The Lay of the Laptop Land
The market has undergone major changes in the past few years, and there’s likely to be more confusion in the notebook aisle now than at any other time. Today’s models encompass everything from featherweight, business-savvy ultraportables that barely tip the scales at less than 2 pounds, to lap-crushing gaming behemoths of 10 pounds or more.
Your standard laptop doesn’t look the way it once did, either, with dozens of convertible designs that rethink the standard clamshell to take advantage of touch interfaces. Some laptops double as tablets, with hinges that bend and fold, while other touch-enabled PCs are actually slate tablets that come with hardware keyboards for notebook-style use. There’s simply too much variety in the laptop space for one size or style to fit every person’s needs.
That’s where this buying guide comes in. We’ll brief you on all the latest designs and specs, and parse the current trends, helping you figure out which features you need and how to find the laptop you really want.
Picking Your Laptop By Size
Finding the Best 12- to 13-Inch Laptop
At the small end of the spectrum, 12- and 13-inch laptops, or ultraportables (more on these below), are worth considering if you plan on toting your laptop. These models are small enough to weigh 3 pounds or less, but large enough they include a full-size keyboard and a decent size-screen. The downside is that port selection tends to be minimal due to the limited amount of room available on side panels. These laptops usually serve simple needs like surfing the web or modest word processing, and they’re a good choice for business travelers who need to tote a laptop frequently. Smaller 10- and 11-inch laptops have even less room for ports, and will have smaller keyboards and space between the keys, so you’ll have to adjust your typing style to accommodate.
Sweet Spot: The Best 14- to 15-Inch Laptops
Laptops with 14- to 15.6-inch screens are the most popular, because they hit the sweet spot between portability and features that most users find desirable. Yes, they may weigh a few more pounds than their smaller-screen siblings, but in return you get easy reading on a larger screen, more room for various I/O ports, better internal components, and extra battery cells. You’re up to 3 or 4 pounds in weight at this screen size, but that’s still easy to carry around an office building or your home.
Screen Giants: The Best 17-Inch Laptops
The largest screens available typically show up in workstation-class and gaming laptops, though there are a few budget desktop-replacement options here as well. A 17-inch screen is large enough to share for presentations, or if you need the extra pixels to immerse yourself in your graphics projects or 3D games. The extra space in the chassis can be used for one or more graphics processors, desktop-class CPUs, or multiple banks of hard drives and SSDs. The larger chassis also usually means a more roomy keyboard. Weight can be over 6 pounds, and up to 20 pounds for gaming rigs. These systems aren’t meant to be portable, and typically don’t have long battery life.
Almost all offer screen resolutions of at least full HD or 1,920 by 1,080 (often abbreviated “FHD” or “1080p”), while an increasing number feature displays with the big-screen resolution of 4K (3,840 by 2,160). Between 4K and 1080p, an emerging resolution in panels this size is QHD, or 2,560 by 1,440; QHD is showing up in a few elite-level machines, such as certain high-end configurations of the Alienware 17. But 1080p is by far the most common resolution you’ll see. Touch screens are rare at this size.
Laptops by Type
Walk down any laptop aisle and you’ll notice that the selection of laptops has become dramatically thinner and sleeker. Each of these wafer-thin systems represents a new vision for ultraportable computing: a no-compromises laptop light enough that you’ll forget it’s in your briefcase, with a long-lasting battery that will keep you working even when no power outlet is available. Fast storage, whether by way of a full 128GB or 256GB solid-state drive (SSD) or, more affordably, 32GB to 64GB of eMMC flash, give these ultraportables the ability to resume work in seconds after being idle or asleep for days. Intel’s marketing focus has migrated to the convertible-hybrid laptops and detachable-hybrid tablets that it refers to as 2-in-1 devices (see the next section for more information), but ultraportables are still a distinct category.
Most important, the entire category has thinned down in general. Whether you’re looking at sliver-thin ultraportables, mainstream PCs, or even gaming machines, laptops of every flavor today are thinner, lighter, and better suited to life on the go. The best of these models will still cost you a pretty penny, particularly if you’re looking for a business system that won’t weigh you down when you travel for work, but they offer remarkable performance and often come with several high-end features as well. Touch screens (with 1080p resolution), full-size HDMI ports, and 8 or more hours of battery life are commonplace, and premium laptops (with premium prices) now come with high-resolution screens, up to 3,840-by-2,160 resolution (4K) at the top end.
The parallel evolution of powerful tablets and laptops’ emphasis on touch capability haven’t just encouraged the growth of those individual categories—they’ve created a new one that combines them. Hybrid systems, aka 2-in-1s, are capable of functioning either as a laptop or a tablet, depending on what you need (or want) at any given moment. This gives you a lot more freedom when interacting with the device, and makes it more functional in more places.
There are two types of 2-in-1. The first is the convertible-hybrid, which transforms from a laptop to tablet and back again by rotating all the way around on the display’s hinge. You can also stop at various positions along the way, if you want to stand the screen up on the keyboard like a kiosk display, or if you want to balance it on its edges so you can use just the touch screen in very little space. This design is best if you’re interested in a tablet, but expect to need a good keyboard with some frequency.
If the keyboard is less important, a detachable hybrid might be the better way to go. These are primarily tablets that you can dock with an accessory keyboard for laptop-like functionality. Some of these designs offer docking keyboards with secondary batteries that provide all-day charge, while others opt for Bluetooth keyboards, forgoing the bulk of a docking hinge and connecting wirelessly.
Mainstream and Premium Models
While the entire laptop category has gotten slimmer, there’s still a market for larger desktop-replacement laptops that blend premium design and function. Desktop replacements aren’t quite as easy to cart around as smaller ultraportables, but these 14- and 15-inch laptops offer everything you need in a day-to-day PC. They have bigger displays, a broader selection of ports and features, and are one of the few categories that still offer optical drives. Screen resolutions run the gamut from 1,366 by 768 for budget systems to the more mainstream 1,920-by-1,080 resolution, up to the 3,840-by-2,160 resolution found on high-end multimedia laptops intended for graphics professionals.
Media and Gaming Machines
Laptop and desktop sales may have started to decline in recent years, with tablet sales expanding to fill the gap, but gaming PC sales have actually increased. For anyone who wants top-of-the-line performance for PC games, the combination of a high-end processor, a potent discrete graphics card, and a large, high-resolution display is well worth the higher prices such gaming rigs frequently command. And do those prices run high—while an entry-level gaming laptop typically starts at about $799, you can expect to pay $3,000 or more for a system with a powerful processor, lots of memory, and one or more high-end GPUs with the horsepower needed to play games with all the graphical details maxed out.
Before you drop a grand or two on a gaming laptop, you should know what you’re getting for your money. Powerful quad-core processors are par for the course, with Intel Core i7 chips pushing serious performance even for non-gaming applications. Discrete GPUs from Nvidia and AMD provide silky-smooth graphics and impressive frame rates; some high-end rigs come with two GPUs, helping justify their high prices. External GPU docks are also an option, connected to the laptop via a Thunderbolt 3 cable. Additional features to watch for include high-resolution displays and hard drives that offer 1TB or more of local storage space, so you can store your entire game library on the machine.
Not all gaming laptops are hulking beasts, however. The sleek designs of ultraportables have given rise to a new breed of machine that puts gaming-level performance into a more portable design, with the sleek build and long-lasting battery life you haven’t traditionally seen in this category. But this high-level performance doesn’t come cheap here, either—gaming ultraportables usually run in the $2,000 range.
Check out our top-rated gaming laptop picks.
Chromebooks are at the other end of the pricing spectrum from gaming laptops. These Chrome OS–based laptops generally run from $199 to around $500 in price, though many are in the middle of that range. The $999 Google Pixelbook is an outlier that competes with Windows-based premium ultraportables. These power-efficient systems are made primarily to surf the Internet using Chrome OS. Small in stature, tall in power, narrow of purpose, and wide of vision, Chrome OS is essentially the Google Chrome browser running on hardware specs that would be considered “tight” for a Windows PC. System memory is typically a lean 2GB to 4GB, and local storage is commonly limited to 16GB of flash memory (though you will see systems with 32GB to 64GB). But that’s certainly enough to get on to the Internet, where cloud services like Google Drive store your files.
A primary benefit of Chrome OS is that it is relatively immune to the malware plaguing Windows systems, because you’re not running Windows programs at all. Chrome OS updates also take seconds, rather than the minutes and hours you’ll wait on macOS and Windows. If you spend more than 90 percent of your computer time in a Web browser, you should have no trouble using a chromebook as your primary PC.
A recent development is the ability to run Android apps from the Google Play Store on Chromebooks. This perk lets you use the laptop, even when you’re not connected to the Internet. These are the same apps you run on your phone, including games, productivity apps, and streaming video services. Productivity apps like Word and Excel extend the Chromebooks’ usefulness offline.
Laptop Shopping by Spec
Connectivity is key for a modern laptop. Almost every model on the market today offers Bluetooth for connecting wireless peripherals, and Internet connectivity via 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Mobile broadband options, for when there’s no Wi-Fi hotspot handy, include 3G, 4G HSPA+, and 4G LTE, but these are increasingly rare, as users opt for personal mobile hotspots that work with several devices or tether their smartphone to use its broadband connection.
Ultraportables and desktop replacements alike depend upon USB connectivity to work with a broad range of accessories and peripherals. USB 3.0, which offers much greater bandwidth and faster data transfer than USB 2.0, can be found in all but the oldest and lowest-priced designs; it’s usually identifiable by a port colored in blue or labeled with the letters SS (for Super Speed). Some USB ports can charge handheld devices even when the laptop is powered down. Look for a lightning bolt icon next to the USB logo for these charging ports.
Although for a while manufacturers like Apple, HP, and Lenovo implemented Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 interfaces as a faster alternative to USB 3.0 for hooking up monitors, storage devices, and docking stations, for the most part they did not gain widespread adoption. That’s unlikely to be true with USB-C and Thunderbolt 3, however. In addition to allowing for huge amounts of throughput as well as power delivery, the USB-C interface is much smaller than the older (Type-A) USB port. (You also don’t have to worry about flipping the orientation of the plug.) This makes it ideal for the svelte laptops (half an inch or less) that are popular today. The downside is that you’ll also have to give up larger, useful ports like Ethernet and HDMI, unless you’re willing to carry around dongles for each, which can be inconvenient.
Thunderbolt 3 rides in on USB-C’s coattails, using the same plug and socket, with extra circuitry to boost throughput to 40Gbps for humungous data transfers. That’s eight times as fast as USB 3.0, and four times as fast as USB 3.1/USB-C. USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 are showing up in a lot of new laptops, from $229 budget models to $5,000 mobile workstations; Apple MacBooks and MacBook Pros that use it exclusively are among the highest-profile adoptees to date. Because of the general necessity of having thinner, more extensible ports in computer hardware of all types, expect these two interfaces to be pretty much everywhere in the coming months (even if they won’t overtake USB 3.0 in popularity for a while yet).
The venerable VGA interface is rapidly disappearing, due in part to space constraints in ultraportables that preclude the bulky connector, and newer monitors and projectors that work better with DisplayPort, HDMI, USB-C or Thunderbolt 3. HDMI is especially popular lately, thanks to the demand for connecting laptops to TVs. Alternately, you can use an Apple TV or Google Chromecast device to beam video and audio to your TV wirelessly.
Also becoming scarce is the optical drive. With so many software and game purchases occurring online, and cloud services taking over for many local applications, the optical drive has been dropped from most model lines, with new systems touting slimmer, lighter form factors. For those who still need to install software from a disc or want to enjoy movies on DVD or Blu-ray, you can still find them (particularly on gaming laptops), but it takes some hunting. For those without, external USB DVD and Blu-ray drives are as easy to use as built-in drives.
While premium ultraportables rely solely upon SSDs for the performance boost offered by solid-state storage, most mainstream systems use a combination of an SSD and a traditional spinning hard drive. This lets you run programs quickly and still have lots of (slower) storage for your photos, videos, and other files. SSD-only laptops frequently top out at 256GB or 512GB, though you may occasionally see some premium systems with 1TB and larger drives. If you need more hard drive space, a USB 3.0 or USB-C external hard drive should do the trick.
A Word About Windows and Touch Input
Microsoft’s Windows 8 was supposed to make computing more touch-centric, but general dissatisfaction with its interface meant that Microsoft made the next version of its operating system easier to use with a keyboard and touchpad. These days, Windows 10 is likely to be the OS on your new laptop. It combines elements from the Windows 8 touch-based UI with more traditional features that don’t rely on a touch screen. There’s more to Windows 10 than can be addressed here, but the bottom line is that it has brought the touch interface to the forefront. As a result, most new laptops feature touch screens, and those that don’t will have features in place to provide similar functionality.
If you’re in the market for a Windows laptop and want a touch screen, don’t think you’ll have to pay a lot to get one: Even entry-level models in the $200-to-$350 price range may have them these days, and the Windows touch experience now is much better than it used to be. Chances are you won’t need it or want it on a gaming machine, however, as touch input could potentially interfere with the precision control schemes you need to master today’s game titles.
What’s Under the Hood?
The most dominant processor chips come from Intel, which in mid-2017 launched its 8th-Generation Core (code-named “Kaby Lake R”) processors. Made with ultraportables and hybrid designs in mind, these new CPUs (identifiable by model numbers in the 8000s as opposed to the 7000s and 6000s used in previous-generation “Kaby Lake” and “Skylake” parts) not only stretch battery life, they also boast improved graphics processing. 8th-gen processors also feature more cores than predecessors, so you will find a true quad-core CPU in your Core i5 laptop, with more power than an older dual-core. Core M is another extension of Kaby Lake that trades some performance gains for even better battery life. AMD’s own line of processors also offer enhanced performance at low prices, but can’t match the efficiency gains of Intel’s latest chips.
Whether you go with the Kaby Lake/Kaby Lake R or Skylake chips from Intel (the latest Coffee Lake generation is currently working its way into desktop PCs but has yet to come to laptops), or AMD’s APUs, you should find an integrated graphics subsystem adequate for graphics tasks, unless you’re a part-time gamer or a CAD user. High-end discrete graphics processing units are terrific for 3D games, transcoding 1080p video, or watching 4K movies, but like fast processors, they also feast on laptop batteries.
Many laptop designs now incorporate non-removable batteries that can’t be swapped out. While the move toward sealing batteries into the chassis does allow for thinner designs, it removes the possibility of swapping out batteries on the go for longer use between charging. On the other hand, the efficiency gains of Intel’s newest processors mean that most laptops will still last for the better part of a day.
As designs get sleeker and slimmer, manufacturers are using an array of materials in their construction. Plastic (or polycarbonate) is the least expensive and most commonly used material in laptop frames, but manufacturers have shown great ingenuity in making plastic not look cheap. The most common technique is in-mold decoration or in-mold rolling, a process made popular by Acer, HP, and Toshiba, in which decorative patterns are infused between plastic layers. This process has evolved into etched imprints and textures, commonly seen on laptop lids.
In the end, though, plastics are often associated with low-priced laptops, while higher-end models rely on metals. Common premium choices include aluminum, which has a more luxurious look, and can be fashioned into a thinner chassis than plastic. Unibody construction, where the entire chassis is made from a single piece of metal, has become the gold standard, as seen on Apple’s MacBook and MacBook Pro lines. Other all-metal designs mimic this same look and feel, securely sandwiching two separate layers together.
Other common chassis materials include magnesium alloy and carbon fiber, both of which add strength while keeping overall weight low. Glass has long been found covering displays, but with ultra-strong variants like Gorilla Glass, you’ll find the material being used in everything from the lid to the touchpad.
Should You Buy an Extended Warranty?
Most laptops are backed by a one-year warranty on parts and labor. The standard warranty is limited, so it won’t cover accidents that stem from, say, spilling a drink on the keyboard or dropping the system to a hard surface.
Most laptop manufacturers also sell accidental coverage as a separate plan on top of optional extended warranties, so you might end up spending close to $300 for three years of comprehensive coverage. Apple offers a maximum three-year extended warranty ($249-379), while most Windows-based laptop manufacturers offer up to four years.
Our rule of thumb is that if the warranty costs more than 15 percent of the laptop’s purchase price, you’re better off spending the money on backup drives or services that minimize downtime. Of course, you can’t put a price tag on peace of mind. There are instances when the logic board or the display—the most expensive parts of a laptop—fail, and while rare, such a catastrophe can cost you half of what the laptop is worth. Defective components usually break down during the first year; anything after that is typically attributed to wear and tear. If the breakdown can be attributed to a design flaw, laptop manufacturers will sometimes extend free warranties to cover these flaws, but only for certain models built during limited time periods.
The Top Laptops We’ve Tested (for Now)
The systems below, some of the best we’ve recently tested, span the spectrum of features, performance, and price to provide top choices for each type of user. We refresh the list monthly to include the newest products, but because of the large number of laptops we review every year, not every top-rated product makes the cut. For the latest reviews, and to search for more top-rated products, check out the Laptop Product Guide.
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