Gaming laptops are the biggest, beefiest, and heaviest laptops out there. Boasting huge screens and dedicated graphics cards, the average gaming laptop is fairly heavy (ranging anywhere from 6 lbs. to 10 lbs., with the average at around 7 lbs). Similarly, the bulkiness of most gaming laptops (the expensive Alienware m11x excluded) restricts portability and usability when in tight spaces -- like planes, where you probably want a laptop. If it's a fight to pull your equipment out of your bag when it's on the floor in front of you, it's a whole lot less tempting to even bother getting it out. The weighty-ness and size of gaming laptops generally prevents prolonged exposure to, well, your lap, especially when it comes to heating and ventilation issues (below); these beasts serve primarily as "portable desktops."
Along with those big screens and proper GPUs comes a whole slew of overheating and venting issues. Playing demanding games burns up hardware when not coupled with heavy-duty heat dispersion, so you need to thoroughly examine every picture of the laptop's casing before purchase (if you're lucky enough to live in proximity of larger hardware retailers, feel around the case for where the exhaust is).
For some inexplicable reason, laptop vendors have a horrendous habit of placing intake or even exhaust on the -- of all places -- bottom of gaming laptops. If you're the type of person that actually uses a laptop on your, uh, lap (especially if this is in combination with blankets or other heat containers), this is an issue of major concern. Examine pictures of laptops thoroughly -- the larger it is, the less issue you're going to have with overheating (due to a greater amount of space for air to flow). The ideal laptop will keep its ventilation channels on the sides, near disc drives, the back, and the top, near the keyboard and speakers. If you find grills on the bottom, double-check to see if they are merely air channels that lead to dead-ends, rather than channels that rely on fans for movement of air. For example, many RAM bays on laptops have slits to help cool the RAM -- this is fine, but make sure those slits are pulling air in or out, and that they are simply passive cooling channels. This is an optimal system for cooling; use its images as a baseline for your shopping.
An example of what many gaming laptop manufacturers do these days is best presented by MSI's GT683R laptop: take a look at the images; notice how the large feet on the laptop will prop it up on a slight angle (which is better for your wrists, as well). This encourages cooling -- there are intake vents on the bottom, which will push the air through the sides and the back. Unfortunately, if you want to rest the laptop on an uneven surface (your lap, a blanket), the system will be suffocated due to the complete lack of air intake from beneath. This system is fantastic on flat surfaces, but that's about it.
With great power comes... pathetic battery life. At least, that's what I thought Uncle Ben told Spidey. If you need a laptop that won't die in 1-3 hours, you may want to look elsewhere. Gaming laptops have significantly higher power draw than your standard netbook or notebook (and for obvious reasons). All of that hardware will choke your battery within an hour or two of extended gaming use -- and as stated in the next section (Lifespan), you will need to remain near a power drop at all times as the machine ages.
Since a gaming laptop performs harder tasks, thus heating components up considerably, parts have a higher risk of burning out faster; we put gaming components through a lot of abuse, and that abuse translates into instability. In fact, the original XPS laptop (the m1710, if memory serves) lost an average of 10% battery life per month when we tested it years ago, meaning you had to buy a new battery every year (a $100 investment). Your gaming laptop will grow old and senile at a rapid rate, and will soon fill the "portable desktop" prophecy.
So now we need to recognize the key things to look for in our future gaming laptops. To make thigns easy, we've broken down the key parts of a gaming laptop into seven categories:
Screen resolution: It doesn't matter how powerful your laptop is, if the screen has a terrible resolution, the games will - in turn - look terrible.
CPU: Laptops tend to have much weaker CPUs than their desktop counterparts, so I suggest you aim for newer generation CPUs running at 2.5GHz minimum. You need to make sure it doesn't bottleneck your other components.
GPU: Let's face it - the Intel Graphics Decelerator just doesn't cut it for most modern games. Definitely go for a dedicated graphics card and then use Google to locate relevant in-game benchmarks to see if it runs what you want. Be sure to compare the benchmark laptop's specs to your own to get a good idea of how yours will run/
RAM: I suggest you get at least 4GB of DDR3 memory; it needn't be triple channel, but if you can manage to afford a gaming system with an i7, opt for tri-channel memory. 4GB will be adequate for all modern games and background applications.
Hard drive: Games take up a ton of storage space (in the case of some AAA titles, like Red Faction, upwards of 8-11GB), so get at least a 500GB hard drive at 7200RPM. Being laptop components, many hard drives will be clocked at 5400 RPM, so this may fluctuate based on budget.
Battery: Make sure you get a strong battery; you don't want to be constantly plugged in. Try to opt for 9- (or more) cell Li-Ion batteries.
Heat vents: You definitely need a laptop that does not have active cooling vents on the bottom of it unless it will be forever on top of a coffee table.
Hopefully this brief guide will help you locate your new gaming laptop! There's a lot of information to absorb, and we tried to break it down into an easy few pages. There will be more guides in our hardware series coming each Saturday, so return for more every weekend!
~Brant "The Bob" Armstrong and Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke