Custom gaming laptops: like GI Joes and Barbies for grown-ups.

Posted: July 7, 2013 by ryanlecocq in Features, Technology

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EDIT 2/15:  I take back what I said in this article about Acer and Toshiba having solid build quality.  That was once true for the price, but they have taken a serious dive in the last 2 years.  Once these two brands were the go-to for a student on a budget, who wanted something sturdy, even if it was made of ugly gray plastic.  Recently, they’ve adopted ultra-thin and brittle plastic, along with power supplies known for breaking in several ways.

If you’re anything like me, you agonize over every new computer you buy or build.  I often have at least a dozen tabs open with different builds on different sites, so I can compare them all.  In the past, I would never have considered a custom laptop, as they were way out of my price range and weighed more than an old lady’s purse.  So I would search around between different models, never able to get exactly the specs or features I imagined when I decided to upgrade.  In recent years, computers in general have gone down in price.  Maybe it has something to do with us ending a larger 5-6 year PC hardware “cycle,” but the manufacturing processes have gotten cheaper and the cost of parts has gone down.  In the last couple of years, it has actually become possible to not only order custom “whitebooks” (a barebone laptop with customizable components) under $1000, but large brands have also started to catch on.  Asus and Dell (after buying Alienware), have had customize-able laptops for years, but recently even HP, Sony and Toshiba have started to offer a range of halfway decent components for selection in their $500+ notebooks.

Hardware Potential

Right now, the new Intel Haswell mobile chips are all the rage, but any specs I list right now will likely be one number outdated 6-9 months from now.  Someone might read this two years from now and I want it to still be useful. When buying a truly custom laptop (like a Clevo/Sager or Msi), you can expect a lot more performance options than you would see in the models at Best Buy or on Newegg.  I see so many people rush to Newegg and just click “dedicated graphics,” and “price low to high.”  You will still get a better deal than going to Target or Walmart, but a more lengthy browse around the greater internet may benefit you.  At about $500-800 you will find custom models of common notebooks, with similar performance to what is offered in stores, but with more options available across models.  For example if you wanted to just get a system to run Diablo 3 or Guild Wars 2, you could get a smaller model with a lower resolution screen, but upgrade the CPU and GPU.  If your budget is in the $750-1000 range, you can expect to pick and choose a lot more.  Here is what you can expect from different systems in different form factors:

11-14″

A lot of these systems will feature only onboard graphics, but can be configured with CPUs which have pretty decent ones.  The higher end Intel i7s have the HD 5200 Iris Pro IGP and the AMD A10s have either 7600 or 8600 series IGPs.  Either of these options will likely suit your needs if you don’t need full HD high-end gaming.  If you want to play games at 1366×768 and medium settings, you can get one of these for well under $1000.  Models are available from Dell, HP, Sony, Toshiba, Sager, MSI, Samsung and more with the hard drive size and type you want, screen, RAM and other options.  Some offer the option of a dedicated graphics card, making entertainment on multiple monitors and large TVs a possibility.

15.6″

15 inchers are kind of the Colt 1911 of the laptop world.  The most common and popular version of a thing for a really long time.  So when you step up to a midsize laptop, you can pretty much get the best balance of everything, because laptop parts have long been designed for this size.  If you are shopping around for a laptop for gaming, you should really make sure you get a dedicated graphics above the median line of enthusiast use.  As a reminder, that’s 60 series and above for nVidia and 800 and up for ATi (for example GT 760m or HD 8850m).  Most options will have a decent 1080p screen and all the features you would expect like premium sound with sub-woofer.  Many newer offerings are coming standard with backlit keyboards that vary in color and quality.  There are two major decision points when you get up to this size and price range.  You can get much better performance options for the money from custom models like Clevo/Sager or MSI, but they generally are heavier, uglier and get poorer battery life than models from Sony, HP, Asus or the like.  They don’t feature aluminum unibody construction mimicking a Mac, or Ultrabook class size and weight.  They sacrifice these creature comforts for desktop quality performance and many custom options.  If you are willing to spend $750-1000, you can get something pretty decent that can easily handle full HD gaming and anything else you throw at it.  It will unfortunately lack things like the brand recognition of a Vaio, Envy, Vostro or Alienware, but everyone will wonder what the hell it is unless you are at PAX.  The second major decision if you decide to get a fully custom laptop, is whether to go barebone to save cost vs. performance, or whether to go with an actual branded “gaming laptop” that is designed and decorated for that purpose, but will cost you for it.  In the $800-1000 range, you can start to buy some of the lower end gaming laptops from Lenovo and Asus.  They will still be pretty bulky and heavy compared to an HP Envy or Sony Vaio, but they will offer things like gaming keys (different backlighting and symbols on common gaming keys), better heat management and better screens.

17-18″

Let’s say the traditional values of a laptop like portability, light weight and small size don’t matter to you in the least.  You just want something that looks damn impressive and you want to get it exactly the way you want it.  There are many options in this price range that offer ridiculous features like SLI graphics, huge amounts of RAM and HDD slots as well as enough lights and flashers to signal the ship from Close Encounters.  They will only offer enough battery life to allow you to run from one room to another while playing a game, but I’m guessing you won’t ever take it camping anyway.  Laptops of this size are difficult to justify to your boss or spouse if you are claiming to buy a “work laptop,” unless you are in fact a game developer.  It’s hard to get much in this price range under $1000, but there are a few options in the $900 range.  Really if you are in this category, you should spend at least $1250 or so and get a 100% gaming dedicated laptop with most or all of the best features.  It should be noted though, that even a system only designed to handle MMOs and casual gaming will greatly benefit in the same way, if you don’t care about portability.  If you are looking for a laptop specifically to take to LAN parties or conventions, I highly recommend going this route if you are in that price range.  Not only the screen quality will be better, but the keyboard will be larger and more comfortable and the ports and function keys farther apart for easy use when you’re bleary eyed in a dark room.  The other huge benefit of 17″ systems is that they generally feature the same parts as 15″ models, but have more space around them for cooling pipes and ventilation.  So larger laptops will often feature things like additional cooling fans, more speakers, additional SATA and mSATA ports and more.

Transformers vs. Gobots

The big question when looking for a custom laptop is: what is most important to you that your next system be?  If it be sleek and stylish to show off at the coffee shop, you should go with an HP or Sony.  They have very *ahem* Apple inspired shells and get long battery life for lugging around campus or the office.  You can still get decent gaming potential if you customize, especially if you don’t have to run at max settings on a larger monitor.  If you want to never have to turn settings down and be able to power any game anywhere, you want a Clevo or an MSI.  These babies may not look like much, but they have it where it counts.  If you haven’t bought a gaming laptop in years, things I say like “bad battery life and large size” might seem like a joke compared to what you expected.  Even the clunkiest ones get a couple hours on battery and weigh under 10 pounds.  Most are in the 5-6 pound range and get 3-4 hours of battery life.  The new big branded laptops however, can get 6-8 hours and often weigh under 5 lbs.  Here are some brief points on each manufacturer, as I’ve owned most of them at some point and read up on the others.

Acer:

Acer doesn’t offer a huge range of customization in general, but they offer some competitively priced and well built systems.  You may consider browsing their lineup if you don’t expect to pick more than your RAM and maybe HDD size.

Alienware:

Alienware is easily the most known gamer PC in pop culture.  Owning one is almost a symbol that you do not give a crap about Microsoft Office.  You use your system for fun and it does that well.  In recent years though, other manufacturers have stepped up to the plate to be competitive in every respect.  Dell hasn’t continued the original philosophy of building truly out-there gaming systems with audacious design and features.  These days they’re pretty much just high-end Dells with glowing eyes.  Alienware still makes a powerful system though and if you can get one at a similar price to other models you are considering, they aren’t bad.  They have good support and are extremely common as gaming pcs go, so replacement parts and DIY upgrades are easy even years later.

Apple:

Yes, Apple.  The new MacBook Air (and presumably the next MBP) is actually in the price/performance range that I would compare it to these other systems.  The biggest thing you get with Apple is big brand comfort.  I don’t know how better to call it.  Apple is a big and well respected company that has bazillions of people to support and serve you.  It will cost you every step of the way, but Apple will always call or email you back, has the part you need and likely has a service center in your area.  You also get to have the most popular cultural computer logo emblazoned on the front of your machine.  Like motorcyclists, by purchasing an Apple product, you join an unspoken alliance with others in the same category.  You won’t find a lot of other Sager owners at the coffee shop if you go that route, so if your laptop is an accessory (and I don’t knock that), Apple is the way to go.  You will generally get far fewer options and what options you have will be more expensive in terms of performance upgrades.

Asus:

Asus not only has their Republic of Gamers dedicated gaming line, but also many mainstream laptops with above average performance.  Asus is sort of an underdog favorite to many (myself included) as the Asian manufacturer that pushes the boundaries most.  Unlike Samsung or Sony, Asus tends to push conventions of performance and quality versus price.  They will often offer models like my beloved K53TA that push the envelope of budget performance and user customization.  Any Asus model will be average to well constructed and feature better components on average than others in it’s price range.

Clevo:

Most of the sites that offer their own branded custom laptops are building on Clevo barebone kits.  Sager is the best known redistributor of Clevo systems in America.  These can be customized in almost any configuration you could want.  The only downside is that they are bulky, ugly and generally get poor battery life.  If you are just going to turn the lights off and only care about the screen quality and what’s on it, Clevo customs are the way to go.  Clevo makes everything from 11.6″ models up to 17″ models.

Compal:

No, not Compaq.  Compal is another company that makes barebone systems or “whitebooks.”  They generally make less models and release them less often than Clevo and MSI, but they are sometimes a good deal when they release.  I’ve never owned one or know anyone who did, but they get decent reviews.  Like Clevos and MSIs, they aren’t much to look at.

Dell:

Pretty much everything I said about Alienware applies to the XPS and Vostro lines, but without all the colored LEDs.  Dell is a big brand and it’s easy to get your laptop fixed or replaced.  They offer some pretty well reviewed models that have good durability and across the board good features.

Gigabyte:

Gigabyte is fairly new to the gaming laptop game and it shows.  Their laptops are competitive in price and features, but they lack the refinement that you find in say, an Alienware.  I don’t just mean in the sense that Sagers are not pretty, I mean that Gigabyte systems still feature some of the cruddy plastics and shiny surfaces of laptops past.  Some of them are very decent, but they just look and feel a little rough.

HP:

HP’s Envy line is actually starting to look pretty good.  The old DV6 series were notorious for running too hot and HP seems to be responding with aluminum shells and better power management.  HP offers some of the most attractive options for CPUs and GPUs in their standard models.  They also come standard with features like backlit keyboards and nice speakers.

Lenovo:

Lenovo has always been primarily known for their excellent business products.  Recently, they have been crossing more and more into gaming and entertainment PCs.  Lenovo offers a fair amount of customization in these systems and some are even starting to have flashing lights and fancy paint jobs.  Lenovo is known for excellent build quality, so you know you’re getting a solid machine if you go that route.

MSI:

MSI systems are extremely comparable to Clevos.  Not small, light or sleek, they pack lots of options for high performance.  There isn’t much to say about MSI that’s different from Clevo, besides that they often get their new models out faster.

Razer:

The well known maker of everything from mice to headsets has started to branch out into tablets and notebooks.  Everything they offer is extremely expensive, but has some impressive battery life and design.  The Razer notebooks are amazingly thin and light, while getting better battery life than their competitors in the same performance range.  Even more so than Alienware, Razer systems look flashy and show off your (at least monetary) dedication to gaming.

Sony:

Sony’s Vaio line definitely takes the cake for most doodads.  The Vaio laptops not only have the standard gamut of USB 3 ports  and fancy looking shells, but also have stuff like Near Field Communication, so you can control your PC with your phone or play Skylanders or something.  The Vaio is probably third to Apple and Alienware in logo recognition.  Sony has a reputation for sleek technology and the Vaio is probably the best example besides a Mac of a computer that is also an accessory.

Samsung:

Samsung, like Acer, doesn’t offer a huge range of custom features, but has some nicely priced laptops.   Samsung has been on the all out offensive against Apple in the phone and tablet world, now it looks like they’ve set their sights on designer laptops.  Time will tell of the Chromebook and Ultrabook concepts will become as timeless as MacBooks, but Samsung is banking heavily that they will.  As a result, Samsung offers some of the most sleek and portable systems, with a design comparable but not similar to Apple.

Toshiba:

Toshiba occupies a strange place in that they don’t stand out in any category.  Their notebooks aren’t the flashiest, or the most configurable, but they are generally high quality.  Toshiba is offering more and more customization options leaning towards the power user.  Check them out if you can’t decide between the other major brands.

Others:

Every once in a while an interesting system will come along from Gateway, Panasonic, Fujitsu or others, but for the most part they do not make gaming or enthusiast systems.  If you do find some one-of-a-kind model with dedicated graphics and good features, prepare to be the only person on the internet who has one.

Knowledge is computing power

Much more so than a set model, pricing varies when you start upgrading.  Always be sure to shop around to see who is offering sales on certain parts and who has new models not available on other sites.  Here are a few excellent retailers that offer good prices for the components they include.  Be sure to note that some sites will offer systems without a hard drive and Windows installation, making the system even cheaper if you have a spare drive and Windows install.

http://www.hidevolution.com/      Excellent prices and option to go without Windows installed.  Also good response and live chat, best of all the employees post on notebookreview, so they deal directly with the enthusiast community.

https://www.stealthmachines.com/     These guys don’t offer many models, but they assemble them quickly and offer really good prices for the parts they include.

http://www.xoticpc.com/  A very popular and well-reviewed custom PC site.  Very active in the user community.

http://www.powernotebooks.com/   Another old name in custom PCs.  Also very active posters on popular forums.

http://www.malibal.com/   Fairly cheap and will often offer models discontinued elsewhere.

http://www.rjtech.com/  Site doesn’t look like much, but they have good prices and fast shipping.

There are many, many more including the direct outlets for Sony, HP, Dell and others.

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Comments
  1. andri says:

    nice article, very informative, cant wait next one
    Gaming Laptops

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