The Folly of the Gaming Laptop

I see it all the time.  Sometimes in Reddit’s “buildapc” section, sometimes from my google adventures and sometimes from friends.  I don’t quite understand the desire, but I think if anything it’s simply really effective marketing.   Most commonly, a kids graduate high school, they try to look for a way to continue their gaming hobby in college.  The mantra is that every college student needs a laptop, and these kids decide their laptop needs to also be powerful enough to play today’s  most demanding video games.  Usually this just means they end up overpaying for a laptop that isn’t really up to the task of gaming anyway.  This article will mainly focus on college students as that’s where I have the most experience.

The Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

I’m going to analyze one specific laptop, out of the dozens of good options for a “gaming” laptop, the Alienware M17x.  The stock configuration of this laptop is as follows:

  • Intel i5-520M 2.93GHz Dual Core Processor
  • ATI 5870 Mobility
  • 17 Inch 1440×900 Display
  • 2x2GB DDR3 Memory
  • 250GB 7200RPM HDD
  • Combo Drive
  • 802.11n Wireless Support

Total price? $1,799.99.  If you were unaware, that’s a lot of money for the spec’s you get.  Most people try and justify the cost of the gaming laptop saying that they need a laptop for college.  Do you need an $1800 laptop for college? Definitely not.

My Advice

My recommendation for all college students and all parents of college students is to not spend more than $500 on a laptop.  Why? Because no college student needs to lug around a 12 pound laptop to their classes every day.  The ideal laptop for a college students in my mind is the Dell Mini-10v. It’s small but not too small, it’s got a 92% size keyboard and 9.5 hours of battery life all for just $299.  It packs plenty of punch for taking notes in the classroom or working on a powerpoint in the library.  You can even use DropBox to synchronize your school work on the go.  What it can’t do?  It likely can’t watch YouTube videos full screen and it can’t play any 3D games.  Bummer?  Not really.  Cause if you were just about to spend $1800 on a laptop and you only spent $300 on this guy, how much do you have leftover?  For those of you playing at home, $1500!  $1500 will build you a monster of a computer!

The M17x Desktop Equivalent

So if you wanted the same exact power of an M17x, but in desktop form, how much would you have to pay? $740.  That’s a markup of over $1000 just so you (or your son/daughter) can carry around a mini-super computer.

Same (if not more) performance for $740, at the cost of decreased mobility and a more space taken up at your desk.  Add the price of a $300 netbook to this computer and you’re still left with $700 in your budget.

What to do with the leftover $700

I’ve been a university student for 3 years now, and I know all the little lies people tell themselves about why they need what.  “I need a powerful laptop so I can do CAD”, “I need to be able to compile programs”.  “I’m going to be writing a lot of papers so I need a nice laptop.” “I want to be able to take notes on my laptop in class.”  There is merit to all these arguments, however there is no reason a desktop can’t be used.  In fact, I find that most people are less productive doing work outside of their room anyway.  The reality is that my girlfriend has gone through 4 years of college as a Pre-Vet Biology (Systems Physiology) major with a $400 Dell desktop, and her GPA is excellent.   In addition, I find that it’s simply easier to take notes by hand for pretty much any class.  A lot of note taking involves drawing diagrams, and doing so may be difficult to do quickly on a laptop.

So What to do with the leftover $700 to optimize yourself for your university studies?

  • RAID 1 Hard drives: RAID 1 provides data backup in case of a hard drive failure.  If you loose all of your papers and homework, you will be sorely upset.  Trust me.  All you have to do is buy a second hard drive of the same make and model and configure them for RAID.
  • Buy two monitors.  Dual monitor setups can be extremely helpful for multitasking, and especially helpful for students who are doing video editing, CAD, graphic design.
  • Invest in a good pair of headphones.  You don’t need noise cancelling, noise “muffling” will do just fine, I’ve got a pair of Sennheiser HD-280 Pro’s and they are great for blocking out noise and focusing on work.
  • Upgrade: 5770 not enough for you?  Why not upgrade to a GTX 480 if you need the power (you’d also need a better power supply).  Need a quad core? Probably not but if think you do then the i5 750 is a great processor.

The choice is ultimately yours.  If you think you need to spend $1800 on a laptop then go ahead, but you’ll most likely be wasting a lot of money.  My parents spent $2200 on my MacBook Pro when I started school, and I was very thankful.  My laptop could play video games, use CAD better than most laptops, and it was pretty fast at day to day tasks.  However, my laptop was too heavy even at 6 pounds, so I rarely brought it to class with me.  My campus is one of the smaller college campuses and it was still a half mile walk each way to some of my classes.   When I did bring it to class, I found it was more of a distraction.  I found myself mostly using it at my desk in my room.  Not to mention when it came time for an upgrade, I could upgrade the RAM and the hard drive but nothing else.  Desktops are fully upgradeable.  There are plenty of genuine reasons why you might need a powerful laptop, but be sure when you go for that gaming laptop that you think the extra $1000 is worth it.