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
"From 2-in-1 capability to raw power to an amazing keyboard to a great FHD+ screen that just pops, this is a fantastic pick for nearly everyone."
Best Ultraportable, Apple:
Apple MacBook Air at Amazon
"The revolution comes in the form of the M1 chip which runs faster and cooler than its Intel-based counterparts."
Best for College Students:
Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 at Amazon
"The portable, inexpensive Surface Laptop 4 improves on its predecessor with great day-to-day performance"
"This laptop delivers solid NVIDIA RTX graphics performance at a reasonable price. "
Best for Gaming:
Razer Blade 15 at Amazon
"Gamers love this laptop."
Best Ultraportable, Windows:
Microsoft Surface Laptop Go at Amazon
"From a look and feel standpoint, this laptop is simply premium."
Best for Professionals:
Apple MacBook Pro at Amazon
"Even more power on top of an already powerful machine."
"This laptop is just a powerhouse and will happily chew up any process you throw at it."
Best for Photo Editing:
HP Spectre x360 15t at Amazon
"The 15.6" IPS 4K display is bright and accurate, and the laptop even comes with a "photo editing" display setting."

The best laptops are incredibly powerful, versatile machines. They can do everything from being the hub of a streaming/entertainment setup to the core of your smart home, and can replace a multitude of other expensive tech devices ranging from tablets and smartphones to digital assistants. We extensively tested a huge number of laptops from all the major manufacturers, as well as more niche players, to find the best combination of performance and value.

Having a powerful laptop is increasingly important as more of us transition to permanent work from home situation, and especially for those of us settling into some kind of hybrid of in-office and home work. The ability to take your work (and play) with you wherever you go has never been more important, and the last thing you want from a constant companion like your phone or laptop is long load times, frustrating crashes, and endless boots.

For some amazing options on the tower side, our best desktop PCs roundup collects some amazing machines that offer less portability but more power, or read on for our picks of the best laptops available.

Best Overall: Dell XPS 13 7390 (2020)

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

  • Bright and beautiful display

  • Comfortable and clicky keyboard

  • Expansive trackpad

  • Excellent battery life

  • Fast and responsive hardware

What We Don't Like
  • Expensive

  • No dedicated GPU

  • Poor fingerprint reader

  • Limited port selection

Inside its gleaming metal and carbon fiber exterior, you’ll find a powerful 10th generation Intel Core i7 and a whopping 32GB of RAM, so you’ll never need to worry about having too many Google Chrome tabs open at the same time. There’s no dedicated graphics card, but its powerful processor and fast 512GB SSD mean that this is a lean mean machine for productivity and other tasks that don’t depend too heavily on GPU-based graphics. The one big downside to the XPS 13 is its faulty fingerprint reader, but a top-notch keyboard and fantastic trackpad help make up for this flaw.

You really can’t beat the Dell XPS 13 7390 2-in-1 for its sheer style and portability, and to have that mixed with powerful components makes this a true pinnacle for productivity on the go. Just keep in mind that all this excellence comes with a steep price tag.

Graphical prowess and raw computing power are all very well and good, but often what counts most in a laptop or any portable device is how easy it is to carry with you. The Dell XPS 13 7390 2-in-1 gives you plenty of power in a slim, ultra-high quality package with the added flexibility of a transforming 2-in-1 laptop.

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
  • Fanless design eliminates most noise

  • ARM-based M1 processor is very powerful

  • Thin and light makes this ultra-portable

What We Don't Like
  • Few native apps

  • Rosetta 2 needs some work

  • Base model is light on storage

  • Not much I/O

Apple made quite the splash in 2020 when it introduced its new line of M1-powered computers, including the newest Macbook Air.  While retaining the thin and light design of the old Macbooks Air, the revolution comes in the form of the M1 chip which runs faster and cooler than its Intel-based counterparts. The Macbook Air is fanless which eliminates a significant amount of noise compared to other computers of similar power.

The Macbook Air is powerful for gaming and video work, but it relies on apps being designed for the ARM-based M1 processor. In the event that you try to run an app designed for Intel architecture, Apple introduced a compatibility layer called Rosetta 2 which does a good job most of the time. Most reviewers agree that it needs a bit more work. Also, the base model Macbook Air comes with only 256GB of storage, which won't last long with today's apps and games. Add to that, only 2 USB Type-C ports, which is becoming typical on modern laptops, but not desirable. But if you're looking for an ultra-portable Apple laptop, this is the best bar none.

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, robust design

  • Useful 3:2 aspect ratio

  • Great day-to-day performance

  • Respectable graphics performance

  • Large, responsive touchpad

  • Excellent audio

What We Don't Like
  • Limited connectivity

  • Keyboard shows some flex

  • Display could be brighter

The Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 is an excellent, well-rounded Windows laptop that’s perfect for day-to-day web browsing but can tackle more demanding tasks. It has an unusual 13.5-inch touchscreen with a 3:2 aspect ratio, which is much taller and closer to square than the 16:9 ratio found on most laptops. This helps when multitasking, as it’s easier to fit two windows side-by-side while viewing the contents of each. The display is a bit dim, though, so it can be hard to see in brightly lit rooms. 

Performance is excellent, especially when equipped with AMD’s Ryzen processors which is what our reviewer tested. Even the base model, which has a six-core AMD Ryzen 5, can grind through photo editing and handle gobs of open browser tabs. Despite its speed, the Surface Laptop 4 can also last up to nine hours on a charge. 

Value is the Laptop 4’s best trait. It’s not inexpensive, but its performance, design, and display resolution stand out for a reasonable starting price. Don’t scoff at the base model. It has everything most users need, and then some.

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 gaming performance

  • Loud, enjoyable speakers

  • Excellent Wi-Fi speeds

What We Don't Like
  • Annoying port locations

  • Disappointing webcam

  • Lackluster battery life

  • Too much bloatware

The Acer Predator Triton 300 SE is among the least expensive Nvidia RTX 3060 laptops available. Although far from the quickest gaming laptop, it can average 60 frames per second (fps) or better in many games and is fast enough to handle ray tracing at medium or high settings. Our reviewer was able to use it to handle any game he threw at it.

Processor performance is the Triton 300 SE’s weakness. It has an Intel Core i7 with high clock speeds but only four physical cores, which puts it behind the curve in multi-core tests. This will disappoint gamers who want great performance in productivity apps. Battery life is short, as well, so the laptop is less portable than its thin profile suggests.

The Triton 300 SE has a subtle look that’s easy to mistake for a business laptop. It delivers a great display, enjoyable keyboard, and good (though small) touchpad. Connectivity is solid, with a combination of USB-C and USB-A ports, and the laptop’s Wi-Fi performance is excellent. 

Competitors like the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14 are more impressive overall, beating the Triton 300 SE in raw speed and looks, but Acer’s alternative is a well-rounded choice for gamers on a more modest budget.

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

  • RGB Backlit keyboard

What We Don't Like
  • Pricey

  • Heavy at almost five pounds

  • Bad battery life

If you want a gaming PC, look no further than Razer. Razer has built its company around the idea of amazing gaming hardware. The base model of this computer comes with a 4K screen running at 144hz, 16GB of RAM, 512GB of storage, and the GeForce RTX 2070 MQ GPU which was top of the line in 2020. Along with that, you get plenty of I/O including three USB Type-A ports, 2 USB Type-C Thunderbolt 3 ports, HDMI and Ethernet ports, and more. That's a ton of ports for a modern laptop.

But all that comes at the expense of size and weight. The laptop weighs just under five pounds. Plus, the discreet GPU sucks the battery dry very fast. Both of these factors put big question marks on the idea that this laptop is portable. If you don't mind staying close to outlets, this laptop has the power to spare. The wired ethernet jack is a bonus for gamers, reducing latency to just a few milliseconds. Gamers love this laptop.

Screen Size: 15.6 Inches | Resolution: 1920x1080 | CPU: Intel Core i7-10750H | GPU: NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2070 Max-Q | 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
  • Low price

  • Super thin and light

What We Don't Like
  • Small SSD

  • Windows 10 S is pretty weak

When Microsoft introduced the Surface line of laptops and tablets, the world stood up and took notice. Microsoft definitely brings its A-game when it comes to design. Unfortunately with that have also come high prices.  The Microsoft Laptop Go was designed to not carry as high a price. With that comes some compromises, but from a look and feel standpoint, this laptop is simply premium.

The laptop ships with Microsoft Windows S which is a stripped-down version of the operating system.  One of the most significant differences between the S version of the operating system and other versions of Windows is Windows 10 S's reliance on the Microsoft Store for apps. You cannot install outside executables on this version of Windows which is certainly a limiting factor. Add to that, a relatively small SSD that comes with the computer and that leaves this laptop decidedly in the "light tasks" category. You can Facebook and surf the web, and write some documents, but that's about the extent of it on this laptop. Not that it's a bad thing, but people that need this for work might need more.

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)

What We Like
  • The most powerful Apple computer you can buy

  • Amazing battery life

What We Don't Like
  • Rosetta 2 needs work

  • Same I/O issues at the Macbook Air

When Apple unveiled the M1 chip in late 2020, it was a revolution in chip design and power. ARM architecture was typically reserved for mobile devices. That is no longer the case. Apple added a fan to the Macbook Pro which allows the M1 chip to run harder without causing heat issues. That translates to even more power on top of an already powerful machine. 

But the Macbook Pro comes with the same compromises as the Macbook Air. Rosetta 2 is not quite ready for prime time yet. Plus, Apple's infamous lack of ports is also a problem. But overall, Apple believes so much in its M1 architecture that it has stopped making Intel-based Macbooks entirely. The good news is, Apple has thrown its entire company behind these chips and it will see them through.

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
  • 1TB SSD storage

  • High-end processor and GPU

  • Fingerprint reader

What We Don't Like
  • No webcam

ASUS Republic of Gamers (ROG) laptops are highly sought after in the gaming community. Indeed ASUS and Razer have been strong competition for each other for quite some time now.  Interestingly, from a design standpoint, this laptop is quite reserved for a gaming laptop, which makes it quite slick for an everyday laptop. There's a lot of I/O on board, though not as much as others in the list. You've got two USB Type-A ports and two USB Type-C ports, along with HMDI and a 3.5mm audio jack. 

From a specifications standpoint, this laptop goes with an AMD Ryzen 9 4900HS processor and an NVidia RTZ 2060 GPU, and a 1 TB SSD drive which is huge and fast. Oddly, there is no built-in webcam on this laptop, but there is a fingerprint reader which is a great addition to any laptop. The 14" display runs at either 4K at 60hz or 1080p at 120hz. Mostly this laptop is just a powerhouse and will happily chew up any process you throw at it.

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

What We Like
  • Designed for photo editing

  • High color accuracy

What We Don't Like
  • Heavy

  • Fans are noisy

This laptop is also a 2-in-1 so the keyboard flips around behind into tent mode or tablet mode. But what this laptop is great for is photo editing. The 15.6" IPS 4K display is bright and accurate. The laptop even comes with a "photo editing" display setting designed for the highest color accuracy we've seen. Add to that HP's True Black HDR, and this monitor will show you exactly what's in every photo.

Other necessities for photo editing include a multi-function SD card reader and a large 1TB SSD.  Combined with the Intel 10th generation Core i7 processor and 16 GB DDR4 RAM and this laptop has the power to push the toughest photo editing software as well. However all of that comes with a heavy 4.24-pound body. Beyond that, there are some heat issues here. The laptop tends to run hot when it's being pushed and the fans are quite loud when they're going full force.

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!

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.

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.

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.

What to Look for in a Laptop

Display

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 1920x1080 (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. If you're purely looking for a productivity machine and aren't concerned with graphical fidelity, a 720p display will suffice.

Processor and RAM

The processor (CPU) is essentially the brain of your laptop, and is essential for multitasking or any other computationally intense task. If you're going to be engaged in any really heavy productivity tasks, or playing games that lean intensely on the CPU (simulators, for instance, or any games that model large systems or rely heavily on AI), a powerful processor is a must, ideally 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 10700F is a 10th gen chip) or one of AMD's Ryzen 5000 Series options. On the RAM side, 8GB is plenty if you'll mainly just be browsing or watching videos, but for heavier loads or gaming, 16GB is quickly becoming a prerequisite.

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. 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.

FAQs

How do I choose a laptop?
Beyond considerations like which OS you prefer/are familiar with (Mac, Windows, or Linux), and things like budget and screen size, one of the most important factors in choosing the best laptop is hardware. For games, you'll want a powerful discrete GPU and fast storage in the form of an SSD, while for productivity stuff a great CPU and plenty of traditional storage will likely be more important.

How much RAM do I need?
The new modern baseline for RAM is 8GB, though if you're on a particularly stringent budget and just want a machine to browse the web and handle simple applications, you can probably get away with 4GB. For games, you'll realistically want to shoot for 16GB, particularly if your GPU is packing a smaller amount of VRAM.

How do I connect my laptop to a monitor or TV?
Connecting your new laptop to a display is a fairly simple prospect but will largely depend on what kind of outputs your machine features. Generally it's just a matter of attaching an HDMI, DVI, USB-C, or DisplayPort cable, though you may also need an adapter depending on the port situation on both the laptop and your monitor or television.

The Ultimate Laptop Buying Guide

Buying a laptop can be a stressful experience if you don’t know what to look for. With all of the technical terminology, specifications, brands and manufacturers, where do you even begin? What size laptop should you buy? How much storage do you need? How do you know how much RAM you need? What type of CPU should you look for? All of these questions can quickly become overwhelming. If you go into your purchase armed with the right knowledge, your experience will be much easier, and you’re more likely to get a laptop that better suits your needs. This guide will cover all of the laptop buying essentials, so you can make a smart purchase, armed with our storehouse of knowledge and experience.

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 poor 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.

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

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.

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 tasks 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 a SSD (solid state drive), some will have a 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 a 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, 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.

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 10th 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 a lengthy battery life.

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