Dad, can I get a gaming laptop ?

As parents of two teenage boys, who definitely class themselves as proficient gamers, and with a background in telecoms and software development, we're often asked for advice about the latest tech.

A question that often comes up is 'what laptop do you recommend for gaming?'. Such a simple question, but one that solicits a complex response!

There are many things to consider when thinking about purchasing a gaming laptop, we're focusing on 6 keys areas:

  1. Budget
  2. Longevity
  3. Portability
  4. Games
  5. Friends
  6. Connectivity

What's your budget? Gaming laptops don't come cheap. An entry level laptop may cost around £800 with something decent costing more like £2,700... and that's quite a chunk of your holiday budget, right? You can set up two high spec desktop machines for gaming for the same price, worth considering if you've got more than one game-crazy child.

How long do you want your laptop to last? I'd say quite a few years, given the money that you'll be spending. So bear in mind that laptops can't be upgraded in the same way desktops machines can, allowing you to replace certain components when they become outdated as new games demand more processing power and better graphics.

Does your child really need a portable gaming device? As the host of more than one 'gaming night' I've seen boys turn up with laptops that look like they've been used as rugby balls, which are then seemingly discarded on the floor, vulnerable to attack from the nearest size 8 trainer. And the reason that they're discarded is usually because they can't keep up with the games being played on desktops.

It's also worth getting to understand more about what games your child is going to play and what the required technical spec is to run them. Generally the AAA blockbuster games require high GPU speeds, good SSD drive performance, and plenty of high speed memory.

What devices their friends playing on ? There's no point investing in any type of computer, console, desktop or laptop, if everyone else in playing on a PS4 or XBox One or SNES. Even if you're playing the same game, you can't usually play against someone on a console (unless you are playing fortnite or PubG - which is, incidentally live on Steam - if you're on a PC. It'd be way cheaper to buy the console (and separate TV if required) than go down the computer hardware route.

Finally what's your broadband like ? Downloading large game files takes a toll on your bandwidth if you haven't got a Superfast connection, and online playing coupled with separate online chat can mean that your Netflix viewing experience may get interrupted !

So before we look at each of these areas in more detail, let's just consider performance. We're assuming that your looking at a high performance laptop, capable of running the latest games, it's really not worth considering anything else otherwise you're just consigning another load of tech to the loft.

So that means that you need a good CPU (Intel Core i7 chipset) and good graphics card (GPU) from the latest Nvidia's GeForce GTX range, most probably a 1070 or 1080.

1. Budget

Let's take a closer look at the cost of a gaming laptop and weigh it up against the other hardware options available.

The big brands in gaming laptops used to be Alienware and Razer and while they still offer a great specification, outstanding design and portability, other players such as MSI Asus and Acer, should also be considered.

So if money's no object, a 17in Razer Blade Pro with an Intel i7-7820HK 3.9GHz, 64GB RAM, 1TB SSD, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 with Windows 10 will currently set you back a penny less than £4,000... and that's the discounted price from Amazon. You can get the Alienware 17.3inch QHD Tobi Eye-Tracker Gaming Notebook for £2572.67.

Both brands offer a wide range of laptops, by choosing a smaller form factor such as 13.3in or 15in screen, an Nvidia GTX 1070 graphics card instead of a 1080 and a slightly different CPU, then you can find a perfectly decent gaming laptop around £1,750.

Maybe with slightly less panache, but still offering a top end spec the ASUS ROG 17.3" Gaming Laptop GL702VI-BA016T currently costs £1,899.97 on Amazon and an Acer Predator 17.3-Inch Gaming Notebook costs £1,510.

So it's worth shopping around and carefully comparing specs to get the best deal, and, as with any product; styling, brand kudos and aesthetics are obviously a personal choice but one which could add a significant amount to the final cost.

Compare with desktops and consoles.

2. Longevity

There are several aspects to consider when thinking about the lifetime of a gaming laptop. How long will the technology stay relevant? How durable is the hardware? Can any components be upgraded?

There is a school of thought that says games are not as demanding on hardware these days, as the industry is focused on the huge volume of console players. This means that a high spec laptop or desktop should easily last a few years before the requirements of new games force an increase in processing power or better graphics. The physical durability of a laptop also needs to be considered, not just the likelihood of accidental damage as it is moved to other locations or the chances of it being dropped, trodden on or falling off a bed, but also the fact that the laptop is housing several high end components creating lots of heat that can't be as efficiently cooled as a desktop.

The main way of extending the life of a desktop gaming machine is to upgrade components when you can afford to or when they simply aren't up to the job any more. Some laptops, such as Alienware, do offer limited upgrades of key items like the CPU, so it's worth checking before you buy what the options in this are.

We'll also come back to your options around off-boarding your GPU using a Thuderbolt card dock.

3. Portability

Most children and many adults are drawn towards owning a laptop, but is a portable device really required? If you're separated and your child splits their time between two homes, or if your child is going to university in the next couple of years, then a laptop may be a practical choice. Or you simply do not want to sacrifice the space that a desktop computer can take up or hand over your lounge TV to the gaming console. All fair points. But leaving these aside does increased expenditure on an item that is more fragile than its desktop counterpart make sense? Will your child be on a constant round of visiting their gaming friends or actually will everyone stay at home, connected via online chat and Skype - free to dip out whenever homework, chores or family mealtimes require? (Some older children might argue that family mealtimes are a chore but that's a different post!)

4. Games

Facts

Before we talk about the games themselves, I thought some facts about the games industry my be interesting...

  1. The global games industry was worth £80bn last year. To put that figure into context (and despite the resurgence Holywood has had in the last 3 or 4 years) that's just over three times the size of the global movie industry.
  2. 56% of that £80bn came from fixed platforms such as consoles, laptops and desktops.
  3. One of the leading GPU manufacturers, NVIDIA, posted annual profits of almost £1.8bn last year.
  4. Star Citizen, which has yet to launch(!!), has raised £111m since 2013... which is about 1/3 of the amount Marvel Studios spent on Avengers: Infinity War.
  5. Fortnite - Battle Royale grossed £222m in one month.

If all these numbers seem pretty massive to you, it's because they are.

Top Titles

As with most things in life, game genres are a matter of personal preference. Some people love puzzle games, some strategy and others just love to run around shooting things. Currently the latter genre, the first person shooter - or more specifically the Battle Royale variation thereof, is proving very popular at the moment with with nearly 1/3 of all PC gamers on the planet playing either Fornite or PlayerUnknown's Battleground (PUBG) in one month (February 2018). EPIC report that they have recorded 3.4m players playing Fortnite at a single time - which is more than the total population of 96 countries in the world including Uruguay, Albania and Lithuania.

So if Battle Royale is all the rage for 2018 then COD: WWII was for 2017, COD: Infinite Warfare for 2016, COD: Black Ops III for 2015, COD: Advanced Warfare for 2014, GTA 5... or COD: Ghosts for 2013 and so on.

FPS

If you have spotted anything from the above (apart from how popular Call of Duty is) it's that games churn very quickly - they obviously have to in order to support an £80bn/year industry. In order to sustain this the industry has a few of ploys, of which the most obvious (and possibly cynical) is to regurgitate previous, popular titles, such as, say, I don't know, Call of Duty, and improve the eye candy.

Eye candy comprises two things; adding special effects such as mist, wavy hair, clothing that creases with the characters movement, more compelling explosions, blood that splatters and such like is one coupled the high FPS. The frames per second influences the smoothness of the animation and the general flow of the game. The more complex the graphical effects of a game the slower the frame is to draw because of its complexity. So how to get a high frame rate and complex graphics?.. enter the GPU.

The Graphics Processing Unit is like a CPU but is designed to deal with complex tasks related to rendering graphics. Most GPUs these days are far more powerful and sophisticated than their CPU counterparts and are more commonly used for activities such as mining crypto currencies or training Machine Learning algorithms than CPUs are.

GPUs can cost anything from a few 10s of Pounds to over £2,500 each... and if that's not fast or smooth enough for you then you can plug more than one in allowing them to work together. All of this cleverness means two things;

  1. that games developers rely increasingly on new GPU hardware to differentiate their product
  2. making a bad choice of GPU can make your gaming laptop redundant in no time, either because the game is too laggy and unplayable or because the game may just refuse to run if it knows the GPU isn't up to the job.

Card Docks

We mentioned Card Docks earlier... so what are they? A Card Dock is a box with one or GPUs cards in it that connects to your laptop via a Thunderbolt or USB-C connection. At the risk of stating the obvious, this box takes over the graphics processing capability of your laptop. For those who are wondering why... well this means that when you use your laptop for normal, mobile, activities you use the onboard graphics card but when you need that extra boost for gaming then you use your Card Dock. This strategy has a number of benefits as you can;

  1. buy a less expensive laptop than you would need to otherwise
  2. upgrade your laptop and card dock separately
  3. add more/different cards to your card dock as required

5. Friends

Out of all the things to consider when buying a gaming platform for your child, what their friends are doing is probably the most important one. Most kids who are into gaming, like to play online with their friends. Listen into their conversations and you'll hear a huge amount of communication around strategy, planning, team work and resource sharing. So there's no point choosing a route that the rest of the gang aren't on.

Many of the most popular titles are available across the different console platforms - Playstation, XBox and Nintendo as well as on PC via a DVD or download. But that doesn't mean that you can play cross-platform. So it pays to find out what platforms other families are using and what type of attitude they have to gaming - for example, will they just have one console or are they likely to have different ones as technology changes?

In our experience, lots of people have consoles - usually Playstation or Xbox, hard core gamers with mums and dads who work in technology use PCs or laptops.

6. Connectivity

So all we have to do it get a good laptop and we're set... well only if you're playing offline. If you are playing online, then there is a little bit more to do. As a rule, online games run at the speed of your connection. Not so much the graphics and the FPS but more your ability to interact with others. If your connection is slow then you will, by comparison to the other players, be plodding around, snail-like, having a fairly grim time of it. As a result, you need to make sure your laptop's connection to your router is as good as possible, using a cable or a good 5 GHz WiFi connection and an Internet connection with very low latency/ping times.