Gaming laptops are awesome alternatives to gaming PCs now more than ever due to the rising cost of GPUs. Mobile GPUs are also making good progress. However, they’re still not equivalent to their desktop GPU counterparts (and they may never be for a long time). In fact, even discrete mobile GPU models with the same name aren’t all equal as well, thanks to different wattages.
Such is the confusing reality for a lot of gaming laptop owners these days. And it’s mostly thanks to laptop manufacturers’ “stealthy” ways to cut costs and sell laptops with appealing specs at a lower price. So the gist of it in gaming laptops is that what you see might not be what you get. Here’s why.
Mobile GPU Wattage Determines Its Performance
Let’s discuss, for example, what makes an Nvidia RTX 3060 an RTX 3060? Apart from the number of transistors or cores, the power flowing into it is the other defining factor. For the desktop version, the standard power draw of a non-overclocked RTX 3060 is 170W (watts).
Thus, you can expect all RTX 3060 models to perform the same (with the factory overclocked units having some slight but negligible edge in framerate).
Now, the mobile version of the RTX 3060 for laptops runs on a maximum of 130W so as a clueless customer, you’d expect it to perform the same as other RTX 3060 mobile models across the board, right? Well, Nvidia and its partner manufacturers disagree.
Because they also released RTX 3060 mobile versions that run below 130W all the way down to 80W. That’s a big gap in electricity being fed to the GPU and you’re right to think that the performance difference is also considerable.
Gaming laptops equipped with an 80W version of the RTX 3060 mobile are cut down and weaker versions of the more powerful fully-powered 130W RTX 3060 mobile.
In a lot of benchmarks and performance tests, such as the one courtesy of the samaritans from TechSpot, the performance difference between an 80W and 130W RTX 3060 mobile is as much as 25 percent. That’s significant.
That GPU Name Might Just Be for Marketing
So now, if you see RTX 3060 on a gaming laptop at a lower price compared to another gaming laptop with an RTX 3060, you’ll be more inclined to purchase the cheaper one instead of perhaps hesitating on purchasing a gaming laptop because of the latter’s discouraging price. You thought you were getting a good bargain, after all, they were both RTX 3060. Except only in name, performance is a different story.
Many agree that the practice is quite anti-consumer and a bit misleading; but luckily, plenty of retailers and even the manufacturers themselves have included the wattage right next to the GPU model name. They’ll put something like 80W or 115W/130W though sometimes in fine print just to narrowly avoid irate refunds.
Other GPU models and tiers, such as the RTX 3070 or even the RTX 3080 have these wattage variants (some models have Max-Q in their name to indicate that they’re thinner and quieter, thus weaker in performance).
Apart from marketing, another reason why Nvidia and its partner manufacturers are doing this is due to the inherent power of these GPUs. Drawing in more electricity means they’ll be producing more heat; this will then increase the need for a bigger and more efficient cooling system which, in turn, also warrants a bigger chassis or re-engineering of the laptop.
Costs will add up as a gaming laptop’s GPU performance increases.
How To Avoid Getting a Weaker Mobile GPU
You can always just ask explicitly for the wattage of the mobile GPU you’re getting, or ask if it’s the maximum TDP or wattage available. Most gaming laptop retailers ought to know that information.
But there are cases where they don’t. That’s when you have to do your own research or even sometimes follow your gut when it comes to picking a gaming laptop with a certain mobile GPU you prefer.
There are some telltale signs that imply that a certain mobile GPU is cut down or underpowered to cut costs.
When a laptop has a lower price or a smaller or thinner chassis compared to other models with the same mobile GPU, that’s when you need to start being inquisitive about its TDP or wattage.
After all, mobile GPU models with higher wattage tend to require better and bigger cooling. This is where the brand or manufacturer’s engineering know-how comes in. Some manufacturers were able to squeeze in so much power and cooling in such a small chassis while others had to compromise on their mobile GPU wattage.
Of course, those with more impressive cooling solutions tend to be more expensive.
Also, certain brands and lineups are known for equipping their laptops with the best version of the mobile GPU. One lineup that comes to mind is Lenovo Legion laptops, hence their good reputation among gaming laptop enthusiasts. Although, this might not always be the case for each and every generation of their laptops, so always double-check.
Of course, if you’re fine with a weaker version of a mobile GPU– they’re still perfectly acceptable for gaming, then there’s no need for this much cynical caution. Just keep in mind that these days in the computer market, you get what you pay for. Most of the time.