We’ve finally reached a point where gaming laptops don’t suck. They’re relatively compact, quieter than a PlayStation, and often have amazing screens. But gaming laptops still have some major drawbacks, and due to the rise of cloud gaming and the Steam Deck, they’re no longer the only option for portable PC gaming.
Here’s a quick heads up; I don’t want to discourage anyone from buying a cool laptop. But if you’re on the fence about buying a $1,700 gaming laptop, maybe I can help you weigh the pros and cons.
Portability Is Awesome but Expensive
Gaming PCs unlock a powerful, high-quality experience that just isn’t available on the Xbox or PlayStation. And a gaming laptop lets you take that experience on the go—it’s awesome, as I’m sure you can imagine.
And while you can obviously use a desktop PC for work or school, a gaming laptop is infinitely more versatile thanks to its portability. You might look kinda dorky whipping out a Razer Blade to run architectural software (or whatever you do), but you won’t need to buy a second computer.
Unfortunately, gaming laptops cost a lot of money to manufacture. Not only do they require special parts (hinges, shielding, custom plastic), but they need to include a keyboard, battery, screen, and trackpad. And since gaming laptops are at the center of a very competitive market, companies like Razer, ASUS, and MSI dump a ton of money into laptop R&D.
These costs get passed down to customers. And at the end of the day, a gaming laptop will always cost more than an equally powerful desktop, often by several hundred dollars. (I’m accounting for the fact that PC owners need to buy a monitor and all that, by the way.)
To be clear, the high price of a gaming laptop shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. A desktop PC costs less money, for sure, but laptops can go anywhere. You can even use a gaming laptop at your desk using an external monitor—it’s like owning both a laptop and a desktop.
Today’s Gaming Laptops Are Powerful but Limited
Modern gaming laptops are shockingly powerful. They can run AAA games without a hitch, and a reasonable five-hour battery life is expected from any decent machine. But even if a gaming laptop matches the technical specs of a desktop PC, it will almost always fall short on performance due to thermal and power constraints.
These limitations make sense. We’re talking about very compact (and battery-powered) machines that exceed the capabilities of gigantic game consoles. But here’s the problem; manufacturers don’t detail real-world performance when selling laptops.
Unless you hunt down some very in-depth reviews, it’s hard to tell how a laptop will run. Massive gaming laptops have a ton of surface area, so they tend to work well, stay relatively cool, and have reasonably loud fans—less portability means more predictability. But smaller models can feel like a bit of a gamble. (To be clear, all gaming laptops get a bit hot and have noisy fans.)
And you’re not just limited by raw performance. Because laptops aren’t upgradable, you’re forced to deal with whatever hardware you decide to purchase. Any flaws, such as a dim display, an outdated CPU, or a crappy port selection, are stuck there forever. (Yeah, some gaming laptops have upgradable RAM and storage. You could even fiddle with external GPUs. Point is, you’re basically stuck with whatever laptop you buy, so you’d better be well aware of its limitations.)
Still, a Gaming Laptop Is Often the Easiest Upgrade
Global supply shortages have forced the PC market into a weird position. Manufacturers can’t meet customer demand for the first time in several years. So, instead of selling components directly to consumers, these manufacturers are prioritizing companies that sell pre-made desktops and laptops.
Needless to say, it’s not a fun time to build a PC. And if you want to build a top-of-the-line machine with the latest and greatest parts, you need to be incredibly patient or deal with overpriced scalpers. (Assuming that you’re confident enough to build a PC in the first place.)
Gaming laptops (and pre-built desktops) are still relatively easy to find, and high-end models pack things like 12th Gen Intel Core processors, 3080 GPUs, DDR5 RAM, and M.2 storage. That makes them the easiest option if you need a new computer—especially if you’re in a rush to buy one.
To be clear, the supply of computer components is beginning to meet demand. A custom desktop PC may be relatively affordable a year or two from now, especially if our economic situation (and the rise of cloud gaming) pushes people away from gaming PCs. But I’m just speculating here, and in the meantime, a gaming laptop is a much easier upgrade than building something from loose parts.
Look Around; Portable Gaming Is Changing
Gaming laptops are better than ever before, but ironically, they’re now faced by some fierce competition. You can now play AAA games on any device using a service like Xbox Cloud Gaming, and portable consoles like the Steam Deck offer PC games in an incredibly compact, comfortable, and affordable package.
Now, cloud gaming has some obvious drawbacks. It requires a decent internet connection (and eats through data), it comes with a monthly fee, and it offers a limited selection of games. But cloud gaming doesn’t require expensive hardware, and it just gets better every year.
Consoles like the Steam Deck are a more direct alternative to a gaming laptop. And while power limitations force these consoles to run at lower resolutions and frame rates, they tend to have a great battery life. (And you really don’t need 4K 120FPS on a seven-inch display.)
I strongly suggest looking into these alternatives before buying a gaming laptop. You can try Xbox Cloud Gaming, NVIDIA GeForce Now, or Stadia on any device with a free trial, and while the Steam Deck is backordered, you can make a reservation for just $400.
Oh, and if you already own a gaming desktop, you can use Steam Link to stream its contents to other devices in your home (when playing games on Steam, at least).
Should You Buy a Gaming Laptop?
You know, I really don’t want to seem like a party pooper. Gaming laptops are incredible, and for many people, they’re the best way to experience games. Not only are gaming laptops portable, but they can serve double-duty as a work or school PC, and can even stand in for a desktop when connected to an external monitor.
If you’re willing to deal with the high price and non-upgradability of a gaming laptop, you should probably buy one. Just don’t make any assumptions about what you’re buying—read reviews, watch videos, and look up information on Google. You’re making a big investment, so do your research.
I also encourage you to look into cloud gaming or the Steam deck. Again, you can get a free trial to a cloud gaming service and try playing a AAA game on any device in your home. And while there’s a long waiting list for the Steam Deck, the console itself costs $1,000 less than a good gaming laptop.