2016 Gaming Notebook Guide

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Now that the excitement over Nvidia’s new “Pascal” graphics cards has passed, it’s time to take a closer look at what to look for in a gaming notebook here in the second half of 2016.

In this article, we’ll be reviewing what to look for, component-by-component, in a gaming notebook. Different budgets will be addressed, from sub-$900 to over $2,000. Even with a modest budget, you can still get a notebook that will let you play today’s titles.

This article is focused on providing advice for getting a gaming notebook to play popular AAA titles, such as Ubisoft’s Far Cry Primal and Square Enix’s Rise of the Tomb Raider. If you primarily play web browser-based games, it’s generally unnecessary to invest in a dedicated gaming notebook. You can get away with much less, such as an Ultrabook with integrated graphics. The Dell Inspiron 13 7000 series is one example.

Nvidia PascalGraphics Card (GPU)

The graphics card is the heart and soul of a gaming notebook. Every other component can be top shelf, but if you’re stuck with integrated graphics, you might as well say goodbye to modern 3D gaming, as well.

The minimum card we recommend in a new gaming notebook is the Nvidia GTX 965M. This card is built on Nvidia’s last-generation “Maxwell” architecture, but Nvidia has yet to announce a “Pascal” based replacement.  It’s enough for medium details in today’s games, at a 1080p (1,920×1,080 pixels) resolution. Notebooks with this card can be had at or just under the $1,000 mark. The Gigabyte Aero 14 is one example of a more premium notebook available with this card.

Asus RoG StrixThe new Nvidia GTX 1060 is a significant step up from there. It’s more than capable of powering through today’s games at 1080p with the details maxed out. Next to the GTX 965M, it’s over twice as fast. AMD’s Radeon R9 M470 and M470X are worthy competitors, on paper. That’s assuming you could find them; as of writing, we couldn’t locate anything but an announcement that Alienware was going to start offering the solutions in its new Alienware 15. Notebooks with a GTX 1060 generally start around $1,400, with well-equipped models going for $1,600 or so. (See later on in this article for our recommended configurations.)

Up from that tier is the Nvidia GTX 1070, for which AMD doesn’t have a competitor as of yet. Performance-wise, it’s around one-third faster than the GTX 1060 on average. It’s well suited to 1440p (2,560×1,440) gaming, as opposed to 1080p, where it tends to be a little overpowered. You’ll be looking at around $1,700 – $2,300 for a GTX 1070-equipped notebook.

MSI GT73 VRAt the top of the pile is the Nvidia GTX 1080, the fastest single card available in a notebook. It’s about one-third faster than the GTX 1070, or not quite twice as fast as the GTX 1060. For 4K gaming, the GTX 1080 is the minimum single card to have in order to play with the details maxed out. The GTX 1070 is a little underpowered for gaming at that stratospheric resolution, unless you feel like turning down the quality settings a few notches. Notebooks equipped with a GTX 1080 generally won’t be had much south of $3,000. Unless 4K is you intended playground, the GTX 1070 is a more sensible purchase.

The graphics card is generally not considered an upgradeable component in most notebooks, so be sure to choose the right one. You’ll be stuck with your choice as long as you have the notebook.

Entry-Level: Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M

Mid-Tier: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 or AMD Radeon R9 470/470X

Enthusiast: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070

High-End: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080

Virtual Reality (VR)

Should you plan to explore the world of virtual reality, it’s important to ensure the notebook you’re buying is VR Ready. It’ll be advertised as such. The graphics card is the main determinant of VR capability. Notebooks with an Nvidia GTX 1060 graphics card and up can generally be VR Ready, but again make sure the notebook is advertised as such.

Acer Predator 17 X RearProcessor (CPU)

The processor is secondary to the graphics card in importance when it comes to overall gaming performance. Most games tend to be limited by the graphics card, but RTS games in particular can be very dependent on processing power.

A quad-core processor is a must. As of writing, AMD doesn’t offer a multi-core processor that’s competitive with Intel’s “Skylake” chips. The least-expensive quad-core Intel offers is the Core i5-6300HQ. This CPU is plenty for modern gaming, though relatively rare. Most gaming notebooks opt for the bread-and-butter Core i7-6700HQ, which has stronger performance. Unlike the Core i5-6300HQ, the Core i7-6700HQ has Intel’s hyper-threading technology that allows it to process eight threads simultaneously, as opposed to four. This doesn’t make a noticeable difference in most games, but it generally doesn’t hurt, either.

Intel’s top-tier mobile processor is the Core i7-6820HK. It runs at a slightly higher 2.7GHz base, next to 2.6GHz for the Core i7-6700HQ, and tops out at 3.6GHz. The selling point for this processor is that it has unlocked multipliers, meaning it can be overclocked. Whether it is actually overclockable is up to the notebook manufacturer, though. Notebooks like the MSI GT73VR we mentioned before have built-in overclocking features that can allow the processor to reach 4.0GHz. We find its extra performance in either situation goes unnoticed over the Core i7-6700HQ for gaming, as both processors are strong enough not to be a performance bottleneck. Again, the graphics card is usually the limiting factor.

As with the graphics card, mobile processors are not upgradeable. Choose wisely.

Entry-Level: Intel Core i5-6300HQ quad-core

Mid-Tier: Intel Core i7-6700HQ quad-core

High-End: Intel Core i7-6820HK quad-core (overclockable in some notebooks)

AW 17 RAM UpgradeMemory (RAM)

It’s rare to see a gaming notebook sold with less than 8GB of memory (RAM). That’s the minimum you’ll want for the latest AAA titles. We’ve observed some games as of late eat up several GB of memory on their own, let alone what you’ll need for just Windows 10 and anything else you may have running.

16GB of memory is generally an inexpensive upgrade from 8GB, and our recommended amount. For gaming alone, you wouldn’t need more than 16GB at this point in time. However, if you’re a heavy multi-tasker, then 32GB might not hurt. It’s not a wildly expensive upgrade nowadays, compared to how it was priced several years ago.

Gaming notebooks built around Intel’s “Skylake” processors, like the Core i7-6700HQ we mentioned in the previous section, will generally use DDR4 memory. Older notebooks used DDR3L, but the performance difference between the two hardly makes a difference in benchmarks, let alone games. It’s the amount of memory that counts, and not the type or frequency.

Memory is usually configured in paired DIMMs in performance notebooks. A notebook with 16GB of RAM, for example, will usually be made up of two 8GB modules. This configuration allows the memory to run in dual-channel mode for higher bandwidth. It’s not as if single-channel memory is the end of the world, though; today’s Intel processors generally aren’t starved for memory bandwidth. Our suggestion is to go for a dual-channel configuration if possible, though.

Entry-Level: 8GB

Mid-Tier: 16GB

High-End: 32GB

Crucial MX300Storage

Storage capacity is the most important aspect of storage. If you can’t fit all your data and games, then how fast the drive is hardly matters. Fortunately, storage is relatively inexpensive in the consumer market. It’s common to see notebooks equipped with a 1TB hard drive, enough to fit Windows 10 and several dozen of the latest games.

Slightly more expensive notebooks will usually include a solid state drive (SSD) in conjunction with the hard drive. SSDs have instantaneous access times, and much higher read and write performance than traditional hard drives.

The performance of the storage drive can matter in games where levels are loaded as you’re playing. MMORPGs like World of Warcraft are one example. If you have the game installed on a slow storage drive, the game may stutter or seem sluggish while loading. That behavior can generally be eliminated by installing the game on an SSD.

SSDs are still relatively expensive next to hard drives when it comes to cost per gigabyte. A 1TB hard drive is less than $100 as we write this, where an SSD of the same capacity is several hundred dollars. The Crucial MX300, shown here, is a relative inexpensive 1TB SSD.

Our recommendation is to go for a blended configuration, with a moderate-sized SSD for Windows 10 and your games of choice, and a secondary hard drive for storage purposes.

Entry-Level: 1TB hard drive

Mid-Tier: 128GB SSD for the operating system, plus a 1TB hard drive for storage

High-End: 256GB SSD or larger, and a 1TB hard drive

Acer Predator 17 X ScreenDisplay Technologies

Gaming notebooks generally include a 1080p display resolution at the minimum. This resolution is ideally suited to a 15.6-inch or 17.3-inch display, and even the Nvidia GTX 965M graphics card we mentioned earlier is generally capable of running games at this resolution.

You’ll need an Nvidia GTX 1070 to comfortably game at a 1440p resolution. It’s rare to see this resolution on gaming notebooks, as it’s usually 1080p or 4K. The latter is too demanding for all but the GTX 1080 graphics card as we mentioned earlier, and we generally don’t recommend a 4K display be paired with any lesser card for gaming purposes.

The display’s refresh rate is also important. Most notebook displays are capped at 60Hz, meaning they can’t display more than 60 frames per second (fps). Some higher-end gaming notebooks, like the MSI GT73VR Titan Pro we linked earlier, are available with a 120Hz display. These can display up to 120fps, and deliver an exceptionally smooth gaming experience.

It’s also not uncommon to see gaming notebooks now including Nvidia G-Sync support. The high-level view of this technology is that it synchronizes the fps output of the graphics card with the display’s refresh rate, eliminating tears. It’s a higher-tech version of vertical sync (VSync).

At current, the 120Hz panels with Nvidia G-Sync support are restricted to using TN panel technology in notebooks. (At least, we haven’t seen any other types of panels with that high of a refresh rate in mobile form.) TN panels have lesser image quality and limited viewing angles next to IPS panels. The latter tend to be capped at 60Hz or 75Hz, though, so if you’re after the smoothest possible gaming experience, you’ll have to make the trade-off. For gaming, it’s probably a worthwhile sacrifice, especially if your budget permits you a notebook with a very powerful card that can push 100fps or more in today’s games. (In other words, a GTX 1070 or 1080 paired with a 1080p display resolution.)

Entry-Level: 1080p IPS panel, 60Hz refresh rate

Mid-Tier: 1080p IPS, 60Hz, with Nvidia G-Sync support

High-End: 1080p TN, 120Hz, with Nvidia G-Sync; or 4K IPS, 60Hz, with Nvidia G-Sync

Recommended Configurations

Based on the advice provided above, we compiled four recommended configurations for different budgets.

Component

Entry-Level*

Mid-Tier

Enthusiast

High-End

Price Point

$900 – $1,300

$1,400 – $1,700

$1,800 – $2,500

$2,700+

Graphics Card

GTX 965M

GTX 1060 or
RX 470/470X

GTX 1070

GTX 1080

Processor

Core i5-6300HQ

Core i7-6700HQ

Core i7-6700HQ

Core i7-6820HK

Memory (RAM)

8GB

16GB

16GB

32GB

Storage

1TB HDD

128GB SSD + 1TB HDD

128GB SSD + 1TB HDD

256GB SSD + 1TB HDD

Display

1080p IPS 60Hz

1080p IPS 60Hz w/ G-Sync

1080p TN 120Hz w/ G-Sync

1080p TN 120Hz w/ G-Sync, or 4K 60Hz w/ G-Sync

*Not VR Ready

Various configurations of the Alienware 15 fit the entry-level and mid-tier bills.

The Asus RoG Strix is a great example of an enthusiast configuration.

Lastly, the MSI GT73VR Titan Pro is a high-end gaming notebook with the GTX 1080.

Asus RoG StrixConclusion

The major gaming-related technologies destined to hit the market before the 2016 holiday season have done so, making it a good time to buy. We detailed our recommendations for different budgets, reviewing entry-level, mid-tier, enthusiast, and high-end configurations.

At the minimum, you’re looking at spending around $900 for an entry-level gaming notebook, whereas the sky is the limit for a high-end model. If you want top-tier Nvidia GTX 1080 graphics and a 4K G-Sync display, for example, you’re looking at upwards of $3,000.

But it’s unnecessary to spend that kind of coin to get a great gaming experience. We think the sweet spot for price to performance lies around $1,500, where you can net a model with an Nvidia GTX 1060 graphics card and Intel Core i7 quad-core processor. Such a notebook is more than capable of powering through today’s demanding titles at a 1080p resolution, and should be for some time to come. If budget is the limiting factor for you, prioritize the graphics card (GPU), followed by the processor (CPU), as these are generally not upgradeable later on. The memory and storage generally are usually upgradeable, making it a relatively safe bet to cut corners there in anticipation of future upgrades.


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10 Comments

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  1. nancysid

    Excellent article for a non-techie like me, but I wish you had made some suggestions of which notebooks you like in each category.

    • Charles P Jefferies

      Thanks Nancy. I linked a couple of notebooks in there, after the table showing the recommended configurations, though we’re still in the process of reviewing a few of the units I’d have liked to have listed. Can I help you find a suitable gaming notebook?
      Charles

  2. afloyd

    EVOC P870DM2 or DM3… done!

  3. afloyd

    EVOC P870DM2 or DM3… check!

  4. Easier

    Thanks very much for the informative article! Since you offered to help find a suitable gaming notebook for nancysid, maybe you can help me too. I’m looking for something under $2000. I read the review on the ASUS you linked and I think the fan noise may become an issue for me. As far as gaming goes, I mostly play WoW on my laptop. Any suggestions? Thanks in advance 🙂

    • Charles P Jefferies

      Sure – with that kind of budget, you have a lot of options. I’d look at the 15.6-inch MSI GT62VR for starters, it runs quiet and cool. It’ll be right up against the top of your budget if you get it with the GTX 1070 graphics card, but the GTX 1060 version is still very capable. WoW is not a demanding game. But consider spending the extra for something like the GTX 1060 (and possibly the GTX 1070) anyway, to accommodate your future gaming needs.
      Another suggestion is the HP Omen 17 (17.3-inch) with the GTX 1060 or GTX 1070, which also runs cool and quiet. It’s currently one of the best values in the gaming notebook market. I haven’t seen it for purchase yet, but it was released, so I’d expect it to be in stores within the next month or so.

      Charles

  5. Easier

    Thanks Charles! I have picked out the MSI GT62VR with the GTX 1070 card and with the minor changes I made at Xotic it is still under my $2000 limit :-). Your prompt reply was very much appreciated. Talk to you in two years or so 😉

    • Charles P Jefferies

      You are very welcome, glad I could help you!
      Charles

  6. tonpimenta

    Hi.. actually this article worries me!
    I just bought a Lenovo Ideapad 700 with 16Gb RAM, i7 6700HQ, 256Gb SSD + 1Tb SATA… BUT with a GTX 950M with 4Gb DDR3.. which is not even listed as “entry level”… is this too bad?? Did I screwed up? It sounded a pretty good deal since I payed $999,00 tax free at Fry’s LV…

    • Charles P Jefferies

      Hey there,
      Pretty sure you got a GTX 960M, as the Y700 is not offered with the GTX 950M. The GTX 960M is 80-85% of the performance of a GTX 965M. Not a bad card by any means, though it’ll be limited to 1366×768 and high settings or 1600×900 and medium settings in most of today’s AAA titles.
      Take a look on Newegg and see what they have for around $1,000. Sometimes you can get a GTX 970M for that, which is a lot stronger than the GTX 960M. You’ll need to spend about $1,300 to get a GTX 1060, which is stronger still.
      Charles