Affordable Gaming Laptops Late 2009: A Buyer's Guide

Update: There's a now a new and considerably more up-to-date version of this hub titled "Affordable Gaming Laptops 2011"

I started out naming this hub "cheap gaming laptops," but the more I thought about it, the more it came off as misleading - after all, there's no such thing as a dirt cheap laptop that's capable of playing games like Far Cry 2, Crysis: Warhead or Fallout 3 at comfortable frame rates, let alone with some eye candy turned on. On the other hand, there are quite a few affordable gaming laptops available these days if you know what to look for.

Sure, it looks cool, but with all the bells and whistles it will set you back over $5,000
Sure, it looks cool, but with all the bells and whistles it will set you back over $5,000

One of my best tips on how to locate affordable gaming laptops is to look for laptops that are not touted as gaming laptops. This might sound a bit strange, but when you think about it - have you ever seen a branded gaming laptop (Alienware comes to mind) with a reasonable price tag? No, even with the same exact components, a notebook with cool-looking and gaming related design will cost you more than a non-descript, generic model.


The Importance of the Graphics Card

If gaming is what you'll be doing on your laptop, then the single most important component is the graphics card. Start by discarding everything with integrated graphics. All kinds of integrated Intel graphics like the GMA950, X3100, 4500MHD etc. are utterly useless for anything more advanced than a game of Tetris. For real gaming you're going to need a GPU from Nvidia or ATI.

Unfortunately neither ATI or Nvidia are naming their GPUs to make it easy for consumers to choose - new variants are released all the time and most of them are just minor updates on previous generations. A handy reference that I often use to compare the relative performance of different cards is the mobile GPU charts at notebookcheck.net. Going by the 3DMark 06 scores, you should aim for a laptop with a graphics cards that gets at least 5,000 points. In real life that means that all games as of late 2009 should be playable, although not with all the details cranked up to maximum.

Processor and Memory Speeds

Although the graphics card is undoubtedly the most important part of a gaming laptop, the speed of the processor and memory are not insignificant. There are some additional frames per seconds to gain here - as well as overall better performance in day-to-day tasks - but the "dollar-to-FPS ratio" is a lot less attractive. On the other hand, most laptops that come with a high-end graphics card are usually also fitted with a decent CPU, so it shouldn't be much of a problem.

Generally speaking, Intel CPUs are faster and more energy-efficient, but the competitor AMD offers better value. In the top tier is the new mobile quad-core Core i7 processor, followed the Core 2 Duo and AMDs dual-core Turion. On the memory side, the faster DDR3 is starting to reach the mainstream, but in most laptops the technology lacks many of the benefits (such as higher clock rates).


A Selection of Affordable Gaming Laptops, Q4 2009

I've rounded up a few interesting laptops with gaming potential as of 2009 that have an equally interesting price tag. None are dirt cheap, but they all provide excellent value over high-profile gamer brands (yes, I'm talking about Alienware again).

HP Pavilion dv6 (HD 4650)

The dv6 is the follow-up on the dv5 in HPs Pavilion "entertainment" lineup. This one has a slightly larger 16" screen and comes with a variety of cost-cutting but adequate AMD processors. There's also a fairly large assortment of graphics solutions to choose from, but the only interesting models from a gamer's perspective is the ones with the Radeon HD 4650 GPU, which is not ultra fast, but good enough for all recent games. On the downside, the screen resolution is a bit low at 1366x768, but your games will look great since you can play most of them in native resolution.

Acer AS8730 (9600M GT)

If you don't mind an oversized monster of a laptop, the 18-inch Acer Aspire 8730 offers some very decent hardware (including a Core 2 Duo P8600) at a fraction of the cost of a comparable laptop from a "premium" manufacturer (i.e., Sony, Apple). The 9600M GT is the same GPU as that in the latest MacBook Pro lineup and is definitely gaming capable.

Asus K70IO-A1 (GT 120M)

Looking at the specs - including an Nvidia GT 120M GPU and a dual-core Intel processor - this is definitely a bargain gaming laptop at this price. The 17-inch screen with a 1600x900 resolution is well suited for both gaming and watching movies. It could have been even better with a larger hard drive - the included one is only 250GB. Also, for some reason the K70 comes with a 32-bit operating system, meaning that it can't use the full 4GB of RAM.

Gateway P-6860FX (8800M GTS)

Looking at the specs - including an Nvidia GT 120M GPU and a dual-core Intel processor - this is definitely a bargain gaming laptop at this price. The 17-inch screen with a 1600x900 resolution is well suited for both gaming and watching movies. It could have been even better with a larger hard drive - the included one is only 250GB. Also, for some reason the K70 comes with a 32-bit operating system, meaning that it can't use the full 4GB of RAM.

MSI GX633-044US (GT 130M)

This is the laptop I'm writing this on (but the Intel version) and even if it's not the best gaming laptop in the world - considering the price tag it's an impressive piece of machinery. A neat feature with this laptop is the ability to overclock it with the simple push of a button. It also has some qualities that you rarely see in gaming laptops; it's thin and light (relative to its hardware) and comes with a 15-inch screen that makes it fairly portable. A word of warning about the keyboard though, which is quite cramped thanks to the inclusion of a numeric keypad.

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Comments 5 comments

ohkennyabi profile image

ohkennyabi 6 years ago from The East

Hi there, I read three HUBs on gaming laptop and yours is the top. I like it and learned some thing new and strait to the point and this is the one.

"Start by discarding everything with integrated graphics. All kinds of integrated Intel graphics like the GMA950, X3100, 4500MHD etc. are utterly useless for anything more advanced than a game of Tetris. For real gaming you're going to need a GPU from Nvidia or ATI."


gazook profile image

gazook 6 years ago Author

Thanks a lot! Glad you liked it and thanks for stopping by. I try to be as honest as possible here with what you actually need from a gaming laptop. It's too bad that these things tend to get outdated so fast :|


Pink Laptop 6 years ago

It's interesting to see how fast technology develops. What was an affordable gaming laptop back in 09 is probably considered a low end machine today. It boggles the mind how fast computers improve!


mrfishs profile image

mrfishs 5 years ago from Mentor Ohio

Nice interesting hub ideal for someone in the market for a gamer machine. I have a HP DV 6, great little machine for my business, soon you wont need a laptop if what is in Japan gets here. Keep up the good work.


gazook profile image

gazook 5 years ago Author

Thanks mrsfishs! The HP dv6 is not a bad gaming machine at all. I'm a big fan of the new SandyBridge models.

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