices have a few things in common. First, they all boast an entry-level graphics card, usually the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050. Though not always capable of delivering smooth performance at 1080p and high detail settings, the GTX 1050 (and its sibling, the GTX 1050Ti) isn’t the problem.

A decent gaming laptop should let you forget you’re playing on a laptop at all.

Instead, the problems are found in display quality, and build quality. Every budget gaming notebook we’ve reviewed has had issues in one, and usually both, of these areas. Flimsy hinges, cheap keyboards, and atrocious displays seem to come standard on these machines. These elements are all critical to gaming, and because they’re baked into the laptop, they can’t be upgraded later. What you get is what you’re stuck with until you buy an entirely new laptop.

Crossing the narrow threshold between a $900 laptop and a $1,200 laptop almost universally remedies these problems. Build quality leaps forward, keyboards become excellent, and displays deliver a far more vibrant image. The Acer Aspire VX 15 isn’t much fun to use. Acer’s Predator 15, which starts around $1,300, is one of the best gaming laptops money can buy.

Acer Predator 15 Image used with permission by copyright holder

Admittedly, that’s almost always the case, right? Spend more, and you get more. But in this case, budget gaming laptops find themselves just outside the Goldilocks zone. They’re cheap enough to be appealing, but not quite expensive enough to be well made.

Minimum requirements

Standard budget laptops deliver the essentials you need to get online and run an office suite. But what’s the bare minimum you need to enjoy a PC game? Gaming is experiential, and there’s a lot more to enjoying a game than hitting 60 frames per second. Making a gaming laptop that is enjoyable to use is about more than just packing a powerful graphics card into a gaudy black and red chassis.

Personally, I haven’t done any serious gaming from a desktop in years — and I’m pretty much a dedicated laptop user. I’ve explored the Capital Wasteland through an old MacBook Pro running an Nvidia GPU, I’ve learned how not to play Hanzo on a Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming, and most recently I’ve dismantled drug cartels in Bolivia with a Dell XPS 15 in my lap.

Overwatch: Origins Edition
Image used with permission by copyright holder

For me, budget or not, a decent gaming laptop should let you forget you’re playing on a laptop at all. A big part of that is having a decent display, and a well-designed chassis, in addition to powerful internal components. Hook up an external mouse and a good gaming laptop should give a full gaming experience without being chained to a desk. Budget gaming laptops just aren’t there yet.

Gaming laptops are great, if you pay for them

The gaming notebook market has finally achieved a balance between price and performance, and there are some great gaming laptops out there right now. From sleek Razer Blades to brash Acer Predators, there’s something for every taste. The only problem is price, as they all cost $1,000 or more.

There aren’t any great budget gaming notebooks on the market right now.

That’s a lot of money, but if spending that kind of cash on a gaming system is just not feasible, you’re not alone, and you have options. First, if you’re like me and gaming on a laptop is your preferred method, just wait a little while and try to find a last-gen gaming laptop refurbished on Amazon or from the manufacturer — or keep saving until you can comfortably cross over into the $1,000 threshold.

Alternatively, don’t get a gaming laptop at all. There simply aren’t any budget gaming notebooks on the market right now that are worth the trouble. It’s easy to convince yourself that a budget gaming laptop makes sense if you don’t have much to spend, but you’ll end up spending as much in two years to replace what you buy now, once you’ve grown to hate it.

Don’t do that to yourself. Instead, start saving for the Razer Blade you really want, or start checking out desktop components on NewEgg. An $800 gaming laptop isn’t worth your time or money.

Editors' Recommendations

Jayce Wagner
Former Digital Trends Contributor
A staff writer for the Computing section, Jayce covers a little bit of everything -- hardware, gaming, and occasionally VR.
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