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How to buy the best laptop

Whether you like Windows PCs or Macs, family size or ultraportable, there's a suitable notebook computer out there for everybody.

woman with laptop typing

When you're shopping for a laptop, it's important to remember that it's more than just the size that counts. 

But finding the right model to suit your needs and price range isn't easy, which is where we come in.

Laptop types

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.

Entry-level, mid-range or high-end laptop?

Entry-level

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.

These low-cost laptops are relatively low-powered, but 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

If you want to take your laptop with you on-the-go a lot, you'll want something thin, light and easy to carry. Choose an ultraportable (including Ultrabooks).

Aimed at regular computer users, families, students and business people. Mid-range laptops 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

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. 

High-end laptops are 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.

Windows, Mac or Linux?

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.

What to look for in a laptop

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. 

The same goes for 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.

Screen quality

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. 

CHOICE tip: Choose a larger screen if you're planning on regularly watching TV or movies on your laptop. 

Storage space

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. 

Laptops can be difficult to upgrade, so choose a model with as much RAM or storage capacity as you can afford.

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. 

CHOICE tip: 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. 

Many laptops, especially slim-and-light ultraportables, may not allow you to upgrade internal components later, which means it's best not to skimp on RAM (memory) or storage capacity upfront. Look for upgrade options at time of ordering and spend a bit extra upfront on RAM to give the laptop a longer useful lifetime.

Cooling

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, as these can get annoying if you're using your laptop where the name would suggest.

Graphics card

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.

Power supply

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. 

Battery life

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. 

Don't get weighed down by lugging your laptop's power supply unit and cable with you. Look for a model with a long battery life and quick recharge time.

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. 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%.

Wi-Fi

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 current Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ac, recently branded as Wi-Fi 5. This is backwards-compatible with previous standards including the previously most popular 802.11n, but is much faster. 

The emerging standard for newer laptops is Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) which is faster and with much better security than Wi-Fi 5.

USB-C connectivity

Connectivity on laptops these days is all about USB-C, the new low-profile standard that's 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 USB-C ports will be either USB 3.1 Gen-1 (recently rebranded as USB 3.2 Gen-1) – which is rated at 5Gbps (gigabits per second), the same speed as USB 3.0. The faster (10Gbps) version of this is USB 3.1 Gen-2 (recently rebranded as USB 3.2 Gen-2)There's also USB 3.2 Gen-2x2 (20Gbps). 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 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.

USB-C is expected to become the dominant connection port, eventually replacing USB 3.0

Even if you don't have the Thunderbolt 3 version of this connection, USB-C is still preferable to 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, stick with the manufacturer's cables 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.

Laptops vs desktop computers

Total computing portability is enticing enough, but what other benefits can a laptop offer?

Energy use

Laptops typically use much less power than a desktop PC. They have a low annual running cost.

Size

A laptop takes 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 aren't clearly defined. So-called categories can be referred to as ultraportables, all-rounders, multimedia powerhouses, student/budget and gaming laptops.

Performance

Many laptops can match the power of mid-range desktop computers, even in the ultraportable category. 

There are several key performance factors you should consider:

  • 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 a starting point for a laptop or desktop computer, but these days 8GB is considered a normal amount. Tablets and other mobile devices may use much less if they're running on mobile operating systems such as Android or iOS. For laptops, having 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 (onboard graphics).
  • 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. 

Peripherals

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. 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.

Software

Most laptops can run the full version of Microsoft's Windows and some may have the option of using Linux (or you might download and install it yourself). 

Apple laptops run macOS (formerly OS X) and can also be set up to run Windows (using Apple's bootcamp utility to help with the installation). This gives you the ability to run either macOS or Windows each time you reboot the computer. 

Alternatively you can use a virtualisation program such as Parallels for Mac, VMware's Fusion or Oracle's Virtual Box software, to run one or more versions of Windows or Linux as 'virtual machines', in addition to the native operating system. 

Some Microsoft laptops and tablets run Windows 10 S, which is an optimised mode of Windows 10 designed to be more secure and power-efficient. 

However, it can only load programs that are available on the Microsoft Store online. Windows 10 S mode can be upgraded at no cost to the full Windows 10 but only once. If you do it, there's no going back. Most tablets run iOS or Android, which may not include your preferred programs.

Upgrading

Laptops have one notable drawback. Upgrading most laptop components is difficult (and in most cases impossible for the average person), as the slim body leaves no room for adding extra components. Plus, 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.

So once you're ready to buy, go for the most RAM and storage that you can afford. 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. 

Can your tablet be your laptop and your desktop?

A tablet that does double-duty as a laptop is great, but what about a tablet that does triple-duty as a desktop computer also? 

A good example is the Samsung Galaxy Tab S4, which is the first Android tablet  to come with DeX built in, which makes it amazingly versatile.

The idea is you add a monitor and mouse to use it as desktop computer. You can keep using the Android user interface on the tablet, with Samsung DeX on a larger screen. Or watch the monitor and use the tablet as a touch pad, digitiser, or touch keyboard.

DeX setup

Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 DeX setup lets you use the tablet as a desktop computer.

We tried DeX and found it to be a surprisingly useful feature, but you need a few bits and pieces to complete your desktop setup:

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