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The laptop is on a desk, displaying a game
Credit: Reviewed / Emily Ramirez

The Acer Nitro 5 is an excellent value gaming laptop for most players.

Best Overall
Acer Nitro 5 (2020)

The Nitro 5 is one of the most powerful laptops you can get for its low price point. If you’re looking to dip your toes into the world of gaming PCs, the Nitro 5 is a brilliant choice for a great 1080p experience. Equipped with an AMD Ryzen 5 processor and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650, the Nitro 5 can pump out 60 frames per second on many taxing AAA games.

Many multiplayer games like Genshin Impact and Valorant will be super smooth even at the highest graphics settings. For comparison, a similarly priced non-gaming laptop—like the Lenovo Yoga 9i—can run Metro 2033 at under thirty frames per second where the Nitro 5 can run it at sixty frames per second on the highest graphics settings.

However, for the Nitro 5 to offer that kind of powerful hardware at such a low price, it makes compromises in other areas. At over five pounds and an inch thick, this 15.6-inch laptop can be hard to carry. Meanwhile, its display is average at best and the tacky plastic body leaves a lot to be desired. Additionally, you will have to temper your expectations for exceptionally demanding games like Cyberpunk 2077 or Metro Exodus, which will absolutely run at under sixty frames per second on even medium graphics settings. If you want to play games that intense, you’ll have to spend a bit more money to get a gaming laptop with an Nvidia RTX 2060 or better.

As a first gaming PC for esports and average AAA games, the Nitro 5 is a fantastic pick. It’s a clear step above laptops with a discrete GPU, and it has decent battery life to boot. This beast proves you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars for a good gaming laptop.

Pros

  • Affordable

  • AAA gaming-ready hardware

  • Respectable battery life

Cons

  • Heavy and thick

  • Muddy display

  • Small keys and trackpad

How We Tested Cheap Gaming Laptops

These are the best budget gaming laptops money can buy.
Credit: Reviewed / Betsey Goldwasser

We test everything from processing capability to screen brightness.

The Testers

Hey there, I’m Adrien Ramirez, laptop staff writer here at Reviewed. I’ve been working professionally with tech and PCs for six years, from game development to reviewing and everything in between. Before I came to Reviewed, I had worked with Lifewire and the MIT Game Lab. I’m passionate about all things tech, although I especially enjoy working with PCs. When I’m not testing and evaluating laptops, I’m planning new keyboard and small form factor desktop builds, playing games in virtual reality, or nerding out about graphics cards.

I'm Florence Ion, a contributor here at Reviewed. Over a decade ago, I started my career interning for a PC magazine and benchmarking powerful machines. But gone are the days I used to put together my gaming rig. I've since switched over to laptops because they're more portable and they save me a ton of room in my tiny office. And gaming laptops, in particular, offer everything I need to run my business and engage in a bit of playtime when I'm not feeling particularly motivated.

I’m Alex Kane, a freelance contributor for Reviewed. Since early 2016, I’ve been writing about video games and culture for places like Polygon, Rolling Stone, and Variety. I’m also the author of Boss Fight Books’ Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I come to gaming laptops looking for things like comfort, ease of use, and longevity. Whether I’m playing Fallout 4, Halo, or MTG Arena, I just want a machine that gets out of my way and makes gaming as joyous and headache-free as possible. But having enough power to run the latest blockbusters is equally important when you’re making this kind of investment.

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The Tests

To help determine a gaming laptop’s ability as a portable powerhouse, we first attempt to push each machine’s processor to its brink. These tests help us determine the responsiveness of the laptop and whether it’ll be able to handle streaming or running Google Chrome in the background with simultaneous gameplay. We then run a series of tests on the graphics card to figure out how fast graphics and images rendered on a particular machine, and whether your gameplay will run smoothly.

Since gaming laptops are smaller and thinner than full gaming rigs, we tested the heat output and fan noise of each machine during sustained gameplay. If you plan to use a gaming laptop for double-duty, you might find the sound of whirring fan blades to be a bit distracting.

Once that’s established, we run a battery test overnight. We unplug the laptop and set the display brightness to 200 nits and then we cycle through popular websites like Discord and Twitch until the battery dies. This is how we figure out how much action we can get on a single charge. The idea is to emulate daily tasks. Even if you’re buying this laptop solely to play Overwatch, you’ll also likely use it for web browsing.

Lastly, we consider the overall build quality like how sturdy the hinges feel and if there’s any flex to the display. We also take into account how light the machine is—under five pounds is ideal—and how many ports it offers.

What You Should Know About Budget Gaming Laptops

Under the Hood

When you start your search for gaming laptops, you’ll notice that there isn’t much variety when it comes to the internal hardware. The most popular graphics cards these days are made by Nvidia. Companies like AMD also manufacture high-performing graphics cards, but most of the laptops we tested have Nvidia hardware powering their insides.

The latest Nvidia graphics cards are the 10-series, 16-series, and 20-series. The 10-series includes 1060, 1070, and 1080 cards. These tend to be more budget-friendly and they’re capable of handling the latest games at high frame rates as well as virtual reality experiences (provided you have enough RAM). Like the other cards mentioned here, they’re also compatible with Nvidia proprietary G Sync, which helps manage smooth frame rates of up to 240Hz.

The 16-series includes the 1660 Ti and 1650 and are both based on newer architecture than the 10-series. They perform well at 1080p and 1440p resolutions and offer better memory bandwidth so that graphics continually render smoothly at high frame-rates. The only caveat of the 16-series is that they tend to ship with less virtual memory, which can become a future-proofing issue down the line.

The 20-series include the RTX 2060, 2070, and 2080, and they’re considered some of the best cards in their class. The RTX in their name stands for ray tracing, which helps generate interactive images that react to lighting, shadows, and reflections, contributing to more immersive gameplay. Games like Metro Exodus support this rendering technology. The 20-series are also able to facilitate gaming on a 4K monitor, which you might consider if you’re springing for our best all-around gaming laptop picks.

The processor inside your gaming laptop won’t directly affect your gaming prowess, though this part of the configuration matters for day-to-day tasks and simultaneous streaming. Most of what you’ll find on our list come with Intel Core i7 chips, either last generation’s 8750H variant or the ninth-generation 9750H. There isn’t a significant difference in performance between the two, and you can save some money by foregoing the upgrade.

If you’re looking at budget gaming machines, you’re likely to run into Intel’s Core i5 processors. They’re capable chips, but you will see a performance difference as you push the machine to its capacity.

Display Size

The standard screen size for gaming laptops is 15.6-inches with 1080p resolution. It’s enough screen for partaking in action without carting around a laptop that’s breaking your back. There are 17-inch gaming laptops available, too, but if portability matters to you, you might want to avoid that much screen.

Refresh rates make the most significance on gaming laptops. You may have noticed that a majority of our picks include a 144Hz refresh rate, with machines like the MSI GS65 Stealth with RTX 2060 graphics clocking in at 240Hz. The higher frame rate effectively smooths out gameplay and leads to less stuttering issues than on a standard monitor with a 60Hz refresh rate.

Price Point

It used to be impossible to find a competent gaming machine under a grand, but not anymore. Now you can find plenty of options starting with decent processors and enough graphics power to fuel your third playthrough of The Witcher 3.

Anything over a grand belongs in the mid-range category, though that label doesn’t necessarily refer to a laptop’s specifications. You’ll be able to find machines with current generation hardware, decent battery life, lots of memory, and plenty of storage space. Some last-generation gaming laptops may also appear at this price point.

Laptops that cost well over a grand are considered top performers because they’re equipped with top-tier specs. Machines in this category also tend to offer better display options, and in some instances, allow you to upgrade components down the line.


Other Budget Gaming Laptops We Tested

Product image of Asus TUF Gaming A15 (2020)
Asus TUF Gaming A15 (2020)

When it comes to affordable gaming laptops, it’s hard to do better than the Asus TUF A15. With an Nvidia RTX 2060 and an AMD Ryzen 7-4800HS processor, there is very little the TUF A15 can’t smash through.

This laptop is a beast for esports games especially, with some seriously high frame rates in games like Overwatch, Valorant, Fortnite, and League of Legends. The 144Hz screen will make it much easier to hit your marks, as well. When you kick back with cinematic single player games, you’ll get more of a mixed bag—while Shadow of the Tomb Raider does run at 75 frames per second on its highest graphics settings, the screen’s muted colors take away from the experience.

The TUF A15 keeps the essentials as a high priority. Aside from the great CPU and GPU performance, the keyboard is great to type on and the trackpad is smooth. If your game library grows too big, you can install a second SSD inside the laptop and upgrade the RAM to 32GB. But you won’t get the extras: the chassis, while rugged and well-featured, is large and unwieldy for a 15.6-inch laptop.

The battery life is this laptop’s biggest flaw, as we only saw 3 hours from our web-based battery test (for comparison, the Acer Nitro 5 and the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14 lasted for over 5 hours). However, if battery life doesn’t concern you and you don’t need a best-in-class display, the Asus TUF A15 handily outperforms most every gaming laptop in its price range.

Pros

  • Excellent performance

  • Great keyboard

  • 144Hz screen

Cons

  • Bulky

  • Muted colors

  • Short battery life

Product image of HP Pavilion Gaming 15Z-EC200
HP Pavilion Gaming 15Z-EC200

The HP Pavilion 15 Gaming offers solid 1080p performance for a wide range of games. You won’t be able to play games like Control, Cyberpunk 2077, or Metro Exodus at the highest graphical setting and still get 60 frames per second (not surprising with a GTX 1650), but esports will definitely take advantage of the Pavilion 15 Gaming’s 144Hz monitor.

The laptop we tested was also equipped with one of the latest AMD Ryzen 5 processors and 16GB of RAM. It gets top marks for more productivity-oriented tasks, especially those that could really strain your processor. Transcoding 4K videos, opening dozens of Google Chrome tabs, and even rendering stills of 3D models are no sweat for the Pavilion Gaming 15. This is all-around an incredible laptop for kicking back in team-based shooters after a long day of heavy work.

Pros

  • Springy keyboard

  • 144Hz display

  • Cool and quiet performance

Cons

  • Short battery life

  • Poor storage in base model

  • Somewhat bulky design

Product image of Acer Nitro 7 (AN715-51-752B)
Acer Nitro 7 (AN715-51-752B)

Just because you’re buying a gaming laptop on a strict budget doesn’t mean you have to skimp on the features. The Acer Nitro 7 is an excellent example of how to save money and equip yourself with the kind of hardware that will play your favorite games and help you get things done.

The Nitro 7 has an Intel Core i7-9750H processor along with an Nvidia GTX 1650 graphics card and 16GB of RAM. Like its pricier competition, it also offers a 15.6-inch Full HD display with 144Hz refresh rate, which means games run pretty smooth. It even managed to maintain high frame rates in visually-demanding games like Metro 2033 and Rise of the Tomb Raider. It boasts impeccable battery life, too, with up to four hours of continuous use before it requires a charge.

Perhaps the only caveat of the Nitro 7 is the same issue that plagues other gaming laptops. The lack of physical buttons on the trackpad makes it hard to play some games without an additional mouse.

Pros

  • Affordable

  • Display has a 144Hz refresh rate

Cons

  • Mediocre trackpad

Product image of Lenovo Legion Y520 (16GB RAM, 2TB HDD + 256GB SSD)
Lenovo Legion Y520 (16GB RAM, 2TB HDD + 256GB SSD)

With its unique tapered design and black plastic hood, the Lenovo Legion makes a strong first impression. The muted color scheme is a nice change of pace, especially if you’re not into that gaudy gaming aesthetic. While it’s obviously a gaming laptop, given its red-backlit keyboard and angular trackpad, the tamed-down aesthetic is a welcome departure from the usual script.

It’s a good option for the gaming enthusiast on a tight budget. In addition to the reasonable starting price, the Legion also packs a good amount of graphics power as well. You’ll get consistent performance out of the base model, so long as you don’t push it beyond its capabilities. While the Legion, with its subdued look and affordability, has a lot going for it, some compromises had to be made.

The Nvidia GPU is a big power-suck, so you’ll want to keep your eyes peeled for an outlet. The battery life is disappointing but, depending on your needs, it may or may not be a top priority. The angular trackpad is also awkward to use, as the odd shape makes it nearly impossible to work with. That said, you can always hook up to an external mouse and use that instead.

Pros

  • Muted color scheme

  • Good graphics power

Cons

  • Awkward trackpad

Meet the testers

Florence Ion

Florence Ion

Contributing Writer

@Ohthatflo

Florence Ion is a freelance journalist and prolific podcaster. She's written for Ars Technica, PC World, Android Central, The Verge, and Engadget. Her reviews and how-tos can usually be found on Lifehacker, Tom's Guide, and Reviewed. She can also be heard weekly on All About Android on the TWiT network and Material on Relay FM.

See all of Florence Ion's reviews
Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Editor, Search & Updates

@alexjkane

Alex Kane is an editor at USA Today’s Reviewed.

See all of Alex Kane's reviews
Adrien Ramirez

Adrien Ramirez

Staff Writer

@itsaramkat

Adrien is a staff writer for Reviewed, mainly focused on reviewing laptops and other consumer tech. During his free time, he's usually wandering around Hyrule.

See all of Adrien Ramirez's reviews

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