10 Key Features to Look for in Your Next Laptop

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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.

x1 yoga stand mode

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 2017, if you replace 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 / Thunderbolt 3 ports and 7th Gen CPUs, here are the key features you can get on a new notebook that your old system just can't match.

1. USB Type-C / Thunderbolt 3 Ports

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. Your old laptop probably has a few standard USB Type-A ports, but many 2017 systems come with USB Type-C ports which offer a whole new world of functionality. USB Type-C ports can carry data and electricity over a single wire, allowing you to power your laptop, output video to external monitors and copy files with just one standard cable.  Better still, all USB Type-C cables are reversible, which means that you never have to worry about plugging them in upside down. 

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. Because Type-C is an industry standard, you'll can use the same power brick with laptops, tablets and phones of different brands.

10 Key Features to Look for in Your 2016 Laptop

Some higher-end laptops also have Thunderbolt 3, which uses the same USB Type-C connector and is fully compatible with Type-C devices, but adds support for even-faster Thunderbolt peripherals. With Thunderbolt 3, you can power up to two 4K monitors over a single wire, transfer files with a portable backup drive at the speed of an internal SSD or connect to an external video card for gaming. 

MORE: Thunderbolt 3 Explained: Why You Need the World's Fastest Port

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.

10 Key Features to Look for in Your 2016 Laptop

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 Acer Aspire E 15 is available with a full-HD screen for just $349. If you're willing to spend more, you can 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 $1,599.

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 and Google Pixels, 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.

10 Key Features to Look for in Your 2016 Laptop

At present, there are only two laptops with OLED screen options, the Alienware 13 and the ThinkPad X1 Yoga. The 2016 versions of both laptops blew us away with their vibrant colors. Hopefully, even more OLED laptops will be announced in 2017.

4. Intel Kaby Lake CPUs

Intel, the leading PC chip maker, has recently upgraded its processors to a new generation. Code-named Kaby Lake but officially named Intel 7th Generation Core series, these CPUs are not only quite a bit faster than the one in your three-year-old laptop, but also promise significantly longer battery life and the ability to play 4K video. You can tell whether a laptop has Kaby Lake by checking to see if the processor serial number begins with 7 (ex: Core i5-7200U). 

5. 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.)

SSD vs HDD

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.

MORE: Why You Should Really Buy a Laptop With an SSD (Really!)

6. Nvidia Pascal Graphics

If you want to play modern games or use a VR headset such as an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, your three or four year old laptop clearly won't cut it. You need a gaming rig with one of Nvidia's Pascal chips. Look for a laptop that has an Nvidia GTX chip with a 10 at the beginning of its model number.

Ranging from the GTX 1050 on the low end to the GTX 1080 on the high end, Pascal chips allow you  to play AAA games at desktop-class frame rates with the settings turned up. Even the least powerful of these can handle high-end VR applications with ease. Don't even consider buying a gaming rig without Pascal.

MORE: The Best Gaming Laptops

7. 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-to-five year old laptop can't do that.

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1

MORE: Best 2-in-1s (Laptop/Tablet Hybrids)

8. 8GB of RAM or More

A few years ago, it was extremely expensive to buy a laptop with more than 4GB of RAM, but now 8GB is becoming standard on mainstream systems and 16GB is quite affordable in many cases. With 8GB, you can multitask a lot better, keeping dozens of tabs open in your browser while watching a movie, playing a game and editing email. If you have too many tasks open with too little RAM, your computer will slow down as it uses the hard drive or SSD as source of "virtual memory." 

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. Infrared Camera for Windows Hello

 Today, you can log into your Windows 10 computer, just by peering at the screen. This feature is called Windows Hello and, to use it, you need a laptop with an infrared or RealSense 3D camera built-in. When shopping, look for a laptop that lists one of these cameras in its specs or explicitly lists Windows Hello facial recognition as a feature. You can also use Hello with a fingerprint reader, but it's far less cool.

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Author Bio
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director on
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16 comments
  • Mike W Says:

    How about a list of PCs on the market right now that tick all 10 boxes (sorted by weight would be nice)?

  • Ringo Roadagain Says:

    USB 3.1 Type-C and high-res (S-IPS) screens are likely the most important things any person buying a new laptop should look for in 2017. Everything else can be upgraded as need arises.

  • DrZed Says:

    Dell just released the 2-in-1 13" here in Sweden. The base model has only 4GB of ram, which is outrageous for 2017! Plus this is supposed to be a professional computer. Really bad by Dell. Next step up is the QHD model, which comes with 8 GB ram but much higher price tag and less battery lifetime. So, really nice tech, made me interested, but ultimately killed it with stupid configs. I cannot be the only one angry about this!?

  • Ronnie Says:

    No one mention about the bluetooth 5?

  • Brandon Says:

    Not to be harsh, but everything here apart from OLED displays should have been minimum requirements at least 12 months ago.

    This is my personal 2017 list. Every new lapotp for my clients, family and myself will meet all criteria except for display quality, which is harder to predict .
    1. Display(minimum)
    13",1080p,IPS/IGZO/OLED non-reflective panel(doesn't necessarily have to be matt),320 nits brightness,1000:1 contrast ratio,90% sRGB coverage,40ms response time
    2. Keyboard(minimum)
    Backlit,either 2.2 mm or 1.1mm with great tactile feedback to compensate(e.g. Macbooks/Thinkpad X1,P/HP Spectre,Envy)
    3. Trackpad(minimum)
    Unless it's a Macbook, don't expect much
    4. DAC,Speakers(minimum)
    Unless it's a macbook/dell xps,alienware/Top MSI GT Series/anything with front facing JBL Speakers+bottom subwoofers, all pretty bad
    4. Build quality(minimum)
    Unless it's a top business laptop-Lenovo Thinkpad X,T,P/Dell Latitude,Precision/HP Elitebook,ZBook/Acer Travelmate/Toshiba,Fujitsu business series > or a flagship ultraportable-Macbook/XPS/MicrosoftSurface/Envy,Spectre/Asus Zenbook/LenovoYoga9XX/Razer Blade/SamsungATIV9,LGGram,AcerSwift), all same stuff,gaming-DellAlienware>RazerBlade>MSI>ASUSRog>AcerPredator>Aorus>GIGABYTE>Clevo(a.k.a Sager)
    5. Discrete GPU(minimum)
    Always NVIDIA 10 Series,gaming-GTX1060,multimeida-GTX1050 workstuff-GT1040
    6. CPU(minimum)
    Always Intel7thGen KabyLake,15W TDP(that means no core M,Y,atom,celeron,pentium)
    7. Battery Life(minimum)
    (regardless of display resolution or touch availability,either win10 or most recent OS X,wifi on,brightness 200 nits,Win10 battery saver always on,all background apps off,browsing chrome 6 tabs open,1 tab streaming 1080p video,another 1080p video playing on a separate media player)
    1)no dGPU+ULV-9hrs
    2)dGPU+quadcore(QC)+Nvidia Optimus-7hrs
    3)dGPU+QC+NVIDIA G-SYNC-2hrs
    8. Battery Capacity to achieve said battery life(minimum)
    1)13/14"ULV-56whr
    2)15"ULV-65whr
    3)13,14"QC-82whr
    4)15,17"QC-93whr
    9. Thickness/Slimness(max)
    1)convertible-17mm/0.67"
    2)ULV-22mm/0.87"
    3)QC-30mm/1.18"
    10. Weight(maximum)
    1)13"ULV/any convertible-1.3kg/2.87lbs
    2)14"ULV-1.7kg/3.75lbs
    3)15"ULV-2.1kg/4.63lbs
    4)13,14"QC+GTX1060-1.9kg/4.19lbs
    5)15"QC+GTX1060/1070-2.6kg5.73lbs
    6)17"QC+GTX1070/1080-3.5kg/7.72lbs
    11. I/O(Ports)(minimum)
    1)ULV/convertible-2xUSB-A 3.0(=3.1gen1),1xUSB-C 3.1gen2thunderbolt3,1xaudio,1xfullSDcardSDXC4.0UHS-II,Infrared(IR),1xMic,1x720webcam
    2)QC-3xUSB-A 3.0(=3.1gen1),1xUSB-C 3.1gen2thunderbolt3,1xaudiocombo,1xfullSDcardslotSDXC5.0UHS-II,Infrared(IR),1xMic,1x1080pwebcam,1xfullRJ-45,1xHDMI2.0,1xDisplayPort/miniDP1.4
    12. RAM memory(minimum)
    1)13,14"ULV"-if sodered, 16GB DDR4-2144 dual channel
    2)anything else should be 2 slots user upgradable, dual channel, have DDR4-2400 support with 32GB max total.
    13. Disk memory(minimum)
    user upgradable 1xM.2 2280 form factor with PCIe Nvme X4 support, if 2.5" SATA3 exists, it must support 9mm HDDs
    14. Wireless Card(minimum)
    either macbook's broadcom ac, Intel wireless ac WLAN 8285, WWAN 18285, or high end Killer AC wireless

    Non-mandatory features in order of preference
    5)removable/hot swappable batteries
    1)180 degree hinge for non-convertibles with durable hinge design e.g. mobile workstations such as Thinkpad P Series,Dell Precision 17 Series,HP ZBook 15,17 Series, less bouncy display for convertibles e.g. Lenovo Yoga910,Microsoft Surface Book
    2)extra security:touch fingerprint scanner,Intel vPro,RAID,TPM2.0,KensingtonLock,Expresscard,SmartCardReader
    3)ergonomic keyboard layout
    4)LTE SIMcard,gigabit ethernet port
    5)rubberized external coating for extra grip and ruggedness
    6)easy accessibility&maintenance for components such as display,keyboard,casing,fan etc
    7)OEM's docking station,nice warranty service,linux support

    Things that matter less
    1)bezels
    2)overall footprint
    3)fingerprint attraction
    4)design and feel

  • JuanSoto Says:

    In no particular order:

    1. Screen with a 3:2 aspect ratio
    2. Front-firing loud speakers
    3. Anti-glare finish
    4. Plenty of ports, loaded with ports!
    5. Comfortable keyboard
    6. Lightweight
    7. Looong (removable) battery life
    8. Privacy respecting Linux
    9. 2-in-1
    0. removable fast (ie, not eMMC) storage (128gb+)
    A. 8gb+ ram
    B. Fast, energy efficient CPU (m5?)

    Nothing here is outlandish.

  • blaisem Says:

    How important are Thunderbolt ports? Looking to buy a laptop that will hold the next several years, and wondering what role Thunderbolt will play, say 3-5 years from now.

  • Dennis beshir Says:

    wow its feels soo nise and educative i have goten in this site.

  • JOHNSON Says:

    good informative,helpful and relevant content. i like to consider these insights form your website while buying my new laptop thanks

  • Celestial Dunamisgold Says:

    This page is awesome.But i want the latest laptop in the market.Please can you help me?

  • Gloria Richards Says:

    I just purchased the inspiring 15, 3000 series last nite. Was on it for awhile this morning. Battery showed 100%. But, it now will not come on at all. Hit power button, totally not.

  • Tristen Says:

    This was very helpful for my school project

  • Rick Bedgood Says:

    Seeking recommendation to uphtade curreny laptop with qwerty keyboard. Price range 400-650. Dell, HP preferred unless. Current system
    Acer Aspire 5750
    Thanks

  • Bernie Says:

    Lame list for 2015, only good for 2014. A cutting edge computer needs to have USB 3.1 Type C. It should have Type C for power and for video out. A great new laptop would have at least two Type C ports.

  • grady harmon Says:

    A good article even if I already knew the info. provided.

  • Nicholas Cage Says:

    I appreciate this article, I found it very helpful :)

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