Trends are so cyclical it almost excuses belief in sacred geometry. Gaming machines went from heavy, loud boxes to portable units to laptops, back to monsters with pipes and lighting, and now are driving back toward laptops.
Each generation of GPU architecture provides new ideas that improve performance and lower profile and heat. Those looking for a new laptop or a laptop GPU upgrade have a smorgasbord of choices in front of them.
Price is always a factor but you also need to consider the longevity of parts, the price drops in the wake of next-generation releases, and the support systems needed. Additionally, with so many games moving towards games as service, older cards are able to produce top specs for worthwhile games that have been in service for years.
Read on to learn more about what to expect in securing a dedicated GPU for your laptop right now.
Laptop GPU Upgrade?
Before you begin, you have to figure out if upgrading an existing GPU is worthwhile or if you’re better off swapping to a whole new gaming laptop. The key component of this decision is if you can even get another component crammed into an older laptop.
If you have a laptop with a discrete GPU, the dimensions of newer next-gen cards remain standardized, so you’ll have no issue. If you’ve been running CPU integrated graphics, you might find that an upgrade isn’t possible.
The price points on an upgrade versus a new laptop tend to be similar. The price of the GPU is the bulkiest element and you want to ensure compatibility between your GPU and your CPU. Compatability isn’t about branding but more an issue with the CPU and RAM speeds throttling your ray-tracing beast.
If you’re hesitant to go looking for a discrete GPU, know that supplies are better and prices are lower across the industry. Prices for standalone upgrades and manufacture-installed GPUs have stabilized after the abysmal supply issues of 2018.
So, what other factors do you need to look for in a graphics card? The following provides a quick overview.
HD or Ultra HD
Unless your laptop is so old that it’s insane you’re even trying to upgrade it, your screen is already 1080p HD compatible. You might have an ultra HD 4k, 2840×2160 or so display on a machine from the last two years. More likely you will be working with a 2k display rated for Ultra HD because that happened a lot in the past five years.
It’s always nice to have that graphical fidelity, but we’re still in a time where only select games offer 4k resolutions so going beyond a 2k rated GPU is only for those that are future-proofing their machines or if budget is no issue.
Remember that refresh rate is the buzzword for gaming. A standard display is 60Hz for laptops. A lot of the extra power of GPUs goes into upgrading the refresh rate but the display is a hard limiter. Check if a display has a 120 or 144Hz refresh rate before investing in that RTX 2080 over the cheaper and more usable RTX 2060.
Also, avoid touchscreens. They cost more and offer nothing to your gaming experience.
One thing that people tend to neglect until too-late on their laptop gaming rigs is the heat distribution. High-end 2020 GPUs put out comparable heat to previous generations thanks to better distribution of circuit architecture and advanced fans.
That said, they still put out more heat than integrated graphics and there’s only so much space left in a laptop for airflow. The best choice is to look at your expected use. If you plan to run 4+ hours of gaming in a day, you’ll want an after-market cooling system such as a dock or an airflow desk to help keep air going around the system.
You definitely want to consider keeping the heat on the lower-end if you expect to operate a gaming laptop in your actual lap. Your legs will feel toasty after an hour and burns have occurred.
With the holidays ramping up, you’ll want to do some early scouting to secure the best gaming laptop deals on Black Friday. Here are five systems to look out for.
Gigabyte Aero 17 Lenovo
Currently running around $2180, deals on this could drop as low as $1800 from some outlets on the big day.
This is on the medium-high of weight at just under 6 pounds. It comes standard with a 512 SSD, perfect for a smooth boot and fast load times between zones.
The display is 17.3″ at an actual 4k rated display. They come standard with an RTX 2070 which gives you solid performance, though not top, but provides better cooling and over five hours of battery life. The i9 won’t leave you in the lurch on throughput either.
ThinkPad X1 Extreme
With a current price point hovering around $2000 you’ll be excited to find these included in the deals at Lenovo.com as part of their upcoming Black Friday sale.
This is the lightest unit in the bunch at a flat 4 pounds. The tight package holds a 15.6″ screen running at 4k HDR. The package offers versatility with a sliding scale of storage SSD and RAM sizes.
You have a choice between an i7 or i5 that crackle out six hours of battery life. The budget sized GTX 1050 Ti offers a lot of performance for a small size but might leave you wanting a few years down the road after the next-gen takes root and games developers can utilize the RTX line at full power.
As a ThinkPad (a holdover from the IBM patents) it also has a better onboard mouse for tighter control with no need for an external periphery.
HP ZBook 17 G5
Best bought direct, the HP zBook runs between $2.2k and $5k depending on the dealer.
It’s a monster at 7.7 pounds and a 17.3″ display running at 4k. More of a small desktop than an ultra-portable laptop, it also boasts a Xeon E-2176M CPU and Quadro P5200 GPU.
The keyboard is a bit tough with shallow keys that leave you working with fingertips to maintain precision. Units ship with variable parts for storage and RAM and offer scalability that lends themselves well to future upgrades.
MSI WS65 9TM
The standard pricing of $3400 on this beauty means looking for a deal is a must. Statted out to be used as a workstation if you game like it was a job (or as a streamer, maybe it is) this is the unit to nab.
You get what you pay for with a heavy-duty processor in the i7-9750H that pairs well with the RTX 5000 Max-Q. These above-average parts allow for longer battery life (6 hours) and deliver the package at just over 4 pounds with great cooling.
The display is 17.3″ and Ultra-HD capable. Storage and RAM come out of the box ready with some upgrades to 1TB on the SSD for a minimal extra price.
One last bell for this system is the mil-spec chassis that can take a beating. Perfect for the occasional rage quit or when used in the presence of small children.
Dell Precision 7730
Another sturdy machine with a nearly $1800 price tag, the Dell Precision shakes up the mold with a Radeon Pro WX 4150 and a Xeon instead of Core i7.
Like the MSI, the chassis is mil-spec for taking a pounding and functioning without issue. It does have flat four-hour battery life and comes in at an impressive 7.5 pounds.
Dell isn’t exactly known for their flawless design. The rest of the guts are strong with variable storage up to 1TB SSD and 8-32GBs of RAM.
The screen is a full 17.3″ and offers 900p through 4k display settings which can be swapped through to preserve battery life.
Expect to be looking at a $500 minimum in getting started with a gaming laptop. And that’s low you’re talking more 3rd gen integrated graphics that can at least run something modern, not run it well. For a discrete GPU and real power you are looking at $700-1250 on the low end and $5,000 for a machine just out of R&D.
If you are on a budget you want to balance your CPU and GPU to avoid bottlenecks of either. A big GPU and a small CPU will kill your frames and good luck on staying online through a ping siege.
If you can only afford one, go a bit bigger on the CPU to gain better online stability.
Screen size matters as well. A 15.6″ to 17″ screen feels enormous if you’ve been running around with 14″ inches for too long. Screen size also reflects on the keyboard size. Smaller than 14″ and you’ll lose a lot of games from cramped fingers and multi-presses. At 15.6″ you also get 10-key as a standard for your RTS and macro needs.
Plug-in to More Tech
There’s a fair amount of choices that go into finding the best laptop GPU upgrade.
The best fit is one that gives you the performance that works for you and your budget. Going all-in on the biggest machines tends to include some bloat that you don’t need. Unlike a desktop, you’ll have a harder time piecing together a build yourself, so it pays to find manufacturer deals.
Check out more deals and information on technology and entertainment right here.