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How to Pick the Best Laptop for Your Needs

First steps to deciding which laptop to buy

The Ultimate Laptop Buying Guide
The Ultimate Laptop Buying Guide

The tech landscape may have changed a ton over the past decade or so, with the advent of the smartphone and now the rise of the smartwatch, but there’s one thing that has remained a constant for some time — the computer, and specifically the laptop, is still the center of many’s digital lives.

But buying a laptop hasn’t necessarily become any easier. In fact, thanks to technological improvements that allow for things like 2-in-1s (laptops that double as tablets), buying a laptop may well have become more difficult.

There are dozens of things to consider when buying a laptop. For starters, you’ll want to think about the type of laptop you want — whether it's a basic laptop, a 2-in-1, one built specifically for gaming, or one that's tailored to businesses. Then you’ll want to think about the operating system (OS) you want your new laptop to run (Mac OS, Chrome OS or Windows). Next up are the specs under the hood (RAM, storage, graphics, etc.) — which will directly correlate with your use case. Last, it's time to think about extraneous things like ports, display quality, and weight.

While buying a laptop can be challenging, we’ve put together this guide to make it just a little bit easier. Read on to find everything you need to know when it comes to buying a laptop.

Laptop
Lifewire / Andy Zahn.

Product Types

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 key 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. In other instances, a small battery is harbored in the display portion while a larger one is used 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 on the behind the display, lending itself to a makeshift tablet design that never deviates from its unibody chassis. The resulting tablet is a little thicker than on a detachable 2-in-1, but often more powerful thanks to the extra space allotted for components.

2-in-1s are a great choice for those who like thing idea of a device they can use to watch movies in bed just as easily 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 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 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.

Operating Systems

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 10, which is updated regularly by Microsoft.

There are a few advantages to using Windows over other operating systems. For starters, Windows has the widest selection of apps and games available to it. This is particularly important if you’re a gamer — 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 along with security and stability enhancements.

Still, considering its limitations, Chrome OS is perhaps the easiest operating system to use, and most of the "apps" on Chrome OS are glorified web launchers. What this means is 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 there’s a range of Chrome OS devices available.

Laptop Specifications

While form factor and operating system are very important factors to consider, specifications under the hood also have a huge impact on overall performance. When a laptop has better specs, it will likely perform faster, and for longer. But with improved performance, of course, comes a higher price tag. Here’s a rundown of the main laptop specifications to consider.

Processors

The processor, or central processing unit (CPU), is the brain of the computer. 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 we’ll go over the basics. Clock speed essentially 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.

Graphics

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
Getty Images / Daniel Sambraus.

RAM

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

By and large, more RAM is better, but there are caveats. Faster RAM, for instance, can have an adverse effect on battery life, not to mention pricing. 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.

Storage

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 important, 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 well then it probably is. Sort of. Although SSDs are objectively better than hard drives, they cost significantly more. Be that as it may, with time their prices are getting more reasonable, 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 (for iCloud, OneDrive, or Dropbox) to offset the deficit.

Laptop Design

While specs under the hood determine a laptop's performance, its design can make or break your workflow. Design isn't just about fashion, it encapsulates your display, ports, keyboard, trackpad, and pretty much everything else that's visible without cracking open the chassis. Here are a few design elements to consider as you shop for a new laptop.

Display

You might not think your laptop display is important, but it is a meaningful piece. For starters, you’ll want to think about the display size. Computers generally have up to a 17-inch display, down to as little as 11 inches, but 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 if you can afford it, it’s worth investing in a computer with at least a 1920x1080 resolution. 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.

Ports

Despite our increasingly wire-free world, the ports on your laptop are far from extinct. Most computer accessories connect through the USB port, whether that be classic USB Type-A or the newer USB-C.

Unlike USB, HDMI ports are specifically used for video data and are commonly used to connect to an external display. Some smaller laptops use a diminutive form of the HDMI port called Mini-HDMI whereas others have ditched all the old ports in favor of USB-C. In either case, there's a good chance you'll need an adapter if you plan on using a second display or connecting your computer to your TV from time to time.

There are a few other ports to check on as well. You’ll probably want a headphone jack for audio use, and you might want an SD card slot for importing photos from your camera.

Laptop Ports
Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen.

Webcams

Most laptops have a camera built right into them for video chatting, and most of the time they’re good enough for that purpose. Webcam placement does change a little depending on the model — most laptops have their webcam above the display, while some have it beneath the display. Some newer models even have a pop-up camera built into the keyboard.

Optical Drives

In recent years, laptops have 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 really need one can still buy an external one. Still, laptops with disc drives built right in do still exist, albeit in rare form.

Other Key Considerations

The main features to consider when buying a new laptop are outlined above, but there are a few other things to keep in mind. We’ll go over them below.

Weight

As you might expect, weight is usually a byproduct of size — you can’t get away with buying a 17-inch laptop without having to carry around a little extra weight, around 4 to 10 pounds to be exact. A 13-inch laptop, on the other hand, might weigh between 1.5 to 2.5 pounds. Lastly, 15-inch models range from around 2.5 pounds to up to 6 pounds, for a heavy gaming laptop.

Battery Life

Because laptops are supposed to be portable, a lot hinges on their battery life. Battery size is measured in milliampere-hours (mAh), but longevity is based on a number of factors. For example, a small battery in a device with a low-resolution screen at low brightness might last longer than a device with a larger battery and a sharper, brighter display.

Of course, your own personal usage habits affect battery life the most. Streaming from Netflix or YouTube (or Google Stadia) takes up a lot more battery than simple Word processing. To check how long a laptop’s battery lasts, we recommend looking at reviews before you buy a device.

Touchscreen Laptop
Mutlu Kurtbas / Getty Images

Touchscreens

Touchscreens are common among 2-in-1 laptops, but some laptops that aren’t 2-in-1s also have touchscreens. If you like the idea of being able to interact with your content with your hands, then it’s worth checking whether a laptop has a touchscreen.

Of course, there are downsides to these capacitive displays. Touchscreen 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 touchscreen support.