How We Test Laptops for Review

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For well over a decade, Laptop has been testing notebooks in our lab to help you decide which ones rise above the rest. During that time, we've both adopted synthetic benchmarks and created real-world tests to give shoppers the most complete picture of a given laptop's performance.

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Today, we evaluate everything from speed and battery life to display brightness, speaker volume and system heat. We then use this data to determine a system's rating, combined with other factors like design, usability and value.

Below is a breakdown of all the tests we use to evaluate laptops and how we employ the results to compare similar systems before handing down our final verdict.

Notebook Categories

Each score is recorded and compared with the average scores of all notebooks in the same category. Those categories currently include:

  • Chromebooks
  • Budget Laptops: Under $400
  • Mainstream Laptops: $400 - $800
  • Premium Laptops: Over $800
  • Workstations: High-performance work laptops designed for 3D modeling, 4K video editing or other demanding tasks.
  • Entry-Level Gaming: Gaming systems under $999
  • Mainstream Gaming: Gaming systems under $1,999
  • Premium Gaming: $2,000 and up

Price ranges for the categories may change to meet current market conditions. Laptops will be categorized based on the regular price of the configuration tested.

Category Averages

A notebook's results on each test are compared to results from other systems in its category. The category average for any given test and category (example: battery-life test for netbooks) is calculated by taking the mean score from the prior 12 months of test results.

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MORE: 10 Laptops with the Longest Battery Life

General Performance Tests

These tests measure overall system performance in a single score, stressing the processor, graphics and storage drive.

Geekbench 4

Geekbench, developed by Primate Labs, runs on a variety of platforms including Apple and 32-bit or 64-bit Windows machines. It tests the performance and speed of each of the processor cores of the notebook, as well as memory performance. This test returns both a single- and a multi-core score; we only use the latter.

Excel Spreadsheet Test

We designed the Spreadsheet Test was designed to stress the CPU. During this test, 65,000 names are matched to their corresponding addresses in Excel 2016 using the VLOOKUP function. We time how long it takes the notebook to complete this task: the shorter, the better.

Video Transcoding Test

We use handbrake to convert a video from 4K to 1080p and record the time.

Sunspider Javascript

This benchmark, typically run only on Chrome notebooks, measures the Javascript performance of a browser. The shorter the time it takes to complete the test (measured in milliseconds), the better.

MORE: Laptop Buying Guide: 8 Essential Tips

Graphics Tests

These benchmarks measure the ability of a notebook to provide smooth video playback, gaming and other video-centric tasks.

3DMark Professional

3DMark Professional, tests notebooks on a variety of graphics-related tasks, including physics rendering, real-time lighting and heavy particle effects at 720p and 1080p resolutions. 3DMark Pro is better suited at testing a range of systems with three different tests — Ice Storm Unlimited, Fire Strike and Fire Strike Ultra — each more demanding than the last. For instance, Ice Storm Unlimited best measures entry-level machines with integrated graphics chips, whereas Fire Strike and Fire Strike Ultra are aimed at testing the most powerful dedicated GPUs. Most non-gaming laptops run Ice Storm Unlimited only.

Dirt 3

This low-end racing game runs decently, even on laptops with integrated graphics. We record the frames per second (fps) while running at medium settings and native screen resolution.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

On entry-level gaming laptops, we run this at low settings and 1080p. On mid-range and high-end systems, we turn up the special effects and test in both full HD and, if the laptop supports it, 4K.

Grand Theft Auto V

On mid to high-range gaming laptops (GTX 1050 Ti or above), we run the in-game benchmark at very-high settings and 1080p resolution then record the fps.

Hitman

We use this action-packed game's built-in test on mid to high-range gaming systems, running it at 1080p with many settings turned up.

SteamVR Performance Test

This test is designed to measure how well a laptop can handle headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Only run it on systems with discrete graphics.

Battery, Hard Drive, Heat and Display Tests

Laptop Battery Test 2.0

This custom test replicates continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi until the battery is completely drained. Starting with a full battery, a notebook runs a script that visits 12 different types of web pages in a loop, pausing for 30 seconds to 3 minutes before advancing to the next page. In order to ensure a consistent experience that isn't influenced by internet speeds, all the web pages are located on a local web server in our office. Content on the pages includes streaming video, webGL animations and straight text / graphics.

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The test is run with the screen at 150 nits (as measured by the XRite colorimeter), and the notebook's settings are tweaked to prevent it from entering sleep or dimming the screen. Our previous test, Laptop Battery Test 1.x, ran at 100 nits and visited 60 popular live websites for 33 seconds each.

Laptop File Transfer Test

During this test, a 4.97GB folder of mixed-media files, including photos, documents, videos and music files of varying sizes, is copied from one folder on the notebook's hard drive to another. We record the speed, and then convert the number to MBps by dividing 5089.28 by the time (in seconds).

Heat Test

To test the system's external temperature, we stream a video at full screen for 15 minutes, and then use a Raytek MiniTemp laser temperature gauge to measure the temperature (in Fahrenheit) of the touchpad, the space between the G and H keys, and the underside of the notebook. We also measure any other hot spots on the notebook.

In the case of gaming laptops, we play a game, such as , for 15 minutes, and then retake the temperatures in those same areas. We consider anything above 95 degrees to be uncomfortable and anything above 100 degrees too hot.

Display Brightness and Quality

To measure the brightness of a notebook's display, we enable the machine's high-contrast white background and then use an XRite colorimeter and the Dispcal app to measure the brightness of each of the four corners of the screen, as well as the center. We then average the five readings to determine the display's overall brightness in nits.

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We're using the X-Rite colorimeter for more than just measuring brightness; we're also using it to see how good a screen is at rendering colors. With the Dispcal app, we measure a screen's RGB color gamut.

RGB color gamut is measured on a scale of 1 percent to 100 percent; the closer a screen is to 100 percent, the more colors it can display in the RGB color space. Many laptops with colorful displays exceed 100 percent of the gamut.

Keyboard Test

We measure two metrics on keyboards: key travel and actuation. Key travel measures the difference in the height of the key from its resting state to when it is fully depressed. Thinner notebooks will have less travel (perhaps 1 millimeter), while gaming notebooks will have greater travel. Key actuation measures the amount of force, in grams, required for a key to depress.

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Generally, we prefer key travel between 1.5 to 2mm or greater, and an actuation of at least 60 grams, though we also judge by our own opinions of how it feels.

What Laptop's Ratings Mean

After we complete our lab testing, a product is turned over to a writer who spends a significant amount of time using the device, software or service. The writer and Laptop's editors determine a rating based on design, ease of use, features, performance and overall value.

We also take into consideration the target audience of a product, what it is trying to accomplish and how it stacks up compared to the competition. Each product is rated on a scale of 1 to 5 stars, with half-star ratings possible.

The ratings should be interpreted as follows:

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Our Editor's Choice award recognizes products that are the very best in their categories at the time they are reviewed. Only those products that have received a rating of 4 stars and above are eligible. Laptop's editors carefully consider each product's individual merits and its value relative to the competitive landscape before deciding whether to bestow this award.

 

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3 comments
  • Matthew Says:

    You guys really need to rework your judging system. High tab usage is in the realm of 250-300 tabs at once, and not 14, and I would like to see your laptop chooser program send 3d content editors towards quad cores and big graphics. Being someone who uses solidworks daily I can say that a proper gpu and cpu really really helps, and so does a long travel keyboard. I could care less about how thick my machine is, I do care about how good the trackpad is, and solidstates albeit nice, make almost no dent in the workloads that consume content creation for me.

  • steve Says:

    Re- Audio perceived loundess error:
    +3dB SPL is two times power, but not two times perceived loudness to a person listening..
    +3dB SPL is a barely perceptible loudness subjective increase.
    +10dB SPL is close to a subjectively perceived doubling of loudness.

    And, info on your test tone frequency & a quality factor would be interesting.
    cheers,
    steve

  • C Wutzke Says:

    I wonder if this spreadsheet macro test can be obtained or downloaded. I'd like to run it on my aging Dell E6420 with a i7-2760QM and see how it compares.

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