The Ultimate Laptop Buying Guide

The Ultimate Laptop Buying Guide

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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 technology 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 specifically built for gaming or one that's more for business. Then, you’ll want to think about the operating system 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 what you want to use your computer for. Last but not least, you’ll need to think about things like ports, display quality, weight, and more.

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.

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Types of laptops: Basic, 2-1s, Ultrabooks & More

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: Perfect for Students & Everyday Use

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-1s: Laptops That Double As Tablets

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

There are actually two different kinds of 2-in-1s, and the difference between them may be important for some. First is the detachable 2-in-1: With a detachable, the display of the laptop actually detaches from the keyboard, meaning you can literally use it as you would any other tablet. The downside to this is that there’s a limited amount of space for things like the processor and battery. Because of that, detachable 2-in-1s are often slightly lower-powered than convertible ones. Sometimes, detachable 2-in-1s get around this by including two processors (one in the display, the other in the main body), or only including a small battery in the display portion, and a larger battery to be used when the display and keyboard are attached.

The other kind of 2-in-1 is the convertible 2-in-1, and convertible 2-in-1s can’t split into two separate parts. Instead of the display detaching from the keyboard, it can rotate all the way around — putting the keyboard on the bottom and the display on the top of a slate-shaped device. The resulting tablet is a little thicker than on a detachable 2-in-1, but often more powerful thanks to the extra space for internal 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 great for those that travel a lot, as they’re a little better at fitting into tight spaces, which is perfect for those ever-shrinking economy seats on planes.

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Ultrabooks: Slim & Portable

Ultrabooks are generally considered to be the cutting edge of laptop design, and they’re most often pretty powerful, too. They’re usually aimed at being slim, portable, and lightweight — meaning they’re a great choice for those who want a powerful device they can take with them on the go.

Often, ultrabooks have a few trade-offs to keep a slim profile. For example, they may not include things like a DVD drive (but how many people need that these days?), or they may include lower-power processors that don’t use up as much battery life, meaning that these laptops can get by with smaller batteries. That’s not to say they’re not powerful, though, Intel’s mobile chips are getting increasingly stronger, and able to handle 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 Have More Powerful Processors

Gaming laptops are built for performance, but often the emphasis on performance means compromising a little on design. Generally, 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 graphics processing units, 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: Striking The Balance Between Performance & Portability

Business laptops may also double as be ultrabooks or 2-in-1s, and they usually try to strike a balance between performance and portability. If you’re someone running from meeting to meeting, you probably want a laptop that’s relatively light, yet still able to handle endless spreadsheets, PowerPoints, etc. After all, time is money. At the same time, you probably want something that’s durable and able to handle life on the road. Business laptops aim to strike a compromise between all of these things, but some are a little bulkier than others.

Operating Systems: Windows, Mac OS or Chrome OS?

A computer’s operating system is essentially the software that runs on it, and it has a massive effect on overall customer 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.

Note that you don’t necessarily have to choose one operating system if you don’t want to. Technically, Mac computers can run both Windows and macOS through Bootcamp, which is software designed to load Windows onto Mac computers. It’s a little harder to get other combinations of operating systems, however.

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

Windows: The Most Popular OS

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 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 want to choose Windows over other operating systems.

Another reason to go for Windows is the fact that there is a much wider selection of devices available than other operating systems. As mentioned, Microsoft licenses Windows out to other companies — unlike Apple, with macOS. Because of that, you can find Windows laptops across all price ranges, with all different configurations.

The user interface of Windows is generally easy to use, though 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 — but even if you haven’t, getting a grasp on the operating system shouldn’t be too difficult.

Last but not least is security, and 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 anti-virus software on your Windows computer.

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MacOS: Great Synergy With Other Apple Products

Apple’s macOS is also very popular, though it may never reach the heights of Microsoft, thanks to the fact that, like 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 any illegal hacks that 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 with other Apple devices, like the iPhone and iPad. Apple is continuing to make macOS work better with the iPhone and iPad, too — the latest version, macOS Mojave, allows you to take a photo with your iPhone for direct use in Apple’s office apps.

Of course, there are some downsides to the ease of use that comes with macOS. For starters, there are far fewer games available for macOS than for Windows computers. On top of that, there aren’t currently any Apple devices with macOS that support touchscreens, so if that’s important to you, you’ll need to go for a different operating system.

Chrome OS: Web-Based & Affordable

Chrome OS is Google’s computer operating system, and it has a few advantages of its own (and a few disadvantages, too). Chrome OS is 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 updates Chrome OS very regularly, and the latest version, at the time of this writing, is Chrome OS 68.

Still, considering the limited number of features available, Chrome OS is perhaps the easiest operating system to use, and most of the “apps” on Chrome OS open to the Web anyway. What this means is that Chrome OS doesn’t take much power to run well. Chrome OS is also pretty cheap, and is open to third-party manufacturers, meaning that there’s a range of Chrome OS devices available.

Laptop Specifications: Processors, RAM, Storage & More

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 those better specs, of course, cost more money. Here’s a rundown of the main laptop specifications to consider.

Processor: The Brain of the Computer

The processor, or Computer Processing Unit (CPU), can be considered the brain of a computer. Everything you do on a computer takes processing (though sometimes certain things can be processed by a Graphics Processing Unit, or GPU), meaning that ensuring you get a computer with a decent processor can be pretty important.

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.

Intel’s processors are the most common chips, and you’ll generally be buying laptops with Intel processors in them — regardless of operating system and form factor. The Intel Core i3 is the entry-level series of Intel Core i chips, with the Intel Core i5 being the mid-range, the Intel Core i7 being the high-end, and the newer Intel Core i9 being ultra high-end. Other Intel chips, like the Intel Celeron and Intel Pentium series, are sometimes features on low-end computers.

It’s also important to keep in mind that with computer processors, newer is almost always better. If you have the choice between a laptop with an 8th-generation Intel Core i5 chip, and one with a 6th-generation Core i5 chip, go with the 8th-gen device.

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RAM: The More, The Better

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.

Generally speaking, more RAM is better, but there are trade-offs to that. For example, more RAM can have an effect on battery life. Not to mention that more RAM means the laptop will often be more expensive. The sweet spot for most people seems to be around 8GB of RAM, though more may be helpful for some. Any less than 8GB makes sense for budget computers where you won’t be doing much more than Web-browsing and basic media consumption, but any more than that, and you’ll want at least 8GB.

Storage: SSD Between 128GB & 256GB

Storage is exactly what it sounds like: Where you’ll store all your files and media. But there are different types of storage to consider, too. Once upon a time, the hard drive reigned supreme, but these days solid state drives (SSD) are your best bet. They’re faster, slimmer, and they don’t have any moving parts, which means that it’s far less likely that they’ll fail.

There is a big trade-off to using a solid-state drive, and that’s price. Solid-state drives are much more expensive than hard drives, despite the fact that they’re going down in cost. Still, we think it's worth buying one with SSD. And if you want to cut down on cost, you could get a laptop with a smaller SSD and some cloud storage (like Dropbox or Google Drive) as you’re not storing terabytes of movies.

Most will want to get around 256GB or more of storage if possible, though for those that don’t expect to store much media on their computer and are good at offloading files through cloud storage, 128GB might be enough.

Graphics Card: A Must If You're a Big Gamer

Laptops generally do away with GPUs simply because of the fact that most CPUs have basic built-in graphics processing capabilities, and because GPUs often 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, use social media, watch movies, use Microsoft Word, and other basic tasks, then a GPU just isn’t necessary.

Laptop Design: Display, Ports, Webcam & More

Specs under the hood have a big effect on performance, but the design may impact your work-flow, too. The design doesn’t just refer to how stylish a laptop is; it also includes the built-in ports, the display on the device, and any outside features. Here are a few design elements to consider.

Display: Resolution of at Least 1,920 x 1,080 is Ideal

The display of the laptop may or may not be important to you, but it can have a significant impact on the computer as a whole.

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 will be. Lower-end laptops probably have a resolution in the 1,366 x 768 range, but if you can afford it, it’s worth getting a computer with at least a 1,920 x 1,080 resolution.

Ports: HDMI, USB-A, USB-C & More

While the world is increasingly going wireless, the ports on your computer are still important to keep in mind. Most computer accessories connect through the USB port, whether it be the older USB-A shaped port or the newer USB-C (which are used for a range of different purposes, including connecting things such as keyboards and mice, external hard drives, and more). Plenty of new laptops do away with USB-A in favor of USB-C, which is smaller, faster, and reversible. Keep that in mind if you have older accessories and you choose to buy a laptop without USB-A ports, you’ll need to also buy adapters to use your older accessories.

Unlike USB, HDMI ports are specifically used for video data, and are commonly used to connect to an external display. Many smaller computers do away with the HDMI port, so if you plan on using a second display or connecting your computer to your TV from time to time, you’ll want to check and make sure that your new computer has one. Some, however, use a miniaturized form of the HDMI port called Mini-HDMI, but to use that you’ll need a special Mini-HDMI to HDMI cable.

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

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Webcams Are Great If You're Big on Video Chatting

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, and some newer models even have a pop-up camera built into the keyboard.

Webcam quality will probably be perfectly fine on most new laptops. In case you’re worried about it, any laptop with at least a two-megapixel camera or higher should be more than adequate.

Disc Drives Are Worth It If You Still Play DVDs & Listen to CDs

In recent years, laptops have done away with the disc drive since streaming has hit the mainstream. Still, some might prefer being able to play DVDs and CDs from their laptop, and if that’s you, you’ll want to look for a computer with a disc drive or buy an external disc 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, despite their rarity.

Other Features and Considerations

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

Weight: A Big Factor in Portability

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. That said, there is some weight variation, and it’s a good idea to keep that in mind when buying a laptop. For example, the lighter 13-inch laptops might have a weight of around 1.5 to 2.5 pounds, while heavier ones might range up to 3.5 to 4 pounds. Fifteen-inch models usually range from around 2.5 pounds to up to 6 pounds for a heavy gaming laptop, while 17-inch laptops can weigh anywhere between 4 to 10 pounds or sometimes even more.

Battery Life: 10 to 13 Hours is the Sweet Spot

Because laptops are portable, their battery life can have a big impact on customer experience. Battery size is measured in milliampere hours, but there are a number of different things that can impact how long batteries can last. For example, a small battery on a device with a smaller display may last longer than a device with a larger battery and a larger display. To make matters worse, laptop manufacturers often measure batteries under totally ideal situations, so when a manufacturer says that a laptop will last 10 hours, you may only get seven or eight hours of use. That doesn’t mean you should ignore those metrics completely though; it just means to take them with a grain of salt. Still, a rating of 10 hours is fine for most, while a rating of 13 hours or more is quite good.

Of course, how you use a laptop has perhaps the biggest effect on battery life. Streaming from Netflix all the time 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.

Touchscreens Are More Expensive

Touchscreens are commonplace on 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 if a laptop has a touchscreen.

Of course, there are major trade-offs to having a touchscreen. 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 touchscreens.

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Conclusion: Here's the Scoop

Clearly, there are many things to consider when buying a laptop, so if you're still a bit puzzled, here's a quick recap. Ultimately, you should first decide on an operating system. If you end up choosing Windows, decide on a form factor, then come up with your budget and create a list of features that are important to you. There will most likely be a computer that fits your list of wants and needs (and then you'll have your clear "winner").

If you choose macOS as your operating system, you’re a little more limited in the models you can go for (you’ll have to choose between the MacBook Air, standard MacBook, or MacBook Pro).

Last but not least is Chrome OS, and there aren’t many high-end Chrome OS laptops available just yet, except for the Google Pixelbook. Other Chrome OS devices are a little more inexpensive.

When it comes to specs we recommend, there are a few things to look for. We think you should look for a computer with at least an Intel Core i3 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage. As an upgrade, an Intel Core i5 processor is a good way to go and will ensure your laptop lasts a little longer and performs a little better. Power users could go one step further and get a laptop with an Intel Core i7 chip — and there are Intel Core i9 chips, too, though the vast majority of people just don’t need to spend the kind of money required an Core i9 laptop demands.

Rest assured, no matter what you’re looking for from a laptop, there’s something for you and hopefully, with your new-found knowledge of laptop features, you’re now better equipped to find that perfect device.

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