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.
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 $150-to-$300 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.
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.
For more, check out The 10 Best Ultraportables and The 10 Best Business Laptops, and learn which laptops we’ve tested have the best battery life.
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.
Interested in one of these alternative types? Check out our roundups of the 10 Best 2-in-1s or the 10 Best Windows Tablets.
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. 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. These power-efficient systems are made solely 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, and local storage is commonly limited to 16GB of flash memory (though you will see systems with 32GB). 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.
In the market for a Chrome OS laptop? We’ve rounded up the Best Chromebooks available. If you’re simply on a strict budget, our list of the Best Cheap Laptops is worth a look.
Laptop Shopping by Spec
Connectivity is key for a modern laptop. Every model on the market today offers Bluetooth for connecting wireless peripherals, and Internet connectivity is delivered with 802.11n Wi-Fi, with the newer and faster 802.11ac standard coming to more systems every day. 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 that forgo a second mobile contract to stay with their smartphone 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, such as phones or MP3 players, 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 incredibly svelte laptops (half an inch or less) that are so in vogue 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; the latest line of Apple MacBook Pros that use it exclusively are among the highest-profile adoptees to date. Because of Apple and the general necessity of having thinner, more extensible ports in computer hardware of all types, expect these two interfaces to be pretty much everywhere this year (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 or HDMI. The latter is especially popular lately, thanks to the demand for connecting laptops to TVs. HDMI’s cable-free cousin, Intel’s Wireless Display (or WiDi), beams a laptop’s audio and video to a TV fitted with a third-party adapter. You’ll also find some laptops supporting Miracast, a wireless display standard that works with a wider selection of devices, including TVs, mobile phones, tablets, and laptops.
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 external hard drive should do the trick.
Under the Hood
The most dominant processor chips come from Intel, which in mid 2016 launched its 7th Generation Core (code-named “Kaby Lake”) processors. Made with ultraportables and hybrid designs in mind, these new CPUs (identifiable by model numbers in the 7000s as opposed to the 6000s and 5000s used in previous-generation “Skylake” and “Haswell” parts) not only stretch battery life, they also boast improved graphics processing. 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 Kaby Lake or Skylake chips from Intel, 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 Blu-ray movies, but like fast processors, they also feast on laptop batteries. AMD Enduro, Nvidia Optimus, and Apple Automatic Graphics Switching are technologies that stretch battery life by switching seamlessly between integrated and discrete graphics based on application demand.
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 HP, Toshiba, and Acer, 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 metal. 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 Air and 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.
Buying an Extended Warranty
Most laptops are backed by a one-year warranty on parts and labor. The standard warranty is a limited one, 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 ($250), 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 (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.