Laptops offer the functionality of full-sized computers in a compact, portable package. But they aren’t one-size-fits-all. Buying a new laptop that’s great for streaming may not fill your needs at work, and if you’re a gamer, hunting for the perfect laptop can be a nightmare. Here’s everything you need to know while shopping for your next laptop, from the broad details to the nitty-gritty.
Table of Contents
- Which OS Should You Use?
- Portability Is Everything
- What to Look for in a Display
- Hardware Specs Simplified
- Port Selection
Which OS Should You Use?
Every operating system has its ups and downs. One might be ideal for gaming, while another offers exclusive software support for your profession or hobbies. Plus, each operating system occupies a select price range and requires a different set of hardware specs, which is why it’s important to pick an OS before you start worrying about details like RAM.
Here’s a rundown of the most popular operating systems, to help you decide which type of laptop is best for your needs:
Windows offers the widest software compatibility of any operating system, and it’s the ideal OS for gaming. When you need to run specific software for work or play, a Windows laptop is usually the way to go. Of course, most professional apps are also compatible (and may work better) with macOS, but Windows laptops cost a little less than MacBooks and can pair to your Android phone for calls and texts.
Bear in mind that the Windows OS is quite demanding and power-hungry. Entry level Windows laptops in the $200 to $500 range tend to have poor battery life and won’t offer the seamless performance of more expensive Windows machines. If you’re on a very tight budget, a Chromebook may be a better option, as Chrome OS runs fine on lower-end hardware.
MacBooks are expensive, but they come with some major perks. Not only is macOS better suited for creative applications than Windows or Chrome OS, but it integrates seamlessly with the Apple ecosystem, allowing you to text or FaceTime from your laptop or use your iPad as an external display. MacBooks also have great battery life and are fantastic long-term machines, often working for a decade before they need to be replaced.
But MacBooks don’t offer the vast hardware customization options of Windows laptops, and they aren’t suited for gaming (although some games are optimized for macOS, and game streaming can help you get around some limitations). App compatibility can also be an issue for hobbyists who like to play with specialty software, and while Macs work with most professional apps, those who use specific software for work should check that it’s macOS-compatible before buying a MacBook.
Average computer users don’t run demanding professional software, which is where Chrome OS comes in. Chromebooks are low-power, low-cost laptops that center your experience around the browser. They’re perfect for someone who spends their time streaming video, working on their company or school’s website, or using web-based applications like Google Docs, Microsoft Office Online, and Pixlr photo editor.
Of course, Chromebooks aren’t just a browser in a box. Chrome OS can run Android and Linux applications, expanding your repertoire of tools and allowing you to play games like Stardew Valley or Minecraft. You can also pair your Android phone to Chrome OS for texting with better support than Windows.
While a Chromebook might work well for casual computer users, students, and people who do all their work in the browser, Chrome OS won’t run a lot of professional or resource-heavy creative applications. And while game streaming works well on Chromebooks, don’t expect to play your AAA games offline.
Portability Is Everything
Laptops are supposed to be portable. If a laptop is too bulky or doesn’t have a great battery life, then you’re going to spend most of your time tethered to a desk, which defeats the purpose of owning a portable machine.
Here’s what to look out for when thinking about a laptop’s portability:
Weight and Thickness
A super thick, super heavy laptop is a pain to carry around, so you should find something that’s as thin and light as possible, right? Well, it’s not that easy. A laptop’s thickness and weight largely depend on things like port selection, battery size, storage space, and other features that may be important to you. Buying a laptop is a juggling act, and a big part of that act is finding a compromise between features and portability.
If portability is your priority, you should aim for a laptop that weighs 2 or 3 pounds and is 0.5 to 0.6 inches thick. All MacBooks and most Chromebooks fall in these parameters, so if you’re going for macOS or Chrome OS, the work’s already done for you.
But Windows laptops are a little tricky. The most popular Windows laptops are thin and light, but you may need to buy a machine that weighs between 4 and 6 pounds and is 0.7 to 1 inch thick if you want something with a ton of horsepower, like a gaming laptop with a dedicated GPU and a powerful cooling system. And if you’re shopping in the $200 to $500 range, you’re basically forced to buy a heavier laptop, as it’s difficult to make a reliable thin and light Windows laptop at a low price.
It doesn’t matter how thin or lightweight your laptop is if it has crappy battery life. I suggest looking for a computer with 10-hour battery life or better, although you may need to lower your expectations if you’re on a budget. If you plan to play games or run demanding software, avoid any laptop with short battery life.
Retailers like Best Buy and Amazon often list a laptop’s estimated battery life on the device’s sales page. Still, you should look up reviews for the laptop to see how its battery performs in the real world, because manufacturers’ battery life estimations are almost always best-case-scenario.
While traditional laptops are best for power users, 2-in-1 laptops that can fold into tablets or detach from their keyboards are perfect for people who spend most of their computer time browsing and streaming. A 2-in-1 with good stylus support is also a great option for artists who want to draw on their computer, or students and professionals who want to take notes or mark up documents by hand.
What to Look for in a Display
A laptop with a crappy screen just isn’t that fun to use. When you shop for a laptop, you should make sure that it has a comfortably sized, bright screen with decent resolution. Power users, artists, gamers, and professionals may even want to shell out for a cutting-edge display with a high refresh rate or an OLED panel.
Here’s what to look for in a laptop’s display:
Display Size and Aspect Ratio
Screen size can make or break a laptop. While larger screens are often better for desktop-class multitasking or creative work, a smaller screen is better for portability and working without a table or desk.
Manufacturers measure laptop displays from corner to corner, much like a TV. Most laptops have 13 to 15-inch displays, which is a perfect compromise between too big and too small. If you want something ultra-portable, try to find a laptop with a 10 to 13-inch display, and if you’re all about a big screen, go for 15 inches or larger.
Aspect ratio can also play a role in the perceived size of your laptop display. Many laptops have a 16:9 aspect ratio, while others sport a 16:10 or a 3:2 aspect ratio. Laptops with a 16:10 ratio feel a little “roomier” than their 16:9 counterparts, even when they have relatively small screens. Displays with a 3:2 aspect ratio feel quite boxy, which is perfect for Windows users who are tired of their taskbar and toolbars taking up so much screen real estate. (The numbers in an aspect ratio describe width and height, so the closer they are together, the “boxier” the screen will look).
Users who prefer to run multiple applications on the screen at the same time will likely prefer a 16:9 or 16:10 aspect ratio, while users who prefer to run everything fullscreen and switch between open windows tend to like 3:2. Just something to keep in mind when shopping.
Different Types of Display
Like TVs, some laptops come with advanced OLED or mini-LED display panels that look better than the standard LCD displays that we’re used to seeing. Here’s a run-down on different display types:
- LCD: Most laptops have IPS LCD displays, which produce a high quality images with the help of a backlight. Unfortunately, the use of a backlight reduces screen contrast and makes blacks appear “gray.” LCD displays are slowly losing popularity as OLED and mini-LED panels get cheaper to produce.
- OLED: It ain’t cheap, but OLED technology offers better contrast ratios than LCD and can achieve “true” blacks by turning individual pixels on and off. If you work on digital art or just really enjoy good image quality, go for OLED (or AMOLED, which is common in laptops).
- Mini-LED: Mini-LED is a new display technology that offers better contrast and deeper blacks than LCD at a lower price than OLED.
Display Quality and Specs
Uh oh, it’s time to look at numbers. A display’s specs can determine its overall quality and usability, so if you’re planning to use your laptop outside or really care about streaming high-res video, now’s the time to pay attention.
- Screen Resolution: At a basic level, resolution determines the number of pixels on a display. More pixels allow for more detail, which often leads to better looking images. Most laptops have 1366 x 768 (non-FHD) or 1920 x 1080 (full HD) displays. I suggest that you avoid the non-FHD displays unless you’re buying a laptop with a very small screen (low resolutions look bad on big screens). For those who want a stunning, future-ready display, buy a laptop with a UHD or 4K panel.
- Brightness: Display brightness may not seem important when you’re watching Netflix in bed, but you’re going to want a really bright laptop if you’re working outside or sitting near a window during the day. Most laptop manufacturers measure screen brightness in nits, and you should aim for 250 nits or more for the sake of your sanity.
- Touch screen: Some people like touch screen laptops, others hate them. Choosing between the two is a matter of personal preference, although you can always turn off touch controls if you don’t like them, so don’t stress over it too much. Just remember that you can’t make a non-touch display touch-compatible if you change your mind.
Now that you know all about displays, it’s time to start thinking about specs and internal hardware. Don’t worry—it’s not as complicated as you think.
Hardware Specs Simplified
You don’t just want a computer that’s beautiful on the outside, you want one that’s beautiful on the inside too, right? A laptop’s internal hardware specifications (or specs) determine how fast the computer runs, how well it can handle software, how many files it can hold, and so much more. It’s annoying to think about things like CPU and RAM, but if you do it now, you can buy the best possible laptop and avoid shopping for a replacement in the future.
All About CPUs
A computer’s CPU is its most important component. Like the human brain, it processes and manages everything inside your computer. If you want a laptop that’s fast, reliable, and powerful enough to keep up with years of use, then you have to pay for a good CPU.
But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for CPUs. Everyone has different needs, and some operating systems are more demanding than others. So, here are some guidelines to picking a CPU based on which operating system you buy:
- Explanation of Intel Core and AMD Ryzen Speeds: A CPU’s name provides a short explanation for its speed—an Intel Core i5 is faster than a Core i3 processor, a Ryzen 7 is faster than a Ryzen 5, and so on. But if you’re buying Intel, you also need to check which “generation” the CPU comes from, as a current-gen i3 CPU may outperform a last-gen i5 processor. AMD Ryzen naming conventions are a little easier, as the numbers after the CPU model (3350, 5600, etc) denote how fast the processor is.
- Windows: Lightweight Windows users can get by with a current-gen Intel Core i3 or AMD Ryzen 3 processor. People who need more power for resource-intensive software should aim for an i5, i7, Ryzen 5, or Ryzen 7 CPU, and power users should go after an i9, Intel Xeon, or Ryzen 9 CPU. Unless you’re on a serious budget, you should avoid Windows laptops with Intel Celeron or Pentium processors—they’re slow and won’t last long.
- macOS: Apple is transitioning to its custom-made Apple Silicon processors, and surprisingly, the company uses the same models of Apple Silicon in both its Air and Pro laptops. Both laptops can run demanding professional and creative software, though the MacBook Pro has a built-in CPU fan, so it’s better suited for long, resource-intensive tasks. If you’re a power user buying an older Intel Mac to save money, aim for an Intel Core i7 or i9 processor (keep in mind that a 10th gen i7 may outperform an older i9).
- Chrome OS: Many budget and mid-range Chromebooks come with Intel Celeron processors or ARM-based processors from brands like Mediatek. These low-power processors are fine for everyday tasks but not ideal for hardcore multitasking, playing games, or running multiple Android apps. If you want a powerful Chromebook, look for one with an Intel Core or AMD Ryzen processor.
Bear in mind that CPU isn’t everything. Your RAM selection can affect multitasking performance or browser speed, and your laptop’s storage type (SSD, HDD, etc) can impact boot times and file navigation.
Integrated GPUs and Dedicated GPUs
Most laptops have a GPU built into the CPU. This integrated GPU should have no trouble with everyday tasks, basic creative work, or casual gaming. That said, people who want to play games at their highest setting or quickly export video files should look for a laptop with specialized integrated graphics.
If you’re a gamer or video editor shopping for a Windows laptop, look for one with Intel UHD 630, Intel Iris Plus, or AMD Radeon RX Vega 8 graphics built-in. Those who are willing to pay a premium should hunt down a laptop with Intel Iris Pro Graphics P580 or AMD Radeon RX Vega 11, which are the best integrated graphics available now.
But what if you want desktop-class gaming performance from your gaming laptop? The simplest option is to buy a gaming laptop with a dedicated graphics card. But if you don’t mind gaming at a desk, you could opt for a laptop with USB-C Thunderbolt 3 eGPU support and hook up an external GPU.
Maximizing graphics performance on an Apple Silicon MacBook is a bit easier—Apple lists multiple MacBook configurations on its website, some with more GPU cores than others. While an extra GPU core may not make a noticeable difference while paying the few games that are optimized for macOS, it will have a decent impact on video editing and 3D design. If you’re buying an Intel-based MacBook, aim for one with a 10th gen Intel processor and Intel Iris Plus to maximize graphics performance.
All About RAM
A computer’s RAM is similar to short-term memory. It retains all the information you need for in-progress programs, including your browser, your text editor, and whatever service you use for music. A ton of RAM ensures that your laptop won’t slow down when you have too many tabs open, but RAM is expensive, so how much should you be willing to pay for? It depends on your OS.
- Windows: A Windows laptop with 8GB of RAM should perform most tasks just fine, though it won’t be great for multitasking. A 16GB laptop is a better option for anyone who runs a lot of software or keeps a ton of browser tabs open at once, and it’ll hold up better than an 8GB laptop as software grows more demanding. Power users who render large files or do memory-intensive work should opt for a 32GB model.
- macOS: Macs are better at managing memory than Windows machines, so a MacBook with 8GB of RAM is fine for most people, including some power users. That said, a 16GB MacBook is a good investment if you plan to use it for the next five to ten years, especially if you’re a tab hoarder or someone who runs memory-heavy software.
- Chrome OS: Chromebooks require very little memory, so a Chromebook with 4GB of RAM will run smooth for most people, even if you have a lot of tabs open or run Android and Linux apps. An 8GB option is better for power users who plan to push their Chromebook to the edge, or people who want to use their Chromebook for several years. You don’t need a 16GB Chromebook, although 16GB of RAM is useful if you plan on using a lot of Linux applications or want your Chromebook to last for several years.
Now that we know about short-term memory, it’s time to think about long-term storage.
Storage Type and Size
Modern laptops run on a variety of storage media, including solid state drives (SSD), eMMCs (embedded multi-media cards), and old-fashioned HDDs (hard disk drives). Ultra-fast SSDs are the most expensive of the bunch, as they provide faster boot times and file navigation than other storage media. Slower eMMCs are popular in cheap and mid-range computers, and HDDs, the slowest and least-expensive storage format, allow manufacturers to make affordable laptops with a ton storage space.
Most people should buy a laptop with an SSD, though eMMC storage is acceptable for Chromebooks. Windows laptops with a 1TB HDD may seem tempting, but you’re better off buying one with a super-fast SSD and using an external drive for media that you want to store outside of the cloud.
But how much storage does your computer need? Thanks to streaming platforms and cloud storage solutions like Dropbox, iCloud, OneDrive, and Google Drive, built-in storage space is a lot less important than it used to be. Still, you should aim for at least 256GB of storage on a Windows laptop or MacBook to accommodate any software that you download or files that you choose to store locally. People who plan to play games or work with creative software should go for more internal storage or buy an external drive (the external drive is usually a cheaper option).
Chromebooks require less storage than other laptops due to the lack of heavy-duty Chrome OS software. But if you plan to use a bunch of Android apps or download videos for offline viewing, you may want to skip the 32GB Chromebooks and go for 64GB or 128GB of drive space. Keep in mind that Chromebooks come with 100GB of Google Drive cloud storage, which you can increase for just a few bucks a month.
Remember when laptops were overcrowded with useless ports and mysterious slots? Well, don’t worry, now we have the opposite problem. Many laptops have just a few multi-purpose Thunderbolt 3 ports in place of the usual USB or HDMI ports, which can be a major turn-off for some people. So, can you get by with some Thunderbolt 3 ports, or do you need a wider port selection? If you need more than just a couple of ports, it’s not a bad idea to explore business laptops, which generally offer more ports (like HDMI and multiple USB-A ports) than you’d normally find on a consumer-grade laptop.
What Can You Do With Thunderbolt 3?
Most new laptops come with a USB-C Thunderbolt 3 port, which can fulfill multiple roles. A USB-C Thunderbolt 3 port (which is different from a regular USB-C port) can often charge a laptop, interact with USB accessories, and connect your laptop to a monitor or TV. You can even plug a hub or docking station into a Thunderbolt 3 port to expand the laptop’s port selection or functionality, which is great if you like to use your laptop with desktop monitors or amp up your gameplay with an eGPU.
But you should never assume that a laptop’s Thunderbolt 3 port can do all of these things until you read the manufacturer’s description and 3rd party reviews. Every laptop uses its Thunderbolt 3 port in weird and unique ways, and of course, it’s hard to tell on-sight whether a laptop has a Thunderbolt 3 port just some boring old USB-C jack for basic accessories.
Other Ports to Look For
Some ultra-portable laptops have USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports, a headphone jack, and nothing else. If you’re happy to use a dongle to attach USB accessories, thumb drives, SD cards, and desktop displays to your laptop, then a couple of Thunderbolt 3 ports are all you need. But if you’d rather have dedicated USB and HDMI ports or a built-in SD card reader, you may need to get a thicker laptop.