2014 Guide: 10 Best Cheap Gaming Laptops
There’s finding the Holy Grail. Then, there’s the Ark of the Covenant. And then, there’s finding a cheap gaming laptop for serious play that’s both future-proof and doesn’t cost a bundle. Not long ago, you might as well have hunted for one in that fabled Indiana Jones warehouse full of crates.
Back just a few years, a gaming laptop capable of playing the very latest PC games at decently high detail settings cost an easy $2,000 or more, if you wanted a model that would be viable for more than a year or two. Today, things have changed a bit—though the degree of change does depend on how you define a “gaming laptop.”
Here at Computer Shopper, we don’t consider any machine a true gaming laptop if it doesn’t come with a dedicated graphics chipset. The lines are a little blurry here, mind you. That’s because plenty of older games and casual games will run just fine on the integrated graphics that are a part of the latest CPUs from Intel and AMD, particularly if you dial back the games’ detail settings and resolution. If that’s the extent of your gaming, you might be able to get by with a cheaper laptop that doesn’t have its own dedicated graphics chip. The best integrated graphics, here in 2013, are the various HD 4000 Series flavors that are a part of Intel’s 4th-Generation “Haswell” CPUs, and the variants of Radeon HD graphics that are part of AMD’s A Series chips, notably the most recent “Richland” variants. (Plenty of laptops based on 3rd-Generation Intel “Ivy Bridge” chips are still on the market, and these chips feature the less impressive HD 3000 Series.)
For “real” gaming, you’ll want a dedicated graphics chip. On an AMD-CPU-based laptop, this will be a dedicated Radeon HD chipset that works in parallel with the on-chip Radeon graphics. In that sense, AMD graphics are additive when used with an AMD processor. The current best is the Radeon HD 8900M series; in the current generation, you’ll also see 8500M, 8600M, 8700M, and 8800M variants. It’s a bit different on Intel-based machines; any dedicated graphics will be the mobile versions of either AMD’s Radeon HD or Nvidia’s GeForce, the latter kind suffixed with an “M” to indicate the mobile version of the chipset (so as not to be confused with the desktop version of the same name—for example, GeForce GTX 780M versus GTX 780). In Nvidia’s line, the dedicated GeForce GTX “M” chips are the ones aimed at serious gaming, whereas the GeForce GT “M” chips are for entry-level gaming. If you look hard enough, you can find current-generation (that is, 700 series) GTX “M” chipsets in a few machines in under-$1,500 laptops.
Cheap Gaming Laptops: What to Look For
Which brings us to pricing. Our price range for “cheap” gaming laptops is a lot higher than for other kinds of “cheap” notebooks. A bare-budget Windows laptop these days will go for $300 to $500. If you’re looking for a laptop with a dedicated graphics chipset, though, most of these models start around $999 and reach to the skies, though you can find isolated models in the $500 to $999 range. Our filter, for the purposes of our “cheap” roundup, is from $1,000 to $1,500. (Note that a few of the machines below, notably the Digital Storm Veloce and Lenovo IdeaPad Y510p, came in a little above $1,500 in the specific test configurations we were sent for review. However, you can reconfigure these models to hit the sweet spot of our price range without sacrificing too much.)Read full review
Now, you can find most of the machines below for more or less than the cited prices; most are available in multiple or even customizable configurations. Take the selections we’ve made below as just a starting point—as suggestions for the laptop lines and vendors to investigate. Here are the key criteria to look for in low-cost gaming machines, however…
PROCESSOR. A maxed-out CPU is less crucial for budget gaming than it is for processor-intensive tasks like video editing or media-file production work. On the AMD side of the fence, gamers will see mostly AMD A8 or A10 chips paired with dedicated graphics, with the on-chip and dedicated graphics working in concert. Acer (various Aspire V5 models) and MSI (the GX60 and GX70 series) are the likeliest hits here with this particular combination. These won’t provide world-beating productivity performance, but they’re good picks for budget gaming.
On the Intel side, the grade of the dedicated GPU is more important than the specific CPU, assuming you’re getting one of the 3rd- or 4th-Generation Ivy Bridge or Haswell CPUs, Core i5 or better. We’ve seen excellent battery life results from the Haswells so far, though we suspect most gamers will spend most of their time near an AC outlet.Read full review
RAM. 4GB is the norm and the minimum you should settle for these days, with 8GB a good upper target. Much beyond that will deliver diminishing returns for games and boost the price.
STORAGE. You’ll likely be dealing with ordinary hard drives in gaming machines in this price range, and perhaps that’s for the best; games are among the biggest space-hog programs out there in terms of drive space. An SSD cache is worth looking for, however, assuming you can find the option in the price range. One of the exceptions is Gigabyte’s game-worthy ultrabook, the U2442D-CF1, which delivers dedicated GeForce GT graphics and a 128GB SSD.
DISPLAY SIZE & INPUT. That Gigabyte we cite is also unusual in that it has a 14-inch screen. For most gamers, the more screen space, the better, so the majority of gaming laptops, cheap or not, have 15.6- or 17-inch screens. Note, however, that touch-screen input is not the norm on gaming machines. If you want touch input (and it is undeniably handy for Windows 8 and 8.1), you’ll have to shop carefully.Read full review