Just when did gaming laptops get so thin and powerful? A year ago, thin meant weak -- but today there are tons of sleek notebooks that can play the latest PC games at maximum levels of detail. I decided to discover which ones are actually worth your money.
If you want to play intensive video games, all you really need are some powerful processors in a box. That's not hard. When I rooted through the internet for super-skinny notebooks that could actually chew through the latest games, I found plenty of them. But if you care enough about your laptop being portable that you'd pick a thin machine, I'd bet processing power isn't your only concern. You want a good laptop period, yes? Here's what I found in my search:
Almost all of these computers have nice, thin aluminium bodies that will stand up to a little abuse, and almost all of them can play the latest PC games at high levels of detail thanks to new Nvidia GTX 970M and 980M graphics chips that are becoming the new standard. Most of them have pretty iffy battery life, and so-so screens. Except a few machines using last year's graphics processors (which made a surprisingly huge difference in game performance), they're all pretty decent picks. How the hell was I going to figure out which ones were the best?
When everything's great, you have to get picky -- and it came down to small details. Creature comforts. Keyboards and touchpads. Design. Price. How balanced the features are -- does it have a super-high resolution screen that requires more power than its components can deliver? I looked at every laptop I could find, and here's how it panned out.
The Best Overall: Razer Blade (2015, Full HD)
The $2999.95 (Australian RRP) Razer Blade is the first thin laptop that ever came close to passing as a serious gaming machine. It's been through five major revisions and now, in 2015, it's almost perfect.
Not only is the Blade's (admittedly Apple-esque) design sturdy and gorgeous, but it finally had enough power to play anything I threw at it. The laptop's small enough to carry around and subtle enough that it didn't stand out too much at my local coffee shop. With over four hours of battery life, it lasted longer than almost every other machine I tested. Not nearly long enough to last me a full work day, but long enough that I wasn't constantly checking the battery level.
It's also my poster child for a well-balanced laptop. See, Razer also sells a higher-end version of this machine with a little more RAM and a much higher resolution display -- but the GeForce GTX 970M chip can't push modern games to their full potential at super high resolutions. It sounds counterintuitive, but knowing the difference between the highest specs and the right specs is key to choosing an excellent laptop. The Full HD Razer Blade has the right specs.
The Best For Power-Hungry Gamers: Aorus X7 Pro
If you need ridiculous amounts of raw, untapped power in a thin, badass shell, the Aorus X7 Pro is your only choice. It's the only sub-inch laptop I found that rocks a dual-GPU configuration -- which means it's probably got enough raw power to obliterate games that are still just a twinkle in a game developer's eye. It's a veritable beast: mine came with over a terabyte of solid state storage, an additional 1TB hard drive, loads of RAM (32GB), a wicked fast processor and two NVIDIA GTX 970M GPUs with 6GB of memory each. Oh yeah.
Power isn't the only thing it offers either. This Gigabyte-built laptop looks and feels like a sports car, with thick, flaring air vents that help the Aorus look like it might just take off into space at any moment of its own accord. This is the laptop Batman would pick. Power and style does come at a cost though: the X7's battery only last me half as long as the Razer Blade and its trackpad really isn't the best. It also costs $3299 in Australia -- but when it comes to performance and style, it doesn't get any better.
The Best For Big Screen Gaming: MSI GS60 Ghost / GS70 Stealth
For some gamers, a 14-inch laptop like the Razer Blade is too small for comfortable gaming. If a bigger screen is what you crave, you want an MSI GS-series laptop.
The $2999 (Australian RRP) MSI GS60 Ghost Pro and $2899 (Australian RRP) GS70 Stealth Pro are almost identical -- both sport a classy aluminium chassis (I was struck by how strong yet thin each of them were), excellent SteelSeries keyboards, well-balanced Dynaudio speakers and plenty of power under the hood. The only real difference between the two machines is how much visual real estate you want.
Want a slightly more portable 15-inches? You're a Ghost man. Prefer 17 inches of gloriously wide gameplay? That's the Stealth. The 15-inch Ghost feels a little sturdier and looks a little cooler in my book, but both are fantastic options for gamers who demand larger screen sizes. Don't care about that? Get the Razer Blade: it has better battery life, a slightly better build quality and is just a little more portable.
The Best Value: Clevo P650SE / Sager NP8651
The Blade, Ghost, Stealth and X7 are all killer machines -- but they're also all really expensive. I can't afford that, and you might not be able to either. We're both lucky that they aren't the only game in town: meet the $1679 (Australian RRP) Clevo P650SE.
Clevo's laptops usually aren't anything special -- they're budget machines and quality is always a crapshoot. Some of their laptops are terrible. Some are pretty OK. The P650SE is pretty OK. It's thicker than the other laptops on this list, but it's still remarkably sturdy. The audio chops are nothing to write home about, but the machine's keyboard and REAL mouse buttons feel fantastic. The standard-issue 15.6-inch matte display has some of the worst viewing angles I've ever seen on a gaming laptop, but a killer GTX 970M GPU makes up for it. I had no trouble tearing through intensive games.
Are there compromises? Sure. But at this price you aren't going to get a more powerful, hearty laptop. Oh, there's one more compromise: Clevo laptops are weird imports and aren't always easy to find. We wound up borrowing ours from the folks at XoticPC. Thanks Xotic!
The Best Under $2000: Lenovo Y50
If the Clevo is still too rich for your blood but you absolutely need a gaming laptop, the $1999 (Australian RRP) Lenovo Y50 is the best you can get. In fact, compared to the Clevo it's better in some ways -- it's slimmer and has a nicer keyboard and trackpad. The screen doesn't wash out quite as much when viewed off-centre either, but it's just not as capable a gaming rig. I could only get most games to run well on medium settings or below, although the last-gen GTX 860M did max out graphics on some of my older games. Still, it's the best value in a mid-range gaming laptop.
Aluminium may be the standard material for premium laptops these days, but I have to admit -- the Y50's smooth, rubberised surface is a nice, soft alternative.
Aorus X3 Plus
The X3 Plus is compact, powerful and looks just as awesome as the X7 -- but you can get the same muscle with better build quality, a lower price and more battery life in the Razer Blade. It's sweet, but not practical.
The Alienware 13 is a pretty great laptop, but the chassis is just a little too meaty to really qualify as "thin" and the built-in 860M GPU is a little too weak. Upgradable external graphics are a nice touch, but pricy. A good option if portab doesn't matter.
Acer Aspire V17 Nitro
This laptop's inch-thick frame makes it a little too big to fit into the "thin" category in our book. If you're dead-set on being mobile, you're better off with the similarly-priced Lenovo listed above.
ASUS G Series G501
The ASUS G501 has a nice chassis, a good keyboard and a slim profile. It's fine, but you can get a smaller, more powerful Razer Blade for the same price. Move along.
Big like the 17-inch Razer Blade Pro, but much thicker and hampered by the same lower-end graphics processor. Nope.
Gigabyte P34W v3
Yet another perfectly fine Gigabyte gaming laptop that's just a little too expensive ($2399 in Australia) when paired against that Clevo.
The P35 is a good 15-inch gaming machine with good internals -- but the build quality just couldn't compete with MSI's kit. A good alternative to the Clevo if you want a better screen and an optical drive.
I wanted to like the P37, but it's more expensive than competitors and doesn't offer any advantages in components or build. Unless you need an optical drive, skip it.
This laptop is so close to being one of the best, but it's just not. An amazingly well-designed machine with a gorgeous screen ruined by iffy battery life and last generation's graphics tech. If HP gives it a serious refresh, it might be something.
iBuyPower Battalion M1771
Virtually identical to the MSI GS70 Stealth in every way that matters. A good alternative if you prefer iBuyPower for some reason.
Maingear Pulse 15
Virtually identical to the MSI GS60 Ghost in every way that matters. A more colourful alternative if you prefer buying from Maingear for some reason.
Maingear Pulse 17
Virtually identical to the MSI GS70 Stealth in every way that matters. A more colourful alternative if you prefer buying from Maingear for some reason.
Origin Evo 15-S
Virtually identical to the MSI GS60 Ghost in every way that matters. A good alternative if you prefer buying from Origin PC for some reason.
Razer Blade Pro
Like the other Razer Blade I mentioned, but bigger and with a less powerful graphics processor. Not bad if you want a thin 17-inch laptop, period. Only passable if you want to actually play video games on one.
Razer Blade QHD+
Just like our Best Overall pick, only with twice as much RAM and a gorgeous 3200 x 1800 display -- but there's no way its NVIDIA GTX 970M graphics chip can max out the latest games at that super-high resolution. If you can live with that, it's a great machine for $500 extra.
Schenker XMG P505
There's nothing wrong with the XMG P505, save for the fact that it's just a rebranded Clevo P650SE for the British market. Buy this if you need a nice bang-for-the-buck gaming laptop and you live in the UK.
Any laptop with a 4K screen
It's trendy, gorgeous, but not what you want. Super high resolution displays are great, but today's graphics chips just can't keep pace with them. If you want to run games at high settings, you don't want a 4K screen.