As a developer, I switched to laptops ages ago. In fact, I haven’t purchased a traditional PC in close to a decade and probably never will. That said, using a laptop as your primary development machine certainly has its share of drawbacks including reduced capabilities, higher price tags, and more. The process of choosing a laptop certainly isn’t easy these days.
The last time I went through this process it was actually quite easy. My requirements in a laptop are, in order:
- battery life
Truth of the matter is, if any of those first three are missing, a machine is completely useless to me. Getting all three at a good price… good luck with that! If you don’t care about portability or battery life, there are a TON of excellent options available to you. If on the other hand, you like me require power, performance, and battery, the list shrinks a lot. If you are on a budget, the list shrinks into a number you can count on one hand. Let’s talk first about the GPU requirements.
The actual performance requirements of a game development machine vary massively from game developer to game developer. If you are creating 2D games, or relatively simple 3D games, a basic discrete GPU or even a high-end Intel HD chipset will work fine for you. In fact, this might be a great choice, as it is representative of the “average” user machine.
However, once you start talking 3D games, especially if you are running an engine like Unreal, or content creation tools like 3D Studio Max, ZBrush or Maya, then your requirements go up a great deal. In this case, you need a discrete GPU at a minimum. In the mobile space, this means nVidia. Outside of the MacBook Pro’s basically NOBODY uses AMD GPUs for whatever reason.
Laptop GPU choices
So now that we decided you need a GPU, we need to look at the major options out there. Here’s the trick of understanding nVidia processors. First off, the m designates a mobile chip, so lower power, and thus lower power consumption. As a general rule, expect the m version to run about 20% slower than the equivalent desktop version. Also, be aware, some laptop manufacturers put desktop GPUs in laptops. Expect these to get extremely hot and to have battery lives counted in minutes, and that’s not hyperbole.
When looking at the naming convention of an nVidia gpu, the first number is series or a chronological marker, and the second number indicates the performance. For example, you might think that a 940m would outperform a 880m right? I mean it’s 60 better! You would be horrifically wrong! In fact, my current laptop’s 765m would absolutely trounce the 940m in any benchmark. So when looking at GPUs it’s the last two digits that are by far most important. However, that first digit can still be important as designs can shrink and become more efficient in their power usage. The major differences between versions are the clock rate the chips run at, the amount of memory available, the memory bandwidth, and the number of CUDA cores available.
The GPU Options
You might as well go with a good integrated GPU and experience similar performance with better battery life and often lower cost or better form factor. These GPUs may be able to run demanding games on low to medium settings at non 1080p resolutions at somewhat playable framerates. You will struggle running a game engine like Unreal on this class of GPUs.
These are in my opinion the entry level of dedicated GPUs. If you are looking at a sub-1000$ USD laptop with a dedicated GPU in it, this is probably the best you will find in a reasonable form factor. You aren’t going to be running cutting edge AAA games at the highest settings, and it will struggle with higher end or complex 3D content creation, but it’s still a big step up from even the best of the Intel integrated GPUs, even though those are improving greatly. One of the big differences is nVidia can write good display drivers, Intel, not so much.
I have been running a 765m now for several years and it’s still a pretty solid GPU. At this level, you will find you can run every game released in medium to high levels. Personally, this was my cut off when searching for a new machine. The power to power consumed ration is quite good and it’s got enough power for today, if perhaps not for tomorrow. The big caveat here is, this GPU is *NOT* able to power a 4K or 3K display, even though manufacturers really want to try. The 965m is about 10% faster than the 960m.
This is in my opinion, the sweet spot for performance. It runs a great deal faster than the 960 series, while not sucking battery and generating the heat of the 980m. You are going to be *just* able to power a 4K display with this GPU, depending on the title or graphic settings.
This is as of writing, the fastest GPU you can get in a laptop. It is also the most power hungry. This GPU is capable of eating any game or application you want to throw at it and often at 4K resolutions. The 980m has 100W power consumption to the 970m’s 81W. This is by far the most future proof of the GPU options.
Comparisons on GPU Boss:
If you browse those results you will see that the most profound jump was from the 960 to the 970 series. A difference of more than twice as much as any other jump.
Now keep in mind there are going to be several older models with last year’s chip, often for a very good price. You will often find that performance is quite similar, but power consumption is not. If you don’t care about battery life, the 880m for example might be an exceptional bargain for you.
Choosing a CPU
I might be somewhat controversial on this one, but this area I think matters the least. Simply put, if you buy a machine with a good GPU you will almost always get a good enough i7 or possibly i5 processor. There are of course a few choices here and mostly come down to when the laptop was manufactured.
A very common CPU in gaming laptops is the i7-4720, which is a very solid choice. The newest laptops will be probably be running an i-7 6700. If the laptop came in the middle of the year it may be running something like an i7-5700. So what is the difference?
On the one hand, you have clock speeds which should be immediately obvious in meaning. The next two most important aspects are the architecture and the size of the chip. Smaller chips generally use less power, so size does in fact matter. Architecture is going to be one of four things, in order of age (oldest first): Ivy Bridge, Haswell, Broadwell or Skylake.
As a general rule of thumb the newer the chip the less power it consumes, although you will often find the older chips in the previous series out perform the newest chips in the new series. For example, the best Broadwell CPUs today are generally faster than the newest Skylake CPUs. Of course, over time this becomes less true.
As mentioned earlier, size is a big part of power consumption. Skylake chips are made of 14nm transistors while the Haswell is a 22nm chip. To make things even more confusing, Broadwell is a transitional chip, it’s a Haswell architecture made at 14nm.
Generally what this means when shopping for a laptop, if it was made in the last 4 or 5 months and it’s running a Broadwell or Skylake processor, it will probably get great battery life. That said if it’s not an Ivy Bridge chip you are probably good to go and even that shouldn’t be a deal breaker. In benchmarks thus far, I have actually seen almost zero difference between Skylake and Broadwell CPUs in both processing power and power consumption.
At the end of the day, the CPU is rarely the bottleneck and Intel has been making really good chips since they started the i3/i5/i7 series, so you can’t really make a huge mistake here.
HOWEVER. If you are going with an integrated GPU you want to be very aware of which iteration you use, as the capabilities of the integrated GPU have changed massively from release to release. For an idea of the various integrated graphics from chip to chip, refer to this handy chart.
RAM, Storage and Everything Else
Next, there is all the other stuff that goes into making up the laptop. The keyboard and trackpad style is obviously going to be personal tastes, as are the design esthetics. This was actually a big point for me, as I simply won’t buy a “gaming” styled laptop. I don’t want glowing logos, or bullet holes or bite marks in my laptops design! Of course, your opinion will vary.
For RAM, I think the reasonable limit is 8GB, although you could get by with 4GB, and quite frankly, I don’t think most people would use 16GB. 32GB is just a waste for the vast majority of users.
For storage, this one is critical. A 5400 RPM drive as a primary hard drive is an absolute non-starter. Seriously don’t do it. Your boot times will suck, your machine will be sluggish and all that other hardware will be wasted. Increasingly these days a SSD drive is a must, at least for your system partition. The difference between an SSD and non SSD drive is 3 second boot times verses 30 seconds or worse. If your machine starts using swap instead of memory, this will become even more glaring.
What I am saying here is, get an SSD. I pretty much consider it mandatory in this day and age.
How big, that’s up to you. I lived for the past several years with only a 256GB drive for storage and with solutions like DropBox, Github, Google Drive, or One Drive basically giving away online storage, I never really found this a major hindrance. Frankly, if I didn’t install Steam or any games, I would probably never use more than 100GB or so. That said, more is always nice. Another common option is a small SSD drive for your OS install and a larger slower SATA driver for storage and non-performance critical applications. Nicely in this day and age, swapping the hard drive out of a laptop normally requires zero technical ability and the removal of a screw or two.
The final and critically important decision is the screen. Many people are jumping on the 4K or 3K display train and this is certainly an option. That said, if you have less than a 970m GPU or a dual 960 series, don’t even consider it. Honestly don’t. That GPU cant power that screen.
The choice of an ultra high def screen also leads to a ton of legacy apps being almost illegible. A higher resolution screen is also a greater draw on battery life. On the other hand, they look really really really nice and greatly reduce eye strain. Personally, if the option existed, I would go FHD (1080p) regardless of the GPU I selected, but that’s of course personal opinion.
Two and a half years ago, the decision was extremely simple. In fact, there was only one option, the Razer Blade series from Razer. Well, that’s not completely true, there was also the MacBook Pro… sorta. Those were the only two machines in 2013 that were truly portable while packing good internals. The MacBook Pro, unfortunately, and true still to this day, packed a sub-par GPU especially for the sky-high price tag. Not that the Razer Blade is what I would refer to as cheap. It has however served me well these past two and a half years and had the battery not started failing I would probably continue to use it.
These days, however, more and more manufacturers are making capable while still portable laptops that are ideal for game developers on the go. Let’s take a look at the leading options. To make this list you needed to meet the following criteria:
- around 5lbs or less
- 15” or smaller
- dedicated GPU, preferable 960 or better
- i7 processor
- 8GB or more RAM
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Dell XPS 15 A high quality, great form factor machine, a serious price tag with excellent specs and a horrifically outdated GPU. Update the GPU to a 960/970 and you instantly have a contender. With this GPU at that price, sadly I have to pass.
MSI GS30 This one is an interesting concept. It’s a portable and capable 13” laptop that lacks a dedicated GPU. That said, it ships with a Gaming Dock, that contains a desktop class GPU. So a portable machine when you need it, a gaming machine when you take it home. If you only need the power when you are at home, this is certainly something to consider.
Alienware 13 This 13” option from Alienware is certainly worth considering as well. It packs a 960m GPU and solid internals into a 13” chassis. Also like the MSI it has a desktop GPU docking option available. It clocks in at under 5 lbs, so it certainly meets the criteria set above. It is however horrifically fat, at 1.14”. If it’s girth isn’t an issue to you it’s a solid option for 1200-1500USD.
Microsoft SurfaceBook When it was announced that the Surface Book would have a dedicated GPU I stood up and took notice. The price tag was extremely steep, but you were essentially getting a tablet and high end laptop in one, so perhaps it would be worthwhile. Then it was announced that the GPU was a 1GB custom nVidia chip on par with the 940M and it’s place on this list was lost.
Origin EON-15x This machine is amazingly powerful in a 15” chassis. It’s also amazingly expensive with horrid battery life. Plus it weighs more then some 17” laptops. It’s fun to drool over though, so I’ve included it.
Looking at the list there seems to be one clear cut winner when it comes to size, performance and price.
The Gigabyte P34v4. The lightest, one of the highest specs at one of the lower non-budget price points with a 2 year warranty makes it hard to say no. I’ve put my money where my mouth is and purchased this machine, so expect a review soon.
Totally Off Topic