Gaming PC or Gaming Laptop?

by in General | Sep, 5th 2020

Gaming on laptops was always frowned upon, and there’s a good reason why. Simply put, it was never the most optimal way to game. Still, the days of underpowered laptops (not to mention badly designed ones) are long gone, so it’s fair to pose the question. What’s the better way to game in 2020 — a gaming PC or a gaming laptop? A gaming PC wins by a landslide almost by default, but there’s a discussion to be had, especially with today’s laptops being so darn attractive and powerful.

Finally, this article won’t be dealing with the nitty-gritty. If you’re looking for game-specific (or laptop-specific) benchmarks, you’d be wise to look elsewhere. There’s a ton of good footage on YouTube from folks who get a kick out of benchmarking the most popular games at a wide variety of hardware, so make sure to do a bit of digging.

Instead, we’ll focus on the philosophy behind it all, the thought-process, the pros and cons of each set-up, and whether it suits your own needs.

With that out of the way, let’s get started!

Home or Away?

The most important question has to revolve around your set-up. Will you always game in just a single room, or do you often have to travel (for whatever reason)? If it’s the former, then there’s no benefit to getting a gaming laptop — it’ll cost more, perform worse, and the overall gaming experience won’t be nearly as good as a full-fledged PC. If, on the other hand, you want the best of both worlds (at the expense of performance), then the only viable option is a gaming laptop. You can’t chug around a desktop PC everywhere you go, no matter how small it might be.

But let’s not look at the most basic scenario — let’s say you can have both but are unsure whether you’d prefer one or the other. With this in mind, let’s focus on a couple of key questions that should affect your purchasing decision.

Performance Above All Else?

Gaming PCs are simple. You get what you pay for, and the components you have performed as well as advertised. You can always find out how much horsepower you need by looking at a couple of benchmarks and purchasing the right hardware. There’s no science or convoluted string of choices here — it’s as simple as it gets.

Laptops, on the other hand, aren’t as straightforward. The specs might look good on paper, but whether or not the laptop will perform and it should is a completely different matter. Laptops rarely perform as expected because they often thermally throttle, and they always have to meet a certain power limit.

Thermal.. What?

Thermal throttling is what happens when your hardware reaches a certain temperature. All computer components generate heat (some more than others). Your processor and graphics card, in particular, will generate the most heat out of all. The longer they’re stressed, the higher their temperatures will go. Once they reach a certain point, they’ll reduce their clock speed (i.e., diminish in performance) to stabilize temperature-wise. Now, this is something that happens with all computers, but because these components are confined to fairly thin chassis, there’s only so much cooling potential to help them out.

Conversely, the most power-hungry components in a gaming PC can be cooled using large coolers that consist of beefy heat sinks and multiple heat pipes. You can also optimize your PC by purchasing additional coolers (to help guide hot air out of the enclosure) and optimize your airflow. Laptops, on the other hand, are packed with hardware, and they’re limited in cooling, which means that even if they reach their advertised clock speeds, they won’t be able to sustain them for long, especially not during gaming.

To make matters even worse, you might want to get a laptop with a beastly RTX 2070 graphics card, but most such laptops have the Max-Q variant. This means it’ll perform worse than a regular 1070, and yet you’ll pay a lot more money for the RTX branding. You can start to notice a trend here. You’re paying more for name value rather than performance.

Even worse, not all gaming laptops are cooled equally well. Some will throttle beyond reason, whereas others will perform quite well even during intense workloads. Sometimes you’ll find a manufacturer (like, say, Razer or Lenovo) that’s offering a wide variety of products — but not all of them will perform up to expectations, even though they might be similar (or the same) on paper. You’ll have to do a lot of research before buying a gaming laptop. Watch as many reviews of that one specific model you’re after because performance varies on a model-to-model basis.

Gaming PCs, however, are a pretty straightforward deal — you get what you pay for and what’s written on the spec sheet. Nothing more, nothing less. Furthermore, it’s much easier to cool your hardware, no matter how beastly it might be. Slap on a couple of coolers, maybe get a bit of top-tier thermal paste, find the right enclosure (that has enough room for positive airflow), and you’ll be good to game for hours on end without ever noticing any dip in performance.

Even better, gaming PCs — when cooled adequately — can be bafflingly quiet during gaming. On the other, laptops tend to sound like an airplane taking off, with some of them going way above 50 decibels. As a rule of thumb, you can’t have a strong gaming laptop that’s also quiet. Those two things don’t go hand-in-hand. You’ll either have a laptop that’s not performing as well as it should, but it’ll be quiet and relatively cool, or you’ll have a laptop that’s performing as advertised but will make you deaf in a couple of years.

That last part was a joke, but you get the point.

Think Long-Term

Whenever you’re investing your money into a piece of tech, you need to think long-term. What will you be using this gear for? Is there a potential career change on the horizon? Don’t just buy what you need right now, but instead think of what you might need it for further down the line. Maybe you always wanted to get into video editing or, perhaps, a bit of 3D modeling? These are specific use-case scenarios, and they require a bit of research before making a purchase. Unless you’re buying the absolute latest and greatest tech, you’ll have to be conscious of your needs and purchase accordingly.

Furthermore, laptops are pretty much-finished products, which means they’re not going to evolve or change over time, nor will they allow you to make any concrete upgrades. At best, you’ll change your RAM (its total amount and, at best, frequency), storage, and Wi-Fi card. That’s it. If you want to tinker with your gear and make subtle (but impactful) changes over time, then a gaming laptop isn’t the way to go.

Desktop PCs, however, offer you endless possibilities. Anything can be changed at any point in time, regardless if you want to upgrade or downgrade. We’re talking absolute freedom, with each component viewed independently. Maybe in two years, you’ll want a high refresh rate monitor. Great! Just go out and buy one. On the other hand, if you have a gaming laptop, you’ll be stuck with your old 60 Hz screen until you purchase an entirely new model.

In summary, laptops can’t be upgraded, at least not in any significant way. Desktop computers, on the other hand, can, and with staggering ease too!

Warranty and Potential Issues

If a part of your laptop dies, you pretty much have to send it in for repair, which means you won’t have a computer for at least a couple of weeks. Even worse, if it’s out of warranty, you’ll have to pay an obscene amount of money to fix it. If, say, your SSD dies, then that’s not that big of a problem — you can easily replace it with a new one. But if it’s the CPU, the motherboard, the graphics card, or something else, you’re not going to have a good time.

At all.

Desktop computers, on the other hand, aren’t so limited when it comes to repairing. If something malfunctions, it’s pretty darn easy to find out what’s the problem. Even better, when you’ve realized what malfunctioned, you can go out and buy a brand-new part. You can change anything you want in a matter of minutes, unlike with laptops where the vast majority of the hardware is soldered onto the motherboard and is simply inaccessible to the end-user.

No one wants to think about repairing their devices, especially not ones that cost upwards of $1,000, but that’s the reality we live in, and you should always keep that in mind. The tech we buy and use is manufactured en masse, and it often malfunctions, sometimes from the moment you turn it on. Bad batches happen fairly frequently, and everyone who’s in this field has at least once received a piece of tech that was DOA (dead on arrival).

If you’re investing a ton of money in a computer you’ll use daily (regardless if it’s portable or not), you should always think long-term.

Closing Remarks

The thing is, gaming laptops are great, especially in 2020; these days, the amount of power manufacturers can pack into insanely small chassis is just mind-blowing. And who knows, maybe a gaming laptop can satisfy your gaming needs, even though you’ll be paying more for less. The real problem comes into play when we view the long-term picture. Will you still be okay with losing 20% to 30% in GPU performance in three years? Today’s games are becoming more complex, and they need all the power they can get. You’d probably feel pretty darn stupid if you invested over a thousand dollars and couldn’t attain solid enough performance in a couple of years.

That’s the biggest problem, and that’s why buying a gaming laptop doesn’t make much sense if you aren’t always on the go or moving between multiple workspaces. Of course, everyone has their preferences, but buying a full-fledged desktop PC is almost always the better option. And if you want to buy a piece of tech for gaming and not worry whether it’ll perform as well as it should maybe consider a next-gen console? They’ll be mighty strong, and they’ll provide you with the absolute best bang for your buck!


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