Laptop computer buying guide
Whether you're a Mac person or you prefer PCs, you're into gaming or just need a portable workstation, there's a laptop out there to suit everyone's needs.
Finding the model to suit your needs
When you're shopping for a laptop computer, it's important to remember that it's more than just the size that counts. These compact, portable companions can pack a serious punch to match all but the most powerful desktop computers, if you have the budget for it, or lower-priced models can just be a convenient everyday mobile workhorse. Finding the right model to suit your needs and price range isn't easy, which is where we come in.
- What types of laptops are available?
- So which one should you buy?
- Windows, Mac or Linux?
- What to look for
- USB-C connectivity
Why buy a laptop?
- Energy use: Laptops typically use much less power than a desktop PC. They have a low annual running cost.
- Size: A laptop can take up much less space in your home or office than a desktop PC.
- Range: Laptops can loosely be classified into several unofficial categories of laptop, to suit a variety of needs, though these categories are not clearly defined. So-called categories can be referred to as ultraportables, all-rounders, multimedia powerhouses, student/budget and gaming laptops.
Many laptops can match the power of mid-range desktop computers, even in the ultraportable category. Key factors for performance include:
- CPU (central processing unit) brand and family (e.g. Intel Core i7, or AMD A-Series or the newer Ryzen chipset)
- CPU frequency (known generally as speed, measured in gigahertz, e.g. 3.2GHz)
- storage type – SSD (solid-state drive) is the fastest kind of drive. Unlike a HDD (hard disk drive) it has no moving parts. It is sometimes referred to as Flash storage. As with hard drives, the capacity and speed of SSDs can vary greatly.
- memory – RAM, or random access memory, is the temporary storage used by programs when they're running. Generally, 4GB (gigabytes) of RAM is considered the starting point for a laptop or desktop computer, but these days 8GB is becoming more common. Tablets and other mobile devices may use much less if they're running on mobile operating systems such as Android or iOS. For laptops, adding more memory may be useful for programs that can make use of larger amounts or memory, or for running more programs at the same time.
- GPU (graphics processing unit) – this handles much of the computational load in creating and displaying images, reducing the load on the main CPU. Some larger laptops will have a separate (discrete) graphics processor or card, while others will have a graphics chip incorporated on the motherboard with the CPU.
- Display screen – high-end laptops will usually have a high-resolution screen with at least full-HD specification (1080P - 1920 x 1080 pixels) or higher.
Laptops come with a screen, keyboard and trackpad built in, though you can usually plug in external devices to use the laptop as a desktop computer. Desktop PCs don't always come with these, so adding them on could incur extra costs. If you want to regularly use your laptop as a desktop PC then plugging in an external display monitor, keyboard and mouse may improve usability.
Laptops can run full Windows, macOS (formerly OS X) or Linux, giving you access to all the mainstream programs you need. Most tablets run iOS or Android, which may not include your preferred programs, while Microsoft's Surface tablet range runs the full Windows OS.
So, a slim and powerful laptop that you can take anywhere sounds about perfect, right? Well there's one notable drawback. Upgrading most laptop components is difficult and for the average person this may be impossible, as the slim body of a laptop leaves no room for adding extra components and many parts are built in permanently and not designed to be replaced. Some ultraslim models don't let you add RAM later on, as the original RAM is soldered on to the motherboard. You can usually upgrade the storage though, but that could involve a trip to the maker's workshop.
You're best to go for the most RAM and storage that you can afford at time of purchase. The easiest way to upgrade/expand the capabilities of a laptop is to add devices to it externally, such as extra storage, Bluetooth or Wi-Fi adapter plug-ins. If your laptop has USB-C, you may be able to add various devices via a USB-C adapter or hub. See USB-C connectivity, below.
Laptops tend to be classified into several groups. The terms 'laptop' and 'notebook' tend to be used interchangeably as a general description, but you can break these down into smaller categories, though they're not always mutually exclusive – for example, an ultraportable can also be convertible:
- Notebook (aka laptop): The general term for a full-sized laptop that strikes a balance between portability and functionality. These can vary greatly in overall size and specification – processor speed, storage capacity, memory (RAM) and screen size. They can vary greatly in price from low-cost budget models to high-performance productivity and gaming laptops.
- Ultraportable: Thin, light laptops designed for mobility (also sometimes called a subnotebook). Maintaining a super-slim profile means they have to cut out some features such as built-in CD/DVD drive and reduce the number of connection ports. The smallest models weigh about a kilogram. An Ultrabook (note the capital U) is a specific type of ultraportable, which meets specifications set down by Intel. Among their strong points is strong security and anti-theft protection built in at the hardware level. Although the MacBook Air is regarded as the inspiration for the Ultrabook class, it's not actually an Ultrabook.
- Netbook: Small, inexpensive laptops that run off the low-powered Intel Atom processor. These have been largely phased out, to be replaced by tablets, Ultrabooks and ultraportables.
- Chromebook: A notebook or ultraportable laptop that runs Google's unique operating system called Chrome. Chrome OS looks like the Chrome web browser and can only run apps downloaded from the Chrome Store.
- MacBook: Apple's laptop computers come in three families – the ultra-thin MacBook and MacBook Air models, and the high-performance MacBook Pro in 13-inch and 15-inch sizes.
- Convertible: These combine the features of a laptop and a tablet. They're also known as 2-in-1 laptops. They can quickly switch between touchscreen tablet mode and traditional keyboard mode, transforming in a variety of ways, including detaching, sliding, twisting and fold-back mechanisms. Most models now use the foldback or detachable screen mechanisms.
Within each brand's laptop family are usually several similar models that vary in power, capacity and a range of other features. Picking one that suits your needs can be a bit of a pain, though. Do you go for a budget unit with limited capabilities, a high-powered top-end laptop that can play the latest games without breaking a sweat, or something in between?
That's a question only you can answer, but first it's a good idea to narrow down how you intend to use your laptop:
- If you want a cheap laptop for basic tasks and occasional or lighter use and aren't overly concerned about performance, weight or battery life, you can find plenty of sub-$500 "budget" models that will do the job.
- If you want to take it with you on-the-go a lot, you'll want something thin, light and easy to carry – an ultraportable (including Ultrabooks).
- If you want something to give you all the power of a desktop computer while being transportable with relative ease, go for a multimedia powerhouse such as a gaming machine.
The categories of entry-level, mid-range and high-end models are not objectively set to meet specific criteria – in other words, they're a general description or broad guideline that can be a bit 'rubbery'. There is no official classification for these categories. In fact, the only official category for laptops is Ultrabook – a term coined by Intel for ultraportable notebook (hence Ultrabook) computers that meet specific criteria for various things such as size/weight, battery life, type of chipset (including built-in security features).
Here's a broad guide to the unofficial categories of entry-level, mid-range and high-end models:
- Entry level: These low-cost laptops are relatively low-powered, but quite capable of most general computing tasks like web browsing, email and general word processing. They can handle most basic multimedia tasks – like standard definition video streaming – and are best suited to casual users and younger students.
- Mid-range: Aimed at regular computer users, families, students and business people. Mid-range computers can run most software and games, but may struggle a bit with high-end functions like video editing and games that require fast graphics processing.
- High-end: For serious computer types that like to push their systems with intensive computing tasks like editing video and audio, 3D rendering and high-end games, these are obviously the ones to go for.
Ask a room of techies whether you should go with a Windows, Mac or Linux laptop and you'll start a heated debate that will go for a long time but nobody will win. All three systems have their good and bad points, but it's important for you to choose a side before you start, because it affects your software choices and possibly your hardware decisions too. This is definitely the case with macOS (formerly called OS X), which only runs on Apple's family of computers.
Here's a look at the pros and cons of each:
- Windows software has the lion's share of the market, with the widest range of programs available. Though Windows 7 is still popular on older PCs, new Windows computers will come with Windows 10, which is designed to work across a wide range of devices including tablets and which comes with touchscreen support built-in.
- macOS is designed to work specifically with Apple hardware, providing tight integration that offers advantages in ease of use and consistency across programs. Many programs for Windows have macOS versions and many macOS-only programs offer file-format compatibility with Windows programs (so you can open the mac version of the file using the Windows version of the program that created it). You can install Windows on Macs using macOS's built-in installer utility called Boot Camp. This will let you run Windows natively on the Mac hardware without any software emulation, to give you full performance. You can also run Windows OS and programs using virtualisation software such as Parallels Desktop for Mac, VMware's Fusion or Oracle's Virtual Box. These programs let you install other operating systems such as Linux. Whether you use Boot Camp or a virtualisation program, you'll need to purchase the Windows operating system separately.
- Linux is generally free, as are most Linux programs, and it can run on a wide range of PCs as an alternative to Windows. There are many flavours of Linux, with the most popular being Ubuntu.
In some cases, you may have to side with a particular system to use specific programs. It's a good idea to look into each alternative and spend some time with them all before deciding.
CPU (central processing unit)
This is the brain of your computer. The number of cores, processing power and price range is a good indicator of the overall level of CPU power on offer. Laptops generally use low-power-consumption CPUs for better battery life. Be careful in comparing the Intel family of CPUs with those from AMD – their main competitor – as quoted speed figures aren't directly comparable. Likewise with the sub-families of each brand – for example, Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 are increasingly high performance even at the same quoted figure in GHz; likewise with the new M series processors designed for highly mobile computers.
RAM (random access memory)
A lack of RAM will slow your computer when performing multiple or labour-intensive tasks, like image processing. Look for a minimum of 4GB (gigabytes) even in a budget system, but ideally aim for 8GB for most general-use laptops and 16GB for high-end models.
A small screen means a smaller laptop that's generally going to be lighter, but large screens are better for graphics, gaming or watching movies. More laptops aimed at the high-end market have a high-resolution screen with at least full-HD specification (1080P - 1920 x 1080 pixels) or higher.
Don't underestimate how much space you'll need. Make sure you have enough room for all your current programs and files, as well as the fast-growing collection of videos and music that most people now tend to accumulate.
If you want a lot of onboard storage, look for a laptop with a hard disk drive (HDD), with a 1TB (terabyte) hard drive as a starting point, but preferably double that. However, you may choose to sacrifice storage space for speed and go with a built-in solid-state drive (SSD) if you want higher performance. An SSD is much faster than a hard drive and having one can lift the overall performance of a laptop considerably, and thus extend its useful working life. If you need extra storage, you can always plug in a portable hard drive or a high-capacity external hard drive.
Many laptops, especially slimline ultraportable models, come with either a 128GB or 256GB SSD, though we consider 256GB the better starting point for a laptop these days. A major selling point of ultraportables is they are slim and light, which means it's best not to skimp on RAM (memory) or storage capacity upfront, because you can't usually upgrade later. Look for upgrade options at time of ordering and spend a bit extra upfront to give the laptop a longer useful lifetime.
Computer components can run hot, especially within the confines of a compact laptop case. Check for hot spots under the laptop after it's been on for a while, especially when working hard. These hot spots can get annoying if you're using your laptop where the name would suggest.
Many laptops will have the graphics processor built into the motherboard (called "on-board graphics"), rather than on a separate ("dedicated") graphics card. High-end models may have a dedicated graphics card which has its own video RAM.
Often called "the brick", this is the block and cord that you use to plug your laptop into a standard wall socket. If you have to take this with you for recharging, it can add considerably to the overall weight.
Having a long working time between charges is particularly important for an ultraportable. After all, they lose portability points if you have to also carry the power supply unit and cable with you to charge them. Ideally you want to have a full day of working on-the-go without having to plug it in, but this will depend on what else you have plugged into the laptop drawing power from it.
You really don't want to have to to carry the external power supply unit and cable with you. Our battery life tests look at both light-usage and heavy-usage scenarios, to give you an idea of the best and worst results you are likely to get, though for most people the average daily use will be somewhere in between.
If you intend to be mobile much of the time then a long battery life and quick recharge time is important, so we also record two charging times for each laptop, with the laptop switched on – up to 80% capacity and to 100% capacity. It's useful to note that charging speed usually drops considerably once you get past 80%. In some cases it can take as long or longer to get the extra 20% top-up as it does to get to 80%.
These days the Wi-Fi speed is important because fewer laptops come with a built-in ethernet port for plugging into your local wired network. If this is the case, you may be able to purchase a USB-to-ethernet adapter of the same brand or a third-party alternative. In either case, look for a laptop that supports the latest Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ac. This is backwards-compatible with previous standards including the previously most popular 802.11n but is much faster.
Connectivity on laptops these days is all about USB-C, the new low-profile standard that is becoming common on more models. A USB-C plug is slimline and easy to use (there's no 'right way up'), but it's appearance can be deceptive, as the same-shaped plug is used for several different standards – USB 3.1 Gen-1 and Gen-2 and Thunderbolt 3.
Most common USB-C ports you encounter will be either USB 3.1 Gen-1 which is rated at 5Gbps (gigabits per second) the same speed as USB 3.0, or USB 3.1 Gen-1 (10Gbps). But then there's the blazingly fast Thunderbolt 3 standard, which is nominally eight times faster at 40Gbps.
Most models will have the slower USB-C ports but high-performance laptops may have Thunderbolt 3 ports. You can plug a plain old USB-C device into a Thunderbolt 3 port but don't expect any increase in speed. Plug in a Thunderbolt 3 device, such as an external SSD, and you have the fastest connection in town.
Even if you don't have the Thunderbolt 3 version of this connection, USB-C is still a good thing to have, rather than just the old USB 3.0, because it's becoming widely adopted on computers and plug-in devices and expected to soon become the dominant connection port, eventually replacing USB 3.0.
One of the keys to USB-C's swift adoption is its versatility – the same port can transfer both power and data at the same time and it can also mimic a whole range of other ports – including USB 2.0/3.0, SD card, HDMI, ethernet and more – using a USB-C adapter.
However, try to stick with the manufacturer's cables where possible and avoid cheap third-party cables and chargers or you may risk damaging your computer and peripherals. Use only certified USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 cables.