The 9 Best Laptops of 2021

These are the best laptops for work, gaming, graphic design, and more.

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
The Dell XPS series or laptops has always been one of the best laptops you could buy, and the 7390 2-in-1-model is no exception.
Best Ultraportable, Apple:
Apple MacBook Air at Amazon
The Magic Keyboard and trackpad are both excellent. The display is bright and clear and dense.
Best for College Students:
Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 at Amazon
This is a great laptop to buy new, but it's not enough of an upgrade if you already have a Surface Laptop 3.
This is a great looking laptop with impressive power and specifications that's right at home gaming or editing video.
Best for Gaming:
Razer Blade 15 at Amazon
Our pick comes with a 10th generation Core-i& processor, 16GB of RAM, 144Hz screen and NVidia GeForce RTX 3060 discrete GPU.
Best Ultraportable, Windows:
Microsoft Surface Laptop Go at Amazon
If you're a frequent traveler or find yourself working in coffee shops, this is a great choice.
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.
The ASUS ROG Zephyrus G14 is what our reviewer calls the trifecta of power, portability, and performance.
Best for Photo Editing:
HP Spectre x360 15t at Amazon
The HP Spectre x360 has one of the best displays around.

The best laptops are powerful, but mostly they're portable. They can work on anything a desktop PC can work on, but then you can toss it into a bag and go somewhere else. Laptops have everything you need in a PC including a built-in screen, keyboard, trackpad, storage, and more. Often, they're more expensive than their desktop equivalents because of extra design and cooling considerations. It takes a lot of engineering to figure out how to take everything you find in a computer tower and fit it into a laptop body.

Naturally, that can make laptops harder to upgrade. That's why it's important to make sure you buy a laptop that can grow with you. You'll want to make sure you get all the specifications you can out of your initial purchase. You can expand laptops with external computer monitors, keyboards, and external hard drives, but that cuts down on the portability that drew you to a laptop in the first place.

If you want to find the best laptop you can for your money, our experts have looked at dozens of them, and we've made our picks.  Read on for our choices.

Best Overall: Dell XPS 13 7390 (2020)

Dell XPS 13 7390 (2020)
What We Like
  • Thin and light

  • Great display

  • Outstanding keyboard and trackpad

  • Awesome battery life

What We Don't Like
  • No discrete GPU

  • Bad fingerprint sensor

  • Minimal ports

The Dell XPS series of laptops has always been one of the best laptops you could buy, and the 7390 2-in-1-model is no exception. This model has a 10th generation Core-i7 processor, 32GB of DDR4 RAM, and 512GB of onboard storage. All that combines to make this laptop sleek and powerful, although there is no discrete GPU on board. A powerful GPU is really only needed for power projects like video editing and some AAA gaming, but everyday tasks will be just fine. 

Our reviewer Andy really liked the 7390's minimalist design, made from aircraft aluminum and carbon fiber. He also really liked the 1920 x 1200 display describing it as "sharp and color accurate, with excellent viewing angles." As for benchmarks, the laptop scores adequately in PCMark 10 Work 2.0 (4,139) and GFX Bench (8,878). The battery will get you through about 10 hours which is great for a day's worth of productivity.

The laptop charges through either of two USB-C ports, which along with a 3.5mm headphone jack and SD card reader comprise the total I/O of this device. If you want to plug anything else in, we recommend picking up a USB Hub to go along with it. As for the rest of the laptop, our reviewer loved the keyboard and trackpad describes as "expansive and responsive." The fingerprint reader gave Andy a little trouble though. Overall, the Dell XPS 13 7390 isn't the newest one available, but it's the one we feel offers the right combination of power and value, which is why it gets our top pick.

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
  • Great performance

  • Rosetta 2

  • Excellent keyboard

  • Beautiful display

  • Very good battery life

What We Don't Like
  • I/O options are limited

  • Webcam is bad

  • Same design as previous generation

  • No touchscreen

Apple has gone all-in with its M1 chip. Since its introduction in the Macbook Air, Apple has built desktop, laptops, All-in-One PCs, and iPad with the M1 chip. That speaks to the power of the M1 chip. It can stand toe-to-toe with any processor on the market when running native apps, or when running x86 apps in its Rosetta 2 compatibility layer.

The Magic Keyboard and trackpad are both excellent. The display is bright and clear and dense. Our reviewer, Jeremy Lauuonen calls it "a beautiful 13.3-inch Retina display with a native 2560x1600 resolution, 400 nits of brightness, and Apple’s proprietary True Tone feature." We'd like to see a touchscreen on the Macbook Air, but no Macbook has ever had a touchscreen, so we can't be too harsh on its omission. Apple claims you'll get all-day battery life from the Air, but Jeremey found that to be quite a conservative estimate. His own testing put the battery at around 12 hours of continuous video testing.

One area where we were disappointed was the lack of evolution between the last generation and this generation of laptops. You get the same lack of ports, comically bad webcam, and same overall design as the previous generation. While the M1 Macbook Air is a better effort, all the innovation is on the inside with the same lackluster exterior. Basically, you can buy the Macbook Air M1, but the only reason to do so over the Intel-powered computer that came before it is the M1 chip. That might be enough, but we'd like to see more exterior improvements to take advantage of that new silicon.

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
  • Beautiful design

  • Useful 3:2 aspect ratio

  • Good performance

  • Responsive trackpad

  • Surprisingly good audio

What We Don't Like
  • Same design

  • Flex in the keyboard

  • No LTE

  • Lackluster display

Ever since Microsoft entered the hardware space, the Surface lineup has exemplified clean and superior design. The Surface Laptop 4 is no exception. Both color choices feature the soft Alcantara coating that gives the keyboard and trackpad a luxurious look and feel, even if it is hard to keep clean. Our reviewer found the keyboard flexed quite a bit, which gives it a cheaper feeling than the build suggests, but the trackpad is large and responsive according to our reviewer Matt.

Like the Macbook Air above, there is little evolution in the design from the Laptop 3 to the Laptop 4. Both have a lackluster display, which doesn't measure up in brightness nor color saturation, and neither laptop has LTE on board.

One thing you do get with this newer generation of laptops is very high-quality audio.  Our reviewer writes, "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 the bass can sound flat, but the Laptop 4 provides some sense of depth without overwhelming the rest of the track you’re enjoying."

You also get great battery life, boosted by newer generation AMD and Intel processors. Base storage also starts at 256, which is double the Laptop 3. Overall, this is a great laptop to buy new, but it's not enough of an upgrade if you already have a Surface 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 for Power: Acer Predator Triton 300 SE

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

  • Impressive display

  • Great performance

  • Excellent wireless connectivity

What We Don't Like
  • Port locations are annoying

  • Bad battery life

  • Bloatware

The Acer Predator Triton 300 SE is a laptop that is built for gamers but has an understated look that's suitable for professionals. While many gaming laptops try and look the part with fantastic design and RGB all over the place, the Triton looks like a laptop you could take to the office. Inside, you'll get an 11th-generation Core i7 processor, up to 32GB of RAM, and a 512 GB SSD Drive. Along with that, the laptop packs an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 graphics card which makes this laptop scream. 

The Triton 300 SE is built for gamers with a 14-inch FHD display and boasts a set of speakers that our reviewer says "packs a sonic punch" which 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. Battery life is not impressive at just 3.5 hours. We'd honestly like to see a bigger battery in a laptop with a discrete GPU. 

Most of our complaints about the laptop are superficial. The ports are all located near the front of the machine which means cable management becomes a problem. Our reviewer also noted quite a bit of pre-installed software, often referred to as "bloatware" on the machine. But if you can get beyond that, this is a great-looking laptop with impressive power and specifications that's right at home gaming or editing video.

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
  • Discrete GPU

  • 144 Hz screen

  • Front facing speakers

What We Don't Like
  • Dated design

  • Very heavy

  • Battery life is bad

  • No fingerprint or face login

Razer is one of the big names in gaming computer hardware, and the Razer Blade, in particular, is its flagship laptop. Our pick comes with a 10th generation Core-i& processor, 16GB of RAM, 144Hz screen, and NVidia GeForce RTX 3060 discrete GPU.  That's a lot of power built into a small machine built specifically for gamers.

RGB colors flowing through the backlight of the keyboard always give a laptop a sleek look. On either side of the keyboard, you'll find top firing speakers which, according to our reviewer Andrew, do a "solid job of delivering game and media audio, as well as music. They’re clear and thankfully stay that way pretty high into the volume settings, and the Razer Blade can get pretty loud."

All that comes with some compromise since the laptop itself weighs almost five pounds. The design of the laptop hasn't really evolved much over the years, which may be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your tastes. The discrete GPU also sucks up battery life like crazy, so if you're on the go, you'll want to stay close to an outlet. The most unfortunate missing piece is the complete lack of biometric login on this computer. There's no fingerprint reader and no Windows Hello compatible webcam. 

Overall, this is a powerful gaming laptop. Only the processor lags a generation behind. There isn't much of a difference between 10th and 11th generation processors, especially with the RTX 3060 pushing things along. So if you're looking for a powerful gaming laptop, this is a good pick.

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 light

  • Great design

  • Useful 3:2 aspect ratio

  • Touchscreen

  • Great keyboard and trackpad

What We Don't Like
  • Underpowered

  • Gets hot

  • Not a lot of ports

  • Bad camera

The Microsoft Surface Laptop Go is Microsoft's ultraportable offering. The Surface line of laptops is known for great design and that's also true in the Surface Laptop Go. The 3:2 aspect ratio gives you a lot of extra screen real estate over 16:9 or 16:10. Along with the screen you also get a keyboard and trackpad that our reviewer, Andy, describes 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.

 Of course, a thin and light laptop has compromises. Notably, there's only a single USB-A and USB-C port along with a headphone jack. The laptop also has a tendency to run a little hot, due to a lack of airflow and general thermal management. The laptop also scores a fairly decent 5,378 in GFXBench which is good considering the Core-i5 processor and 8GB of RAM. The touchscreen on this ultraportable is a delightful surprise. Andy describes the resolution as "quite sharp, and colors are sharp and accurate with great contrast." 

 In short, this computer will not do any heavy lifting, and we wouldn't count on playing any AAA gaming titles. But it is a productivity machine able to handle medium-light tasks with ease. But where it really shines is in portability. It's a great size, and very light which are two key aspects of a portable laptop. Another aspect is battery life and you'll get an easy 13 hours out of this.  If you're a frequent traveler or often find yourself working in coffee shops, this is a great choice.

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
  • Great battery life

  • Top notch performance

  • Retina display

  • Top notch trackpad and keyboard

What We Don't Like
  • No touchscreen

  • Not a lot of ports

  • Base storage should start higher

When Apple introduced the M1 chip in late 2020, it introduced the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro at the same time. They're very similar, except the MacBook Pro is designed to push the M1 chip even harder. It has a fan for cooling, and an extra core in the CPU, and both of those traits make a world of difference. It's a little thicker, a little heavier, and a lot more powerful than its sibling. 

The display is one of the highlights of the computer. Our reviewer Alice wrote, "Apple continues to deliver with its 13-inch 2560x1600 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."

 Apple refitted its keyboards in 2019 and the MacBook Pro uses the same scissor switches which are really great in terms of travel and tactility. The battery life on this Macbook is ridiculous. Our tester pushed the battery to 18 hours of 4K streaming at max brightness. That's just crazy. Apple's ever-expanding catalog of ARM-compatible apps makes this a solid buy for professionals, creators, and gamers.

 Like with previous generations of MacBooks, there is no touchscreen on the MacBook Pro, and you're limited to just a pair of USB-C ports. Also, the base model of the MacBook Pro comes with just 256GB which isn't bad, but a laptop for creators and professionals should really have more.

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
  • Keyboard and trackpad are awesome

  • Very nice design

  • 120Hz display

  • Good value

What We Don't Like
  • No webcam

The ASUS ROG Zephyrus G14 is what our reviewer calls the trifecta of power, portability, and performance. He put it to the test and called the laptop "an exceptional machine by any definition." So, let's break down those claims and see what this laptop has to offer.

Power comes in the form of the AMD Ryzen 9 processor and GeForce RTX 2060 Max-Q graphics card. When you pair that with the 16GB of RAM and 1TB M.2 NWMe PCIe SSD and our expert says you get lightning response times 

Considering portability, this laptop has a 14-inch display with results in a small footprint. 14 inches is a little smaller than we usually like to see in a  gaming PC (which is what the ROG brand is known for), but it's a good compromise. Even with the discrete GPU, the battery will last you 10 hours which is great for a gaming laptop.

When it comes to value, considering you get an awesome keyboard and trackpad, along with a 120Hz display and all the power and portability above for a good price. This is a great value that you would be hard-pressed to find something better at this price point.

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

  • Convertible to a tablet

  • 4k display

  • Awesome keyboard

What We Don't Like
  • Heavy

  • Noisy and hot

Photographers spend a lot of time looking through a camera lens, but they spend a lot more time looking at the screen on their computer. The HP Spectre x360 has one of the best displays around. It's a full 4K display that our reviewer Jeremy calls "remarkably crisp, and the colors to be rich and bold," even if it doesn't quite get bright enough for his tastes.

Beyond that, this is a 2-in-1 computer which means the laptop converts into a tablet, albeit a heavy tablet at just over four pounds. But tablet mode and tent mode can be handy for photo editing. The keyboard is described as "quite comfortable for long typing sessions," according to our expert and from a design standpoint, we really dig the USB ports in the corners of the laptop.

When you're running an intensive task, this laptop runs hot, and it gets noisy once the fans kick in. The GPU on the laptop is a little on the old side as well, but 16GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD, and 10th generation core-i7 will keep you running smoothly for all your long photo editing sessions.

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 love the Dell XPS 13 as the best overall laptop on this list. The balance of power, design, and affordability all come together in a great product with an amazing keyboard. WE're suckers for a great keyboard here, but even that is just the icing on an impressive cake.


If you want something more portable, then look to the Apple MacBook Air.  This device packs a surprising amount of power in its ultraportable frame. With more and more developers making native ARM apps for Mac, the MacBook Air is only going to get better.

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 strength in the 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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