How to Choose Your Next Laptop

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When you shop for a new laptop, it can be a fun, yet oddly stressful experience. If you choose the wrong one, you’re stuck with it for a while. And nobody likes a slow, unreliable laptop.

You don’t have to settle, though. And you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a laptop that’s right for you. You just have to know what to look for, so you can find the perfect laptop to satisfy your requirements.

What to Look for in a Laptop

A woman looking through binoculars.
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There’s a lot you have to keep in mind when you search for a new laptop. First, let’s look at the different aspects of a laptop. Think of this as a cheat sheet, and feel free to use it as a refresher later:

  • Operating system: Windows laptops are all-around machines, and they’re available in any price range. MacBooks run macOS and are premium machines for Apple fans and professionals. Chromebooks run Chrome OS and are more suited for entertainment or browser-based work.
  • Size and portability: Small laptops are, obviously, more portable than larger ones. But super slim and powerful laptops can be expensive. Try to find a balance between portability and power, and take a look at some 2-in-1 laptops or Surface tablets.
  • Internal specs: We suggest laptops with a minimum of 8 GB of RAM, an i5 CPU (or better), and an SSD (they’re faster) instead of a hard drive. If you want a Chromebook, get one with at least 4 GB of RAM. Chromebooks also work best with Intel CPUs, but an ARM processor is fine for lighter tasks (like web browsing).
  • Display quality: 4K and OLED monitors are nice, but they’re expensive, and 1080p displays look just fine. Either way, make sure your display is around 250 nits and has a 60 Hz refresh rate.
  • Ports and drives: We recommend that your laptop include at least one USB-C port. USB-A ports, SD card slots, HDMI ports, and DVD drives are all a matter of personal preference. In most cases, a USB-C hub eliminates the need for extra ports and drives.
  • Battery life: Avoid laptops with terrible battery life. We recommend you look for one that offers at least four hours.

Now it’s time to get to the nitty-gritty. First, you have to figure out which OS you want as that dictates which laptops you can buy, and the specs you should focus on.

Windows, macOS, or Chrome OS?

The Windows, macOS, and Chrome OS logos.
Microsoft, Apple, Google

As you probably know, an operating system (OS) is the primary software that manages your computer. Each one has benefits and limitations, but not all operating systems will work best for you.

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each operating system, and why you might prefer one over another:

  • Windows: Especially good for gamers or professionals, Windows also works well for everyday work, homework assignments, watching videos, or browsing the web. However, you’ll also need an excellent antivirus as Windows is vulnerable to malware.
  • macOS: This clean, hassle-free operating system is ideal for artists, programmers, and professionals. It’s an especially good choice if you already own an iPhone or iPad. Just keep in mind Macs aren’t great for gaming, and a new MacBook costs about $1,000. If you’re considering a MacBook, definitely check out Apple’s handy MacBook comparison page.
  • Chrome OS: A lightweight operating system that’s perfect for watching videos, browsing the web, or doing web-based schoolwork. However, it doesn’t work with most professional software. Compared to Windows, Chrome OS works extremely well on cheap (around $150 or less) computers, and it’s lightning-fast on laptops in the $450+ range.

Now that you know which OS you want, it’s time to think about physical form and portability.

(As a side note, some laptops have Linux operating systems. It’s a fantastic platform, but it’s best left in the hands of programmers and computer professionals.)

The Best Chromebook

Google Pixelbook (i5, 8 GB RAM, 128GB) (GA00122-US)

The Google Pixelbook is a super-slim, 2-in-1 laptop with a ton of horsepower. It's Google's flagship computer, and one of our favorite laptops.

Physical Form and Portability

A MacBook Pro on a table next to its box.
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Portability and price go hand in hand. Ultra-thin and 2-in-1 laptops tend to cost a lot of money—especially if they’re loaded with high-speed CPUs and fancy displays. So, before you look at specs, decide what you want your laptop to look like.

If you want a MacBook, feel free to skip this section as all of them are incredibly thin. Likewise, if you don’t care much about your laptop’s size or weight, you can move on to specs and quality. If you’re undecided, though, here are some things to consider about laptop size:

  • Thick: These laptops tend to be relatively inexpensive, even when they’re decked out with powerful hardware. They also usually have multiple ports (USB, ethernet, etc.), reliable keyboards, and durable plastic shells.
  • Ultra-thin: They look fantastic and are super portable, but these laptops are usually more expensive. Some people also think thinner laptops have bad keyboards. Due to their limited size, they usually only have a few USB ports. They also can sometimes overheat when performing intense tasks (like a hard-core, 10-hour gaming session, not homework).
  • Small screens: Some people swear by machines with only a 10- or 11-inch screen. These tiny laptops work fine with Chrome OS, but Windows laptops with screens this small are almost always underpowered.
  • 2-in-1s: While these are convenient, we suggest you avoid the cheap models. Again, thin laptops are more expensive to make than thicker models. This means cheap 2-in-1s are usually full of unreliable components. Avoid Windows models cheaper than $400 and Chromebooks under $200.

Remember, ultra-thin and 2-in-1 laptops with great specs tend to cost a lot. If you want more bang for your buck, check out thicker, less portable laptops.

Now that you know which form factor you want, it’s time to think about specs.

The Premium Windows Laptop

Dell XPS 13 9370 Laptop: Core i7-8550U, 13.3" UHD 4K Touch Display, 256GB SSD, 8GB RAM, Fingerprint Reader, Backlit Keyboard, Windows 10 (Silver)

The Dell XPS 13 is a favorite among laptop enthusiasts. It's fast, powerful, and has a beautiful, 4K display.

Decent Specs

A laptop circuit board.
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A laptop’s speed and performance depends on its specs. While you might be tempted to get a cheaper laptop with shoddy (or random) specs, we suggest you look for something that will run well for the next few years. Just a little more cash can lead to a much more reliable, future-proof device.

Once again, MacBook fans have it easy. There are only a handful of different MacBooks on the market, and it’s easy to compare their specs.

People who prefer Windows or Chrome OS, however, have to put in some extra effort. To help, we’ve compiled a list of computer specs to help you choose the right laptop:

  • CPU (processor): The brain of your laptop, the CPU runs programs. It’s partially responsible for your laptop’s speed (or lack thereof). For Windows and macOS machines, an Intel i5 CPU or AMD Ryzen 5 CPU should work just fine. If you want extra horsepower, look for an Intel i7 or AMD Ryzen 7 CPU. If you want a laptop with Chrome OS, an ARM processor is fine for most everyday tasks, but an Intel processor will be snappier.
  • GPU: Most laptops have onboard graphics processors, which are fine for everything except hard-core gaming, 3-D rendering, or multiple-monitor setups. If you plan to do any of those things, then hunt down a laptop with a 3 or 4 GB GPU. If you plan to get a Chromebook, you shouldn’t have to worry about this.
  • RAM (memory): This is what allows your laptop to juggle different tasks. We suggest a Windows laptop or MacBook with at least 8 GB of RAM, or a Chromebook with at least 4 GB. If you plan to do a ton of multitasking, get a device with an additional 4 to 8 GBs of RAM.
  • Storage: Buy a laptop with an SSD. Hard disk drives are fine if you need to store a ton of data (and they’re cheap). But your computer will boot and load much faster with an SSD.
  • Battery life: There’s no point buying a laptop if it doesn’t have a real-world battery life of at least four hours. Manufacturers often provide the best-case scenario on battery life specs, so check some reviews to get an idea of what it really is. You can also search the name of the model you’re interested in with the term “battery life” on Google to get more info.

If you plan to use your laptop for resource-heavy applications, like gaming or 3D rendering, you should also think about thermal performance. Again, just search the name of the laptop you’re interested in along with “thermal performance” on Google. See if anyone has had issues with the laptop overheating during gaming or other heavy applications. This is mostly an issue with ultra-thin laptops, like MacBook Pro or 2-in-1s like the Surface tablet.

So, now, the hard part is done. You know which OS you want, you’re set on a form-factor, and you’ve got your specs lined up. Now let’s consider screens and ports.

The Best Overall MacBook

New Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 8GB RAM, 256GB Storage) - Space Gray

The 13" MacBook Pro is a shiny powerhouse. It's extremely thin and fast, and its Retina display looks incredible.

4K or OLED Screen?

A man's hand on a laptop keyboard as words like "4K," and "HD" float out of the screen.
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You’re going to spend a lot of time staring at the display on your laptop, so it’s worth it to make sure you like what you see.

It’s not the same as a TV, though. On a laptop, the latest and greatest display usually costs more than it’s worth. Unless you’re an artist or quality fiend, a basic, 1080p LCD should be fine. It’s not the latest technology, but it’s cheap, it looks good, and it works well.

Of course, the resolution isn’t the only thing. Here’s a list of things you should consider when it comes to your laptop’s display:

  • Brightness: Expressed in nits, this is what makes screens look crisp and pretty. It also makes them easier to see outside or under a glare. In general, a 250- to 300-nit display is ideal. Screens with more than 300 nits sometimes look washed out.
  • Refresh (frame) rate: Most laptops have a refresh rate of 60 Hz, and for most people, it’s fine. But if you’re a gamer, a 120 Hz display can make your games feel more immersive and immediate. Gamers should also look for laptops with G-Sync or Freesync tech, which eliminates choppiness and stuttering (this is usually a package deal with any laptop that includes an NVIDIA graphics card).
  • Resolution: Again, a basic 1080p LCD is fine. Sure, you can get a 4K display, and you’ll probably love how it looks—especially if you’re an artist. However, 4K displays are expensive, and manufacturers tend to reduce refresh rates to keep costs down. If you want a 4K laptop screen, make sure it’s also 60 Hz.
  • OLED: This type of screen doesn’t use a backlight. Instead, it controls a ton of LEDs individually, which leads to a high-contrast, super-crisp image. Gamers don’t tend to like these because the images look blurry at a 120 Hz refresh rate. For everyone else, though, they look fantastic! They’re definitely pricier than an LCD, though.
  • Touch screen: These are most useful on 2-in-1 laptops. However, you can always turn off the touch screen functionality if you don’t like or need it.

Now, which USB ports do you need on your laptop, and how many do you want?

Ports

A USB-C cable lying next to the port on a MacBook.
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Ports and drives add bulk to a laptop, so we encourage shoppers to embrace the “less is more” approach. All you need are a few USB-C ports.

USB-C is the modern standard for power and data transfer. It transfers video signals (like HDMI), audio signals (like a headphone jack), and charges devices faster than USB-A. Also, you can add a range of ports to your laptop with a USB-C hub.

Of course, it’s difficult to make the leap to USB-C right now. If you don’t want to use a hub, we suggest you look for SD card slots and USB-A ports.

Also, some ultra-thin laptops, like MacBook Pro, don’t have ethernet ports. If you need that, you might want to look at chunkier laptops or get a USB-C hub.

The Best Budget Windows Laptop

HP 2019 14" Laptop - Intel Core i3 - 8GB Memory - 128GB Solid State Drive - Ash Silver Keyboard Frame (14-CF0014DX)

For the price, this HP laptop is surprisingly strong and full-featured. It has 8 GB of RAM, a USB-C port, an SSD, and a big 14" screen.

Where to Buy

A man looking at laptops in a store.
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While you can just walk into a Best Buy and ask a clerk to help you find a laptop that fits your specifications, it’s a lot easier (and cheaper) to search online.

Most major laptop-selling websites have filters you can use to pinpoint the laptop of your dreams. We suggest you keep your searches broad and check a variety of websites for good deals.

Here are some websites that sell laptops:

  • Best Buy: The website is easy to navigate, and you can even schedule to pick up your laptop today at the store in your area. Refurbished and showroom laptops are also available at reduced prices.
  • Newegg: This company carries a wide variety of laptops (including refurbished models).
  • Amazon: Oh, of course. It’s hard to navigate the Amazon marketplace for laptops, but it’s usually full of great deals. We suggest you use Amazon as a price-checker.
  • Apple Store: This isn’t always the cheapest place to buy MacBooks, but the “compare” page is super-helpful to pinpoint the MacBook of your dreams.
  • Google Store: You can buy Chromebooks directly from Google. And while you can find them cheaper on other websites, Google makes it easy to compare different models.

Now you’re all set to buy your new laptop.

We suggest you check out a laptop in person before you buy it. This allows you to see the screen, feel the trackpad, and make sure the keyboard feels right. Most popular laptops are usually on the showroom floor at Best Buy or Walmart.

Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew is a writer for Review Geek and its sister site, How-To Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers. Read Full Bio »

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