10 Key Features to Look for in Your 2016 Laptop
Up until around 2010, both consumers and businesses could be counted on to upgrade their laptops every three years on average, because technology changed so quickly that anything older than that felt like a dinosaur. Since then, however, that upgrade cycle has gotten longer and longer, and many users now have notebooks that are old enough to enter grade school. You can blame the economy or competing devices such as tablets, but in recent years, many consumers just haven't noticed a big enough difference between their five-year-old laptop and the shiny new ones on the shelf at Best Buy. Who wants to spend $700 to get something that's just a little bit faster than what they have now?
However, in 2016, if you have a laptop that's at least three years old, you will see huge benefits that go way beyond minor performance gains. From sharper, more colorful screens to longer battery life, USB Type-C charging ports and 3D webcams, here are the key features you can get on a new laptop that your old system just can't match.
1. USB Type-C Charging
Everyone loves USB, the ubiquitous connector that charges your phone and tablet, writes data to your flash drive and even connects you to helpful docking stations. USB Type-C is a new standard that can carry data and electricity over a single wire, allowing you to power your laptop, output video or copy files with just one standard cable. Not all laptops that have USB Type-C can charge off of it, but those that do will be able to take advantage of an entire ecosystem of standardized AC adapters, docks and monitors. Better still, all USB Type-C cables are reversible, which means that you never have to worry about plugging them in upside down.
2. Higher-Resolution Screens
In the past few years, most laptops came with 1366 x 768 resolution screens, even if you paid good money for them. At this rotten resolution, not only are pictures grainier, but not a lot of text fits on the screen, forcing you to scroll a long way to read Web pages or edit documents.
Today, you can find an affordable system with a 1920 x 1080 or higher resolution screen that will let you see more of your work at once while you're viewing movies the way they were meant to be seen. For example, the Lenovo Ideapad 300S is available with a full-HD option for just $529. If you're willing to spend more, you can even find laptops with 4K ultra-HD displays that output at a ridiculous 3840 x 2160. The 4K configuration of the Dell XPS 15 starts at $1,799.
3. OLED Displays
After staring at your smartphone, you'd be forgiven for feeling like your laptop's display is dull and lifeless. The best phone screens on the market, including the Samsung Galaxy Series, use OLED displays that produce well over 100 percent of the sRGB color gamut, making images on the panel look better than in real life.
They won't be commonplace for a while, but in 2016, we are finally starting to see high-end laptops with OLED panels, including the Alienware 13 and the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga.
4. Windows 10 Preloaded
Windows 8/8.1 was such a user-unfriendly operating system that many consumers avoided buying PCs because of it. However, with Windows 10, Microsoft's operating system is back on top, with speedy boot and wake times, an improved Start menu, a new ecosystem of universal apps and the ability to switch seamlessly between mouse-friendly desktop and touch-friendly tablet modes. While you can upgrade any Windows 7 or 8 PC to Windows 10 for free, it's much easier to buy a laptop that comes with the new platform preloaded.
5. Intel Skylake CPUs
Intel, the leading PC chip maker, has just upgraded its processors to a new generation. Code-named Skylake but officially named Intel 6th Generation Core series, these new CPUs are not only quite a bit faster than the one in your three-year-old laptop, but also promise significantly longer battery life.
6. SSDs (PCIe x4 a Plus)
Your four-year-old laptop probably has a mechanical hard drive. Solid-state drives (SSDs) are more than 300 percent faster, radically changing your entire computing experience. An SSD lets you boot faster, wake your laptop from sleep almost instantly and open your favorite applications in a fraction of the time. (Google Chrome and Microsoft Word, for example, open in less than a second.)
An SSD used to add $300 or more to the cost of a new laptop, but today, the drives are more widespread, and SSDs come standard in some sub-$800 systems. Some higher-end laptops come with PCIe x4 SSDs — sometimes called NVMe or just PCIe SSDs — that provide three to four times the speeds of regular SATA drives. Get a laptop with one of those if you have a choice.
7. Desktop-Class Graphics Performance
Gamers who want to play demanding titles have usually had to choose between getting the best performance on a desktop with a full-power graphics card and buying a gaming laptop with a mobile GPU. However, as of 2016, you can get a large laptop — the MSI GT72, for example — that comes with a desktop-class GPU. Or, you can purchase a smaller system that uses an external graphics amplifier with a desktop card inside it.
You may not even need a gaming laptop to get best-in-class graphics from an amp. Razer's Core amplifier will connect to lightweight laptops, including its own 2.75-pound Blade Stealth, via a USB Type-C port.
MORE: The Best Gaming Laptops
8. 2-in-1 PCs
When you need to send emails, surf the Web or get work done, there's nothing better than your laptop, with its keyboard and touchpad. However, when you're on the plane and you want to watch a movie, or you're in line at the store and you just want to check Facebook, you wish it were a tablet. A new generation of 2-in-1 PCs gives you the best of both worlds: a laptop that can fold flat for getting things done or detach its screen for a slate experience. Your three-year-old laptop can't do that.
9. 802.11ac Wi-Fi
These days, most new laptops are available with 802.11ac Wi-Fi, a newer wireless standard that gives you speeds that are three to 10 times faster than older wireless standards allowed, particularly as you move farther away from your router. To take full advantage of this protocol, you may have to get a new router that supports it, but 802.11ac-capable access points start at less than $100. Most smartphones released in the last two years have 802.11ac, so your handset would benefit, too.
10. RealSense 3D Cameras
While phones and tablets have gotten better and more interesting cameras over the years, laptop webcams have been in a holding pattern. Intel's new RealSense 3D camera uses two depth sensors in addition to its standard lens so that it can scan your face or capture real-world objects.
Most RealSense-enabled laptops, including the Lenovo Ideapad 500S and the Dell Inspiron 15 5000, have front-facing cameras that allow you to create a 3D avatar of yourself, perform complex gestures or replace the background behind your head, without the need for a green screen. However, a few newer 2-in-1s, such as the HP Spectre x2, have rear "world-facing" RealSense cameras that are great for scanning a person's whole body or getting all sides of an object.