The 9 Best Laptops of 2021

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The Ultimate Laptop Buying Guide
The Ultimate Laptop Buying Guide
Introduction

Our editors independently research, test, and recommend the best products; you can learn more about our review process here. We may receive commissions on purchases made from our chosen links.

The Rundown
Our reviewers tested the XPS 7390 and came away impressed with the power and performance that this razor-thin laptop brings.
Best Ultraportable, Apple:
Apple MacBook Air at Amazon
The M1 has impressive power both for Intel-based apps and for its expanding catalog of native ARM-based apps.
Best for College Students:
Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 at Amazon
The Surface 4 boasts the same attractive design that has become common in all Surface devices.
While the internals make this a gaming workhorse, the design says it's suitable for everyone from gamers to professionals.
Best for Gaming:
Razer Blade 15 at Amazon
It should come as no surprise that this laptop comes with powerful performance
Best Ultraportable, Windows:
Microsoft Surface Laptop Go at Amazon
The Microsoft Surface Go is Microsoft's answer to the ultraportable space, and it comes with Microsoft's design advantages.
Best for Professionals:
Apple MacBook Pro at Amazon
Our tester pushed the battery to 18 hours of 4K streaming at max brightness. That's just crazy.
Our reviewer calls the ASUS ROG Zephyrus G14 the trifecta of power, portability, and performance.
Best for Photo Editing:
HP Spectre x360 15t at Amazon
If you are looking for one of the best screens you can get on a laptop, the HP Spectre x360 is one of the best in the business.

The best laptops are powerful and portable. They can crank out any project you need to get done and remain light enough to carry in your bag. They can get things done whether you want to work at a coffee shop or at your kitchen table. Even if you want to plug in at your desk, laptops give you the flexibility to go elsewhere in a pinch. Laptops can do basically anything that a desktop can do and they're a completely self-contained and portable unit. Our experts tested a number of laptops and we've got a solid list here that finds the balance between power and value.

Just because a computer is portable, doesn't mean it lacks performance. One of the big tradeoffs that laptops have is by making them smaller and more portable, they can be harder to upgrade over time. One of the most important things you can look for in a laptop is upgradeability. Some laptops give you a set of specifications, and that's what you have for the life of the machine. Others will offer you more flexibility in terms of what your laptop will look like in several years.

Laptops are notoriously hard to upgrade due to space considerations. So you'll want to make sure that what you're buying meets or exceeds your needs. You won't be able to upgrade it later. Beyond that, display and keyboard are your next most important considerations, especially since neither of those can be changed. If you're buying a laptop so you can work away from the plug, pay close attention to battery life.

Whatever your needs, from ultraportable powerhouses to laptops that can grow with you, check out our list of the best laptops currently available.

Best Overall: Dell XPS 13 7390 (2020)

Dell XPS 13 7390 2-in-1
What We Like
  • Super-thin 2-in-1-design

  • Bright and gorgeous display

  • Great keyboard and trackpad

  • Excellent battery life

What We Don't Like
  • No discrete GPU

  • Poor fingerprint reader

  • Limited I/O

The Dell XPS series of laptops has a reputation for excellence, and the XPS 13 7390 maintains that pedigree. Our reviewers tested the XPS 7390 and came away impressed with the power and performance of this razor-thin notebook. The 10th generation Intel Core-i7 Processor, 32GB of DDR4 RAM, and 512 GB of SSD storage all combine to make this machine fast and powerful, though the 7390 lacks a discreet GPU. While unnecessary for everyday tasks, video editing/processing and some AAA game titles won't perform as well.

In his review, Andy praised the 7390's appealing, minimalist design, crafted from machined aircraft aluminum with a carbon fiber interior. The display is also a highlight, a 1920 x 1200 panel that Andy called "sharp and color accurate, with excellent viewing angles." As expected, the XPS's integrated graphics scored modestly in graphics benchmarks (8,878 in GFXBench), but was incredibly fast for productivity tasks.

What you will get is a brilliant display in a 2-in-1 design that lets you convert the laptop into a tablet or tent mode for media viewing. When in laptop mode, the Dell XPS 13 boasts one of the best keyboards you can find on a laptop and a huge trackpad that is itself one of the best in the business. The laptop does have a fingerprint sensor, though our reviewer had a lot of trouble with it during our test period. 

The laptop carries about 10 hours of battery life, which will get you through a full day of work. That's a good thing because the laptop charges through one of two USB Type-C Thunderbolt ports. If you have a lot of accessories for your laptop, you're going to want a USB Hub to go with it. This isn't the newest version of the Dell XPS 13 line, but in our opinion, this one carries the best overall value for the dollar.

Screen Size: 13.4 Inches | Resolution: 1900x1200 | CPU: Intel Core i7-1065G7 | GPU: Intel Iris Plus Graphics (i7) | RAM: 32GB | Storage: 512GB SSD | Touchscreen: Yes

"Navigation is a breeze, thanks to the excellent keyboard that is quite large for such a small laptop, and the keys have a satisfying clicky response."Andy Zahn, Product Tester

Best Ultraportable, Apple: Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (M1, 2020)

2020 Apple MacBook Air
What We Like
  • Amazing performance

  • Rosetta 2 helps with compatibility

  • Expanding catalog of native apps

  • Great keyboard

  • Beautiful display

  • Great battery life

What We Don't Like
  • Limited I/O

  • Bad webcam

  • No evolution in the design

  • No touchscreen

When Apple switched its products over to its own custom-built silicon, it went all in. Since the introduction of the chip, we've seen new laptops, desktops, and iPads all powered by the same processor, the M1. The reason we've seen so much new hardware is because of the power of the M1 chip itself. Our reviewer tested the MacBook Air for one week and came away very impressed. The M1 has impressive power both for Intel-based apps (using the Rosetta 2 compatibility layer) and for its expanding catalog of native ARM-based apps from developers like Adobe.

In terms of the display, Our reviewer, Jeremy Laukkonen calls it "a beautiful 13.3-inch Retina display with a native 2560 x 1600 resolution, 400 nits of brightness, and Apple’s proprietary True Tone feature that’s capable of switching up color temperature to better match the light in your environment. For example, it will appear bluer when exposed to daylight or bright fluorescent light, and become warmer and more orange at night. The display is not a touchscreen, but then not Apple laptop has ever had a touch screen, so there's no surprise there.

You also get Apple's Magic Keyboard and trackpad, both of which are comfortable and accurate. The M1 chip sips battery. Apple claims "all-day battery life." Jeremy found that to be fairly conservative, reporting around 12 hours of battery life before having to plug in.

One area we found particularly lacking was in the absolute absence of any kind of evolution in the design of the MacBook Air. As Jeremy puts it, "Apple made some massive changes between the last MacBook Air and this one, but you can’t actually see any of them." Along with that same design comes the bad webcam that MacBooks are now infamous for, lack of I/O ports, and lack of touchscreen. Basically, the M1 chip is the only compelling reason to buy this versus the old model. For many, that's enough, but for some, the upgrade may not be worth it.

Screen Size: 13.3 Inches | Resolution: 2560x1600 | CPU: Apple M1 | GPU: Apple 8-core GPU | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 256GB SSD | Touchscreen: No

"Apple made some massive changes between the last MacBook Air and this one, but you can’t actually see any of them. The physical design of the MacBook Air (M1, 2020) is exactly the same as the 2019 model, so if you’ve seen one of those, you know exactly what you’re getting here." — Jeremy Laukkonen, Product Tester

Best for College Students: Microsoft Surface Laptop 4

Microsoft Surface Laptop 4
What We Like
  • Attractive design

  • Useful 3:2 aspect ratio

  • Good performance

  • Large, responsive touchpad

  • Excellent audio

What We Don't Like
  • No LTE

  • Keyboard shows some flex

  • Display is lacking

  • No new design

Microsoft entered the hardware game several years ago, and its latest offering is the Microsoft Surface Laptop 4. The Surface 4 boasts the attractive design that has been common in all Surface devices. Two of the color choices even have the Alcantara soft coating that gives the keyboard a nice feel. Speaking of the keyboard, our reviewer found a lot of flex in the keyboard that gave it a cheaper feeling than the build would imply. The trackpad, on the other hand, is quite large and very responsive, and delightful to use.

Much like the MacBook Air, the design iteration here is below the surface. There's no update in the design from the Laptop 3 to the Laptop 4. You still get a display that is lacking in adequate brightness and color saturation, and there's no LTE on board as well.

What you do get is great performance from both the Intel and the AMD variants and you'll get high-quality audio. Matt Smith, our tester notes, "The Surface Laptop 4 has punchy speakers with excellent volume. There’s great separation between lows, mids, and highs, which avoids the muddy sound that is common to many laptops as speaker volume nears maximum. There’s no subwoofer, so bass can sound flat, but the Laptop 4 provides some sense of depth without overwhelming the rest of the track you’re enjoying."

Newer-generation processors from both AMD and Intel give a performance and battery life boost. Base storage starts at 256GB which is an improvement over the Laptop 3, which along with processor and battery upgrades make this a good laptop to buy new, but only if you don't already have the Laptop 3.

Screen Size: 13.5 Inches | Resolution: 2256x1504 | CPU: AMD Ryzen 4680U or Intel Core i5/i7 | GPU: AMD Radeon Graphics or Intel Iris Plus Graphics | RAM: 8GB, 16GB, 32GB RAM | Storage: 256GB, 512GB, 1TB SSD | Touchscreen: Yes

"A tall 3:2 display aspect ratio defines the laptop’s boxy shape. This was the Surface Laptop’s most distinctive feature on its debut and had the benefit of providing more usable screen space." Matthew Smith, Product Tester

Best Gaming: Acer Predator Triton 300 SE

Acer Predator Triton 300 SE
What We Like
  • Compact and light

  • Great display

  • Strong performance

  • Loud speakers

  • Excellent Wi-Fi speeds

What We Don't Like
  • Annoying port locations

  • Lackluster battery life

  • Too much bloatware

The Acer Predator Triton 300 SE is a surprising laptop in many ways. It's a gaming laptop with one of the best graphics cards on the market, but its look and feel are very understated. The CPU, GPU, and RAM all combine to give this laptop top-notch performance, but it's so thin and light that our reviewer is able to easily slip it into a backpack. In short, while the internals of this laptop make this a gaming workhorse, the design says it's suitable for everyone from gamers to professionals. 

The Triton 300 SE is built comes with a 14-inch FHD display and boasts a set of speakers that our reviewer says "packs a sonic punch." Matt Smith writes. "It has an upwards-facing speaker that provides clear, crisp sound in games, music, or podcasts. Maximum volume is loud enough to fill an office with music and overcome most ambient noise. There’s even a hint of bass that you’ll feel through your fingertips when the volume is cranked up." That is not something you often hear about laptop speakers.

The laptop is capable of impressive Wi-Fi speeds, especially when removed from the router. Our tester saw impressive speeds from downloading and streaming games from his detached office. The battery is not impressive at just 60 watt-hours. We'd like to see a larger power pack in a laptop with a discrete GPU. As it is, it only lasts around 3.5 hours on a charge.

Beyond that, we have some superficial complaints. The ports on the laptop are all located at the front, which means you'll have to deal with cables more than if they were at the back. Also, the laptop comes with more than its fair share of bloatware which is not awesome. But if you're looking for a laptop with the latest generation of processor and graphics in a compact body, this is a great choice.

Screen Size: 14 Inches | Resolution: 1920x1080 | CPU: Intel Core i7-11375H | GPU: Nvidia RTX 3060 | RAM: 8GB, 16GB, 32GB RAM | Storage: 512GB SSD | Touchscreen: No

"The display delivers impressive contrast and vibrant color for a mid-range gaming laptop. I noticed this in every game I played."Matthew Smith, Product Tester

Best for Gaming: Razer Blade 15 (2021)

Razer Blade 15
What We Like
  • Great 144hz screen

  • Plenty of I/O ports

  • Powerful GPU

  • Great keyboard and trackpad

What We Don't Like
  • Dated design

  • Heavy

  • Bad battery life

  • No biometric authentication

Razer has been one of the most enduring names in gaming hardware over the years, so it should come as no surprise that this laptop comes with powerful performance. It has a 10th generation Intel Core-i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, and an NVidia GeForce RTX 3060 discrete GPU. Add to that the 144Hz screen and you've got a laptop built for gamers.

The keyboard has great pitch and travel, punctuated by the RGB colors cycling through the backlighting. That nod to gamers always looks awesome and gives the laptop a little bit of flash. That's good because this laptop's design has not changed over the years. There's no biometric authentication like a fingerprint sensor nor a Windows Hello-compatible webcam. You'll be typing your password or PIN every time you want to unlock the computer. Add to that the laptop's heft at almost five pounds and weak battery life (due to the discrete GPU) and you lose some of the portability you're looking for in a laptop.

But Razer makes powerful gaming laptops, which is what this is. The internals are up to date with only the processor lagging one generation behind. There isn't much of a difference between 10th and 11th generation processors, especially with the RTX 3060 pushing things along. This is going to be a gaming beast, just don't stray too far from a power outlet.

Screen Size: 15.6 Inches | Resolution: 1920x1080 | CPU: Intel Core i7-10750H | GPU: NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3060 | RAM: 16GB | Storage: 512GB SSD | Touchscreen: No

 "Assuming you don’t mind being tethered to a wall outlet most of the time, the Razer Blade 15 provides impressive gaming experiences in an appealing, portable form factor." Andrew Hayward, Product Tester

Best Ultraportable, Windows: Microsoft Surface Laptop Go

What we Like
  • Thin and lightweight

  • Attractive design

  • 3:2 aspect ratio

  • Touchscreen

  • Awesome keyboard and trackpad

What We Don't Like
  • Not very powerful

  • Poor thermals

  • Limited I/O

  • Low quality camera

The Microsoft Surface Go is Microsoft's answer to the ultraportable space, and it comes with Microsoft's design advantages as well. First and foremost is the 3:2 aspect ratio, which gives the screen a ton more space for work and productivity. Also in keeping with Microsoft's design is the keyboard and trackpad. Our expert describes the keyboard as "quiet and tactile with soft, almost luxurious keycaps" and the trackpad is one of the best he's seen on a laptop of this size.

The thin and lightweight design makes compromises in the area of thermals and I/O. The laptop has a tendency to get a little hot under the hood. Plus the ports are limited to a single USB-A, USB-C, and headphone jack. You don't often see a USB-A port on an ultraportable laptop in this day and age, so that's a welcome throwback, but laptops should have more I/O options than that. Add to that the poor camera quality, and lack of power, registering a score of 5,378 in GFXBench, and this is not a machine meant for business.

But in the ultraportable space, this is a solid option. Ultraportables are typically for people who travel a lot. This laptop weighs under three pounds and has a touchscreen which is not something you'll get in this sized laptop nor in this price range. If you're not throwing any heavy-duty tasks or games at this machine, it'll get you through the day and more. Plus, it easily travels with you.

Screen Size: 12.4 Inches | Resolution: 1536x1024 | CPU: Intel Core i5-1035G1 | GPU: Intel UHD Graphics | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 128GB SSD | Touchscreen: Yes

"The Surface Laptop Go is certainly not the most powerful laptop around, but with 8GB of RAM, an Intel Core i5-1035G1 CPU, and a fast solid-state drive for storage it feels zippy and responsive." Andy Zahn, Product Tester

Best for Professionals: Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (M1, 2020)

Apple introduced the Macbook Pro with M1 chip in 2020.
What We Like
  • Amazing battery life

  • Excellent performance

  • Great value

  • Top notch trackpad and keyboard

  • Retina display with True Tone technology

What We Don't Like
  • No touchscreen

  • Limited I/O

  • Base model needs more storage

Apple's pro laptop, the MacBook Pro bears a lot of similarities to its MacBook Air counterpart. It adds a fan for cooling and an extra core in the processor. That comes at the cost of being a little thicker, a little heavier, and a lot more powerful than its sibling. The MacBook Pro is also powered by the M1 chip, but with a full eight cores in the processor, and a whisper-quiet fan that cools the processor down and allows it to push harder.

The display is one of the highlights of the computer. Alice wrote, "Apple continues to deliver with its 13-inch 2560 x 1600 Retina display, but this time with the True Tone technology that premiered on the 9.7-inch iPad Pro and has been present on every generation since. This interesting bit of tech uses four different sensors to automatically adjust the white balance on your display based on your current lighting environment. This technology isn't about increasing resolution and cramming in more pixels per inch, but sharpening color clarity and accuracy to a razor's edge to provide the truest image possible."

The MacBook Pro weighs just 3 pounds, continues using the same keyboard and scissor switches of previous generations of MacBook, and features battery life that utterly destroys the competition. Our tester pushed the battery to 18 hours of 4K streaming at max brightness. That's just crazy. Add to that the expanding catalog of ARM-compatible apps, and this laptop is a solid buy for professionals, gamers, and creators. 

Of course, also like the MacBook Air, there is no touchscreen and you're limited to just two USB Type-C ports. The base model is also limited to 256 GB of storage which really isn't enough for a "pro" machine. But overall, you get a pretty amazing value in this device. If you're into the Apple ecosystem, it's a no-brainer.

Screen Size: 13.3 Inches | Resolution: 2560x1600 | CPU: Apple M1 | GPU: Apple 8-core GPU | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 256GB SSD | Touchscreen: No

"This year's MacBook represents the best value we've seen in an Apple laptop for some time." Alice Newcome-Beill, Associate Commerce Editor

Best Design: ASUS ROG Zephyrus G14

Asus Zephyrus G14
What We Like
  • Great keyboard and trackpad

  • Awesome design

  • 120Hz display

  • Good value

What We Don't Like
  • No webcam

Our reviewer calls the ASUS ROG Zephyrus G14 the trifecta of power, portability, and performance. He put it to the test and called the laptop "an exceptional machine by any definition." Those are not small claims, but the laptop seems to hold up pretty well. So let's look at all three.

First, you have power, which comes in the form of the AMD Ryzen 9 processor and GeForce RTX 2060 Max-Q graphics card. Combined with the 16GB of RAM and 1TB M.2 NVMe PCIe solid-state drive, and our expert says you get lightning response times, and the computer boots up in seconds.

Next, we'll look at portability. This laptop has a small footprint with a 14-inch display. It's a nice compromise between screen sizes you see in this arena. It's also 120Hz which is butter smooth. The battery will keep you away from a plug for over ten hours. Plus, this laptop has a great keyboard and trackpad and all of this comes in a package that is just 0.7 inches thick and just three and a half pounds. 

Finally, look at value: The base price for this laptop comes in at just over one thousand dollars. Considering all the power you get in this small package, that's pretty awesome.

Screen Size: 14 Inches | Resolution: 1920x1080 | CPU: AMD Ryzen 9 4900HS | GPU: NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2060 Max-Q | RAM: 16GB | Storage: 1TB SSD | Touchscreen: No

"A great feature of the Zephyrus G14 is the inclusion of a fingerprint reader that’s built into the power button." — Andy Zahn, Product Tester

Best for Photo Editing: HP Spectre x360 15t

HP Spectre X360 is a 2-in-1 convertible.
What We Like
  • Striking design

  • 2-in-1

  • Gorgeous 4k display

  • Great keyboard

What We Don't Like
  • Heavy

  • Fans are noisy

  • Gets hot when running under a load

If you are looking for one of the best screens you can get on a laptop, the HP Spectre x360 is one of the best in the business. This is a full 4K touchscreen display whose only flaw is that it doesn't quite get bright enough for our reviewer's taste. But beyond the brightness, Jeremy found the display to be "remarkably crisp, and the colors to be rich and bold," which is why we recommend this laptop for photo editing.

In addition to the awesome screen, you also get a 2-in-1 laptop which means the laptop flips into tablet mode, which is also handy for photo editing. The keyboard is "quite comfortable for long typing sessions," according to our expert. The design of the laptop is really striking with USB ports sticking out of the corners of it. It's pretty next level. 

At over four pounds, this is heavier than we like to see in a portable device. When you're running a particularly hard task, the laptop can run hot and noisy once the fans kick in. We're also not sure why HP is running with an older GPU. But overall, this is one of the only 4K laptops you're going to find in this price range.

Screen Size: 15.6 Inches | Resolution: 3840x2160 | CPU: Intel Core i7-10750H | GPU: Nvidia GTX 1650Ti | RAM: 16GB | Storage: 1TB SSD | Touchscreen: Yes

 "The HP Spectre x360 15t isn’t perfect, but it hits all the right notes in terms of style, performance, and price." Jeremy Laukkonen, Product Tester

Final Verdict

Overall, we have to give our best laptop nod to the Dell XPS 13.  There's a history of excellence in the Dell XPS line, and that reputation is matched in its latest laptop. The balance of power, design, and affordability all come together in a great product with an amazing keyboard. When you consider how much time you spend on a laptop keyboard, you'll understand why we hold it in such high regard.


If you want something more portable, then look no further than the Apple MacBook Air.  This device is simply stunning in size and design and packs a surprising amount of power. Plus, our main fault against it is software-based and the software situation will improve with Apple going all-in on the M1 chip.

About Our Trusted Experts

Adam S. Doud has been writing in the tech space for almost a decade and exclusively on laptops. Adam hasn't had a desktop computer since 2008 because he just never stays still. Trackpads for life!

Andrew Hayward, who reviewed our top pick, the Dell XPS 13, is a Chicago based writer with over 14 years of experience covering tech and gaming. He loved the XPS for its lavish design and excellent performance, and also reviewed the Apple MacBook Air, our "Best for home use" selection, which he found slim, attractive, and packed with useful features.

Andy Zahn has been writing for Lifewire since 2019, covering the last tech and consumer gadgets. He focuses particularly on laptops, desktops, and gaming.

Alice Newcome-Beill is Associate Commerce Editor for Lifewire. Aside from editing and updating hundreds of roundups, she's previously been published in PCMag, PC Gamer, and GamesRadar. She tested the MacBook Pro (M1, 2020) and loved the capabilities of the new M1 chip and the 18-hour battery life.

Jeremy Laukkonen also penned a pair of reviews for the machines in our roundup. His obsession with technology tempted him away from the automotive industry to become a full-time ghostwriter for several major tech trade publications and a product tester for Lifewire. He loved the Acer Aspire E 15's full HD display and long-lasting battery, and called the HP Spectre x360 15t a "high water mark" for 2-in-1s. He also tested the MacBook Air with the M1 chip, praising its excellent performance and long-lasting battery.

Matthew Smith is a veteran consumer tech journalist who's been reviewing products since 2007. His expertise includes PC hardware, gaming, laptops, smartphones, and more. He was formerly the Lead Editor of the product reviews team at Digital Trends.

FAQs

Should I get a laptop or an all-in-one PC?


Both laptops and all-in-one (AIO) PCs are highly portable, and they carry many of the same compromises. They both can be hard to upgrade due to space considerations. Both are essentially a single unit (though AIOs typically need a mouse and keyboard). Laptops are far more portable since everything you need is in one unit. AIOs are more difficult to travel but they typically have much larger screens. A typical laptop maxes out at around 17 inches while an AIO can be as large as 32 inches. AIOs also typically do not have internal batteries so they always need to be plugged in. Based on those considerations, you can make the choice of which is best for you.

Can I connect my laptop to a larger screen or use dual screens?

Typically, the answer is yes. Most laptops have some kind of video out capability. That will usually take the form of either an HDMI port or a USB Type-C port. You'll want to check the specifications for an individual laptop before you buy, but that's usually how it is done. Usually, the process is just connecting a cable from your laptop to the monitor, and then configuring the layout of your monitors. You can usually mirror content to both screens, extend your desktop across both screens, or close your laptop and just work on the external monitor.

Is it ok to leave my laptop plugged in all the time?

You will find conflicting information on this, but the best answer is, not really. Batteries as a rule do not like extremes. That means they don't like to be all the way empty or all the way full. Leaving a laptop plugged in will usually leave your battery all the way full. Short term, this won't hurt your battery too much, but long term you will degrade your battery faster. Some laptops will have a software solution in place that lets you intentionally "top off" the battery at 50-60%. This will help your battery's health long term. All the being said, if you plan to buy a laptop and leave it plugged in full time, consider a desktop or all-in-one PC that doesn't have a battery.

What to Look for in a Laptop

Weight and Profile

The primary advantage of laptops versus their desktop counterparts is portability, though there's still a lot of variance in the laptop marketplace in terms of weight and dimensions. Generally, larger laptops, like Alienware's thick "musclebooks," will be more powerful and more upgradeable, while ultrathin models tend to be more feature-locked. That means you can't upgrade them, and that's usually because of space considerations. While it's certainly possible to get a very powerful laptop that's also lightweight and highly portable, you'll generally end up paying significantly more for the privilege.

Laptop vs. Hybrid

Hybrid laptops, or 2-in-1 laptops, are designed to serve as both a laptop and a tablet. These are devices like the Surface Pro, Asus Chromebook Flip, and the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1. Hybrids typically have a touchscreen, and they have either a removable keyboard or a hinged keyboard you can flip around and out of the way when you want to use the device as a tablet .

Although 2-in-1 devices offer additional flexibility, you have to be even more careful when selecting a hybrid. Some have undersized keyboards, some perform well as a tablet but poorly as a laptop, and others lack processing power. You may end up with an expensive device that serves as a mediocre laptop and bulky tablet when you could spend the same money and get a stellar laptop. This is not to say there aren’t good 2-in-1 options out there. It just means you have to consider the device’s merits in both categories and decide whether that flexibility is worth the extra cost.

Display

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 Laptop
Lifewire / Nick Jaynes 

Because it's next to impossible to replace your laptop's display, it should be one of your top considerations when buying a new machine. Resolution is crucial, and will determine the crispness and sharpness of images; generally, 1920 x 1080 (1080p or FHD) is sufficient for smaller models, though if you're going to be doing a significant amount of image or video editing, or want the best graphics in games, a 4K display is the way to go. When it comes to the best laptops out there, 1080p should be considered the bare minimum.

Screen size

Screen size is one of the first things people look at when buying a laptop. Like TV and smartphone screens, laptop screens are typically measured corner-to-corner (diagonally), and not from side-to-side. Most people want a screen that’s large enough so they won’t be squinting when trying to read an email or research a topic, but people have different preferences when it comes to portability. Some people want a laptop that’s as lightweight and portable as possible, while others are going to keep the unit stationary for the most part, and only move it around the house occasionally.

Compact: 11- to 14-inch display

If you’re looking for something ultra-lightweight you can take with you on the go, a compact laptop may be a good solution. You can easily find a compact laptop that’s extremely lightweight (under four pounds), and many have slim profiles.

Some people think that compact laptops come with bottom-end specifications, but going with a compact size doesn’t necessarily mean you have to sacrifice performance. You can absolutely find compact laptops that are powerful enough for work, like the MacBook Pro 13-inch and the Dell XPS 13. If you don’t want to spend a lot of cash, and you just want a more basic unit, you can also find budget compact laptops for under $300, like the Lenovo IdeaPad S310.

Average: 15- to 16-inch display

Although there’s not exactly a standard when it comes to laptop screen sizes, the 15- to 16-inch range is pretty common—you’ll often see laptops sized at 15.6 inches. This size is ideal for those who keep their laptop at a desk for the most part, but still like to have the option to take it along with them on the go.

The price you’ll pay for a laptop this size depends largely on the specifications and the brand. The MacBook Pro 16-inch will cost you upwards of two grand, while you can buy the Acer Aspire 5 for under $500. You can find a Chromebook this size for around $300 to $400.

Large: 17-inch display or larger

Large laptop displays often come with the advantage of better viewing angles. The 17.3-inch size is common in gaming laptops, as a larger screen can make for a better gaming experience. Gamers may find the compromise in portability is well worth it for a bigger, better screen, especially if this new laptop is acting as a desktop replacement. Typically, you’re going to pay upwards of a grand for a good laptop this size. Budget options in this size are rarer, but you can occasionally find options this size for around $500, like the Lenovo IdeaPad 340.

Screen resolution and graphics

If you’re buying a laptop for gaming or graphic design, factors like refresh rate and graphics processing are much more significant. Gamers will want a higher refresh rate and a discrete graphics processor from a brand like NVIDIA. But, if you’re buying a laptop for any other purpose, an integrated graphics card is sufficient.

When you look under specifications, each laptop will indicate its screen resolution. Most laptops, even dirt cheap models, will offer at least 1366 x 768 HD resolution. But, if you’re spending any significant amount of cash, it’s best to look for a laptop with at least 1920 x 1080 (FHD). A 4K laptop might be worth it if you’re opting for a large screen size, but not if you’re going with anything smaller than 14 inches.

Keyboard and controls

Although it sometimes gets neglected during the shopping process, the keyboard is an essential part of a laptop’s quality, functionality, longevity, and comfort. You want your hands to be able to comfortably and naturally sit while you’re typing, so you don’t have to scrunch up or stretch out your fingers to reach all of the keys. Therefore, most people will want to aim for a laptop with a full-size keyboard, which is common in most laptops larger than 11.6 inches. Chiclet-style keyboards are also common in laptops. These keyboards have only slightly elevated keys, and space between the keys, so the keyboard stylishly blends into the laptop’s housing.

What features do you want in your keyboard? Many keyboards have additional features like backlighting to help you see the keys in the dark. Security features like fingerprint readers are becoming more common as well, and you can also find different keyboard layouts. Depending on how you’re going to use the laptop, you may prefer a numeric keypad, as opposed to having top-row numbers. Chromebook keyboards are unique from traditional keyboards in that they don’t have function keys, and they have a search key.

HP Spectre x360 15t Touch Laptop
Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen

CPU

A laptop's CPU, or central processing unit, is a chip that acts as its brain. Several factors affect a CPU’s performance, from heat to other components in the system, but these are some of the main factors to look at in a CPU that can quickly help determine its quality: The manufacturer, the number of cores, and the clock speed.

For years, Intel has been known for creating powerful and reliable CPUs. You’ll also see brands like AMD. Both Intel and AMD are a pretty safe bet when it comes to processor brands, and it’s a good idea to opt for a more recent generation, rather than choosing a laptop with a processor that’s three generations old. Ideally, you're looking for a Core i7 or Core i9 from Intel's latest generation (the generation is denoted by the first number(s) of the model number, so a Core i7-11375H is an 11th gen chip) or one of AMD's Ryzen 5000 Series options.

Most modern processors will have at least two cores. What are CPU cores? Well, they’re basically separate CPUs. And, since a computer isn’t like a human—its brain isn’t as good at multitasking as ours—a computer can benefit from having more than one “brain.” The more cores a computer has, the better it can multitask, and the faster it can compute (generally speaking).

If you have a dual-core processor, does that mean your computer can only perform two tasks at a time? Not really. Processor cores have threads as well, which also help the computer multitask. So, even if your laptop is only a dual-core, modern hyper-threading makes it possible for laptops to efficiently perform multiple tasks simultaneously. You should opt for a higher-core processor if you’re going to be working extensively on your laptop, performing a lot of video or photo editing, or conducting time-consuming research.

Even more important than the number of cores, your processor’s speed is essential for day-to-day operation. You want a laptop that can keep up with your demands. Speed is measured in GHz, and it’s important for tasks like gaming and watching videos.

RAM

RAM, or random access memory, is important in a laptop because it helps the machine access information it needs quickly. Imagine RAM like your bedroom closet. When you need something from your closet, you can just go in and grab it, as opposed to driving all the way to the storage unit or going into the attic and searching through a bunch of boxes. You can randomly access the items in your closet, without having to go through too much effort or take too much time.

RAM is similar for a computer. That’s why more RAM is better. The more it can randomly access (without having to go through too much effort), the better and faster it can perform. You want a laptop with at least 8GB of RAM if you’re doing any sort of demanding task like working. But, if you’re only using your laptop for basic tasks, the bare minimum amount of RAM you can get away with is 4GB.

You may also see laptops with DDR4 RAM and DDR3 RAM. DDR stands for Double Data Rate, and the number represents the version. DDR4 RAM is more efficient, and therefore, it’s preferable over DDR3.

SSD vs. HDD storage

Some laptops will have an SSD (solid-state drive), some will have an HDD (hard disk drive), and some will even have both an SSD and an HDD. Because they don’t have any moving parts, SSDs are generally faster and more reliable than HDDs. However, SSDs are significantly more expensive, so for the same cost, you won’t get nearly as much SSD storage space as you’d get with an HDD. But, with cloud storage becoming cheaper and more readily available, storage capacity isn’t as important as it once was either.

If you’re using your laptop for basic functions, 256 GB of SSD storage should be more than sufficient. You may even be able to get away with 128 GB, and you can always add an external hard drive if needed. However, if you’re planning on using your laptop for gaming, video editing, or media, you’ll want a laptop with more storage.

Ports

Does the laptop have enough USB ports? Does it have an HDMI port? What about a card reader? How about a headphone jack? Examine all of the devices you plan on connecting to your laptop—mice, headphones, speakers, monitors—and make sure the laptop has compatible ports for each of your devices.

Battery Capacity

Battery capacity is especially important for those who plan on taking their laptop on the go. If you’re keeping your laptop at a desk most of the time, battery capacity isn’t as important.

A laptop with stellar battery life, like the LG Gram 15, will last around 12 to 13 hours on a single charge. Some laptops will have a much shorter capacity of around five or six hours. Chromebooks tend to have long battery lives because the operating system doesn’t require as much power to operate.

Apple 13-inch MacBook Air
Apple 13-inch MacBook Air.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Other features

If you’re planning on watching a lot of content or listening to music on your laptop, check out the speakers. Most laptops have stereo speakers, but some speakers have special tuning that leads to better sound.

Do a lot of video chatting and social networking? You may want a laptop with a good-quality webcam, and you can also find webcams that support features like face tracking or facial recognition.

Do you use a voice assistant? Check and see if your laptop includes Siri, Cortana, or Google Assistant.

Lastly, if you want a touchscreen, you don’t necessarily have to go with a 2-in-1. If you’re not the typing type, a lot of laptops offer touchscreen technology as well. But, keep in mind these features use a lot of battery power, so you may not want to opt for a touchscreen laptop if you’re seldom going to take advantage of the feature.

Operating systems, brands, and manufacturers

Which is better: Windows or Mac? This has been a great debate for quite some time, and now Chrome has entered into the operating system war. So, should you go with Windows, Mac, or ChromeOS? It depends.

macOS

macOS laptops are pricey, but the OS is generally considered reliable, secure, and user-friendly. Mac is ideal for work and general use, but it’s not as good for gaming. If you want a macOS laptop, you don’t have as many product options as you would if you were to go with Windows 10 or ChromeOS. The most affordable MacBook, the MacBook Air, starts at $999 retail, while the most expensive MacBook, the MacBook Pro 16-inch, starts at $2399.

ChromeOS

ChromeOS is a more minimalistic OS, and it’s designed for basic computing, social networking, and web-based activities. Chromebooks run fast on lesser hardware, and they typically have good battery capacity. You can also find Chromebooks at very low price points, but they’re much more limited in terms of their features. If you’re doing most of your work online and in collaboration programs like Slack, you could probably even use a Chromebook for work. You can find Chromebooks from a variety of different manufacturers, including Google, HP, Samsung, Lenovo, and Acer.

Windows 10

A Windows 10 laptop will serve well for just about anyone from gamers to professionals to basic users. Windows offers a great deal of flexibility, a variety of programs and features, and you can find Windows laptops at virtually every price range. Windows 10 laptops come in brands like Dell, HP, Lenovo, Asus, and more.

One important note is that Windows comes in various flavors like Windows 10S, Windows 10 Home, and Windows 10 Pro. Of those, Windows 10S is the most unique. Windows 10S is a security-conscious version of Windows which limits installed apps to those available in the Windows app store. Most Windows 10S computers can be converted to Windows 10 Home, but that is a one-way trip. There's no going back to 10S.

Conclusion

When buying a laptop, focus your attention on how you’re going to be using the device, and seek out features and specifications that meet your needs. What makes a model the best laptop? There’s not exactly a set of blanket specifications that make a good laptop because each person has different preferences. Some people simply want the most laptop they can get for a specific price point, while others want the most powerful laptop (regardless of the price).

As a general rule, try to go for at least 8 GB of RAM, seek out a recent generation processor (Intel is on its 11th generation), and look for SSD storage. You may also want to look for additional features like a full-size keyboard, at least two USB 3.0 ports (which are faster than USB 2.0), at least one HDMI port, audio ports for headphones and speakers, and lengthy battery life.

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