Which laptop should you buy isn’t a question with a clear obvious answer. No matter your price category, there are simply too many different types of laptops to choose from. More to the point, there is no single best laptop because there is no single kind of laptop user.
So when people ask us which laptop or laptop brand is the best, we don’t give them an easy answer. We give them a list. A set of criteria that everyone should consider before splurging on a new device.
When it comes to laptops, size matters.
Laptops sizes tend to start at 11.6-inches and go all the way up to 17.3 inches. Most brands and OEMS like HP, Dell, ASUS and Acer tend to offer three display sizes – 13.3-inch, 15.6-inch and 17.3-inches. However, some vendors do sell laptops that fall outside these sizes including 11.6-inches, 12.5-inches and 14-inches.
Obviously, if portability is your priority, you’ll want to go for a smaller sized Windows laptop. They tend to be thinner and lighter than their larger counterparts. Look for laptops that have a screen that is either 12.5-inches or 13.3-inches in size, and a weight between 1kg and 1.5kgs.
However, keep in mind that smaller-sized 13.3-inch machines often don’t support the same high-end Intel Core i7 CPUs or discrete graphics cards you’ll be able to find in their 15.6-inch counterparts. Most of the time, they’ll also feature a less-robust selection of ports. If the kind of work you intend to be using your new laptop for requires a larger display or standalone graphics power, you’ll probably need to look at a larger size.
Beyond specific sizings, there are several different classes of laptop to choose from. Ultrabooks tend to favor a slim and lightweight form-factor over high-end performance. Things like the ASUS Zenbook and Lenovo’s Yoga devices fall into this category.
Convertibles (also known as 2-in-1 laptops or 2-in-1 PCs) expand on this by adding the ability to fold away (or remove) the keyboard and use your new laptop in tablet mode. Products like Microsoft’s Surface Go and Acer’s Chromebooks fall into this category.
Finally, traditional clamshell and gaming laptops tend to boast bulkier form-factors but significantly-beefier specs.
The most important thing to consider here when looking for the best laptop you can buy is that you think about what you’re going to need that laptop to do. It’s rarely ever a case of one size fits all. Some users need something lighter and more portable. Other users need discrete graphics for things like video editing or running high end games. If you need a PC with an optical drive or long battery life, you’ll almost certainly have to look for something larger.
Regardless, knowledge is power. And once you’ve worked out the size of laptop you’re looking for, the search for the best one becomes that much easier.
2. Screen quality
Since you’ll probably end up staring at your laptop screen hours at a time, you’ll probably want to make sure you get a screen that is comfortable to look at and use.
To start with, you’ll have to consider whether you want your next laptop to have a touchscreen. These days, touchscreens are very common and they can make some tasks easier than others. Unfortunately, they can also add a glossiness to the display which is sometimes undesirable. Glossy screens lead to reflections, which are a definite negative if you’re gaming, watching content or editing images and video content. For these reasons, you might want to consider a laptop that doesn’t have a touchscreen.
Next up, be sure to look at the resolution on any laptop you’re thinking of buying. A 1920×1080-pixel resolution (Full HD) should be considered if you want plenty of space to line up windows and keep things in view.
Select modern laptops also now offer 4K resolutions. However, these high-end display panels are generally a costly add-on to an already-expensive product. They’re only really going to be worth it for those who really need them, like content creation professionals.
Photographers and videographers will also want to privilege laptops that offer better color accuracy and support wider color gamut and HDR standards over those that don’t.
Meanwhile, if you’re a gamer, it’s also worth taking the time to check the refresh rate on the display of any potential laptop. A faster refresh rate can often provide a sometimes provide a competitive advantage in online games, as it enables a smoother and more responsive play experience.
Lastly, viewing angles are extremely important. A laptop screen that touts IPS (in-plane switching) technology offers the widest viewing angles and the best user comfort. Chances are you’re not always going to be using your laptop in its natural habitat, so a laptop with an IPS display is usually preferred over the opposite.
If possible, take the time to go into a store and see the screen for yourself. Otherwise, rely on multiple reviews to get a good overview of the product and whether or not its screen will be able to suit your needs.
3. Keyboard quality
For long typing sessions, you’ll need to get a laptop that has a comfortable keyboard. You don’t want to get a keyboard that packs in every key under the sun (think keyboards that have squished in number pads) because that can translate to a poor overall user experience when hunting for specifics like the arrow or delete keys.
You want a keyboard that has a comfortable layout with full-sized keys and some space around the arrow keys. The keys should have adequate travel on the downstroke and snappy responsiveness when you let them go.
Make sure the keyboard is also backlit, so that you can type with an easier view on the keys in dimly lit environments.
As with the screen, it helps to try before you buy, especially if your main task will be typing.
It’s hard to go past any of Intel’s Core-based CPUs when buying a new laptop. Think Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7. An Intel Core Processor offer the best performance when it comes to multitasking and multimedia tasks. Core i3-based notebooks are generally found in entry-level systems, while Core i5 makes up the majority of mainstream computers.
Core i7-based systems are for those of you who want the best performance from your laptop. However, note that with a Core i7-based system, heat coming through the base of the laptop can be cause for concern, especially if you plan to actually use the laptop on your lap a lot of the time.
Some larger laptops also now incorporate Intel’s i9 Core processors. Laptops running on i9 Core processors are even more powerful than laptops running on i7 Core processors. They’re able to rival desktops for performance but they do come with a significantly-higher cost than a laptop with an i7, i5 or i3 Core Processor.
Select vendors now also offer laptops and notebooks that run on AMD’s Ryzen Mobile CPUs. If you’re a gamer, this can be a particularly compelling option worth considering. Ryzen Mobile CPUs tend to be paired with AMD’s own Vega graphics chipsets, which are currently far better for gaming than Intel’s own onboard graphics.
In the old days, you rarely needed more than 4GB of RAM or more to get the best out of your system.
These days, you’ll probably want to think about 8GB as a minimum. If you’re a power-user, 16GB is the way to go. Meanwhile, gamers should look at dialing things upwards all the way to 32GB if they want the best experience.
More RAM allows for more applications to be run at the same time, and for more data to be quickly accessible by the system at any one time, which comes in handy for tasks such as editing photos or video content.
Hard drives used to be all the rage, but these days they’ve mostly out of favour, especially for thin and light laptops. This is because they can be slow, somewhat bulky, and produce noticeable heat and noise.
A solid state drive (SSD), on the other hand, offers a lot more speed than a hard drive, runs silently, and can be installed in a form factor that doesn’t add too much to the weight and bulk of a laptop. As a result of these clear benefits, most OEMs have embraced SSD storage as the standard for laptops.
Stick to an SSD for your new laptop and you’ll love the speed with which it can load programs, access your data, and also how quickly it can boot up your system.
The only problem is that SSDs don’t offer as much capacity. This means that SSD storage is often more expensive in terms of dollars-to-gigabytes than traditional hard drives. You’ll be stuck with a drive that’s either 128GB, 256GB or 512GB in size, but costs a lot more than one with a 1TB or 2TB hard drive would.
To compensate, many laptop and PC OEMs now pair a smaller SSD with a larger hard drive. This allows consumers to get the speed benefits of keeping their operating system on SSD storage while also having adequate storage space for the rest of their data.
The newest, fastest laptops also have NVMe solid-state drives which are much faster than traditional SSDs but also more expensive.
7. Battery life
Manufacturer-quoted battery life is almost never indicative of what the real-world experience of using a laptop is like. There are simply too many variables that affect battery life. There is the screen brightness, the screen resolution, the number of applications you have running in the background plus whether or not you actively remain connected to Wi Fi networks or Bluetooth devices.
The operating system a laptop runs on can also play a major role in determining battery life. It’s for this reason that ultrabooks and convertibles running on Chrome OS tend to offer superior battery life than those running on Windows 10.
If you run programs that need lots of processing, stream lots of online video, play graphics-intensive games or if you transfer lots of files over a wireless network, then your battery will drain a lot sooner than what the vendor has quoted.
A good practice here is to look at the rating of the battery in Watt-hours (Wh) or milliamp-hours (mAh). The larger these figures are, the longer the battery can last. For a 13.3in Ultrabook, for example, a battery with a rating from 44Wh to 50Wh will give you the best results.
8. USB 3.0
These days, if a laptop has less than one USB 3.0 port on it, you probably ought to look at buying another laptop. Ideally, you should look for a laptop that has at least a couple of these USB 3.0 ports.
In addition to the baseline utility you get from USB ports (which allow you to plug in an external hard or SSD drive and backup your data or use conventional mouse or a fancy keyboard with your laptop), USB 3.0 is about ten times faster than USB 2.0. This means that data transfers over USB 3.0 take significantly less time.
Many modern peripherals also tend to deliver the best performance on or require USB 3.0 to function at all.
If possible, you should try and take things a step further and go for a laptop with USB 3.1 ports. USB 3.1 allows for a throughput of up to 10 gigabits, double that offered by USB 3.1.
If you’re ready to embrace USB Type-C, Thunderbolt 3 ports offer an even better option. Thunderbolt 3 ports have a peak data transfer speed of 40 gigabits per-second.
9. Fingerprint reader and TPM
Fingerprint readers are great for logging into mobile devices and the latest Windows 10 Operating System makes further use of them with its Windows Hello system.
People can guess your password, but few can fake a fingerprint. In order to keep the contents of your laptop secure, a portable PC with a fingerprint reader is usually the best way forward.
10. Build quality
No matter how careful we are, most laptops are inevitably going to find themselves, dropped, thrown and knocked around by the rigors of everyday use.
To counteract this, some modern laptops are ruggedised to withstand rain and dust. Some are built especially for the brutal educational environments – and come with military-grade protection certifications.
Others can weather liquid spills and can be rinsed clean. Either way, it’s worth checking out how much testing a laptop has undergone (the manufacturer usually crows about it) or whether there’s any sort certification that you can put your confidence behind.
Meet your needs and budget
Of course, you need to balance these features with your budget and your needs, and you might have to make some compromises. Rarely does a laptop come along that ticks all the boxes, especially when it comes to price.
Let us know in the comments below if you consider other aspects of a laptop to be more important (maybe you want better gaming performance or a rugged build, maybe you want a laptop that can turn into a tablet), and especially let us know if you’ve already found the perfect laptop for your needs.