The Ultimate Laptop Buying Guide: How to Choose

how to choose the perfect laptop in 2020

More compact than a desktop, but far more powerful than a smartphone or tablet, laptops offer the ultimate versatility. From work to play and all the travel in-between, there is no better tool for the job—that is, if you have the right specs.


Finding the right laptop for you can mean the difference between money well spent and an expensive paperweight—so how do you choose the right laptop? In this laptop buying guide, we’ll explore everything from screen size to hard drives to help you ensure you have the perfect machine for your needs.

Quick Tips

If you prefer the quick version, here are the most important factors to consider when shopping for a laptop—but feel free to stick with us for the more in-depth version below. 

  • Screen size: If you travel much, aim for a screen size between 12.5 to 14 inches for a perfect balance of portability and usability. 14-inch+ screens are better for gaming or those who plan to use their laptop mostly at home. Under 12.5-inch screens are OK for kids, or if you want to use your computer more like a tablet. 
  • Battery life: Unless you plan to always be near a power outlet, 8+ hours of battery life is a must.Operating system: You have three choices when it comes to your OS—Windows, macOS, or Chrome OS. Windows is most widely used and offers the greatest compatibility, but Chrome devices tend to be affordable, and their functionality is quickly expanding. MacOS may be preferred if you already run multiple Apple products. 
  • Minimum Specs: Unless you’re looking for a budget laptop (well under $600), you want to look for no less than a Core i5 CPU with 8GB of RAM, SSD (solid-state drive) storage, and a screen resolution of 1920 x 1080.
  • 2-in-1 or no?: Finally, if you plan to use your laptop more like a tablet or watch a lot of movies on the go (we're looking at you, business travelers), you might consider a 2-in-1 with either a detachable screen or bend-back design.

Start with Your Platform

choosing an operating system

If you read the quick tips of this laptop buying guide, you already know there are three primary operating systems, or platforms, found on laptops today. The choice between Windows, macOS, or ChromeOS really comes down to preference. However, there are some more practical points to consider.

windows logo

Windows

Currently, around 77 percent of laptop users run a Windows device making it by-in-large the most popular option. That popularity comes with considerable perks when it comes to combability regarding apps, games, and devices. Those who are looking for a gaming laptop should be looking exclusively at Windows as a result. 


Windows 10, the current version of this OS launched in 2015, also boasts an impressive array of feature options, such as touch screens, fingerprint readers, dual-graphics chips, tablet mode, live start menu tiles, and the all-knowing Cortana digital assistant—now complete with the ability to answer follow-up questions.


Windows 10 laptops are going to be a good fit for most users, from students to business pros.

macos logo

Mac OS

macOS, lagging far behind Windows with just under 17 percent of the market share, operates similarly to Windows, though it does lack touchscreen capability. 


The latest version of the OS, Catalina, features a desktop app dock and the ever-popular Siri (essentially an Apple version of Windows’ Cortana) like previous incarnations, along with the ability to use Apple pay, take calls or texts from iPhones, integration with Apple watches, and use iPad apps.


From that list, you might pick up that the biggest advantage of a Mac laptop is its compatibility with other Apple devices and apps. This makes them a superior option for loyal Apple device users.

Chrome OS

Brought to you by Google, Chrome OS is the new kid on the block. Capturing a mere 2 percent of the market at present, this OS is most commonly seen on barebones, inexpensive Chromebooks.


Chrome OS is far more limited than both Windows and macOS, but it does come with the trade-off of security and affordability. Chromebooks make a solid choice for anyone who is just looking to surf the internet, check out social media, or check emails and chat. 


They're also fantastic for parents looking for web-safe options for their kids, thanks to their resistance to malware (however, keep in mind their gaming capabilities are extremely limited).


On the downside, Chromebooks work best online and often lack the power more serious laptop users need.


For a functional machine, aim for at least 1920 x 1080 screen resolution (4K is better if you can find it), 16G of storage, and 4GB of RAM. If Android apps interest you, a 2-in-1 is the way to go.

Do You Need a 2-in-1?

do i need a 2 in 1 laptop?

Speaking of 2-in-1 laptops, after you've settled on an OS, your next question should be, is a traditional laptop or 2-in-1 better? 2-in-1 laptops were a response to the growing mobile market—over 63 percent of internet goers now browse via a mobile device.


Aimed at achieving a laptop-tablet hybrid, 2-in-1’s come in two primary flavors—detachable or flexible. Detachable 2-in-1s have a removable screen with touch capability effectively turning the laptop into a tablet at will. Flexible models allow you to twist or flip your keyboard out of the way, which often doubles as a stand.  


They are convenient for heavy travelers, especially those who enjoy watching videos on the go, and folks who enjoy the functionality of a tablet but would like a bit more versatility. Note, however, that they tend to lack performance and power.

Size Matters

laptop size matters

Moving on, the next big step to narrowing down your options is to choose a size. Laptops range from around 11 inches all the way up to 18 inches, each with a particular user in mind. Let's start at the top.

  • 17- to 18-inch laptops are generally reserved for laptop-as-desktop users. They tend to be heavy and not the easiest to carry around, but often have impressive processing power, better heat control, and dazzling displays. It's no wonder their top userbase is the gaming community.
  • 14.5- to 15-inch laptops are the most popular size. They are generally light (4 to 5.5 pounds), are relatively easy to transport, and have decent screens.
  • 13- to 14-inch laptops tend to be aimed more at frequent travelers. They sacrifice a bit of screen size to achieve lighter weights (under 4 pounds) and better portability with similar usability.
  • 11- to 12-inch laptops pander the laptop-as-tablets crowd as they are essentially a tablet with more versatility and a keyboard. They're also thin and very light (2 to 3 pounds) but frequently have more limited functionality.

Specs and Hardware: What Do You Need?

how powerful laptop hardware do you need

Now its time to get into the specifics—this is where pricing really becomes variable. What specs do you really need to do what you want to do?

CPU:

Your CPU is like your computer's brain. It ultimately determines the complexity of tasks it can handle and how fast it handles them. Without getting too geeky here, the number of cores a CPU has directly affects its performance as each core is like another tiny brain. If you have four cores, for instance, each core can run a different process on your machine, increasing performance and speed.

  • Basic users: For light processing like word editing or budget docs along with web browsing and video streaming, you can go for budget-friendly AMD chips with two to four cores, but always opt for the most recent gen and don’t opt for subpar storage or RAM.
  • Gaming and Performance: Heavier users who want to game, or just need better performance, want to look at a five-core minimum, such as the Intel i5. For gamers, this should be paired with an ample graphics card.
  • Creative professionals: Heavy gamers or creative professionals who work with things like video or image editing want to bump it up to seven to nine cores, such as the i7, i9, or AMD Ryzen 7—but be aware, this will bring the price of your laptop up dramatically.
  • Top of the line: For most, this is going to be overkill, but if price is no object, and you'll be doing some seriously processor-heavy tasks, you might consider an AMD Threadripper (32 cores) or Intel Core X (18 cores).

RAM:

If your CPU is your laptop’s brain, random access memory (RAM), is its short-term memory. Not to be confused with your system storage where information is actually stored, RAM temporarily remembers things your machine is doing or will need to do soon so that those things can be done faster and with less strain on the system.


While price-wise, you're going to see lots of options in the 2 to 4GB realm at budget prices, for most users, that's not enough memory. How much RAM you need will yet again vary by your needs:

  • Less than 4GB will be doable for Chromebook users who want to do nothing more than browse the web.
  • 4GB to 8GB will be acceptable for light users (word editing, budgeting, web surfing, etc.)
  • 8GB to 16GB is the recommended range for typical users who play games (on average graphics settings), watch media, and so on.
  • 16GB+ is probably unnecessary unless you are a serious gamer or work with advanced programs such as video editors.

Storage:

When it comes to actual system storage, you can opt for a traditional hard disk drive or a solid-state drive (SSD). We won't go into the lengthy specifics on how these work but will tell you the best uses for both.

SSD drives are faster and offer better performance, but they also can be less durable and aren't as ideal for long-term storage. Hard disk drives are more affordable but slower. The best route is to opt for both, but unless you focus solely on sequential operations (such as media streaming), an SSD drive is going to offer better performance.

Storage size-wise, most users, do fine with between 250 and 500GB. This provides ample space for pictures, files, and more, but if you won't be saving much to your machine, you may save a little (laptop storage is very affordable these days) by dropping down to 120GB.

Display:

Your screen resolution is given in pixels and determines how sharp your image is. Budget laptops typically have 1366 x 768 screens, but you’re better off stretching for a full-HD 1920 x 1080 screen if you do any media viewing. Those who do a lot of gaming, photo editing, or video watching may even opt for 4K resolution (3840 x 2160), but keep in mind this is expensive and hard on battery life.

Graphics Chip:

Your graphics card is another component that can significantly alter the price tag of your laptop. There are two primary types of graphics cards:

  • Integrated graphics share your system memory. These are reasonably affordable and will work for basic users.
  • Discrete graphics chips have their own graphics processing unit (GPU). They put less strain on your RAM and are generally necessary for gaming or heavy media use. These chips vary in price, but many manufacturers, such as AMD and NVIDIA, provide detailed information and list their chips from low- to high-end.

Ports and Connectivity:

Almost all laptops come with wireless internet capability (Wi-Fi), but not all include Bluetooth. If you plan to wirelessly stream music to speakers, connect to wearable devices, or otherwise, make sure the laptop you choose is Bluetooth enabled. You can get a dongle for this, but those can be a hassle.

Also, review the ports offered. Standard options include USB 3.0, USB Type-C, and HDMI ports. The easiest option here is to have a look at the devices you have and what port they require. For example, to connect to a TV or external monitor, you will likely need an HDMI port.

Battery Life:

Never trust the quoted battery life of a manufacturer. They often don't factor in real-life user scenarios. Instead, once you've shortlisted a few laptops, look at unbiased third-party reviews regarding battery life. If you'll be using your laptop away from home, look for at least 8+ hours.

Budget

Last but very far from least, in our laptop buying guide is your budget. Most of us would choose the best laptop possible if given no monetary constraints, but in reality—we all have them.

Luckily, the market recognizes this, and you can find laptops at almost any budget point:

  • $100-$250: Prices here are going to run closer to the high end of this scale (excluding used or refurbished models) and mostly include Chromebooks. If you only need a web surfer, you'll probably do OK. 
  • $250-$600: This is into the budget laptop realm. You can get a decent machine in this range that's going to be able to do most of what the typical user needs. You won't see many SSD storage options, and the cases will be plastic, but five cores with 8GB RAM is doable.
  • $600-$900: If you're looking to game, want an SSD, or a durable metal case, you'll probably top $600.
  • $900+: High-end gaming machines and mobile workstations fall into this category. These machines are going to be powerful, fast, portable, and offer a wealth of features.

About the Author Arpad Balogh

I'm a tech geek from Hungary. Latest laptops? I got em. I love testing and breaking things, although most of the time I fail putting them together, but that's another story...

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