6 Things to Consider Before Buying a Laptop

Focus on cost, type, processor/RAM, and size first

Although the tech landscape has changed over the years, laptops remain the center of many digital lives. However, buying a laptop hasn’t necessarily become any easier.

This buying guide will help you decide on the best laptop for your needs and budget.

6 Things to Consider When Buying a Laptop

Whether it's a basic laptop, a 2-in-1, one built specifically for gaming, or one tailored to businesses, here are the top factors to consider:

  • Cost
  • Type (2-in-1, ultrabook, etc.)
  • Operating system (Mac OS, Chrome OS, or Windows)
  • Graphics and Display
  • Processor and RAM
  • Storage

How Much Should You Spend on a Laptop?

As a general rule, you get what you pay for, but there's no need to pay for more than you need. Here's a chart to give you an idea of what to expect for your money:

Price Range What You Can Expect 
Less than $200 Suitable for surfing the web, checking email, video chat, streaming video, and that's about it.
$250-$1,000 Good for surfing the web, running productivity software, and simple games.
$1,000-$2,000 Robust enough for video editing software, live streaming, and virtually all commercial software.
$2,000+ Can handle graphics-intensive gaming and data processing programs that require a lot of resources.

What Kind of Laptop Do You Need?

Before deciding on the specs and design features, you’ll want to zoom out a little and figure out the form factor of the laptop you want. There are a few different kinds of laptops, and the one that you want may depend on what you want to use your computer for (are you a big gamer, a light user or do you use it primarily for business?). Here are the main types of laptops.

Basic Laptops

A basic laptop is essentially a laptop that doesn’t convert into a tablet, isn’t ultra-thin and powerful like an ultrabook, and doesn’t have features specifically for gaming.

Of course, just because basic laptops don’t offer any fancy features, that doesn’t mean that they’re not worth buying. If you don’t need special features like a detachable display, then buying a computer that can’t do that may well save you some cash.

Because basic laptops are a little less expensive than some of the other kinds of laptops on this list, basic laptops are a great choice for students, those buying a laptop as a secondary computer, or those that simply don’t want to drop much cash on a laptop.

2-in-1 Laptop
Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff 

2-In-1s

The 2-in-1 has fast become one of the more popular types of laptops, largely because of the fact that it's so versatile. 2-in-1s are devices that function as both laptops and as tablets, meaning they can be used for watching TV in bed, working at a desk, and everything in between.

By and large, there are two different kinds of 2-in-1s, each with critical differences. First is the detachable 2-in-1. With it, the display is removed from the keyboard, meaning you can use it as you would any other tablet. The downside is that space is limited for internal things like the processor and battery. As a result, detachable 2-in-1s are often lower-powered than convertible ones.

Sometimes, detachable 2-in-1s include two processors (one in the display, the other in the main body) to circumvent this shortcoming. Alternatively, a small battery is harbored in the display portion, while a larger one is available when the display and keyboard are attached.

The other kind of 2-in-1 is the convertible 2-in-1 which, while unable to split into two separate parts, can instead rotate all the way around—putting the keyboard behind the display, lending itself to a makeshift tablet design that never deviates from its unibody chassis. The resulting tablet is thicker than on a detachable 2-in-1 but often more powerful thanks to the extra space allotted for components.

2-in-1s are an excellent choice for those who like the idea of a device they can use to watch movies in bed just as comfortably as for work at a desk. They’re also convenient for those who frequently travel, as they fit comfortably into tight spaces, perfect for those ever-shrinking economy plane seats.

HP Envy 17t
Lifewire / Jonno Hill

Ultrabooks

Generally considered to be the cutting edge of laptop design, Ultrabooks are often pretty powerful too. Typically slim, portable, and lightweight, this category best suits those who want a powerful device they can take on the go.

That said, Ultrabooks have to make a few trade-offs to keep a slim profile. For example, they almost never include things like DVD drives, and their low-power processors, which conserve battery life, aren't always the fastest. Intel’s mobile chips are increasingly stronger and capable of handling most things people will throw at them.

A lot of people who have more than a couple of hundred dollars to spend on a laptop probably either want a 2-in-1, or an ultrabook. These devices are built for versatility and performance and are probably the best choice for use beyond the absolute basics.

Gaming Laptops

Built for performance above all else, gaming laptops are a little thicker and bulkier than their consumer-focused counterparts, but with all that extra space, manufacturers are able to fit more powerful processors, larger batteries, and often even dedicated graphics processors, or GPUs. Gaming laptops also often have high-resolution displays and enough ports for external displays, gaming mice, and keyboards, and more.

As you might expect, a gaming laptop is best for those who play graphics-intensive games on the go. Those who game casually may not need to spend the cash on a dedicated gaming laptop because most everyday laptops will be able to handle basic gaming.

Business Laptops

While they may also double as Ultrabooks or 2-in-1s, business laptops usually try to strike a balance between performance and portability. If you’re someone who runs from meeting to meeting, you want a laptop that’s relatively light yet still able to weather the endless spreadsheets and PowerPoint. After all, time is money. At the same time, you probably want something that’s durable and able to handle life on the road.

What Operating System Do You Prefer?

A computer’s operating system (OS), essentially the software that runs on it, shapes the laptop user experience. Those in Apple’s ecosystem, and who use devices like the iPhone and Apple TV, are probably better suited to a computer with macOS on it. Others, especially those who have grown up using it, will prefer to stick with Windows. And those who need something basic and easy to use may like using Google’s Chrome OS.

Here’s a rundown of the different operating systems for computers and the main differences between them.

Windows

Microsoft Windows is by far the most popular operating system for computers, though that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best. The reason it’s so popular is not just because it's highly capable and because Microsoft licenses it out to third-party companies looking to make their own computers. The most recent version is Windows 11, which is updated regularly by Microsoft.

There are a few advantages to using Windows over other operating systems. Windows has the widest selection of apps and games available, for starters.

While there’s a pretty good selection of apps for other operating systems, those really into gaming will choose Windows for its exclusive libraries on client-based services like Steam, Origin, and the Epic Games Store.

The user interface of Windows is generally easy to use, even if some consider it not quite as simple as Apple’s macOS. If you’ve used Windows for a while, you should be able to get around it very easily. If you haven’t, getting a grasp on the operating system shouldn’t be too difficult.

Last but not least is security. While Windows has long been considered the weakest operating system when it comes to security, it is getting better, thanks largely to the fact that Microsoft has been updating Windows so frequently. Still, it might be useful to install antivirus software on your Windows computer.

macOS

Apple’s macOS is also very popular, though it may never reach the heights of Windows due to the fact that, as we said, Apple does not license macOS out to third-parties. Because of that, you can only find the macOS operating system on Apple-built devices — barring illegal hacks people have been made to get macOS working on other devices.

There are a number of advantages to using a macOS computer over other laptops. For starters, macOS is a little more user-friendly than Windows, plus it works very well in tandem with other Apple devices like the iPhone and iPad. The latest version, macOS Catalina, for example, lets you use your iPad as a second (or third) screen for your Mac, giving you at least one reason to dust off the aging tablet tucked inside your nightstand drawer.

Of course, that level of usability isn't without downsides. For starters, macOS has far fewer games available than a Windows computer does. On top of that, there aren’t currently any Macs that support touchscreens, so if that’s important to you, you’ll have to go for a different operating system.

Chrome OS

Google’s computer operating system, Chrome OS, has a few advantages of its own (and a few disadvantages, too). It's a little different than the other operating systems on this list in that it’s largely web-based. That’s to say, to use many of the features in Chrome OS, you’ll need to be connected to the Internet.

Thankfully, however, Google has been changing that a little in the past year or so.

These days, Chrome OS can even run many Android apps, opening the operating system up to a range of extra features that otherwise wouldn’t be available.

It’s likely to get better, too—Google regularly updates Chrome OS with new features and security and stability enhancements.

Still, considering its limitations, Chrome OS is perhaps the most accessible operating system to use, and most of the "apps" on Chrome OS are web launchers. That means that Chrome OS doesn't take much power to run well. It's also cheap to license and is open to third-party manufacturers, meaning that a range of Chrome OS devices is available.

Graphics and Display

Laptops generally do away with GPUs simply because of the fact that most CPUs have basic built-in graphics processing capabilities and because discrete GPUs take up a lot of room. Still, the likes of Nvidia and AMD have put a lot of resources into developing mobile GPUs over the past few years, and these days you can find some laptops with dedicated graphics processing.

Most people, however, don’t need one. If you’re a hardcore gamer or work in video or image editing, then it may be worth getting a laptop with a dedicated graphics card like the Nvidia GeForce MX150 built-in, but if you’re an average user who wants to browse the web and watch Netflix, then a GPU separate from the one built into your processor is simply unnecessary.

RAM
Daniel Sambraus / Getty Images

Laptop Displays

Laptop computers can have a display measuring up to 17-inches or as small as 11 inches. The sweet spot for most seems to be in the 13-inch range.

You’ll also want to consider display resolution. The higher the resolution, the clearer the image. At the lowest end, many laptops still have a resolution in the 1366x768-pixel range, but it’s worth investing in a computer with at least a 1920x1080 resolution if you can afford it. Though Apple will tell you the ideal resolution is around 2560x1600 for a 13-inch panel, many laptop makers have ventured into 4K Ultra HD (3840x2160) territory.

Touch screens are common among 2-in-1 laptops, but some laptops that aren’t 2-in-1s also have touch screens. If you like being able to interact with your content with your hands, then it’s worth checking whether a laptop has a touch screen.

Touchscreen Laptop

Of course, there are downsides to these capacitive displays. Touch-screen computers are generally more expensive, for starters. On top of that, you’ll be limited to Windows or Chrome OS computers—no Apple computers currently offer touch-screen support.

Which Processor and RAM Should a Laptop Have?

The processor, or central processing unit (CPU), is the computer's brain. Everything you do on a computer is processed either by the CPU or, should the task demand heavy real-time image rendering, the graphics processing unit (GPU). All this to say, it's critical to buy a laptop with a decent processor.

We’re not going to dive deep into how processors work, but here are the basics.

Clock speed determines how quickly a processor runs—but a processor with a higher clock speed won’t always perform faster than one with a lower clock speed. That’s because some processors have more "cores." With two cores, a processor can process two tasks at a time. With four, it can process four things. And so on.

RAM, or Random Access Memory, essentially determines how much space the computer has to store files for immediate use. Apps and services on your computer are in RAM, where the processor can quickly get to them if needed.

By and large, more RAM is better, but there are caveats. Faster RAM, for instance, can hog battery life and gets pricey.

The sweet spot for most people seems to be around 8GB of RAM, though opinions vary depending on your use case and profession.

Any less than 8GB makes sense for budget computers focused on web browsing and passive media consumption. More intense activities like gaming and video editing might necessitate more RAM.

How Much Storage Do You Need?

When it comes to storing files like photos and documents, there is an endless list of alternatives to the traditional hard drive (see: the Cloud). But that's not to say local storage is no longer necessary, as you can probably tell from the thriving SSD market. These new flash storage devices are quieter, smaller, and more resilient than their spinning disk-based predecessors.

If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. Although SSDs are objectively better than hard drives, they cost significantly more. Be that as it may, their prices are getting more reasonable with time, and we still think it's worth the premium to buy a laptop with an SSD built-in. If you want to cut down the cost, you can opt for a laptop with just enough local storage and purchase a cloud storage subscription to offset the deficit (iCloud, OneDrive, or Dropbox).

You'll probably want at least 1-2 TB of local storage space if you're a gamer, photographer, or video editor. If you need a laptop for browsing the web and watching YouTube, you can get away with as little as 32 GB.

What About Optical Drives?

Laptops have mostly done away with the optical disc drive since streaming has hit the mainstream. Still, some might prefer to play DVDs and CDs from their laptop. If that’s you, look for a computer with an integrated disc drive or buy an external optical drive that can plug into your computer through the USB port.

We feel most people can get away without a disc drive built into their laptops, and even those who need one can still buy an external one. Still, laptops with built-in disc drives exist, albeit in rare form.

Who Should Buy a Laptop?

In today's world, every household could benefit from a laptop.

  • Students of all ages. Students need laptops to write papers, complete assignments, and research online. Most college classes require access to a computer.
  • Office and home workers. Employers increasingly expect employees to use their personal computers for company business. Some people have a separate computer just for work.
  • Children. Kids can use laptops for playing games and streaming content. Learning how to use a computer at a young age will benefit them later.
  • Retirees and older adults. A laptop can enable them to more easily keep in touch with friends, family, and the outside world with a laptop.

What Should I Do After I Buy a Laptop?

Once you unbox your new laptop, setup is easy.

  • Charge the battery, then set up your computer.
  • If you have a subscription for a game or program (like Minecraft or Photoshop), download the software and sign in with your account to access your subscription.
  • Connect a monitor. If you're planning to use your laptop at a desk, getting a separate monitor makes sense.
  • While laptops typically include a webcam and a keyboard and touchpad, using separate accessories can be more ergonomic. A separate webcam lets you place it where it's the most flattering and adjust the angle as needed.

Shopping for peripherals? We test a ton of them. These are our recommendations on the best:

More Tips for Buying a Laptop

Before you go out and buy, here are some questions you should keep in mind:

  • Do you need a numeric keyboard? Many laptops lack a numeric keypad, so knowing the keyboard layout is essential.
  • Do you need to worry about weight and portability? Consider if you want a bigger screen or a lighter load. A 17-inch laptop can weigh between 4 and 10 pounds, while a 13-inch laptop might weigh 1.5 to 2.5 pounds.
  • What about battery life? Your usage habits affect battery life the most. Streaming from Netflix or YouTube (or Google Stadia) takes up more battery than simple Word processing. To check how long a laptop’s battery lasts, we recommend looking at reviews before buying a device.
  • Which ports do you need? Most computer accessories connect through the USB port, whether classic USB Type-A or the newer USB-C. If you plan to connect a monitor, you might need an HDMI port or an adapter. Consider if you want a headphone jack or an SD card slot.
Laptop Ports
Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen
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