Tech

What to look for in a budget gaming laptop

There’s two pieces of hardware in a budget gaming laptop that take precedence over everything else – the processor and the graphics card. While it’s the same for gaming desktops, it’s even more important for gaming laptops as they can’t be upgraded in quite the same way. Practically every gaming laptop’s CPU and GPU is soldered directly to the mainboard, unlike desktops where they’re socketed and replaceable.

So, when you’re in the market for a budget gaming laptop, it’s wise to stretch your finances as far as they’ll go and secure the best CPU-GPU combo possible. For the most part, you can always upgrade the memory and storage of a gaming laptop after purchase, but not these components.

Graphics Card- The Most Important Component in a Budget Gaming Laptop

To better illustrate our point, let’s imagine two equally priced gaming laptops. One’s equipped with a NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3050 Ti, 16GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD. The other’s powered by a faster RTX 3060, but it’s only got 8GB of RAM and a 500GB SSD. Initially, you might go for the first one as it’s the more well-rounded spec. As there’s a lack of upgradability in the GPU department, however, we’d pick the RTX 3060 machine every time.

This hardware imbalance can cause a ‘bottleneck’, in which a system’s performance is held back by its weakest component. This RTX 3060 might not be able to stretch its legs if a game requires 16GB of RAM at the highest settings, but you’ve only got 8GB. Since the memory is upgradable on most budget gaming laptops, unlike the graphics card, this isn’t a permanent problem.

Upgrade Memory and Storage Later

As covered in our blog Is a gaming laptop worth it, this lack of upgradability is one of a gaming laptop’s biggest negatives. When its core components start to struggle in newer releases, like the GPU, you can’t upgrade just the one component. Instead, you have to buy an entire new machine, even if the other components are working fine.

On a tight budget, you’ve got to prioritise the hardware that’s set-in stone. The extra performance of an RTX 3060 over an RTX 3050, for example, would in turn give a laptop a longer lifespan. When you’ve got a bit more cash later, then you can upgrade the RAM, SDD, and so on as needed. By spreading your budget out over time, you’ll also have a wider range of gaming laptops to choose from.

Video Memory and Texture Settings

On lower priced gaming laptops, video memory can be a point of concern. VRAM largely dictates how far you can crank up a game’s texture resolution. As long as you’ve got enough VRAM, textures are one of those settings that greatly enhance a game’s image quality with negligible performance impact.

But with modern games authoring their assets for 4k displays, VRAM requirements have shot up. When you run out of video memory to store high-res textures, they then fall back to system memory. RAM is considerably slower than VRAM, however. So as these textures are slowly loaded in and out of memory, you’ll experience stutters.

This poses a problem for cheap gaming laptops. Mobile chips like the RTX 3050 and RTX 3050 Ti are equipped with just 4GB of VRAM. While this might be enough for older games and esports titles that aren’t that VRAM-hungry, you’ll almost certainly have to turn down texture settings in modern games on these GPUs. So, again, it’s wise to stretch your budget as far as it’ll go and get the best GPU possible for your money. That extra 2GB of VRAM on the RTX 3060 over the RTX 3050 could be the difference between running games at a low and high texture settings.

System Memory – The Easiest Upgrade

You’ll find most gaming laptops ship with 8GB of pre-installed RAM. That’s a fair amount for their price tag. You can get away with 8GB of RAM for gaming, but for many, it’s more effort than it’s worth. To do so, you’ll have to maintain a lean operating system with minimal background processes.

If you’d rather not worry about what’s running in the background every time you boot up a game, you’ll want to upgrade to 16GB of RAM. It’s the recommended requirement for almost every modern release, and it will let you multi-task without a hitch. Fortunately, RAM is one of the easiest and cheapest upgrades you can make to your budget gaming laptop – as long as it isn’t soldered. Over at Ebuyer, you can pick up 2 x 8GB SO-DIMM modules (smaller form-factor memory used in laptops) on the cheap.

Also, it’d be safe to assume this 8GB of RAM comes as a single stick in a single-channel configuration. Due to the way AMD’s Ryzen CPUs are architected, single-channel RAM has a negative impact on their performance. It can be as bad as a 30% performance loss compared to dual-channel RAM. If you’re picking up a budget AMD gaming laptop and it’s only got a single stick of RAM, you’ll want to add another one for performance’s sake too.

SSDs – How Much Storage for The Latest Games?

On the whole, gaming laptops have dropped 2.5” drive bays and SATA SSDs in favour of space-saving M.2 slots and NVMe SSDs. Not only are NVMe SSDs faster than SATA SSDs, which top out at around 600MB/s, the extra space M.2 slots afford let gaming laptop manufacturers increase battery and cooling capacities too.

Nowadays, you won’t find mechanical hard drives in even the most budget gaming laptops. It’s SSD storage from here on out, resulting in shorter loading times and snappier OS navigation. Sure, SSDs in budget gaming laptops won’t be the fastest PCIe Gen4 drives, but they’ll be considerably faster than an HDD or SATA-powered SSD.

We’d recommend a budget gaming laptop with at least a 500GB SSD. That’s right in line with the Xbox Series S, another budget-focused machined. 500GB is enough to house the laptop’s operating system as well as a few large games.

However, with big-budget games swelling to over 100GB in size, you’ll likely want more storage. External HDDs are always an option for a sizable back-up solution. As for internal SSDs, they’re an easy upgrade too. M.2 slots practically make them a drop-in upgrade as there’s no cables involved.

CPU vs GPU

Now that we’ve gone over memory and storage, let’s circle back to the all-important CPU-GPU combo. From AI pathfinding to executing a game’s logic, the CPU keeps things running behind-the-scenes. You can think of it as the brains of a PC, while the GPU is the muscles. One of the CPU’s other important roles is scheduling rendering duties for the GPU to execute on. If the CPU isn’t fast enough and the GPU’s left waiting idle for its next task, you’ll have a bottleneck on your hands.

You’ll always reach some sort of bottleneck between the CPU and the GPU, so it’s all about minimising it as much as possible. Otherwise, you’d be leaving performance on the table. There’s no point getting a budget gaming laptop with a fast GPU if the CPU can’t keep up, and vice versa.

As video games are inherently a visual medium, we’d recommended leaning slightly in favour of the GPU. While current-gen releases are getting heavier on the CPU, especially when targeting higher-than-60 FPS frame rates, the GPU typically endures the heaviest load. After all, it’s the GPU’s job to push the boundaries of real-time graphics.

AMD Ryzen CPUs

For decades now, there’s only been two main computer processor manufacturers on the market: Intel and AMD. Before AMD’s resurgence in 2017 with their line-up of Ryzen CPUs, Intel was pumping out the same old middling quad-core CPUs. Ryzen revolutionised the CPU space, bringing high core counts and multi-threaded performance to the masses.

While AMD’s CPU market share continues to grow year after year, Intel remain the dominant force in the budget gaming laptop space. Intel chips like the ‘Intel Core i5 10300H’ are ubiquitous on low-end machines. It’s just a quad-core chip (again) but it’s saved by decent single-threaded performance, which esports titles like Counter Strike: Global Offensive rely on heavily. By comparison, AMD chips at the low-end of the market are few and far between.

However, high core count, multi-threaded CPUs are quickly becoming essential for modern releases. Just look at the Xbox Series S. Representing the baseline of next-gen game development, it’s the cheapest next-gen capable machine on the market. Yet it’s equipped with an 8-core, 16-thread processor from AMD. Intel’s quad-core chip might cut it while we’re in this cross-generation period, but they’ll struggle in a few years’ time with next-gen exclusive games.

Intel Core CPUs

With pressure mounting from AMD since 2017, Intel finally made a competitive comeback in 2022 with their 12th-Gen Intel Core mobile chips – codename Alder Lake. Debuting the year prior on desktop, Alder Lake was a massive success for Intel. Its defining feature was a ‘hybrid architecture’, combining performance ‘P-cores’ with efficiency-focused ‘E-cores’. P-cores on 12th and now 13th-Gen mobile chips are seriously fast, with some of the best single-core performance in the game. And while these P-cores churn away at your CPU-heavy games, the E-cores handle all the little background processes.

It’s a compelling arrangement for a portable device like a laptop. These E-cores can be used to prolong battery life, while the P-cores provide the CPU grunt as needed. Intel or AMD, either way there’s going to be great CPU choices for budget gaming laptops in 2023 and beyond.

Leverage Image Reconstruction to Boost Performance

AMD doesn’t have the greatest market share of GPUs either. In fact, it’s even less than their CPUs. NVIDIA maintains a strong hold over the budget gaming laptop market. So, expect low-end NVIDIA GPUs like the RTX 3050, RTX 3050 Ti, and RTX 4050 in the vast majority of budget gaming laptops.

While this doesn’t give the consumer a whole lot of choice, it does simplify things. We would’ve recommended NVIDIA regardless for one key feature – NVIDIA Deep Learning Super Sampling, or DLSS for short.

NVIDA DLSS

Supported in an ever-growing list of titles, DLSS leverages an RTX GPU’s dedicated AI co-processors to intelligently upscale games. DLSS could take a game that’s running at 1080p internally, for example, and bring it all the way up to a 4K-like image.

As DLSS’s machine learning algorithms are trained against thousands of absurdly high-res images, its results can be indistinguishable or arguably better than native resolution images. When viewed on the smaller display of a gaming laptop, it’s even harder to pick out the differences.

Depending on the quality pre-set used, DLSS can go as low as 540p internally and still generate a clear, sharp image. This frees up valuable GPU resources to push higher frame rates and graphics settings, allowing budget gaming laptops to punch way about their weight.

Check out our blog Why should I buy a NVIDIA GeForce RTX 40 Series GPU? – DLSS 3 and DLSS Frame Generation Explained for more info. 

AMD FSR

AMD have their own image reconstruction technology with FidelityFX Super Resolution, or FSR for short. While the latest ‘2.0’ iteration of FSR is based on the same underlying principles as DLSS, it’s lacking that AI element to take it to the next level. As it’s not AI-accelerated, however, FSR doesn’t require any specialised on-chip hardware like DLSS does. It’ll run on pretty much anything, including NVIDIA’s graphics cards.

While it’s applaudable that AMD made FSR an open, platform-agnostic technology, it makes for an awkward scenario: AMD GPUs can only run FSR, while NVIDIA GPUs can run both FSR and DLSS. If you’re going to leverage image reconstruction often, it’s hard to recommend an AMD budget gaming laptop as a result. With a NVIDIA budget gaming laptop, you’ll have more options at your disposal.

Intel GPUs in 2023

Lastly, there’s one recent development that’s got the potential to shake the budget gaming scene up completely. Intel, who’ve already got their CPUs in nearly every budget gaming laptop, released their first ever discrete graphics solution in 2022. It’s called Intel Arc, and while their first-generation attempt hasn’t made big waves (for reasons covered in our blog Intel Arc – What you need to know), they could be exactly what’s needed for budget gaming laptops.

Unlike their competitors, Intel’s positioning themselves as the more affordable choice. It’s a welcome reprieve from NVIDIA and AMD’s current strategy of pushing prices higher than ever before, despite hardware shortages and cryptocurrency mining largely easing up. What’s more, Intel have shown they mean serious business with their AI-powered image reconstruction technology Xe Super Sampling, or XeSS for short. It’s Intel’s answer to NVIDIA’s DLSS and for a first try it’s shockingly competitive.

Intel has some serious sway over the budget gaming laptop market. Will we see all-Intel-powered gaming laptops gain popularity in 2023, with Intel Core CPUs and Intel Arc GPUs? Keep an eye on Ebuyer and the Ebuyer Blog for future drops! And be sure to check out our blog What is a Gaming Laptop for more of a high-level overview of these portable gaming machines.

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