If you’re shopping for a gaming laptop, it’s important to check reviews before you buy. We’ve discussed this issue before in a CPU context, but it’s just as important in GPUs. A recent set of reviews from our sister site PCMag offer an illustrative example of why.
PCMag just reviewed the Alienware m15 R4 and the Gigabyte Aero 15 OLED XC. Both of these systems are built around the Intel Core i7-10870H. Both feature an RTX 3070 — the Gigabyte system has the Max-Q version of the card, while the Alienware has a standard RTX 3070. We would normally expect the Gigabyte system to outperform the Alienware thanks to its use of a Max-Q card. Max-Q cards are binned for high efficiency in a given power envelope, not maximum performance. A Max-Q GPU is typically slightly slower than a full-sized equivalent.
The CPU-centric benchmarks PCMag ran show the Alienware m15 R4 narrowly losing to the Gigabyte Aero in most tests, though it wins Handbrake. There’s only a little variation between the two. The GPU tests are more interesting:
These results collectively show some interesting trends. The ROG Zephyrus 15 is only equipped with an RTX 2080 Super (Max-Q), but it clearly punches well above its weight class. The RTX 3070 is faster in Fire Strike but loses Sky Diver. In Far Cry 5, the gap between the RTX 2080 Super and the RTX 3070 Max-Q is 3.2 percent and 5.6 percent in favor of the RTX 3070 in the Gigabyte system. The fact that the R4 is only a little faster suggests that RotR is CPU-bound at this point in any case.
PCMag gives high marks to both of these gaming laptops, so I want to say up front that I’m not trying to trash the RTX 3070 or imply that the Max-Q version is a bad card. Even the fact that the RTX 2080 Super outperforms the RTX 3070 Max-Q isn’t an automatic problem in and of itself, especially when we haven’t factored price into the equation.
What’s interesting about the performance of the RTX 2080 Super versus the RTX 3070 Max-Q versus the regular RTX 3070 is the impact different thermal solutions can have on the laptop’s performance. PCMag didn’t run any ray tracing benchmarks, unfortunately, so it’s not clear how the Turing-equipped laptop would have fared against Ampere in that test. Our guess is that the architectural improvements in the architecture would still deliver a boost even if the RTX 2080 Super seems to have more room to stretch its metaphorical legs overall.
Each of the laptops in PCMag’s review offers a different balance between weight, performance, display resolution, refresh rates, and thermals. In this case, both the Asus ROG and the Alienware are able to target higher performance levels due to the specifics of their respective implementations. The Gigabyte system offers excellent gaming performance, but it doesn’t always match either of its competitors.
One of the best ways to maximize long-term performance is to check the performance of the specific system model you want to buy, with an eye towards how it lands in various 3D benchmarks. While there’s always test-to-test variation, you can typically pick out a pattern across a series of tests.
If I had to choose between the RTX 2080 Super-equipped system and an Ampere system at the same price, and performance slightly favored Turing, I’d still choose Ampere. Over time, newer games are more likely to favor Nvidia’s newer architecture over the older one, especially given how popular Ampere has been. Ampere also should offer efficiency gains in ray tracing, even if Turing is more competitive in other tests.
If you want to maximize your long-term performance when you buy a gaming laptop, there’s no substitute for reading reviews of the specific systems you’re interested in.