Laptop buying guide: 8 essential tips to know before you buy

Dell XPS 13 OLED on an outdoor table with the logo on the lid facing the camera
(Image credit: Future)

Laptops are compact enough to carry with you, yet powerful enough to run demanding applications. Notebooks are the best tool for doing serious work or play whether you're at home, on the road, or in a college classroom. For those reasons, we've compiled lists of the best business laptops and best college laptops, not to mention our best laptops for most users. 

While tablets and smartphones are always popular, most people realize that when it comes to tasks like typing a research paper or producing videos or gaming it all just works better on a laptop. So how do you know what to look for in a laptop? Well, we've put together this laptop buying guide to help answer that question for you.

Laptops come in a wide variety of sizes, features, and prices, which makes choosing the best laptop a challenge. That's why you need to figure out what your needs are. 

Quick tips

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  • 12.5 to 14-inch screens offer the best balance between usability and portability. Larger screens are fine if you don't travel much and smaller models are great for kids.
  • If you're spending over $600, shoot for these minimum specs: 
    • CPU: Core i5 or Ryzen 5 
    • Screen: 1920 x 1080 IPS
    • RAM: 8GB 
    • Storage: SSD instead of a hard drive
  • 9+ hours of battery life in our test is ideal if you plan to take your laptop anywhere.
  • Consider a 2-in-1 laptop (either a convertible or detachable) if you want to use your laptop as a tablet. If not, a standard clamshell notebook may be a better choice.
  • Chromebooks are ideal for kids and students or as secondary laptops, but their functionality keeps growing. Windows 11 laptops and MacBooks both offer plenty of functionality; which platform you prefer is a matter of personal taste.

1. Pick a platform: Windows 11 vs. macOS vs. Chrome OS?

Depending on your needs this could be an easy choice, but if you don't have any existing loyalties to a platform or specific software that you need this can be a challenging question to answer. If you are in that latter camp here's a quick overview of each platform’s strengths and weaknesses to help you decide.

Most laptops come with one of three operating systems: Windows, Chrome OS, or macOS (for MacBooks only). 

Windows 11 (or Windows 10)

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

The most flexible operating system, Windows 11, runs on more laptop models than Chrome OS or macOS. Windows notebooks range in price from under $150 to several thousand dollars and offer a wide array of features from touch screens to fingerprint readers to dual graphics chips. Windows 11, the latest version of Microsoft's flagship operating system, provides a number of improvements over Windows 10, including the revised interface, the new Microsoft Store, handy features like Snap View.

Since its launch in October 2021, Windows 11 has also added a host of improvements, including Focus Sessions and a Do Not Disturb mode. The 22H2 update also came with notable performance and battery optimization enhancements. Windows 11 laptops are great for students, researchers, and business users, and they're still the only gaming laptops anyone should consider. 

Apple macOS

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All MacBooks come with Apple's latest desktop operating system, macOS Ventura. Overall, the operating system offers similar functionality to Windows 11, 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. Instead of the Cortana digital assistant, Mac users get Siri. They can also perform transactions with Apple Pay, take calls or texts from their phones, and unlock their laptops with an Apple Watch. 

However, macOS isn't made for touch, because no MacBook comes with a touch screen. While Apple did bring iPad apps to its laptops starting with macOS Big Sur  (iPad and iPadOS apps can run natively on M1 and M2 Macs), you have to rely on a touchpad or mouse to navigate them. Ventura also brought Apple's Stage Manager for handling multitasking, which is a useful feature, although it can take time to adjust to it.

Chrome OS

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Found on inexpensive Chromebooks such as the Samsung Chromebook 3. Google's OS is simple and secure, but more limited than Windows or macOS. The user interface looks a lot like Windows with an application menu, a desktop, and the ability to drag windows around, but the primary focus is still the Chrome browser. While newer Chromebooks, like the Lenovo IdeaPad Duet 5 Chromebook can run Android apps, they still aren't always optimized for use in a laptop form factor.

If you need a device to surf the Web and check email, navigate social networks and chat online, Chromebooks are highly portable and tend to offer good battery life at low prices. They are also extremely popular with schools, parents, and increasingly businesses because they are hard to infect with malware. For educational use, they offer something closer to a full laptop experience and are more functional than most tablets. If you need a Chromebook, look for one with at least 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. A screen with a 1920 x 1080 resolution is preferred and you can now find 4K and OLED models, like the aforementioned IdeaPad Duet 5.

2. Decide if you want a 2-in-1

Many PC laptops fall into the category of 2-in-1 laptops, hybrid devices that can switch between traditional clamshell mode, tablet mode and other positions in between such as tent or stand modes. 2-in-1s generally come in two different styles: detachables with screens that come off the keyboard entirely and convertible 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 convertibles 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 with a traditional clamshell laptop.

3. Choose the right size

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 to 3 pounds.
  • 13 to 14 inches: Provides the best balance of portability and usability, particularly if you get a laptop that weighs under 3.5 pounds.
  • 15 to 16 inches: The most popular size, 15-inch laptops usually weigh 3.5 to 5.5 pounds. Consider this size if you want a larger screen and you're not planning to carry your notebook around often. 
  • 17 inches: If your laptop stays on your desk all day every day, a 17-inch laptop 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 key travel (the distance the key goes down when pressed, usually 1 to 2mm) and enough space between the keys. If you're buying a Windows laptop, be sure it has Precision touchpad drivers. 

(Image credit: Phillip Tracy/Laptop Mag)

Look 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

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.

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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:

  • Intel 12th Gen CPUs: Intel's 12th Gen Alder Lake processors power the current generation of laptops. To summarize, Alder Lake — a 7-nanometer chip — offers updated integrated Iris Xe graphics with up to 5.5Ghz speeds as well as Thunderbolt 4 support. The Intel EVO brand sets parameters for top laptops, including a minimum of 9 hours of battery life.
  • Intel Core i9: Core i9 processors provide faster performance than any other mobile chip. Available only on premium laptops, workstations and high-end gaming rigs, Core i9 CPUs are only worth their premium price if you're a power user who uses the most demanding programs and apps. Typically feature 14 total cores.
  • Intel Core i7: A step up from Core i5, models with numbers that end in H use higher wattage and have between 10 and 14 cores, allowing for even faster gaming and productivity. There are also Core i7 P and U series chips that have lower power and performance. Keep an eye out for CPUs that have a 12 in the model number because they are part of Intel's latest lineup.
  • Intel Core i5: If you're looking for a mainstream laptop with the best combination of price and performance, get one with an Intel Core i5 CPU. Models that end in U are the most common with lower power and performance to preserve battery life while models with a P use more wattage, while still offering better efficiency than the H-Series. 
  • Intel Core i3: Performance is just a step below Core i5 and so is the price. If you can step up to a Core i5, we recommend it.
  • Intel Xeon: Extremely powerful and expensive processors for large mobile workstations. If you do professional-grade engineering, 3D modeling or video editing, you might want a Xeon, but you won't get good battery life or a light laptop. 
  • Intel Pentium / Celeron: Still found in sub $400 laptops, these chips offer the slowest performance, but can do if your main tasks are web surfing and light document editing. If you can pay more to get a Core i3 or i5, you'd be better off.
  • Intel Core m / Core i5 / i7 "Y Series:" Low-power and low heat allow systems with these processors to go fanless. Performance is better than Celeron, but a notch below regular Core U series.
  • AMD Ryzen 5000 and 6000: A new set of chips that are designed to compete with Intel Core i5 and Core i7. We've found Ryzen 5000 and 6000 chips to be equal to or better than their equivalent Intel Core competition. Not only do you get great performance and endurance but Ryzen-equipped laptops tend to be cheaper than their Intel counterparts.
  • AMD A, FX or E Series: Found on low-cost laptops, AMD's processors -- the company calls them APUs rather than CPUs --  provide decent performance for the money that's good enough for web surfing, media viewing and productivity.
  • Apple M1 and M2: Apple's custom silicon, the ARM-based M1 and M2 chips crush the competition when it comes to a balance of raw performance and endurance. 

How to know how much RAM you have

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RAM: Some sub-$250 laptops come with only 4GB of RAM, but ideally you want at least 8GB on even a budget system and 16GB if you can spend just a little more. For 99% of users, 32GB is more than enough, while 64GB and above is reserved for professional power users or high-end gamers.

Storage (SSD): As important as 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.

Asus Zenbook 17 Fold OLED review: Watch the future of laptops unfold

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Display: The more pixels you have, the more content you can fit on-screen, and the sharper it will look. Sadly, some budget laptops still 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. Higher-end laptops have screens that are 2560 x 1600, 3200 x 1800, or even 3840 x 2160 (4K), which all look sharp but consume more power, lowering your battery life. 

Display quality is about much more than resolution. IPS panels range in color and brightness, so read our reviews to find out if the laptop you're considering has a good display. We typically look for a DCI-P3 color rating of over 85% and brightness great than 300 nits. If you want the very best picture quality consider an OLED display or miniLED, but read reviews of these models carefully as there can be battery trade-offs. 

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 2 hours less battery life. On 2-in-1s, touch screens come standard. If you still want a touch screen, check out our best touch screen laptops page.

RTX 30 Series Laptops

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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, especially Intel's latest Iris Xe graphics. If you have any of the above needs, though, a discrete graphics processor from Nvidia or AMD is essential. 

As with CPUs, there are both high- and low-end graphics chips. Low-end gaming or workstation systems today usually have Nvidia MX450 or GTX 1660 GPUs while mid-range models have RTX 3050 or RTX 3050 Ti and high-end models have 30-series chips like the RTX 3060 or above. Nvidia maintains a list (opens in new tab) of its graphics chips from low to high end.

Nvidia's rivals, AMD, is Apple's vendor of choice for graphics cards, although you really shouldn't buy a MacBook for gaming. AMD launched the Radeon RX 6000 GPUS at CES in January of 2022. AMD also keeps a list of its graphics cards. 

Ports: While the absence of ports is usually not a deal-breaker when choosing a laptop, it's helpful to get the connections you need right on the system, rather than having to carry a slew of dongles. However, many mainstream laptops now only offer USB Type-C, Thunderbolt 4, or USB4 ports that are USB Type-C compatible. Having legacy USB 3.0 ports, an audio jack, an SD card reader, and HDMI can be useful, but depending on the type of laptop you are considering these features are growing harder to find.

With that said, USB Type-C is a definite plus because you can use it to connect to USB Type-C hubs or docking stations that can give you any combination of ports you might need.

HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Connectivity: If you need to use your laptop on the go, consider buying a 4G LTE laptop or 5G laptop. You'll have to pay for a data subscription plan, but this will allow you to access the internet away from a router. If you want a laptop with the latest and greatest connectivity options, find one with Wi-Fi 6 support. Wi-Fi 6 offers increased theoretical throughputs and a more stable connection than 802.11ac. 

We also suggest looking for a laptop with Bluetooth 5, the latest standard that offers improved connectivity with Bluetooth-enabled devices, like mice and headphones.

DVD/Blu-ray Drives: Very few laptops come with optical drives, because all software and movies are downloadable, though we've kept track of the laptops with DVD drives. However, if you really need to read/write discs we strongly recommend leaving this off the wish list for your laptop and buying an external DVD drive.

6. Don’t Skimp on Battery Life

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If you're buying a large, bulky notebook or a gaming rig 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 7 hours of endurance, with 9+ 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 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 and the Lenovo Chromebook Duet. Use these as secondary computers only or give them to the kids.
  • $350 to $600: For under $600, you can get a notebook with an Intel Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5000 CPU, 4 to 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD, all respectable specs. However, there are sure to be some trade-offs to hit that price. There are outliers like the Lenovo IdeaPad Duet 5 Chromebook or the Samsung Galaxy Book.
  • $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 SSDs. The Apple MacBook Air M1 is typically in this price range along with Asus ZenBook 13 UX325EA.
  • 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 Acer Swift 5, tend to cost more than $1,000. 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 Razer came in first place, followed by Apple and Lenovo in a tie for second place, while Dell and Asus settled for a shared third-place finish.

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 2020 Best and Worst Laptop Brands report, HP placed first, followed by Asus and Dell. We've also rated gaming laptop brands, with MSI taking first place and Acer and Alienware rounding out the top three. Look out for updated versions of those reports in the coming months.

Phillip Tracy is the assistant managing editor at Laptop Mag where he reviews laptops, phones and other gadgets while covering the latest industry news. After graduating with a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin, Phillip became a tech reporter at the Daily Dot. There, he wrote reviews for a range of gadgets and covered everything from social media trends to cybersecurity. Prior to that, he wrote for RCR Wireless News covering 5G and IoT. When he's not tinkering with devices, you can find Phillip playing video games, reading, traveling or watching soccer.

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