How to buy a laptop
Choosing a new laptop is a lot harder than it should be. Every major brand has multiple product lines with overlapping prices and features, and every description is filled with jargon about processors, types of storage, graphics capabilities, screen resolutions and a laundry list of ports and connections. And don’t even get me started on names. Good luck figuring out the meaning behind a Pavilion/Inspiron/XPS/Latitude/Spectre/Envy/ZenBook/Odyssey or any of the others. It’s enough to make you go back to a no. 2 pencil and a composition book.
That’s why we test and review dozens of traditional laptops every year, plus Windows tablets and 2-in-1 hybrids, and even Chromebooks. This handy buying guide will give you the basic background info you need to add context to those reviews and to make a smart purchase. Of course, if you’re looking to just jump right in, I’ve preselected a handful of my favorite current laptops to highlight. If you ran into me on the street, I’d probably steer you towards one of these as a starting point.
Our top picks
A big investment that will last for years:
Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (13-inch, 2016)MacBooks, especially the latest Pro models with Apple’s Touch Bar, cost a bundle, but they remain the most universally useful laptops you can buy.
>More affordable: Apple MacBook Pro (without Touch ID and Touch Bar)
>Cheaper, lighter but less powerful: Apple MacBook (12-inch)
Inexpensive, without feeling cheap: Samsung Chromebook Pro
A budget-priced Chromebook, running Google’s Chrome OS, is going to feel speedier than a similarly priced Windows laptop. Now that Chromebooks can run Android apps as well, they’re more useful than ever.
>A bigger, better Windows 10 alternative: HP Spectre x360
>A mainstream Windows 10 laptop that’s cool but affordable: Dell XPS 13
A perfectly balanced gaming laptop: Dell Alienware 13 R3 (OLED)
I’ve always wanted a gaming laptop that’s portable but powerful. Add to that support for virtual reality headsets and a brilliant OLED screen, and this hits almost every gaming checkbox I have.
>Custom components and hands-on service: Origin PC Evo-15S
>Over-the-top gaming excess: MSI GT83VR
Most buying guides and shopping advice features tend to get bogged down in the specs, mechanically listing subcategories within subcategories. Instead, I’ll break out the most important things to know when looking for a new laptop, starting with my three cardinal rules.
Three rules for buying a laptop
1. Don’t buy too much laptop
Not too many years ago, $1,000 was considered a good price for a boring, run-of-the-mill laptop. Today, some of the most advanced designs, from the Dell XPS 13 to the HP Spectre sell for less. Apple is the one computer maker that regularly gets away with charging significantly more (the mainstream MacBook Pro starts at $1,500).
Fully functional Windows 10 laptops can be found for as little as $200, though they’re not good for much beyond basic web surfing. Chromebooks, which run a limited set of software in Google’s Chrome OS (instead of Windows), are easy to find for $300 to $500, and can feel very speedy, even for budget-minded machines. Some new ones even have touch screens and run Android apps, which gives you a lot more flexibility.
Even gamers can spend less than you might expect. Laptops with Nvidia’s very good GeForce 1050 GPU can be found for $800, although if you’re interested in virtual reality, the cost of entry rises considerably.
2. Travel light
The first question I have when someone asks, “What kind of laptop should I buy?” is this: How many days per week do you plan on carrying your laptop around with you?
Daily or near-daily commutes mean you want something with a 13-inch or smaller display, that weighs under three pounds and is at most around 15mm thick. The new 13-inch MacBook Pro just hits those specs, while systems like the HP Spectre and Acer Swift 7 both dip below 10mm thick.
Those superslim systems usually trade a little power and battery life for portability (there’s only so much room in a 10mm thick laptop for a battery or cooling fans for a fast CPU, after all), but trust me, carrying a 15-inch midsize laptop through an airport even once a month is going to get old real fast.
3. Design is king
Do you want a U-series Intel Core i5 Processor or a Y-series one? Do you need a standard SSD hard drive or a faster PCI-e version? Is the same full HD resolution as your big-screen TV enough, or do you need a 4K laptop display?
For most of what we do on our laptops today — websurfing, streaming video from Netflix, YouTube or Amazon, posting on social media, sending email or using office apps like Office or Google Docs — budget laptops will work fine. And with laptops that share similar processors, graphics cards or other components, our decade-plus of testing data shows that they perform, well, similarly.
That means what you’re really investing in is a design you like. That can include weight, thickness and screen size, but also covers the layout of the keyboard, how large the touchpad is, how thick the bezel around the screen is, metal versus plastic, or even the color or pattern on the back of the lid.
And there’s nothing wrong with making design choices your no. 1 deciding factor. A laptop is not only hefty investment, it’s also a visual extension of your personality. You may carry it around with you all day, or even all over the country. Of course you want something that’s both comfortable to use and pleasing to look at. It’s as much a personal accessory as a jacket or a pair of glasses.
That’s what Apple nails really well — the parts inside of a MacBook are not that different from other laptops (although the operating system is another story), but the human interface tools are fantastic, and the design has become a standard for what a lot of people think a laptop should look like.
What’s better, Windows or MacOS?
I’m not touching that one with a 10-foot pole. There are no online commenters angrier than Mac fans bashing Windows, or Windows fans bashing Macs. That said, there are a few general rules of thumb that can help determine which side of the fence is right for you.
MacBooks, which run Apple’s MacOS operating system (formerly known as OS X), have a higher cost of entry. The least-expensive MacBook right now is the 13-inch MacBook Air, which starts at $1,000, while the latest MacBook Pro starts at $1,500.
However, you get an amazingly seamless partnership of hardware and software, which is especially evident in how the multitouch gestures beat any Windows laptop, and how it’s so easy to preview almost any file just by tapping the space bar.
That said, there’s a lot less software you can install on a Mac, and games are pretty much out of the question. Under the latest version of MacOS, you have to go digging around in the settings menus to even install any software from what Apple calls “unidentified developers,” which is anyone without its stamp of approval.
With Microsoft’s OS, now up to Windows 10 (where did Windows 9 go? Don’t ask…), you get a lot more flexibility in price, hardware and software. Windows 10 laptops dip as low as $200, and I’ve also reviewed configurations that top $5,000. You can get a 10mm thick ultraslim system, or a giant 12-pound-plus monster. You can get gaming rigs, hybrids that split into a separate tablet and keyboard, and just a generic-looking $600 plastic clamshell.
Windows is great if you like to tinker with registries and drivers, you want more direct control over what your software and operating system are doing, or if you want a touch-based OS, as most Windows laptops have at least a touch option now. On top of that, Windows 10 is much easier for a beginner to use than any previous version, and “running Windows” is no longer considered a knock against a PC.
The tl:dr version: choosing between Windows 10 and MacOS depends on what style of laptop hardware you want, and how much you want to spend.
How about a Chromebook?
Not too long ago, these stripped-down laptops running Google’s Chrome OS were basically just big web browsers with few other features. They were cheap, they went online, and that was about all you could say about them.
Now that we’re in the third or fourth major generation of Chromebooks, they’ve evolved to such a degree that there’s really no reason a Chromebook can’t be your main laptop. New models have basic filing system and media management tools, and nearly everything you’d want to do is browser-based, anyway. Gmail is probably your main mail app. Music comes from Spotify or another online streaming source, video comes from Netflix, Amazon or YouTube, and for office work, there’s either Google Docs and its related tools, or the free online version of Microsoft Office.
Beyond that, new Chromebooks are adding Android app compatibility. So now, in systems such as the Samsung Chromebook Pro, you can download, install and run a ton of new apps. Only a handful are optimized for Chrome OS so far, but more will follow.
The upshot is that a cheap Chromebook feels faster and more responsive than a similarly cheap Windows laptop. For about $500 or less, unless you really need a Windows-only feature, just get a Chromebook.
What ports do I need?
We’re in the midst of a big change in laptop ports. USB-C, which is a smaller, reversible version of the standard USB port (which is technically called USB-A) is becoming the default port on many new laptops. USB-C can handle data, video output, power and more, at USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt speeds. The problem is, to connect to a TV or monitor or use any of your existing accessories, from memory sticks to external hard drives, an adapter is required. USB-C is the future, but for a while at least, most of us will be taking a detour to dongle-town.
But if you’re not ready for a mono-port future, a couple of standard USB 3.0 ports are good to have, as is an HDMI output. Fewer and fewer laptops have Ethernet jacks for wired internet connections (gaming laptops still do, however), and even SD card slots are fading away. Frankly, between Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, we use ports a lot less than we used to, so don’t get obsessed about them unless you need something specific.
A good example of something specific is using a virtual-reality headset like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift. For those, you’ll need an HDMI output and sometimes up to three or four USB ports.
How much storage do I need?
Old-fashioned spinning platter hard drives (often called HDDs) get up to a terabyte or two easily. But the increasingly common solid state drives (SSD), sometimes called flash drives, are usually found in 128 or 256GB sizes, or 512GB as an expensive add-on. Since most of us store photos, music and video in the cloud now, and use web-based apps instead of installed local software, you can get away with less storage. Gamers are, again, the exception, you’ll need 500GB or more of HDD space for big game files, which can run from 25GB to 50GB per game. But for the rest of us, 256GB is a good middle ground.
Chromebooks and super-cheap Windows laptops often have virtually no storage, just between 16GB and 32GB, much of which goes to operating system files. On those machines, you’re meant to do pretty much everything online and retain only very minimal local files.
Do I need a graphics card/optical drive/touchscreen/etc.?
Except for the least-expensive configurations, a Windows laptop should include a touchscreen by default. It’s not completely necessary, but there are a few things in Windows 10, like accessing the right side tool bar, connecting to Wi-Fi networks, scrolling down long pages, etc., that just work better with touch.
A graphics card, from Nvidia or AMD, is really only needed if you’re playing PC games, or if you’re editing very high-res photos or videos regularly. Even 4K video playback works just fine with the default Intel graphics capabilities in nearly any new laptop.
You don’t need an optical drive. It’s time to donate those old DVDs to Housing Works.
Should I buy now, or wait for the next update/upgrade/CPU/etc.?
That’s the million-dollar question, and it applies to nearly every technology category. Every new piece of hardware is a step closer to obsolescence with each passing day, and there’s always a new version coming at some point in the not-too-distant future. Once you accept that, it’s a lot easier to just relax and buy a product you’ll enjoy using, without succumbing to upgrade envy.