Buyer's Guide - Laptops

There are a wide variety of sizes, features and prices, which makes choosing the right laptop a challenge. To make the decision easier, you may want to first figure out what your specific needs are and then choose the laptop that best fits those needs. To make the right call, just follow these tips.

1. What are you going to do with it?

  • Schoolwork/Productivity:  If your main goal is writing and editing text, manipulating spreadsheets and creating presentations, you will want a laptop with a good keyboard, durable all-purpose design, and a sharp screen.  Expect to spend anywhere between $400 and $800 depending on the specific configuration.
  • Gaming:  If you play high-end games, go for a laptop with a high-end Core i7 processor, top-of-the-line discrete graphics (perhaps even dual cards), a high-resolution screen and strong speakers. For the best performance, expect to spend over $1,000.
  • Creative Professional: If your coursework requires you to edit video, photos or illustrations, you need a laptop with a powerful processor, discrete graphics, a Solid State Drive (SSD) and a large and high-resolution display (full HD or higher). Expect to spend over $1,000.
  • Light Surfing/Email/Media Consumption: If you plan to use your laptop as an adjunct to your main PC, you can go with a low-cost laptop or a Chromebook that runs Google's browser-centric OS.

2. Choose the right size

Start by asking yourself just how portable you want 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 less than 3 pounds. (Many Chromebooks come in this size.) However, the screen and keyboard may be cramped for some users.
  • 13 to 14 inches: This size provides the best balance of portability and usability. Laptops with 13- or 14-inch screens usually weigh between 3 and 4 pounds and fit easily on your lap while still providing generously sized keyboards and screens.
  • 15 inches: The most popular size, 15-inch laptops are usually the most affordable and typically weigh 5 to 6 pounds. If you're not planning to carry your laptop around very frequently, then 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.
  • 17 to 18 inches: If you prefer the biggest screen possible, a 17- or 18-inch system could provide the kind of processing power you need in order to play high-end games or reach workstation-level productivity. Because of their girth, laptops this size can pack high-voltage quad-core CPUs, powerful discrete graphics and multiple storage drives. Just don't expect to carry around these 7-pound-plus systems often.

3. Know Your Specs

Again, what you need really depends on what you are going to do with your laptop.  More intensive tasks such as 3D gaming and HD-video editing require more expensive components.

  • CPU: The least expensive laptops on the market have AMD E Series or Intel Pentium/Celeron CPUs, which will struggle to handle intensive productivity, gaming or media tasks, but can handle Web surfing, email and social networks use.  To handle productivity most efficiently, you will want to look for nothing less than an Intel Core i3 or even better, and Intel Core i5 processor.  Power users and gamers should settle for no less than a Core i7 system, preferably a quad-core chip.
  • RAM: When it comes to memory, or RAM, most laptops have 4GB these days.  If you can get a system with 6GB to 8GB, you'll be better prepared for high-end applications and lots of multitasking.
  • Hard Drive/SSD: For most users, a fast drive is more important than a large one. Solid State Drives (SSDs) are becoming more popular because SSDs provide twice to three times the speed of SATA hard drive counterparts. However, SSDs are usually more expensive and come in much lower 128/256GB capacities.  If you need more capacity, go for a 7,200-rpm SATA hard drive over a 5,400-rpm SATA 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: Some Ultrabooks and traditional laptops come with 8, 16 or 32GB flash caches that can increase performance when paired with a traditional SATA hard drive. While it won't make your computer as fast as an SSD would, a flash cache will help boost load and boot times while allowing you to store all your data on a large hard drive.
  • Display: The more pixels you have, the more content you can fit on screen, and the sharper it will look. Most mainstream notebooks come with 1366 x 768-pixel resolutions.  With higher resolution, you'll see more of your favorite web pages, multitask better and have an improved movie-watching experience. Full HD panels (1920 x 1080)  will definitely add to the cost of your laptop.
  • Touch Screen: Windows 8 is more immersive with a touch screen.  However, touch screens add weight and make the machine consume more power than non-touch counterparts.
  • Graphics Chip: For the most part, an Integrated Graphics Chip (one that shares system memory) will be sufficient for basic tasks, including surfing the Web, watching video and even playing some mainstream games. But a Discrete Graphics Processor from AMD or Nvidia makes a huge difference when you're running intensive applications (i.e. engineering) or playing the most-demanding games. Such a processor will have dedicated video memory. Plus, a good GPU can accelerate video playback on sites such as Hulu, while also speeding up video editing.  As with CPUs, there are both high- and low-end graphics chips. 
  • 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.

4. Don't Skimp on Battery Life

If you're buying a 15-inch notebook, look for at least 4 hours of battery life. If you plan to be fairly mobile with your laptop, you should shop for laptops that offer more than 6 hours of battery life. Keep in mind, your actual battery life may vary from the manufacturer spec depending on your screen brightness and what tasks you perform (video eats more juice than Web surfing). Keep in mind that some laptops (such as the MacBook Air) feature sealed batteries that you can't easily upgrade yourself.

5. Check That Keyboard and Touchpad

Be sure that your laptop has satisfying ergonomics to best suit your needs.  Ask yourself a few questions to test this important quality: Does the keyboard have solid tactile feedback and enough space between the keys? Is the touchpad smooth to operate, or is it jumpy? Do the mouse buttons have a satisfying click, or do they feel mushy? How well do multi-touch gestures work? Can you zoom in and out with ease, and select text using the touchpad without the cursor skipping around?

6. 2-in-1 (Hybrid) or Traditional Laptop?

Since the launch of Windows 8, we've seen a number of hybrid laptop designs that double as tablets. These machines typically have a screen that bends back 360 degrees to turn into a slate, tablets that pop off of their keyboards, and laptops with slide-out keyboards.  In most cases, these devices don't provide a slate experience that rivals dedicated tablets or a laptop experience that competes with clamshell-only devices, but these devices do offer the option to be flexible.

7. Mac, Chrome OS or Windows? Which Operating System?

This is not an easy question to answer, especially if you've never considered making the switch from Windows to Mac or if you are new to the Chrome OS. But below is a quick overview of each platform.

  • Windows - Windows notebooks offer a much wider range of design choices, from more than a dozen major manufacturers.  Unlike Apple, Microsoft and its partners allow users to buy laptops with touch screens, as well as convertible designs that let you easily transform from laptop to tablet mode.
  • Google Chrome OS - If surfing the Web, social networking and email are your priorities, buying a Chromebook could be a solid choice. Google's Chrome OS provides a version of the company's Chrome browser in an online-centric environment filled with Web apps.  Keep in mind that Chromebooks have limited offline capabilities.
  • macOS - Apple's MacBook and MacBook Pro notebooks offer an easy-to-use Apple operating system. There's an iOS-like Launchpad for your apps, as well as interactive Notifications and Finder Tabs for improved multitasking. We also like the improved multiple monitor support. MacBook and MacBook Pro notebooks also tend to outclass most Windows machines when it comes to industrial design, the touchpad and display quality. While Windows PCs offer more software choices, with the Mac App Store, Apple makes it easier to find and install programs. 

8. Warranties

See this Extended Warranty Information for more info on warranties.