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Laptop Buying Guide: 8 Essential Tips

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?

There'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.

Quick Tips

If you're in a hurry, these are the most important things to consider when choosing a new laptop. For a lot more detail, see the sections below.

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 MacOS (for MacBooks only). Choosing the right one is a personal preference, but here's a quick summary of what each offers.

Windows 10

The 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 $150 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 powerful Cortana digital assistant. Since its launch in July 2015, Windows 10 has also added a host of improvements, including the ability to use follow-up questions with Cortana, search your email using natural language and use your stylus to scribble almost anywhere.

MORE: 100+ Windows 10 Tips to Help You Master Microsoft's OS 

Apple macOS High Sierra

All MacBooks come with Apple's latest desktop operating system, macOS High Sierra. 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. 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.

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

Chrome OS

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 main app you use is the Chrome browser. The downside is that many of the "web apps" you use don't work particularly well offline. However, that's changing as a several Chromebooks, including the high-end, Google PixelBook, can now run Android apps.

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 and parents, because they are hard for kids to infect with malware and more functional than most tablets. If you need a Chromebook, look for one with at least 4GB of RAM and 16GB of storage. A 1920 x 1080 resolution is preferable but uncommon. Pay extra to get a 2-in-1 if you plan to use Android apps.

MORE: Best Chromebooks Available Now

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

Many PC laptops fall into the category of 2-in-1s, 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 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 with a traditional clamshell laptop.

If you decide you want a 2-in-1, note that bendables usually have far better battery life than their detachable brethren.  

MORE: Windows Detachables Have Big Battery Life Problem

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:

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.

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.

Here are the main components to keep an eye on.

If you want to save money, you can skip certain unnecessary features such as a infrared camera or Windows 10 Pro.

6. Don’t Skimp on Battery Life

If 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 7 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.

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 Acer and Lenovo. 

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 2017 Best and Worst Laptop Brands report, Lenovo placed first, followed by Asus and Dell. We've also rated gaming laptop brands, with Alienware taking first place.

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Author Bio


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.