Laptop Buying Guide: 8 Essential Tips

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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 to gaming works better on a laptop. So what type of laptop should you get?

LaptopBuying_Guide_leadThere'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 steps.

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.

Most laptops come with one of three operating systems: Windows, Chrome OS or Mac OS X (for MacBooks only). Choosing the right one is a personal preference, but here's a quick summary of what each offers.

Windows 10

windows_screenshotThe most flexible operating system, Windows appears on many more makes and models than Chrome OS or Mac OS X. Windows notebooks range in price from under $200 to several thousand dollars and offer a wide array of features from touch screens to fingerprint readers to dual graphics chips. Windows 10, the latest version of Microsoft's flagship operating system, provides a number of improvements over Windows 7 and 8, including the ability to switch between tablet and desktop modes, a revamped Start menu with live tiles and the Cortana voice assistant. While it still needs more touch-friendly apps for tablet users, Windows has millions of desktop programs available, including the full versions of the major productivity, graphics, video and development software.

MORE: Windows 10 Guide: Dozens of Tips and Tutorials

Apple OS X El Capitan

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All MacBooks come with Apple's own operating system, Mac OS X El Capitan. Overall, the operating system offers similar functionality to Windows 10, but with a different take on the interface that substitutes an apps dock at the bottom of the screen for Microsoft's Start menu and taskbar. iPhone or iPad users will appreciate iOS-like features such as Launch Pad for your apps, superior multitouch gestures, and the ability to take calls and text from your iPhone. However, OS X isn't made for touch, because no MacBook comes with a touch screen.

 

MORE: MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: What Should You Buy?

Chrome OS

chrome_screenshot

Found on inexpensive "Chromebooks" such as the Lenovo 100S Chromebook, Google's OS is simple and secure, but limited. The user interface looks a lot like Windows with an application menu, a desktop and the ability to drag windows around, but the main app you use is the Chrome browser. The downside is that there are few offline apps and those that exist don't always work well. However, if you need a device to surf the Web and check email, navigate social networks and chat online, Chromebooks are inexpensive and highly portable, and they offer good battery life.

MORE: Best Chromebooks Available Now

2. Decide If You Want a 2-in-1

These days, many PC laptops fall into the category of "2-in-1s," devices that can switch between traditional clamshell mode, tablet mode and other positions in between such as tent or stand modes. The 2-in-1s generally come in two different styles: detachables with screens that come off the keyboard entirely and flexible laptops with hinges that bend back 360 degrees to change modes. Most of these systems are much better at serving one purpose than the other, with bend-backs being laptops first and detachables offering a superior tablet experience. However, if you don't see the need to use your notebook as a slate, you'll usually get more performance for your money and a better productivity experience with a traditional clamshell laptop.

3. Choose the Right Size

LaptopBuying_Guide_display_3

Before you look at specs or pricing, 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,
  • 13 to 14 inches: Provides the best balance of portability and usability, particularly if you get a laptop that weighs under 4 pounds.
  • 15 inches: The most popular size, 15-inch laptops usually weigh 4.5 to 6.5 pounds. Consider this size if you want a larger screen and you're not planning to carry your notebook around often.
  • 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.

4. 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. If you plan to do a lot of work on your computer, make sure the keyboard offers solid tactile feedback, plenty of vertical travel (distance the key goes down when pressed, usually 1 to 2mm) and enough space between the keys.

LaptopBuying_Guide_keyboard_sLook for an accurate touchpad that doesn't give you a jumpy cursor and responds consistently to multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom. If you're buying a business laptop, consider getting one with a pointing stick (aka nub) between the G and H keys so you can navigate around the desktop without lifting your fingers off the keyboard's home row.

5. Pick Your Specs

Laptop Buying Guide 2014: 9 Essential Tips

Notebook components such as processor, 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.

Here are the main components to keep an eye on.

  • CPU: The "brains" of your computer, the processor has a huge influence on performance, but depending on what you want to do, even the least-expensive model may be good enough. Here's a rundown.
    • AMD A series or Intel Core i3 / i5: If you're looking for a mainstream laptop with the best combination of price and performance, get a Core i5. Core i3 is a small step down. AMD A series CPUs are less common, but promise similar performance.
    • Intel Core i7: High-end performance for gaming rigs and workstations.
    • AMD E Series or Intel Pentium/Celeron: Found on low-cost laptops. It provides just enough performance to enable basic tasks such as video viewing, document editing and Web surfing.
    • Intel Atom: Also found on low-cost laptops and 2-in-1s. It offers basic performance but more battery life than Celeron/Pentium.
    • Intel Core m3 / m5 / m7: Low-power and low heat allow systems with these processors to go fanless. Performance is better than Celeron, but a notch below Core i3 / i5.
  • RAM: Some sub-$250 laptops come with only 2GB of RAM, but ideally you want at least 4GB on even a budget system and 8GB if you can spend just a little more.
  • Storage Drive (aka Hard Drive): Even more important than the speed of your CPU is the performance of your storage drive. If you can afford it and don't need a ton of internal storage, get a laptop with a solid state drive (SSD) rather than a hard drive, because you'll see at least three times the speed and a much faster laptop overall.

    Among SSDs, the newer PCIe x4 (aka NVME) units offer triple the speed of traditional SATA drives. Sub-$250 laptops use eMMC memory, which is technically solid-state but not faster than a mechanical hard drive.

  • Display: The more pixels you have, the more content you can fit on-screen, and the sharper it will look. Most budget and mainstream laptops have 1366 x 768 displays, but if you can afford it, we recommend paying extra for a panel that runs at 1920 x 1080, also known as full HD or 1080p. (The difference is typically about $TK.) Some higher-end laptops have screens that are 2560 x 1600, 3200 x 1800 or even 3840 x 2160, which all look sharp but consume more power, lowering your battery life.
  • Touch Screen: If you're buying a regular clamshell laptop, rather than a 2-in-1, you won't get much benefit from a touch screen and you will get 1 to 3 hours less battery life. On 2-in-1s, touch screens come standard.
  • Graphics Chip: If you're not playing PC games, creating 3D objects or doing high-res video editing, an integrated graphics chip (one that shares system memory) will be fine. If you have any of the above needs, though, a discrete graphics processor from AMD or Nvidia is essential. 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.
  • DVD/Blu-ray Drives. Few laptops come with optical drives, because all software and movies are downloadable. However, if you really need to read / write discs and your laptop of choice doesn't come with a built-in DVD drive, you can always buy an external one that connects via USB for under $20.

6. Don’t Skimp on Battery Life

LaptopBuying_Guide_batteryIf you're buying large, bulky notebook that you'll use only on a desk near an outlet, you don't have to worry about battery life. However, if you plan to use the laptop on your lap, even if it's at home and or work, you'll want at least 6 hours of endurance, with 8+ hours being ideal. 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 our reviews.

MORE: Laptops with the Longest Battery Life

7. Plan Based on Your Budget

These days, you can buy a usable laptop for under $200, 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 $250: The least-expensive noteboo
    ks 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 and the Lenovo Ideapad 100S. Use these as secondary computers only or give them to the kids.
  • $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 don't have an SSD, a full-HD display or long battery life.
  • $600 to $900: 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 higher-resolution displays and entry-level SSDs.
  • Above $900: 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 the Dell XPS 13, tend to cost more than $1,000 (although you can get the Dell for less if you don't opt for a touch screen). High-end gaming systems and mobile workstations usually cost upward of $1,500 or even as much as $2,500 or $3,000.

MORE: Best Laptops Under $500

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.This past year Apple came in first place, followed by Microsoft 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 2015 Best and Worst Laptop Brands report, Apple placed first, followed by Dell and HP.

MORE: Best and Worst Notebook Brands

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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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138 comments
  • BIKASH KUMAR Says:

    I am an architectural student in india..I am doing AutoCAD , sketch up, blender, Photoshop, revit .. which laptop is Best for me under 45000/- ...I select 2 laptops please check this and let me know which is best for me...Asus R558UF-XO044T and hp ab125ax...

  • BIKASH KUMAR Says:

    I am an architectural student in india..I am doing AutoCAD , sketch up, blender, Photoshop, revit .. which laptop is Best for me under 45000/- ...I select 2 laptops please check this and let me know which is best for me...Asus R558UF-XO044T and hp ab125ax...

  • BIKASH KUMAR Says:

    I am an architectural student in india..I am doing AutoCAD , sketch up, blender, Photoshop, revit .. which laptop is Best for me under 45000/- ...I select 2 laptops please check this and let me know which is best for me...Asus R558UF-XO044T and hp ab125ax...

  • BIKASH KUMAR Says:

    I am an architectural student in india..I am doing AutoCAD , sketch up, blender, Photoshop, revit .. which laptop is Best for me under 45000/- ...I select 2 laptops please check this and let me know which is best for me...Asus R558UF-XO044T and hp ab125ax...

  • Sampad Chandra Says:

    I'm an Indian student going to study MBA.
    I'll buy a laptop for the first time within Rs. 30000-35000 (maximum).
    Reliability, durability, battery life,decent performance and good after sales services are my requirement.
    I'll be mostly doing MS Word, Excel,Powerpoint.
    Occasional movie watching.
    Would like to play FIFA 16 (in medium resolution if possible, else low resolution).
    Please suggest me a laptop sir as I'm very confused.
    Thank you.

  • diksha jaiswal Says:

    Thnx a lot....its really helpful

  • Goitom Says:

    Thankyou for your help. I found it helpful.

  • Buligadisa Says:

    how I use huawei on laptop for internet?

  • yonas tesfaye Says:

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  • Tekle Says:

    Thank u so much. It is real important.

  • kaushal sahu Says:

    this is really helpful besic gk to laptop buy.

  • Masiul Momin ZLG Says:

    Thanks a Lot.I Like This Helpful Article.Thanks.......

  • Ajay soni Says:

    I want buy a laptop for animation, vfx plz tell which laptop is best for me range 45000 - 50000.

  • rajkumar Says:

    I want buy a laptop for business. Plz tell which laptop is best for middle class business in best range 25000 to 30000 in best processer & 2gb & 4gb ram plz any body tell me fast

  • jatinder pal Says:

    I want know which is the best laptop with i5 processor for normal use like browsing , gaming ... & also tell me.. which is best company.. dell , hp or apple

  • Rishabh Todsam Says:

    Is there any better gaming laptop than lenovo Z51-70 Notebook (80K600VVIN) in your opinion. My budget is $1,084.61.

  • bukenyaivansparrow Says:

    i want a laptop which is the best in all kind of work used for like gaming,hacking,phone password unlocking,,,,,,but how can i chec it before paying it

  • Sonja Mack Says:

    Best. Laptop. Guide. Ever. I don't know a thing about laptops or what features to look for and this made it super easy! Thank you!

  • Shekhar Chhimwal Says:

    This is really helpful and act as a guide when supposing to buy a laptop.

  • Ron Corson Says:

    I would like to purchase a very good laptop. My price range is between $1,000 and $15000. Which model would you recommend please?
    Thanks

    Ron Corson (Moe), Victoria

  • Symon Says:

    Good stuff, eager to learn much more about laptops before buying one for myself

  • monroe Says:

    Good article but - "This past year Apple came in first place, followed by HP and Samsung.This past year Apple came in first place, followed by Microsoft and Samsung."

    What? Which was it?

  • Siddhant khartad Says:

    I want to know that which core is better for business and gaming in budget and which is better U, M, E, Q

  • Hannah the great Says:

    I agree Tom because this resource not only helped me but everyone that I know. thank you I now know what to look for

  • Tom Bentley Says:

    I miss spelt my heros name, he is actually called DJ Khaled not with an I, forgive me master.

  • Tom Bentley Says:

    I like this a lot, I really do. Be proud of yourself. I have come far and learnt a lot. A wise man called DJ KHALID once said 'I a preciate you, you loyal, win win win no matter what.' 'You smart, you very smart, we the best.'

  • Salman Says:

    I want to buy a laptop less than Rs.20,000/-.

    Please suggest me a good one.

    Am buying a laptop to develop a online shopping website which is my graduation project.

  • brukethio01 Says:

    its realy helpful tnks i was finding this kind of advice

  • anna15 Says:

    Thanks for this useful information! Now I want to buy ultrabook. What can you say about Dell XPS 13-9343 Ultrabook or HP EliteBook Folio 9480m Ultrabook? I like these models but I can't make my choice between them. I read at the topreviews.best that these models are the best ultrabooks

  • Bryan Says:

    Thats an awesome buying guide of a laptop

  • Timothy Says:

    Excellent nuts and blots article on buying a new laptop. Well done!

  • sheela Says:

    Very helpful. Worth sharing. 👍

  • Hildah Says:

    Very useful information, thanks

  • Angela Davis Says:

    Thank you so much for your tutorial on purchasing laptops. The one I have is about 7-8 yrs and I really didn't know what to look for with laptops but knew I needed a new one. Thanks again!

  • Laurielle Chabeaux Says:

    Thanks so much for all the helpful advice.
    I'm in the market for new laptop( mine now 7 yrs old and has been terrific )Unfortunately can't be updated.
    I have been advised that I don't need a cd burner etc being very outdated by i- tunes.

  • Sanjit mahato Says:

    Very Helpfull information for new laptop buyer...

  • sadik_the_gold_fish Says:

    Thanks a lot,,,,Sir.
    It's very useful for all buyer....
    #sadik_the_gold_fish

  • reagan Says:

    Good note...it has help me somehow but I need to know more....because I nid a good laptop for my studies and business..... So can I get any help please

  • Sushan rai Says:

    Very helpful information, this really provides me knowledge about all kinds of laptop.
    Thank u

  • Ali M. Hussein Says:

    Dear Sir
    Thank you for this useful
    inormation .Can you inform us about best laptop for student please.
    Thank you.

  • Mohandas N Says:

    The page was verymuch useful and informatic one .Thanks a lot

  • Sawal Says:

    Really sir, it's excellent for a buyer to know what should be done before buying a laptop

  • Dinesh Says:

    Dear sir,
    I want to know
    Is online buying of laptop is safe & reliable?

  • Cesar Says:

    ILL tell you what if people are still looking for the perfect answer? Then here we go. The best answer is the what i haven been using for two years already only for the internet use and store a few files and stuff like that.The chromebook is the fastest for web browsing 100 percent virus free check it out best and cheapest for web use

  • Lablonde ngoma Says:

    i,m not satisfied with the answer

  • G E STRANDBERG Says:

    Not your average user, 85, DOB 08/15/30. Used PC since U of W, Boeing, etc., got them. Review on DELL XPS 13 NON-TOUCH appealing. Currently have an Inspiron 17-R. No longer need Excel, etc. Due to physical conditions MUST now go to less weight. Married to mouse for same reason. Is it possible to use a mouse? (Have never had/used a touch screen.) Thank you. GES

  • Jolynn Paige Says:

    Hi, Avram -- This is a great article. I shared it on Twitter and Google+.

    We are a family owned business out of Traverse City, MI, and we specialize in custom cut screen protectors for all types of devices. Our nitch is we're not a big-box, and we offer really excellent customer service, plus great products.

    Can you help us with getting some of our protectors reviewed? Who would I talk to?

    I, too, am an English major (Michigan State).

    Be well, and thank you!

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  • Thomas Says:

    Well not OSX.... I bought a macbook in 2014 and it was the worst computing mistake i think i have ever made. I got my last PC custom built from here http://bluegeckouk.co.uk/custom-pc-builder and had windows installed on it. I've been toying with the idea of Ubuntu? But im not too sure.... give me your reasons for and your reasons against. I do allot of database work and allot of photoshop work.... I know theres GIMP but its just not the same i dont think :(

  • nevada Says:

    gooooood

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