Best Budget Gaming Laptop
*At the time of publishing, the price was $1,100.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $950.
If the price of our main pick goes up or it goes out of stock, we recommend the $1,100 Lenovo Y50 with an Intel Core i7-4710HQ processor, an Nvidia GeForce GTX860M with 4GB memory, 16GB RAM, and a 1TB hybrid drive. It has identical gaming performance and a better keyboard and speakers compared to the Asus, but it had the hottest temperatures and the worst screen we tested. The Y50 also creaks and flexes more under pressure than our pick, and it still has last year’s GTX 860M graphics card.
Finally, it’s important to know that right now isn’t the best time to buy a budget gaming laptop, and we recommend waiting a few months if you can. Nvidia launched its new midrange GeForce GTX 965M graphics card at CES in January, and as of March manufacturers have started launching new laptops (and refreshing existing ones) with this card and the GTX 960M. Both the 960M and 965M are faster than the 860M, and they don’t cost more. We’ll update once we’ve tested more of these new budget gaming laptops, but for now the best one is the Asus ROG GL551JW-DS71.
Table of contents
Should you buy this?
Not everyone has $2,000 to spend on a high-end gaming laptop with a graphics card powerful enough to play all of today’s games on high settings or better. For the rest of us, a budget-friendly gaming laptop is the best option. They’re a good fit for students and others who want to play games but are working on a tight budget and need a portable option. Since the best budget machines are 15 inches, they’re a good choice for people who need a portable laptop for work or school that also plays games well.
If possible, you’re better off building a desktop or saving up for a gaming laptop with a more powerful graphics card. A $1,200 desktop will be much more powerful than a $2,000 gaming laptop, and a desktop—even a cheap one—can be easily upgraded in the future. Saving up for a high-end gaming laptop is also a better idea than buying budget because it will play graphics-intensive games for years (rather than months) to come.
A budget gaming laptop is constrained by its graphics card, which can never be upgraded. Most cheap gaming laptops also lack an SSD, so you’ll have to pay extra to upgrade to one later. You’ll have to put more money into keeping a budget laptop relevant in the long run—through SSD and RAM upgrades—compared to a high-end gaming laptop that already has an SSD and 16 to 32 GB of RAM. A budget gaming laptop is a temporary fix for a couple of years if you can’t invest in a desktop or a more expensive laptop.
A good budget gaming laptop has an Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M (Maxwell) or GTX 965M graphics card, while more expensive gaming laptops have a 970M or 980M. We’ll explain our reasoning and what this means in more detail in the next section. To get an idea of what games you can and can’t play (and on which settings), take a look at Notebookcheck’s useful chart of Computer Games on Laptop Graphic Cards .
For example, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Far Cry 4, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Watch Dogs, and Thief all run above 30 fps at 1080p on Ultra settings with the GTX 970M. Those games need to be bumped down to High or Medium settings to run above 30 fps on the GTX 860M. If a game you want to play doesn’t run as well as you’d like on the GTX 860M, you should get a desktop or a more powerful gaming laptop instead.
What makes a good budget gaming laptop?
The most important consideration of a budget gaming laptop is, obviously, price. We want the most powerful gaming machine possible without spending more than $1,400; ideally it’ll cost $1,200 or less. Any more expensive than $1,400, and you’re better off saving up $350 more for our main gaming laptop pick, which has a better screen, a more effective cooling system, faster SSD storage, and superior gaming performance. You can’t get a good gaming laptop for $800 or less—the graphics cards they come with (Nvidia GeForce GTX 850M or worse) are a bad choice in the long run.
Like any gaming laptop, the most important specs for our budget machine are graphics card, CPU, RAM, and storage. Other important features include the chassis’ heat and noise management, keyboard, display, trackpad, and to a lesser extent, the speakers. A decent trackpad is a little more important here than in a traditional gaming laptop. Most gamers use a mouse, but those searching for a budget gaming laptop are more likely to use the laptop for everyday work and browsing.
We began by selecting the ideal graphics card for a budget gaming laptop. All the laptops containing Nvidia’s high-end GeForce GTX 980M and 970M cards are too expensive, but the GTX 860M (Maxwell 1 ) is the best graphics card available in gaming laptops in our price range. The GTX 965M announced in January is even better—and still affordable—so new and refreshed laptops with this card are worth looking forward to. We searched for older but more powerful GPUs like the GTX 770M, the GTX 775M, or the AMD Radeon HD 7970M, but didn’t find any in laptops below $1,400.
You shouldn’t buy a gaming laptop with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 850M or lower, even though they often cost $800 or less. The GTX 860M is a much weaker card than the GTX
970M we recommend in our high-end gaming laptops guide, so it has worse gaming performance and won’t be as futureproof. The 850M has the same problem, but much, much worse. For example, the 850M has difficulty running Skyrim, a game that came out in 2011. That’s not cool. Those who buy a gaming laptop and try to cut corners on the graphics card will hate that computer in six months to a year, versus the two or more years a laptop should last. (Trust me; I’ve made this mistake.)
Our pick needs a CPU strong enough to avoid bottlenecking the graphics card. All of our contenders have an Intel Core i7 4700HQ processor or better, which is more than enough. 8 GB of RAM is the bare minimum for a gaming machine, and is plenty for most games. But 16 GB (or at least room to expand in the future) would be nice.
An SSD speeds up boot times and can decrease loading times in games, but not many budget gaming laptops have them. Most gaming laptops in our price range have 500 GB to 1 TB of hard drive storage and no SSD. It’s easy to swap in a solid state drive later, so an SSD isn’t a requirement. (But it is a bonus!)
Our ideal budget gaming laptop costs less than $1,200 and has an Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M (Maxwell) graphics card, an Intel Core i7 4700HQ processor or better, 8 to 16 GB of RAM, and at least 500 GB of hard drive storage.
But there’s more to a gaming laptop than the specs. The GPU and CPU of a gaming laptop produce a lot of heat, and if the laptop doesn’t have an effective cooling system, it will overheat. That can slow gaming performance, shorten the lifespan of the laptop or even burn you.
Unfortunately none of the budget laptops we tested kept cool during long gaming sessions. Some got too hot in important spots like the underside of the chassis, the WASD keys—the highest-contact section of the keyboard for gamers, since those four keys are often used for in-game movement—and the left palmrest. Others had more effective fans that moved air away from the internal components and high-contact areas, making less-crucial areas like the strip above the keyboard heat up. We tested to find out which is the least bad and doesn’t drown out the laptop’s speakers with loud fans.
Our budget pick also needs a good keyboard and trackpad. Most gamers use a mouse, but people on a budget are more likely to use their gaming laptop as their primary machine for web browsing and everyday tasks. For the same reason, battery life, size, and weight are also more important in this category than for traditional gaming laptops.
Budget gaming laptops come in all form factors: 17-inch, 15-inch, and sometimes 13-inch. Larger screens offer better gaming immersion, while smaller form factors are more portable. We focused on 15-inch models for this guide because they strike a good balance between screen size and relative portability. Also, the 17-inch models were too expensive, and there weren’t any great 13-inch laptops that fit our criteria. The screen must be 1080p; lower resolutions look terrible, and higher resolutions aren’t affordable yet. (Not to mention, these graphics cards can’t play games well above 1080p.)
Good build quality is important but uncommon in budget gaming laptops. Many cheap laptops flex and creak under light pressure, sound hollow or plasticky, and have wobbly lids. A well-made laptop will hold up better over years of use (and occasional abuse) but also costs more. Subpar build quality isn’t a dealbreaker for this price range, though. Likewise, poor speakers are disappointing, but can be remedied with a pair of headphones or external speakers.
How we picked
After we chose our hardware criteria, we searched the websites of major laptop manufacturers like Lenovo. Asus. Acer. Alienware. MSI. HP. Toshiba. and others. We also browsed boutiques like Clevo. iBuyPower. Origin. Digital Storm. and others, but didn’t find any laptops that met our price range and hardware requirements.
Then we put together a list of the laptops that fit our criteria and have positive reviews from trusted sources like CNET. AnandTech. Engadget. Laptop Mag. PCMag. and Notebookcheck .
We eliminated the laptops that didn’t fit our requirements (less than $1,200, Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M and Intel Core i7 4700HQ or better, and at least 8 GB of RAM). We also dismissed machines that had dealbreaking flaws (like severe overheating) mentioned in one or more trusted reviews and came up with three finalists: the Lenovo Y50, the Asus ROG GL551JM, and the MSI GE60 Apache Pro.
How we tested
We called in our three finalists and tested each, putting them through much of the same rigorous testing as our best gaming laptop contenders. We benchmarked them all using the latest versions of PCMark and 3DMark. as well as Bioshock Infinite’s benchmarking mode. We measured the laptops’ internal temperature using HWMonitor and measured the surface temperature at various points on the keyboard and underside using a Fluke IR thermometer.
We tested three budget machines: the Asus ROG GL551 (top), the Lenovo Y50 (middle) and the MSI GE60 (bottom).
We tested each laptop’s screen using some of the Lagom LCD monitor test pages. and used each for several work days to get a feel for their keyboards, trackpads, screens, and speakers. We also played an hour of the less demanding Team Fortress 2 and many, many hours of Path of Exile. We also played a smattering of other games across the different laptops, including XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within, Borderlands 2, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.