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On the topic of gaming laptops: what was once a niche market is increasingly growing. Consumers are putting ever-growing emphasis on mobility, thanks partly to the ubiquitousness of smartphones and tablets — so why not gaming? But putting a full-fledged gaming machine into a laptop frame runs into unique challenges. Trigger warning for serious geekery ahead — I’ll put it all under the fold.

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A general-purpose PC laptop runs well under $500, and is all you would ever need for web browsing, writing, social media, accounting software, and work-related stuff for most jobs. (Same with MacBooks, if you don’t mind paying roughly triple the price.) Intel has lengthy experience miniaturizing their components into the power-efficient, compact guts of most PC and Apple portables, and can do so astonishingly cheaply these days. Regular computers, whether desktop or laptop, with basic “integrated” graphics can run simple games with low settings, but Star Wars Battlefront, for instance, would cause any machine without a secondary, high-powered graphics card from nVidia or AMD to choke and die. This extra card is the key to turning a regular ol’ computer into a gaming powerhouse, and represents the major bottleneck to gaming laptop performance.

One problem: modern high-end desktop graphics cards are freaking huge, unlike CPUs, and fitting one (let alone two!) of these badboys can be an issue even for a conventional tower — for the massive heat they generate, in addition to the sheer bulk, not to mention the steep monetary cost. The heat issue is even more critical in laptops, with their dense, hard-to-ventilate innards and their low mass. (Smaller objects heat up quicker — think of putting a hot dog in a microwave vs. an entree dish.) In addition, any self-respecting gaming machine requires higher-end CPUs and more memory than your office desktop would ever dream of having. Now imagine fitting all this technology into a machine the same size as a 15″ Macbook Pro, and the engineering problems start to look look damn insurmountable.

And they once were, in the dawn of 3D graphics cards. But in one of the more remarkable and ongoing feats of miniaturization in industrial history, engineers are able to turn this (check out the HDMI port, second from left at the bottom, for size comparison on this beast):

GPU big

into this

gpu small

…with a small decrease in performance, roughly 10-15% or so depending on whom you ask. The smaller models are also, by necessity, far more energy efficient: what use is a gaming laptop if it runs out of juice after 15 minutes of playing The Division?

All this sounds so expensive, and rightly so. Regular desktop gaming PCs are not exactly known for being inexpensive compared to an office PC, or a Playstation 4, and wanting to pack all this into something that can fit into a briefcase and run for hours off of a Li-Ion battery without melting from all the heat comes at a premium.

And even now, products currently on the market are imperfect answers to this challenging engineering problem. To sum it up: Cool, quiet, or light. Pick one of the three for your laptop. Any increase in one quality will come at the expense of the other two!

For instance, check out this Aorus offering. Great performance, and weighing less than four pounds! But remember — you’ll have to pay for that lightness in more than just cash. Its cooling fans get loud and the machine gets hot — all the way up to 50 degrees Celsius on its bottom surface. Hope this thing isn’t literally on your lap! By comparison, the Asus ROG series gets good reviews for how quiet it runs, but is much heavier than the Aorus and similarly runs into heat issues.

And then we have what I went with: the Acer Predator 15. See, I don’t like my computer components getting red-hot. Not only for obvious reasons if it’s on my lap, but also because I’m paranoid about damaging my system, and Acer puts a premium on cooling with this line. It’s never gotten warm to the touch yet, even with a recent game on high settings. But it’s not exactly iPad-size, weighing in at 7.5 pounds, and those fans can get pretty loud. (I personally prioritized coolness over weight and quiet; YMMV.) It has a great Dolby 4.2 audio system that can be easily heard over the racket, even if your roommates might not appreciate it — competitors such as the ROG line assume you brought your own headphones, and don’t spend much effort on sound quality. The 970M GPU is built according to nVidia’s latest state-of-the-art design. For $500 more, you can get an even better graphics card and a bit more elbow room in the SSD.  For both models, the display is “IPS,” representing an advanced update of LCD tech. Another thing I like is that Acer future-proofed its device with a Thunderbolt 3 port for reasons we’ll get to shortly. (The Predator also comes in a 17″ size for the same price, if you don’t mind even more bulk.)

The other option I considered: The Dell Inspiron i7559. This scrappy contender is yours for a mere $800 — less than the typical gaming desktop, let alone laptop — and boasts plenty of features to keep you competitive in your favorite game. Starting with the most important component, the graphics card: the machine is well-served by the respectable nVidia 960M. Representing the latest update to an older and battle-tested design, the 960M can run the legendarily demanding Crysis 3, at high settings, at 54.9 frames per second according to this site — and considering the maximum screen refresh rate for any laptop tops out at 60Hz, that’s really all you need. The machine also boasts a decent 256GB solid-state drive (which is a drive built with the same type of technology found on your phone or iPad — ridiculously fast compared to a conventional hard drive). The machine’s i5-series Intel CPU is strictly mid-range, but runs games at medium-to-high settings plenty well while still allowing for that wonderful entry-level price. No, it’s not quite as powerful as the Predator, but the price is unbeatable.

However, it does lack the Thunderbolt 3 adapter, which is ultimately what steered me toward the Predator. Despite the impressive miniaturization efforts at nVidia and AMD, even the best laptop GPUs will lag behind their big brothers — and I wonder if this gap will grow. So one trend that we are going to hear more and more of in the future: sticking a desktop-class GPU outside of the laptop.

amplifier-alienware-heroI’m not sure if Dell’s Alienware imprint was the first to experiment with this, but they have been the most important, with the Razer Core representing an up-and-coming competitor. Stick a desktop-class nVidia or AMD card in, and you’re ready to rock — but this setup requires a Thunderbolt 3 on your laptop. Attaching a shoebox-sized device to your laptop, with its own power cord, is not really an option for playing on an airplane or car backseat — it’s more in line with the “docking” concept of old-fashioned 1990s laptops, letting them serve as more powerful desktops when at home. And if the power of desktop GPUs really does start to pull away from that offered by their mobile cousins, then one of these things may be the only option if you want to play FarCry 8 in 2021 on maximum settings. Add on a regular computer monitor, and your gaming laptop can convert to a gaming desktop by just plugging a couple things in. And it all depends on having that ultrafast Thunderbolt 3 port.

Just remember: Cool, quiet, or light? Unless you’re willing to drop $3k+, and most of us aren’t, you gotta pick one of the three for your portable rig.

UPDATE: This comprehensive post looks at most of the big gaming laptops of 2016. Worth a read, but I don’t agree with their conclusion: they went with a ROG model that’s roughly $200 more than the Predator and with the same specs in GPU, CPU, RAM, and hard drive. They hurtfully claim the Predator lacks G-Sync, when it is an advertised spec with the device, and slam the Predator’s keyboard which is hailed in other sources as best-in-class. And they even admit the ROG’s temperatures run higher than what I see with the Predator, a model which explicitly focuses on heat at the expense of noise or weight. The ROG instead works on being quiet, as mentioned earlier, but this comes at a cost of heat — and price. Also, the article confirms my general impression that it’s not yet viable to go for lightness in a gaming laptop, not when such a device can fry an egg on its surface when running a late-era game. And finally, it reminds one and all that you get so much more bang for your gaming buck out of a standard desktop/tower PC. This is no question. But if you want to bring your PC gaming on the road, your best options at the moment remain the Dell Inspiron i7559 for below-1k entry-level, or the Acer Predator 15″ or 17″ (same price) for midrange. But most importantly: don’t take my word for it. Do your research first. Laptops are far less upgradeable or customizable than desktops, which means you probably can’t fix it if you screw up and buy a crap model.

UPDATE 2: For completeness, I should note that it is technically possible to bring desktop-class gaming onto the road, and without an external GPU dock… but not in a price range most of us would consider reasonable. This MSI number sports a desktop class 980 – not 980M, an actual 980 – with a souped-up CPU, more RAM, and other specs to let it compete with a decent gaming desktop PC. All for a cool… $3,459. You could build an insane monster top-shelf gaming PC for half that price, or a still-great PC with most games at max settings for a quarter. Or, just get a passable laptop with the Thunderbolt 3 port and the external GPU dock at least a thousand less. It’s silly to buy a gaming desktop with a non-M GTX 980 onboard unless a) you are obsessed with gaming, even more so than me, and b) you literally have no permanent home, due to work or being in the military. If this is the case, either go with that MSI beast, or else wait for the Acer Predator’s competing model for a mere (heh) $2800 in July.

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