There’s no question that you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to PC gaming hardware, making it more of a decision as to what your setup requires rather than available power when deciding between a dedicated gaming desktop or gaming laptop. Most of the crucial questions you need to ask yourself haven’t changed over the years, but what has is your options; there are far more gaming laptops of different types today than there ever has been, complicating the decision slightly if you find yourself in the middle. We’ve compared gaming desktops vs. gaming laptops below: Here’s what to consider when shopping for either, and what options might be the best for your use case and budget.
There are three main factors to consider when comparing both gaming laptops and desktops: overall performance, portability, and price. These are where you’ll find the biggest differences, often with concessions in one impacting the other two in considerable ways. For the most part, desktop gaming PCs are more powerful and cheaper than identically setup laptops, with portability factoring into the discrepancy heavily. That doesn’t mean that the decision is as clear cut as that, and you’ll see how many top-tier gaming laptops deliver some of the best gaming performances out there while being stellar workstations that you can pop into a backpack without breaking your back.
This is the easiest factor to help you decide between a desktop and a laptop: do you need to carry it around? Sure, there are ways to make desktop PCs incredibly small, especially with the popularity recently of the mini-ITX chassis and boutique micro-builds. Despite that, carrying around a mini-ITX PC is still far, far harder than just throwing a gaming laptop into a backpack, even when you’re looking at the chunkiest ones out there.
Better still is the fact that most gaming laptops have, in fact, become a lot lighter and thinner. You only need to look at options like Razer’s Blade Advanced 15 or Blade 17 Pro to get a MacBook-like experience with the raw performance needed to run some of the latest AAA titles. That makes it a perfect option if you absolutely need to have that sort of gaming capability with the advantages of being able to easily take it on a plane or one a long road trip. Better still if you plan to do gaming at several different desks, which might save you from needing multiple desktops at each station.
Winner: Gaming laptop
Gaming laptops have come a long way in recent years in terms of narrowing the performance gap between themselves and gaming desktops. Make no mistake, a gaming laptop will still not outperform a similarly configured desktop, but the number of options available now, including some laptops offering desktop-grade hardware, is far better. It’s so similar that Nvidia has branded its mobile GPUs with the same model numbers as its range on desktop, something which used to be entirely separate not even just five years ago.
With that comes some unfortunate confusion, however. Especially with Nvidia, the model numbers are often misleading, with a mobile RTX 3080 and a desktop RTX 3080 varying wildly in terms of performance between each other. Worse still is the fact that Nvidia doesn’t enforce the power delivery to its GPUs in laptops, meaning manufacturers can all use the same mobile RTX 3080, for example, but deliver different levels of performance based on the power they give to the chip. Nvidia has forced laptop manufacturers to disclose this information now on specification sheets, but it’s still so in the weeds that it’s very easy for most to assume that any laptop with a specific GPU performs to a specific level.
AMD doesn’t suffer this same issue currently with its latest mobile GPUs, but the performance gap between them and desktop GPUs remains. That’s just an inescapable fact of shoving powerful hardware into a mobile chassis–cooling and power delivery will never match desktop setups, and thus performance will likely always lag a little bit. That said, there are some ways to mitigate these issues, many of which come down to your selected laptop display resolution and frame rate. You don’t need a 4K panel on a 15-inch laptop, for example, and forcing your hardware to try and drive that will only disappoint you.
You could also invest in external GPU enclosures, which deliver more graphical horsepower over Thunderbolt ports on Intel-based gaming laptops. Outside of being confined to Intel laptops, which aren’t the cream of the crop with the current AMD offerings, you’re also required to invest in an additional desktop GPU and enclosure for performance that is ultimately compromised by the bandwidth of Thunderbolt. That means you’re paying more for less performance than if that card was in a dedicated desktop, meaning you must have some serious portability requirements to justify it.
Winner: Gaming desktop
There’s no question that powerful gaming hardware is expensive, especially during these times where the microprocessor shortage is resulting in demand that greatly outstrips supply. Desktop GPUs aren’t selling for their recommended MSRPs, forcing more and more people to seek out pricier pre-built options (such as those from companies like Maingear, NZXT, Corsair, Origin, and more) just to get hardware that they want. This does make the question of price between a gaming desktop and a gaming laptop one with an answer that’s constantly in flux, but there is one persistent constant: gaming laptops will always be more expensive for worse performance, especially if you build your own desktop.
This shouldn’t be that surprising–gaming laptops are more than just the gaming performance they provide. You’re getting a complete package that requires more compact, more expensive components, with loads of research and development costs behind them. So, if you’re planning to go with a gaming laptop, you’re going to have to accept that you are paying more for performance that can be had much cheaper on a desktop. That’s the price of portability, so to speak. That said, gaming laptops are also all-in-one solutions, whereas when you buy a desktop you often need to purchase a separate monitor, keyboard, and mouse.
Winner: Gaming desktop
That doesn’t mean gaming desktops are cheap, but they do offer one aspect that is also a little more challenging to find in many gaming laptops: upgradability. When a component in your desktops starts becoming a performance bottleneck, or just stops working entirely, it’s relatively straightforward to just replace it without needing to replace everything else inside.
That’s not the case with a gaming laptop, especially thinner ones where all the components are soldered onto the main board. Many don’t even allow you to add more RAM modules or additional SSDs once you’ve made your purchase. That isn’t to say all are like that. Some gaming laptops, such as the Lenovo Legion 5i lets you install additional RAM or replace what is there entirely, while the Alienware Area-51M gives you multiple M.2 slots for additional SSD space down the road.
Winner: Gaming desktop
What Should You Look For?
With all of this in mind, you might be wondering what key features you should be looking out for in both a gaming desktop and laptop in 2021. This can be a broad enough topic that warrants its own guide, there are some specifications that just shouldn’t be skimped on anymore. If you’re buying a new system or building one from scratch, here’s some checkboxes you should really tick:
- At least 16GB of DDR4 RAM, rated at ideally 3200MHz or higher
- A relatively modern CPU with good single core performance for games. This can be anything from AMD’s Ryzen 3000 (starting at the Ryzen 3600) or 5000 series (starting at the Ryzen 5600X) or Intel’s 10th and 11th generation desktop chips (ideally a quad-core Core i5 and higher).
- A motherboard that can support your choice of CPU, ideally with heatsinks for the VRMs on the board. There are loads of overpriced motherboards, so don’t blow your budget here.
- Graphics card choices are entirely dependent on your expected performance and what types of games you’re playing, but we wouldn’t suggest anything older than Nvidia’s GTX 10 series. Ideally, you’ll want something from the RTX 20 or 30 series, or some of the latest RDNA 2 GPUs from AMD such as the RX 6600 XT or RX 6700 XT for the best entry points.
- You should stay away from a GPU with less than 6GB of VRAM if you’re expecting to play modern titles for the foreseeable future.
- A power supply with an 80 Plus Gold rating for reliability and efficiency, and at least 500W or higher depending on your component choices.
- A well-ventilated chassis with a straight-forward build experience. Brands like Corsair, Fractal Design, Lian Li, Phanteks, and Cooler Master are great choices here, with a variety of options at many price points. Focus on performance first, RGB last if you want the best bang for your buck.
- At least 16GB of RAM, like desktop systems
- A modern CPU from either Intel’s 11th-generation of chips or AMD’s Ryzen 4000 or 5000 Mobile series.
- A dedicated GPU from Nvidia’s latest RTX range, including the RTX 20 or 30 series.
- It’s important too to make sure that your GPU is supplied with enough power. The more powerful Max-P versions will likely ship with a power supply of 280W or more, while less powerful Max-Q versions will ship with 230W power supplies typically.
- Although tempting, it’s advisable to stay away from 4K gaming laptops as it will needlessly stress your hardware and battery. Higher refresh rate displays and 1440p options are better choices.
- Ensure that the laptop balances a slim design with effective cooling to prevent your hardware from thermal throttling.