Laptop Buying Guide: 8 Essential Tips
Compact enough to carry with you, yet versatile enough to run demanding applications, a laptop is the best tool for doing serious work or play at home and on the road. While standalone tablets and smartphones are always popular, most people realize that everything from typing a research paper to crunching video or gaming works better on a laptop. And holding on to a 4 or 5 year old model won't cut it. So what type of laptop should you get?
There’s a wide variety of sizes, features, and prices, which makes choosing the right laptop a challenge. That’s why you need to figure out what your needs are. To make the right call, just follow these eight tips.
1. Pick a Platform: Mac, Windows or Chrome OS?
This is not an easy question to answer, especially if you're not familiar with both Macs and PCs. But this quick overview of each platform’s strengths and weaknesses should help.
Found on inexpensive, lightweight laptops such as the 11.6-inch Acer C720 and HP Chromebook 14, Google's Chrome OS is the simplest and most secure platform around, but can also feel a bit limited. The user interface looks a lot like traditional Windows with an application menu, a desktop and the ability to drag windows around. The main type window you'll be using is the Chrome browser and most "applications" are simply shortcuts to web tools.
Because it's mainly a browser, Chrome OS is unlikely to get infected with malware or viruses and, if you've ever surfed the web on another computer, you'll be right at home with the platform's look and feel. The downside is that there are few offline apps and those that exist don't always work well. However, if you need a device for surfing the web, checking email, social networking and doing online chats, Chromebooks are inexpensive, highly-portable and last a long time on a charge.
MORE: Best Chromebooks
Windows notebooks are generally more affordable than Macs (starting under $400) and offer a much wider range of design choices from more than a dozen major vendors. Unlike Apple, Microsoft and its partners allow users to buy notebooks with touch screens, as well as convertible designs that let you easily transform from notebook to tablet mode.
If you’re used to the Windows interface, but haven’t tried Windows 8.1, you may be in for a jarring surprise. The new OS has replaced the Start menu with a tile-based start screen and a raft of new full-screen, touch-friendly apps. However, Windows 8.1 still has a desktop mode for running all your existing apps and you can boot directly to it. It's also not hard, with a few utilities and settings tweaks, to add a Start Menu and make the Ui look a lot like Windows 7.
Some Windows notebooks provide business-friendly features, such as biometric and smartcard verification and Intel vPro systems management.
MORE: Best Ultrabooks
Apple OS X Yosemite
Apple’s MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros offer an easy-to-use operating system in OS X Yosemite. In fact, some may find OS X easier to navigate than the newer and bolder Windows 8.1. MacBooks offer iOS-like features such as Launch Pad for your apps, superior multitouch gestures, and the ability to take calls from your iPhone.
MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros also tend to outclass most Windows machines when it comes to industrial design and the touchpad. While Windows PCs offer more software choices, Apple makes it easier to find and install programs with the Mac App Store. However, Apple’s notebooks start at $899.
2. Choose the Right Size
Before you decide anything else, you need to figure out just how portable you need your laptop to be. Laptops are usually categorized by their display sizes,:
- 11 to 12 inches: The thinnest and lightest systems around have 11 to 12 inch screens and typically weigh 2.5 to 3.5 pounds. However, at this size, the screen and keyboard will be a bit too cramped for some users.
- 13 to 14-inches: Provides the best balance of portability and usability. Laptops with 13 or 14-inch screens usually weigh between 3.5 and 4.5 pounds and fit easily on your lap while still providing generously-sized keyboards and screens. Shoot for a system with a total weight under 4 pounds if possible. If you're willing to pay a premium, you can also find extremely lightweight systems with these screen sizes, including the 2.6-pound Dell XPS 13 and 2.9-pound, 14-inch Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon.
MORE: 13-inch Laptop Reviews
- 15 inches: The most popular size, 15-inch laptops are usually quite bulky and heavy at 5 to 6.5 pounds, but also cost the least. If you’re not planning to carry your notebook around often or use it on your lap, a 15-inch system could be a good deal for you. Some 15-inch models have DVD drives, but you’ll save weight if you skip it.
MORE: 15-inch Laptop Reviews
- 17 to 18 inches:If your laptop stays on your desk all day every day, a 17 or 18-inch system could provide you with the kind of processing power you need to play high-end games or do workstation-level productivity. Because of their girth, laptops this size can pack in high-voltage quad-core CPUs, power-hungry graphics chips and multiple storage drives. Just don’t think about carrying these 7+ pound systems anywhere.
MORE: 17-inch Laptop Reviews
3. Check That Keyboard and Touchpad
The most impressive specs in the world don’t mean diddly if the laptop you’re shopping for doesn’t have good ergonomics. Does the keyboard have solid tactile feedback and enough space between the keys? Is the touchpad smooth to operate or jumpy?
The mouse buttons should provide a satisfying click and note feel mushy You should be able to zoom in and out with ease, as well as select text with the touchpad without the cursor skipping around.If you’re shopping for a Windows 8 notebook, test the touchpad to make sure that gestures don’t activate accidentally as you get close to the edges.
In general, Apple and Lenovo offer the best keyboards and touchpads. Dell and HP are generally pretty reliable in this category, too.
4. Know Your Specs
Notebook specs such as CPU, hard drive, RAM, and graphics chip can confuse even notebook aficionados, so don’t feel bad if spec sheets look like alphabet soup to you. What you need really depends on what you plan to do with your laptop. More intensive tasks such as 3D gaming and HD video-editing require more expensive components.
Here are the main components to keep an eye on.
- CPU: The least expensive laptops on the market have AMD E Series or Intel Pentium CPUs, which will struggle to handle serious productivity or media tasks but can handle web surfing. Intel Atom processors are also low-performance, but offer long battery life.
Expensive tablet / laptop hybrids often use Intel's Core M CPU, which is faster than Atom but not as quick as the company's Core Series (Core i3, i5 and i7). If you buy a Core i3, Core i5 or Core i7, try to get the latest generation which is Intel 5th Generation (aka Broadwell) as of early 2015.
If performance matters, don’t settle for less than an Intel Core M for thin systems or a Core i3 CPU /AMD A Series for mainstream laptops. If you’re spending over $500, demand at least an Intel Core i5 CPU, which is capable of increasing its clock speed dynamically when you need more performance. Power users and gamers should settle for no less than Core i7 sytstem, preferably a quad-core chip.
- RAM: When it comes to memory, or RAM, even the cheapest notebooks have 4GB these days so don’t settle for less. If you can get a system with 6 or 8GB, you’ll be better prepared for high-end applications and lots of multitasking. Gamers and power users should look for 16GB of RAM.
- Hard Drive: For most users, a fast drive is more important than a large one. If you have a choice, go for a 7,200-rpm hard drive over a 5,400-rpm unit. Even if you have several movies and games on your hard drive, a 320GB should provide more than enough space, but 500GB or 750GB drives usually don’t cost much more.
- Flash Cache: Any Ultrabook and some other notebooks come with 8, 16 or 32GB flash caches you can use to increase performance. While not as fast as an SSD, a Flash cache will help boost load and boot times while allowing you to store all your data on a large hard drive.
- Solid State Drives (SSDs): These drives cost quite a bit more than traditional hard drives and come with less capacity (usually 128 to 256GB), but they dramatically improve performance. You’ll enjoy faster boot times, faster resume times, and faster application open times. Plus, because SSDs don’t have moving parts such as mechanical drives, failure is much less of an issue.
- Display: The more pixels you have, the more content you can fit on-screen, and the sharper it will look. Most budget and mainstream notebooks come with 1366 x 768-pixel resolutions. However, if you have the option, choose a laptop with a higher pixel count 1600 x 900 or 1920 x 1080 —always go for the highest res you can get. You’ll see more of your favorite web pages, multitask better, and have a better movie-watching experience. Full HD panels (1920 x 1080) cost about $150 more than your typical display, but are worth the splurge, especially on larger screens.
Some pricier notebooks even come with screens that are 2560 x 1600, 3200 x 1800 or even 3840 x 2160. Though most movies aren't available at such high resolutions yet, the picture will be sharper.
- Touch Screen: Windows 8 is simply more fun and immersive with a touch screen, but if your laptop is not a hybrid with a bendable or rotatable screen, you can probably live without it. Though you can get a touch screen system for under $500 these days, the difference in price between similarly configured systems with and without touch is $100 to $150.
- Graphics Chip: For the most part, an integrated graphics chip (one that shares system memory) will be fine for basic tasks, including surfing the web, watching video, and even playing some mainstream games. But a discrete graphics processor from AMD or Nvidia (which has dedicated video memory) will provide better performance when it comes to the most-demanding games. Plus, a good GPU can accelerate video playback on sites such as Hulu, as well as speed up video editing.
As with CPUs there are both high and low-end graphics chips. Nvidia maintains a list of its graphics chips from low to high end as does AMD. In general, workstations and gaming notebooks will have the best GPUs, including dual graphics on the most expensive systems.
MORE: Best Gaming Laptops
- DVD/Blu-ray Drives. Fewer and fewer laptops these days come with optical drives. That’s because you can download most software and download or stream video from the web. Unless you burn discs or want to watch Blu-ray movies, you don’t need one of these drives and can save as much as half a pound of weight by avoiding them. At this point, DVD drives are a safety blanket.
5. Decide if You Want a 2-in-1 or Traditional Notebook
Since the launch of Windows 8, we’ve seen a number of hybrid "2-in-1" laptop designs that double as tablets. These include the Lenovo Yoga Pro 3, which has a screen that bends back 360 degrees to turn into a slate and systems with removable keyboards like the ASUS Transformer Book Chi, both of which are even thinner than a MacBook Air.
If you like the idea of occasionally using your laptop in slate mode, a convertible like the Yoga is a versatile choice. But if you want the flexibility of using your device as standalone tablet, a detachable design is best.
6. Don’t Skimp on Battery Life
Even if you only plan to move your laptop from the desk to the couch and the bed or from your cubicle to the conference room, battery life matters. Nobody wants to be chained to a power outlet, even if there’s a socket within reach. If you’re buying a 15-inch notebook, look for at least 4 hours of endurance. Those who plan to be fairly mobile should shop for notebooks that offer more than 6 hours of battery life, with 7-plus hours being ideal.
If given the choice, pay extra for an extended battery; you won’t regret it. Keep in mind that some notebooks (such as the MacBook Air) feature sealed batteries that you can’t easily upgrade yourself.
To determine a notebook’s expected battery life, don’t take the manufacturer’s word for it. Instead, read third-party results from objective sources, such as Laptop Mag’s reviews. . Your actual battery life will vary depending on your screen brightness and what tasks you perform (video eats more juice than web surfing).
7. Plan a Budget
These days, you can buy a usable laptop for under $500, but if you can budget more, you’ll get a system with better build quality, stronger performance and a better display. Here’s what you can get for each price range.
- $150 to $350: The least expensive notebooks are either Chromebooks, which run Google's browser-centric OS, or low-end Windows systems with minimal storage and slower processors such as the HP Stream 11 (Intel Celeron, 32GB flash drive). Either one can make a great secondary or child's computer, particularly if you buy a lightweight 11 or 12-inch system. Chromebooks also tend to last a long time (8 hours or more) on a charge.
- $350 to $600: For well under $600, you can get a notebook with an Intel Core i5 or AMD A8 CPU, 4 to 8GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive, all respectable specs. However, at this price, most notebooks have cheap plastic chassis, low-res screens and weak battery life.
- $600 to $800: As you get above $600, you’ll start to see more premium designs, such as metal finishes. Manufacturers also start to add in other features as you climb the price ladder, including better audio and backlit keyboards. You may also be able to get a screen with a resolution that’s 1600 x 900 or 1920 x 1080 and a flash cache.
- Above $800: At this price range, expect notebooks that are more portable, more powerful or both. Expect higher resolution screens , faster processors , and possibly discrete graphics. The lightest , longest-lasting ultraportables like the MacBook Air 13-inch and Dell XPS 13tend to cost over $1,000. High-end gaming systems and mobile workstations usually cost uppwards of $1,500 or even as much as $2,500 or $,3,000.
8.Mind the Brand
Your laptop is only as good as the company that stands behind it. Accurate and timely technical support is paramount, which is why Laptop Mag evaluates every major brand in our annual Tech Support Showdown. This past year Apple came in first place, followed by HP and Samsung.
Support is only part of what makes a notebook brand worth your money. You also have to consider how the manufacturer stacks up to the competition in terms of design, value and selection, review performance, and other criteria. In our 2014 Best and Worst Laptop Brands report, Apple placed first, followed by Lenovo and ASUS.