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If you’re in the market for a new laptop, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little bewildered by the amount of choices. There are, after all, a huge selection of models on the market, what with hardware makers pushing out dozens of new models every year.
The good news is that you don’t need to look at every single laptop out there in detail, because you can quickly narrow your options down by asking a few questions about what you want in your next computer.
Consider both portability and power
Every laptop is a compromise between portability and power, and they all vary on where they draw that line. A faster and more capable machine needs bigger internal components and more room to keep them cool—which means it will end up larger, heavier, and more battery-draining than a less-powerful computer.
As portable computing power has improved over the last few years, this compromise has become less of an issue. Today, decent processors and graphics chips slip into svelte laptop frames. Still, if you want a laptop capable of the most demanding tasks—primarily gaming and video editing—it’s going to have to be relatively chunky.
The other obvious factor that affects portability is screen size, which is usually listed first in a laptop’s specs. Go for a bigger screen, and you’ll have more room for your Excel spreadsheets and Netflix movies. Opt for a smaller one, and you’ll get something that’s easier to slide into your messenger bag. Laptop displays typically range from around 11 inches to around 17 inches.
You can find laptops to suit every point along the portability-power scale, so you’ll need to decide which is most important to you. How much of your time will you be spending carrying your laptop from place to place? Will it have to last a long time between battery charges? How much heavy use do you want to get out of it? Answer those questions, and you’ll be able to quickly pare down the list of suitable choices.
Pick an operating system
Your choices for a laptop operating system are Windows, macOS, and Chrome OS, and they’re all speedy, stable, secure, and reliable. Each OS has its pros and cons, and it’s hard to definitively rank them in any objective way. Ultimately, most people tend to just stick with what they’re already familiar with, which can make picking a new laptop a little easier.
Windows remains the most popular of the three, which also means it’s the biggest target for malware and viruses, so make sure you have a robust security system in place (the built-in protections will be fine for most users). As many different manufacturers make Windows devices, you’ll have a broader range of laptop designs to pick from—standard ones, folding laptops that double as tablets, and more.
Apple’s macOS has a stronger reputation for stability and security, and it comes with a host of software, from office apps to music-making tools (compare the best laptops for music production). On the flip side, there’s a smaller choice of laptop designs to pick from, and prices tend to be toward the higher end of the scale. This OS plays well with other Apple devices (from the iPhone to the HomePod), but less well with non-Apple gadgets.
Chrome OS is essentially just the Chrome web browser, so you’re limited to web apps (no Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop here), but it also means the lightweight, streamlined OS needs little in the way of maintenance. Chromebooks running Chrome OS are available in a variety of designs and are usually competitively priced, too.
That’s a whistle-stop tour of your three main options, but it should give you a flavor of what each has to offer. Unless you’re buying your first ever laptop, you’re already going to be familiar with at least one of these operating systems. If you’re thinking about switching to something else, try a test run on a laptop owned by a friend or family member to see how you like it.
Microsoft, Apple, and Google all make laptops to show off their respective operating systems: Check out the MacBook Pro for macOS (from $1,299 from Apple), the Surface Laptop for Windows (from $999 from Microsoft), and the Pixelbook Go for Chrome OS (from $649 from Google). They should give you a better idea of what each platform can do.
Related: Best 2-in-1 laptops
Select your specs
Browse through the laptops at your local store, and you’ll see a whole host of specifications—but don’t get overly worried about the small print. As a useful shortcut, just look at the prices, which will often tell you which computers are more powerful than others. Still, it helps to know a little bit about what you’re dealing with.
The central processing unit, also known as the CPU, or simply, the processor, is the brains of the operation, controlling all the calculations that hum through your laptop’s circuitry. To find out how capable a computer’s CPU is, look for references to a clock speed (in gigahertz), which is how fast it does its thinking. Also keep an eye out for the number of cores, which are basically mini CPUs: More cores means more simultaneous thinking.
These specs are often hidden behind brand terms, like Intel’s labels of i3 (low-end), i5 (mid-range), i7 (high-end), and i9 (power users). Watch out for the generation of the chip, too (Intel’s 10th-gen CPUs are the top of the line in 2020)—a new generation means better performance with less battery drain. That’s why, when a new generation of processors arrives, you’ll often see laptop prices updated across the board.
Another important spec is the RAM, which essentially controls how much your laptop can think about at any one time. More RAM means more support for lots of browser tabs, bigger images, more open applications, and so on. Basically, RAM lets you have a lot more going on without forcing your machine to come to a grinding halt. The absolute minimum these days is 4GB, though if your needs are even somewhat demanding, you’ll probably want to go above that.
Next up: The graphics processor, or GPU, which is basically just a CPU dedicated to graphics. It’s important for gaming and video editing, but not so important for anything else. If visuals are important to you, make sure you look at resolution, which is measured in pixels. More pixels means a sharper screen (and unfortunately more of a drain on the battery). If you see an otherwise decent-looking machine for a relatively low price, the discount may be because the screen resolution isn’t up there with the best.
There are a few other specs to consider. The hard drive size indicates the amount of room a computer provides for files and applications. If you’re planning to keep your videos, photos, and music on your machine (as opposed to storing them in the cloud), make sure the hard drive you buy can handle all your data with room to spare. Also pay attention to the number of input and output ports a laptop has, especially if you’re planning to connect it to a lot of peripherals (like external hard drives or wired speakers).
Don’t forget price and hands-on appeal
The one big factor in your decision that we haven’t really talked about yet is price. If you’re on a budget, this is another way to quickly narrow down your choice of laptops. To save some cash, look for older models that have since been superseded by something new. This is a particularly good option if you know you won’t be taxing your laptop too hard and thus won’t need cutting-edge specs.
Two final tips: Use laptop reviews in tech publications to get a sense of which machines are currently more impressive than others, and actually walk into a store to handle some sample laptops. This can give you a feel for screen sizes, build quality, and so on—even if you intend to buy online.