switching to a PC laptop and have no idea what any of the specs mean
November 13, 2014 9:36 PM   Subscribe

I'm buying a new Windows laptop computer after years of using a Mac desktop and enough has changed that I have no idea what to look for these days. I'd really like to run Dragon Age Inquisition on it (here's the specs for that) and I'd really like to buy it from someone reliable.

I have no idea what laptop brands are good these days, what kinds of deals I should be looking for (Black Friday?), or even if I should be looking at having a local place build me one (I have no idea if this would be way more expensive; I'm in Albuquerque, New Mexico).

Bigger screen is better; I'm going to be moving it around some but mostly not walking long distances while carrying it so I'm not super concerned about weight. I'll mostly be using it near plugs, so battery life is a nice bonus but not a strict requirement. Mostly I want something that will fairly reliably not break down and run both DA:I and Civilization: Beyond Earth without looking too bad or having terrible loading times; better graphics on 'em would be wonderful but isn't an incredibly strict requirement.

I am open to buying a Mac and putting Windows on it if that's the best way to do this, but last time I bought a computer Macs were a fair bit more expensive than their PC equivalents. But let me know if that has changed, I suppose.
posted by NoraReed to Computers & Internet (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I personally use Macs but they are still quite more expensive when you compare specs side-by-side. I like the design and the OS mostly. Makes for a beautiful Windows or Mac OS machine, but expensive for what you get. Now that society has moved mostly past the "netbook" race to the bottom, and with huge improvements in CPU power, most laptops will be adequate for web browsing and email. Even low-end machines are starting to be decent (HP Stream 11, etc.)

For games, integrated graphics have come a long way, but will probably still be disappointing. These and mid-level machines may provide just enough to be satisfied, but with settings lowered. Graphics are still the one big caveat of low-to-mid budget machines (and most laptop Macs, unfortunately). The $199-$299 low end will be pretty bottlenecked and not worth your time for gaming performance.

As far as brands, I've seen Dell and Lenovo machines (the business-grade ones) take a beating and keep going. A lot of the small-business products really seem built much better than the consumer models, but then graphics is caveat again because most of the time even the decent GPUs in business models are workstation GPUs (Quadro, etc.) which are not good for games.

Lower-mid to mid range will be something like Intel HD 4400 or HD 5000, or a nice integrated AMD GPU. So, I'd probably at least go upper-mid-range if you're looking for solid graphics (Nvidia 860M, AMD R270). Next step up from that would be the bottom-end Alienware machine or something similar. For mid to upper-mid, something like the Lenovo Y series wouldn't be a bad choice.

i5 or i7 is plenty of CPU power (really i3 CPUs aren't bad either). AMD still makes good stuff but it's not really competitive anymore (except for integrated GPUs). 4GB of RAM or more is recommended. 8GB is maybe overkill but doesn't hurt. Hard drive is up to you. Also, the higher performance you go (CPU/GPU), the less battery time you'll get.

Getting an SSD drive will sacrifice space, but you'll have no moving parts, and in terms of a general feeling of speed (boot time, opening programs, opening files, copying files) it makes a HUGE difference in performance. Like, night and day different. In games it only affects loading speed. I always go SSD now. Still, this is up to you, as regular hard drives are much higher capacity and far cheaper.
posted by kup0 at 10:23 PM on November 13, 2014

The most important thing for gaming is a decent graphics card, especially when it comes to laptops, as you will not be able to upgrade. Simply put, if your graphics card isn't good enough, you will not be able to run certain games. Processing power and memory will affect your gaming experience, but your graphics card will determine if you are able to play at all.

Gaming laptops do exist, but they are not terribly affordable. Look at reviews of graphics cards to get an idea of what their performance will be. In terms of memory 8GB will be more than enough (you can probably survive fine on 4), and processing power doesn't actually matter a great deal: most PC's will come with enough juice, especially if they have a decent graphics card with them.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 12:15 AM on November 14, 2014

The Windows drivers for Mac hardware are not very good, so if your plan is to run Windows full-time, I'd recommend strongly against getting a Mac. Also, the Macs with discrete graphics chips that you'd want for gaming are much more expensive than even some of the most extravagant gaming laptops, so a PC is going to get the job done cheaper here.

If I were in your shoes, I'd probably look at the Lenovo Y-series or an MSI gaming laptop. Alienware is still a bit overpriced IMHO, and since it's Dell that makes them, I'm generally a little bit more hesitant. The advice kup0 gave about specs to pay attention to is solid, so I won't say much there, but I would say that once you find an i5 or i7 with the graphics you want, spending more on RAM and SSD size are probably the best performance bets. My personal thinking is to go at least 8GB on RAM (allows for better performance when multitasking) and 240 GB or more on the SSD (should keep the disk I/O snappy for longer).

You didn't mention a budget, but I'd expect to pay around $1200-1700 for a good spec'd gaming laptop that doesn't stray into overkill territory. You *might* be able to go cheaper by looking for a consumer-oriented laptop line that comes with a discrete graphics chip, but I'm generally not impressed with the build quality of laptops that aren't ThinkPads, and all of the ThinkPads with discrete graphics are generally more expensive than gaming laptops with similar specs. I think you get what you pay for, here.
posted by Aleyn at 12:29 AM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

This laptop's processor is a dual core rather than a quad core, but otherwise hits the game's recommended specs. The processor is an i7, which is top-of-the-line. It should be a fast machine. It's $1100 and it's from Dell. The only problem is, you'll probably want to install Windows 7 on it since it comes with Windows 8, which sucks.

RAM and processor is pretty straight forward. For video card, I use this benchmark website to compare performance. So get something with a video card that performs around as well or better as the one in the game's recommended specs, if you want to play at max settings.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:49 AM on November 14, 2014


I think the Lenovo Y40 is the best lower-end portable gaming laptop right now. It should last for a while.

The Lenovo Y50 is better but it is more expensive and less portable. I think it has an NVIDIA 860M, which (counter-intuitively) is a huge improvement over the 850M.
posted by bbqturtle at 7:00 AM on November 14, 2014

Response by poster: I think I am probably going to go with the Lenovo Y50 (or maybe the fancy HD version of the Lenovo Y50)-- does anyone have recommendations of where to buy from, customer service-wise? If something goes wrong, am I better off buying directly from Lenovo, or would it be easier to have gotten it from a local brick and mortar store? Or should I just get it from the cheapest place that has it?
posted by NoraReed at 2:01 AM on November 24, 2014

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