How to Buy the Best Giant-Screen Laptop
If you're a big-picture sort of person, you need a laptop to match. You yearn for a notebook (the word "laptop" is a bit of a misnomer for these bulky thigh-crushers) that not only capably replaces a desktop PC, but also gives you an easy-on-the-eyes, panoramic view of your workspace or playing field. That means a 17-inch model, one with the largest popular screen size in the portable universe.
Seventeen-inch laptops feature displays that, technically, measure 17.3 inches on the diagonal (just as so-called 15-inch laptops usually measure 15.6 inches corner to corner). That's enough for a magnified view of full HD or 1080p resolution (1,920 by 1,080 pixels), or a comfortable view of higher resolutions such as 4K (3,840 by 2,160), which can make you squint on a smaller screen.
Should You Really Go This Large, Though?
On the negative side, this screen size dictates a bulky machine—one that's often too big for a briefcase, requiring a special laptop bag, backpack, or roller bag, and too heavy for more than occasional transport between home and office or cubicle and conference room.
The lightest 17-inch laptops weigh in at just under seven pounds. One of the heaviest, the MSI GT75 Titan 8RG, tips the scale at a back-breaking 10.1 pounds, and that's not counting its two ponderous AC power bricks. Airline tray table? Forget it.
Nor should you expect long battery life from a plus-size notebook. These machines are designed to run on AC power most of the time. If yours can endure unplugged for more than four hours, consider yourself lucky. (Just take a look at the runtimes of our favorites in the comparison table above.)
So, are these tradeoffs too much to suffer merely for a pleasing view? Are luggables just the large-print books of the laptop world?
No—they're also the performance leaders. Their chassis accommodate the most powerful processors and graphics cards, the strongest cooling systems, the most memory, and multiple solid-state drives (SSDs) or hard drives for ample storage. They have plenty of room for all the ports you might need, as well as spacious, near-desktop-class keyboards with full keypads for numeric data entry.
Jumbo laptops aren't for frequent fliers, but they fill a big niche. Let's look at what they can do, and what to look for as you shop for one.
Work or Play: Which Way, Amigo?
A few 17-inch laptops, such as the Acer Aspire 5 (A517-51G-8433), are general-purpose PCs for people who want an occasionally portable system with a large screen. Most, however, fall into one of two camps with diametrically opposed, but equally hardcore, audiences: mobile workstations, and serious gaming laptops.
Both types can handle what many PC users think of as work—office productivity and email using Word, Excel, Outlook, Chrome, Slack, and so on. But mobile workstations, as seen in our special guide, laugh at such modest apps. Instead, they carry independent software vendor (ISV) certifications of compatibility with programs for way tougher computing jobs: computer-aided design (CAD) and advanced 3D modeling and rendering, crunching through huge scientific or engineering datasets, or delving into video editing and virtual reality. And they rely on state-of-the-art CPU and GPU power to do so.
With the exception that CPU muscle is a little less important while GPU strength is paramount, much the same applies to gaming rigs (also the stars of their own buying guide and roundup that's worth checking out). They're designed to play the latest and greatest titles at high speeds—at least 60 frames per second, double the rate recognized as providing smooth gameplay—with all the visual details and eye candy turned up to 11. Onscreen stuttering or tearing just won't cut it. Lag can be fatal during a fragfest.
Whichever class of 17-inch machine you are considering, you're likely drawn to it by the one big thing the two main types have in common: the screen. Let's look at that.
The Display Panel: What to Look For
In the 17-inch class, workstation and gaming laptops alike benefit from choosing the right screen type. A solid baseline pick would be an in-plane switching (IPS) or indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO) panel, which gives you the sharpest colors and contrast, as well as the widest off-center viewing angles. Touch screens aren't very popular in either class, with both gamers and workstation pros preferring the pixel-by-pixel control of a mouse.
Gamers often choose displays capped at 1080p resolution for high frame rates' sake; fast gaming at 4K resolution requires a costly, top-of-the-line graphics processor (GPU) like Nvidia's GeForce GTX 1080 (or two of them). By contrast, some workstation users enjoy the highest-resolution screen possible to mimic the desktop experience of multiple monitors or for editing 4K video. Some mobile workstations also excel at precisely matching what's seen on screen to your finished work's destined output, offering a choice of the web's sRGB, print's Adobe RGB, or cinema's DCI P3 palettes or color spaces.
Most laptop LCDs have a refresh rate of 60Hz, redrawing the image on screen 60 times per second. That's fine for the human eye—television is 30Hz and most movies 24Hz—and for 90-plus percent of applications and users, but not for fanatic gamers who've invested in graphics chips that can crank out more than 60 frames per second. Hence the availability of gaming laptops with so-called "high refresh" 120Hz or 144Hz displays. Shoppers in this stratosphere will also find some screens that support Nvidia's G-Sync or (more rarely) AMD's FreeSync technology, able to synchronize the refresh rate of the display on the fly to the GPU's output for smoother appearances.
The Heart Under the Hood: CPU, Memory, and Storage
When it comes to CPUs, Intel parts teamed with discrete GeForce, Quadro, Radeon, or Radeon Pro graphics processors lead the popularity contest over AMD's mobile Ryzen 5 and 7 chips with their integrated graphics. The most popular option for 17-inch gaming notebooks is Intel's Core i7, in either seventh- or eighth-generation guise (indicated by model numbers in the 7,000s and 8,000s respectively) with at least four processing cores. The mighty—and mighty costly—eighth-gen Core i9 occupies the top of the market.
For mobile workstations, the Core i7 and Core i9 are joined by Intel's Xeon processors, which offer support for server-style error correcting code (ECC) memory. Though outside the mainstream for ISV apps, ECC's ability to detect and fix single-bit memory errors is a plus for scientific or financial computing jobs intolerant of even the slightest data corruption.
Regular, non-ECC RAM will serve just fine for most buyers, though. An allotment of 8GB of memory is the bare minimum for a gaming laptop, with 16GB preferable. (More than that's not really necessary, unless you have buckets of money to burn.) Workstations have a heartier appetite for RAM, with 16GB a practical minimum and 32GB not uncommon; many models support a whopping 64GB or 128GB. In the case of a workstation portable, you'll want to look into the specific RAM requirements of the applications you plan to run to gauge how much you should splurge on memory.
As for storage, look for one or two M.2 solid-state drives, often joined by one or two 2.5-inch hard drives—the SSD for the operating system and favorite applications, the roomier hard drive for games and data. Most performance-conscious portables use slightly quicker PCI Express (PCIe) rather than SATA solid-state drives. In connection with PCIe SSDs, you'll often see the acronym "NVMe" (for Non-Volatile Memory Express) bandied around, as well as a few proprietary monikers, such as HP mobile workstations' Z Turbo Drives. Both indicate the fastest SSDs. (See our guide to the best PCI Express NVMe SSDs.)
Half a terabyte of storage (for an SSD-only system) is the smallest amount you should accept; 1TB or 1.5TB is more mainstream, and some workstations boast up to 3TB or 4TB of capacity. If money is a limiter, a smaller SSD (say 256GB or 500GB) as the boot drive, paired with a roomy hard drive, is a good compromise. A 17-inch laptop is the kind most likely to have room for both.
Choosing a GPU: Again, the Work/Play Divide
Mobile workstations' graphics cards are divided between Nvidia's Quadro and AMD's Radeon Pro brands. Their silicon is optimized for different operations than the companies' respective GeForce and Radeon parts for gaming laptops. Nvidia enjoys a big market lead in mobile GPUs, though at this writing in September 2018 it hadn't released mobile products based on its brand-new "Turing" architecture of desktop cards like the GeForce RTX 2080 Ti, sticking to the "Pascal" architecture of its circa-2016 GeForce GTX 1000 series.
The basic story for both workstations and gaming rigs is a familiar one, though: Higher model numbers and higher prices bring you more speed and higher frame rates. They also gain you support for features such as virtual reality (VR), though high-end gaming-laptop GPUs like the GeForce GTX 1060 and above support playing and exploring VR worlds, while high-end mobile workstation parts like the Quadro P5000 series support VR authoring or creating them.
Nvidia's gaming-laptop GPUs climb from the GeForce GTX 1050 to the GTX 1050 Ti, GTX 1060, GTX 1070, and GTX 1080. Only the last will satisfy gaming freaks planning to play the latest titles at 4K resolution with all the image-quality settings dialed up, while the GTX 1050 Ti is a passable and the GTX 1060 a better option for gamers with full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) screens. The GTX 1070, meanwhile, straddles the full HD and 4K realms.
A handful of huge, heavyweight gaming laptops carry not one but two GeForce GTX 1070 or GTX 1080 chips for ludicrous speed, using Nvidia's SLI multi-GPU technology. But it's hard to recommend them to any but the most committed (and flush!) gamers. They cost a fortune, their battery life is invariably brutish and short, and not all games benefit from dual-GPU setups, anyway.
Ready to Jump to the Reviews?
That's about it for general advice, except for matters of personal preference. Keyboards, for instance: Some gaming laptops go wild with colorful, customizable RGB backlighting and feature macro keys for storing frequently used command or combat sequences, while some mobile workstations' touchpads or pointing sticks feature the third (middle) mouse button often used in CAD and similar applications. And we don't think you should buy a 17-inch laptop in either of these groups that doesn't have at least one Thunderbolt 3 port, which combines USB-C and DisplayPort functionality with daisy-chainable support for external docking and storage solutions.
At any rate, you're ready to shop for the notebook of your big-screen dreams. Get started by checking out the 10 reviews we've assembled below, and good luck: Flex those biceps and get your back-strengthening routine down pat. You're going to go big. On the flip side, your eyes will be very, very happy.
Best 17-Inch Laptops Featured in This Roundup:
Pros: Top-end gaming performance. Slick chassis with sharp lighting. Oodles of storage and ports. 1440p G-Sync display. Configurable, with less expensive models a strong value.
Cons: As-tested configuration is expensive. Tobii eye tracking adds to cost, but doesn't add much functionality.
Bottom Line: The Alienware 17 R5 gaming laptop delivers serious power in a big, but nicely built, package. The model we reviewed is expensive, but the configuration choices offer well-priced options for different budgets.
Pros: Top-end Nvidia Quadro P5200 graphics, Core i9 processor, 4K display in test unit. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports. Category-leading performance, as configured.
Cons: Big and heavy. Build is classy but unremarkable. Battery life is short.
Bottom Line: The highly configurable Dell Precision 7730 is a big, fierce 17-inch workstation for pros in design, VR-content-creation, and engineering fields. Our stacked Core i9/Quadro P5200 model delivers best-in-class performance.
Pros: Stunning 4K DreamColor display. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports. VR-ready Nvidia Quadro P5000 graphics.
Cons: Expensive. Bulky. Brief battery life.
Bottom Line: Formidable in every way (starting with its price), the HP ZBook 17 G4 mobile workstation and its color-calibrated UHD display are ready for the most demanding jobs, from video editing and 3D rendering to VR authoring.
Pros: Ferocious graphics and media-processing performance. Excellent 120Hz G-Sync display. Per-key RGB mechanical keyboard. Plenty of ports. Loud speakers.
Cons: Expensive. Requires two giant power adapters. Awkward three-column numpad layout. No dedicated gaming macro keys. Brief battery life.
Bottom Line: A monster in every way, the MSI GT75 Titan is an epic gaming machine with a high-refresh-rate screen, a comfy mechanical RGB keyboard, and chart-topping graphics grunt. Our key quibbles: high price and sheer bulk.
Pros: Premium build quality. Beautiful 4K touch display with strong color spectrum coverage. High-end gaming performance.
Cons: Loud fans. Audiovisual differences from non-THX version are minor for most users. Short battery life.
Bottom Line: The New Blade Pro is a modest improvement on the previous iteration, with a THX-certified panel and audio alongside a slightly faster unlocked Core i7 processor.
Pros: 144Hz G-Sync display. Full-power Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 graphics. RGB-backlit keyboard. One-click overclocking.
Cons: All-plastic finish. Keyboard lighting is programmable only by zones, not per-key. Short battery life.
Bottom Line: Acer's Predator Helios 500 squeezes full-fat overclockable GeForce GTX 1070 performance into a 17-inch gaming laptop, but we'd like to see a bit more battery life and chassis polish.
Pros: Fast all-around and gaming performance. 4K G-Sync screen. Huge amount of storage and fast M.2 SSDs. USB-C with Thunderbolt 3.
Cons: Big, clunky design. Display's matte finish mutes picture. Very short battery life.
Bottom Line: The EON17-X is a big, hefty gaming laptop, and if you can afford this configuration you'll get incredible performance and a bevy of useful features.
Pros: Gorgeous all-metal design. 120Hz panel. A ton of storage. Solid 1080p gaming performance. Good battery life.
Cons: Pricier than average for laptop with GTX 1060 graphics. Relatively dull matte screen.
Bottom Line: Razer's less expensive take on the Blade Pro packs the premium build and many high-end features of its pricier sibling, but still costs more than the average GTX 1060 gaming laptop.