Do I need a gaming laptop? Do I want this one?
July 20, 2017 9:50 AM   Subscribe

In a few weeks I'll be entering grad school for a Speech-Language Pathology program, and will need a new laptop to replace my dearly departed ThinkPad. I would also like to be able to play a few games - Skyrim and Witcher 3 in particular, and perhaps The Elder Scrolls Online. Would a budget gaming laptop be too much machine, not enough, or just right?

My life is busy to the point where I don't play games as often as I used to, but I do still go through periods where a good game will keep me occupied for months at a time. The nice part of this is that it means I'm always a few years (or more - the last game I loved was Morrowind, and I only finished it a few years ago) behind the curve and don't need the latest and greatest technology, but I believe some of the things I want to play (especially Witcher 3?) still do require more graphics power than the average non-gaming laptop can provide ... though I'd be happy to find out I'm wrong about that.

Either way, I'd like a 15" laptop I can use both for grad school and playing the games I've mentioned above. Wirecutter's latest budget laptop recommendation is a Lenovo Legion with 4GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050Ti graphics, which I see is available at Costco in a 16 GB RAM / 2 TB HD / 256 GB SSD configuration for $999. I don't like the short battery life of this one, but they say their runner-up pick (a Dell Inspiron) has a noisy fan, which I HAAAAAATE. I've had a noisy Dell before and would not want to do that again.

Long and short, if I play games like Witcher 3 sporadically but enthusiastically, and also need something I can bring with me to class, does the Lenovo sound like a good choice? Could I be just as happy with a cheaper laptop - and if so, which one(s)? Again, my budget is up to $1000, though of course I'd love to keep it less if possible. For the record, I can't do a desktop - no space to set it up. Thanks for any help you can provide!
posted by DingoMutt to Computers & Internet (8 answers total)
I know that Console vs. PC is a near-religious debate, but would you consider a less beefy laptop and a console? 'Cause that's what I'd do.
posted by Betelgeuse at 10:29 AM on July 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is an experience from two years ago, but back then, when I was looking at gaming laptops, I found the tradeoff was between heat and weight. I ended up with an 8 pound one, it can travel, but I don't go out with it much. From what I can see of the reviews, it looks like a really nice product. I'd double check on fan noise and heat issues with this (don't let my flimsy googling be your ultimate deciding point). I haven't really regretted buying a gaming laptop. The battery life on mine isn't the greatest, but I can still play all the games on the highest resolution (I'll probably have to start using not quite high end settings next year or so).

They're non-upgradable and definitely a tradeoff vs. a standard desktop, but overall, I've been happy with mine. I also play a lot of strategy games, so going the console route wasn't really an option.
posted by Hactar at 10:43 AM on July 20, 2017

The problem with gaming laptops tends to be that they're bulky and heavy. A laptop with a 15" screen is going to be pretty bulky compared to something designed around being more portable. When you're carrying it around with you all day, a couple pounds can make a huge difference.

I have the Acer Aspire E5, which is the Wirecutter's top pick for a cheap laptop, and I love it. I think it's a fantastic computer for the price. I wanted something with a larger screen, good battery life, an optical drive, 8 GB RAM, and multiple USB ports. On top of that, it has a GeForce MX chip and a 256 GB SSD. I have been able to play games on it just fine, although I haven't played anything as graphically intensive as the ones you're interested in (I'm what you'd call a "patient gamer"). I think Skyrim would play fine, but I don't know how the Witcher and Elder Scrolls would do. My only big complaint is the trackpad, which isn't great, but I like to use an external mouse anyway (and certainly for gaming). It is also relatively heavy and big, although not as heavy as a gaming laptop.

Because it's so cheap (~$500, as I recall), you'd have money left over for a console, but I don't know if you'd also like to be able to play games wherever you go. If you want a great laptop for school, you have a TV on which to play games, you don't need to play PC exclusives, and you don't need to take your games with you everywhere you go, I think it would be a great idea to get something like the Acer and use the rest of your budget to get a console (in fact, even if you don't have a TV, I think you could afford to get a console AND a TV and stay within your budget).

All that said, if you want a laptop that can play games, I don't think the Acer will cut it, and I doubt anything else in that price range will either. Your best bet in that case would probably something like what you're already looking at.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 10:49 AM on July 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I know that Console vs. PC is a near-religious debate, but would you consider a less beefy laptop and a console? 'Cause that's what I'd do.

Though I would also enjoy having a console, right now we only have one TV (and don't really want a second in the family room) and I wouldn't want to monopolize it with my games. Generally I enjoy playing on the sofa while my wife and I are in the family room, often with a show on in the background - so I don't think a console is quite right for me at the moment.
posted by DingoMutt at 11:15 AM on July 20, 2017

Best answer: I was a grad student for over eight years (oh dear, doing that math was not fun). I have been using Macbook Airs since year two of my PhD after I suffered a lot during my master's and first year with a heavy laptop, and am still using an Air two years after graduating. I honestly would reconsider whether or not you really want a gaming laptop for your schoolwork. I recognize your username and I really think that this opportunity is important to you. Based on what I know of you from Metafilter (so I could totally be wrong!), I think you are going to want to bring the computer with you everywhere. It will be a tremendous asset to you to have a real machine you can use with little trouble in the library, at coffee places, and when you're at conferences. Weight and battery life would be my top considerations in this scenario.
posted by sockermom at 1:39 PM on July 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

The main disadvantages I see with taking a gaming laptop into a college setup is that it's going to be heavier and it won't have nearly as good battery life. If you don't mind the extra weight and are reasonably certain of your ability to find free power outlets between classes, then sure, go with the gaming laptop. I'd be hesitant to make that tradeoff myself though.

You might also experiment to see whether or not integrated graphics can run the games you want on low settings. That said, I suspect that the Witcher 3 will not be one of them, nor will most AAA 3D games made in the past ~5 years.

Theoretically, if you shop around for a laptop with a Thunderbolt 3 port, you could make use of an external GPU enclosure for gaming at home, but that will add a significant chunk of change currently and I wouldn't consider it a good value compared to a separate desktop.
posted by Aleyn at 4:55 PM on July 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Also a gamer in grad school here, with apparently very similar gaming habits (sporadic but enthusiastic, ride the wave of slightly older games, etc).

5 years ago, I was in a similar debate with myself, and went for the "practical" cheapest Thinkpad with no dedicated graphics card and a lower-end processor. I ordered it online without really checking it out first - it was on sale and my previous laptop had just broken down, so I was in a bit of a rush.

It is a monster at around 6lbs and bulky as hell. Although I still love it for what it can do, it has stayed home far, far more often than it should have. Basically, I got the worst of both worlds - I wasn't able to play any modern games (although was a godsend, so I caught up on childhood nostalgia) AND it was bulky/heavy (which I thought I would be able to handle, but ultimately couldn't). It was even too thick for my normal backpack - I had to buy a new one to accommodate it!

So, in light of my experience, I would highly recommend selecting a budget gaming laptop, while keeping the warning from other posters in mind - don't underestimate the importance of lightness/slimness as I had!

The Lenovo you posted looks awesome for the price, and according to, clocks in at around 5.28 lbs. Is there a way you could somehow test out that weight for a few days in your bag/backpack? Could you go to Costco/BestBuy or similar and get a sense of the shape/bulkiness?

If the Lenovo proves to be too much, there might be something out there that's also slimmer/lighter with lower specs around $1000. Refurbished or used might also be an option. Just for fun, I put some filters on a Newegg search (3-5lbs, 750-1000 bucks) and there are definitely some contenders there!

Have fun and good luck in grad school!
posted by Pieprz at 10:23 PM on July 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hi everyone - thanks very much for the sensible advice. To be honest I wasn't expecting to need to bring my computer to class all that often - I didn't really do so in my last grad program - but after reading all the answers here I reached out to one of the second-year students in my program and she let me know that most people really do have their laptops on them most of the time. Then I looked up the specs on the work laptop I haul around with me currently, and it's 4.5 lbs when I'd actually thought it was much heavier - so I guess that is a good indicator that I really do need to go for something lighter after all!

Witcher 3 may be out of reach for most of the 3lb and under laptops I'm looking at now (though Pieprz, I really appreciate your input on the 3-5 lb ones!), but at least it looks like there are a few that will be decent for Skyrim and TES Online when I do have the time. Right now I'm leaning towards the ASUS Zenbook UX330UA; I think I'm going to sleep on it for another day or two and then make my decision. Thanks again, everyone!
posted by DingoMutt at 9:47 AM on July 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

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