Best cheap gaming laptops for 2022 tried and tested

·13-min read
 (Steam Deck)
(Steam Deck)

Gaming laptops are a tricky balance. To get the best laptop for games, you need four things: a fast CPU, plenty of RAM, a graphics processor, and enough fast storage to contain the ever-increasing bulk of the games themselves.

And it’s getting all four things in a reasonably priced package that’s the problem. In order to get a bargain, you generally end up having to skimp on at least one, which is sub-optimal. Knowing what you can safely leave out, and still get a satisfying gaming experience, is the kind of knowledge you came here for.

Any laptop can be a gaming laptop if you only play retro games in emulators, simple indie creations, or Minecraft. It’s when you start wanting to play the latest Call of Duty or Witcher games on your laptop that its specs really begin to matter.

CPU

Let’s start with the CPU. Intel is on the cusp of releasing its 13th generation of Core CPUs, but you can save some money by buying an older one or an older AMD chip, which are just as good.

Graphics processors

The same is true of graphics processors, which come in integrated and discrete forms. Integrated graphics are generally weaker, but cheaper, while discrete chips eat into battery life and increase temperatures as well as raising the cost.

RAM

You can get away with 8GB of RAM for gaming, though 16 is preferable (especially if you’re using integrated graphics, which will pinch some RAM for their own use). Dropping to 4GB will save a little money but won’t give a satisfactory experience in games unless your tastes are very retro.

SSD

Likewise, the 128GB SSDs common on entry-level laptops are no use when a game like Red Dead Redemption 2 requires 150GB of space. A 256GB SSD is really the minimum spec for gaming, and even then you may find yourself limited to one or two games installed at a time unless you can offload them to external storage.

So gaming laptops are expensive, with price tags over £2,000 not uncommon. This is countered by the fact that they’re often good for more than one thing - that fast processor and GPU can be put to work editing images and video or laying out publications, they’ll run all office software without a hitch, and even 3D rendering may not be outside of their reach.

There’s more. Inspired by the release of the Steam Deck, a PC-based gaming machine that has a form factor closer to the Nintendo Switch than to a traditional laptop, a new wave of small PCs is coming, many of them crowdfunded efforts from Chinese manufacturers, with games very much in their sights. It’s an exciting time to be in the market for a new laptop, and the cheap gaming sector is a vibrant one.

Here are some of the best.

Steam Deck

Software developer Valve opened its digital games store Steam in 2003 and has flirted with producing hardware on and off ever since. The Steam Deck is its latest, a handheld PC running a Linux-based operating system (but which can run Windows) that looks like a big game controller with a screen in the middle. Or a chunky Nintendo Switch. Is it a laptop? Well you can certainly use it on your lap, even if it doesn’t have the typical flip-up lid.

The 1280x800px screen is touch-sensitive, and you can hook the whole thing up to an external display of up to 8K resolution should you need to (a dock is available). The Deck comes with a custom AMD APU that combines CPU and graphics processing, and packs 16GB of RAM. The difference between the three models comes down to storage. The cheapest model contains just 64GB of eMMC flash storage. This isn’t very much, especially as some of it will be taken up by the operating system, and will push users toward using the Micro SD card slot for their games. This is still suboptimal, but will suit those who mainly play older titles where loading speed is less of an issue.

The mid-range Steam Deck (£459) comes with a 256GB NVMe SSD, which is more like it, and the top-end model (£569) doubles this to 512GB. The Deck is covered with sticks, touchpads and buttons, has a motion-sensing gyroscope, can connect to Bluetooth controllers or keyboards, and is a more dedicated games machine than most laptops. Add a keyboard, mouse and monitor, however, and it’ll still run an office suite if that’s what you need.

Buy now £349.00, Steam Powered

Dell G15 5515

Dell’s G-series is usually a reliable source of gaming power, and this AMD/Nvidia-equipped model is no exception. Its Ryzen 5 processor contains six cores, is capable of simultaneously processing 12 threads, and can boost up to 4.2GHz.

The GPU is Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3050, which means you’ll be able to inject a little ray-tracing into your games for more realistic reflections and lighting, and the whole thing is backed by 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD (both of which can be upgraded if you don’t mind a little fiddling about). Windows 11 comes pre-installed, so there’s no need to upgrade immediately, and the 15.6in screen is a 1080p LED-backlit panel, with a 120Hz refresh rate.

At just over an inch thick, it’s a bit on the chunky side, though its weight of 2.5kg is about typical for this sector of the market. There’s a disappointing 720p webcam, but you get decent Wi-Fi 6, and there’s a good assortment of ports, including a pair of USB 2, one each of USB 3 Type-A and Type-C, HDMI, Ethernet, headset and power.

While it’s a bit of a dull grey laptop, the specs can’t be argued with, and the stronger GPU is worth the extra outlay.

Buy now £749.00, Amazon

Acer Nitro 5 (2020)

This 2020 version of the Nitro 5 has been superseded by a 2022 model with a 12th-gen Intel processor and RTX graphics. It’s also more expensive. For budget fiends, the 10th-gen i5 CPU (four cores, eight threads, 4.5GHz boost), 8GB of RAM, 512GB SSD and GTX 1650 GPU in this will do very nicely, claiming 138FPS in Fortnite at 1080p.

Which is lucky, because that’s the resolution of the Nitro 5’s 15.6in IPS screen, which also has a maximum refresh rate of 144Hz. Fortnite aside, that GTX 1650 may struggle to play newer games at high settings and framerates above 30fps, but there are a lot of games you will be able to play exceptionally well, including entries in the Elder Scrolls and Assassin’s Creed franchises.

You get a decent scattering of ports, including a USB Type-C and an HDMI, plus there’s the latest Wi-Fi 6 onboard for a stable signal.

Buy now £699.00, Currys

Lenovo IdeaPad Gaming 3i

The combination of an Intel i5, 8GB of RAM, 256GB SSD and an Nvidia GTX 1650 GPU is becoming something of a classic one in budget gaming laptops. The i5 in this case is an 11th-gen model, with four cores and eight threads, capable of boosting up to 4.4GHz. It’s a nippy little mover, and should perform nicely in games.

The GTX 1650 GPU is the weak link. This is a chip that shares the architecture of the RTX 2000 series but has all the clever ray-tracing and machine learning circuitry taken out, so immediately you’re missing out on the best rendering effects. The -50 suffix is also telling: Nvidia generally releases -80, -70, and -60 model numbers in a generation of its processors. Sometimes there’s a -90 at the top. And a -50 card is very much at the bottom. This is not a good graphics processor for 2022, though it will make a decent job of just about anything released before 2020ish, which is a lot of games, and will be excellent for 2D titles such as Stardew Valley.

With that caveat, the rest of the laptop looks pretty good. There’s a 15.6in IPS 1080p screen which can support 60Hz, room inside for an extra SSD if you don’t mind a little tinkering, and it sports three USB ports, two Type-A and one Type-C, as well as a separate charging input.

Buy now £699.00, Amazon

HP Victus 16

An all-AMD design, the Victus 16 packs some decent specs for its price. The 512GB SSD is a standout feature, and the six-core Ryzen 5 CPU (12 threads, 4.2GHz boost) is backed by 8GB of RAM and a Radeon RX 5500M GPU that’s about as capable as the GTX 1650 chip found in other budget gaming laptops.

Unusual in having Windows 10 as its OS of choice (an upgrade to Windows 11 should be easy enough), the Victus 16 has a 16.1in 1080p 144Hz IPS display that’s just a little bit larger than the 15.6in screens popular elsewhere. It’s not brilliantly bright, but does have a nice thin bezel.

Elsewhere, there’s the latest Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.2, a memory card reader, the expected USB ports and video connectors, plus a disappointing 720p webcam. Battery life is claimed to be 8.5hrs in mixed use, which is reasonable but going to drop quickly once you start playing games, while the presence of a 3.5mm headphone jack precludes the use of the dual B&O-branded speakers.

Buy now £699.00, Currys

ASUS TUF F17

A 17.3in screen is a rarity at this price-point. It’s a 1080p IPS panel with a 144Hz refresh rate that should give a great portable gaming experience. Trouble is, it’s pushed by that weak-link GPU again, the GTX 1650. It’s a common laptop chip, so we’re not surprised to see it here, especially at this price.

The laptop has a lot of good points, however. There’s a six-core, 12 thread, Ryzen 5 CPU capable of boosting to 4GHz, and a 512GB SSD. You get 8GB of RAM, Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5, three USB 3 ports and a single Thunderbolt 4 that can act as a data port or a video output. The keyboard is backlit, the battery life (quoted as four hours) is dreadful, and it’s rather big and heavy - though not too big to put in a backpack or briefcase.

The extra screen size is certainly nice, but you’ll have to ask yourself if a smaller screen and a stronger GPU might give you a better gaming experience.

Buy now £749.00, Currys

MSI Katana GF66

Often available below its asking price - £800 at the time of writing - this laptop nets you an Nvidia RTX 3050Ti GPU, which for portable gaming is a pretty hot chip, bringing ray-tracing tech with it. It will light up the 15.6in 1080p IPS 144Hz screen nicely, fed by an 11th-gen Intel i7 CPU (eight cores, 16 threads, boost to 4.6GHz).

There’s 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD too, proving that spending a little more money can net you a much better laptop. We’d take this over something equipped with a GTX 1650 any day. On the outside it’s not going to win any design awards, being a simple blackbox, but at least the keyboard glows nicely red, and there are some interesting shapes around the vents on the back. Battery life is relatively poor, but that’s true of almost all gaming laptops, and the level of performance on offer here makes that an acceptable trade-off for the price.

Oddly, the laptop comes with Windows 10, and you’ll want to upgrade to Windows 11 if only to take advantage of the Resizable BAR GPU feature, which can net you a few more frames per second. On the outside there’s the usual scattering of ports, 2x USB 3 Type A, 1x USB 3 Type-C, a lone USB 2.0, and an HDMI port capable of 4K at 60Hz. The webcam is a dismal 720p 30fps model, and the pair of 2W speakers aren’t much to write home about. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are up to date, with versions 6 and 5.2 installed respectively, and there’s a headset jack too.

Buy now £1199.00, Amazon

GPD WIN 3

This is one of those Steam Deck clones that attempts to out-do the original at the cost of putting its own price up. It packs an 11th-gen Intel i7 processor (four cores, eight threads, boost to 4.7GHz) and uses its built-in Intel Iris Xe graphics chip.

Most of the laptops on this list weigh in the region of 2 to 2.5kg. The Win 3 weighs 560g, and has a built-in screen, keyboard and controller (the Steam Deck weighs 669g). That screen is only 720p (there’s a video output to hook it up to something bigger) but also 5.5in across, so it matters less that it’s lower-resolution. It’s an IPS touch panel, and is covered in Gorilla Glass in case you drop it.

Again, Windows 10 is the bundled OS, but an upgrade to Windows 11 should be easy enough. There’s 16GB of RAM, and a huge 1TB SSD for storage. The Xe graphics chip looks like the weak link, but when it’s only pushing a 720p screen it can be surprisingly capable. We wouldn’t like to try getting 4K gaming out of it though. A single Thunderbolt 4 port takes care of most I/O, connecting to a separate dock that adds HDMI and USB ports (or directly to a screen via an adapter, though it’s also used for charging), but with a full keyboard hidden behind the slide-up screen, Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.0, plus a full set of analogue sticks and face buttons already present, how many ports do you want?

Buy now £999.00, Amazon

Verdict

If it’s a pure gaming machine you’re looking for, consider the Steam Deck very carefully. It’s powered by some remarkable software that ranks games according to how well they work on it, and its software catalogue is second to none. Steam, and other digital game stores - you won’t find a DVD drive on any of these machines - are of course available on all laptops, and something like the Dell G15 gets you a nice set of specs for the price. It’s true, however, that you get what you pay for, and if you’re able to stretch a bit further, higher levels of performance are within reach.

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