RAVE takes a look at the world of laptop buying.
Today, everything we do is connected by computers. Since the 1990s, computers have been at the heart of many of our activities. You’d think all that time spent with computers would make them easier to shop for, but that isn’t the case.
With new technology making its way to laptops on a seemingly daily basis and specialized applications placing more stress on hardware than ever before, it’s critical to know the ins and outs of what you’re shopping for.
Today, we’re going to take a closer look at everything you need to know in this comprehensive laptop buying guide. This way, you’re armed with all the information you need to find a laptop that meets your needs.
Before we dive deep into the different characteristics that separate a saturated market of laptops, let’s discuss the basic categories that these computers fall into. We’re painting with a broad brush here, but understanding the basics will make it easier to learn how to buy a laptop you’re interested in and the features you’ll need to make the most from your new computer.
Entry-Level Laptops – Under $600
Manufacturers know that for every person who needs a top-of-the-line machine with tons of processing power, some people just need a bare-bones machine that can handle the basics.
Entry-level machines are ideal for casual users. If you need something to check email, browse the internet, or compose the occasional word document, then you’ll be well-served by a laptop in the sub-$600 range.
At face value, these machines look every bit as capable as performance machines costing five times as much. These affordable laptops are built to last, have ergonomic keyboards and touchpads, and sleek designs that lend a much more expensive look.
Where these machines diverge from the pricier laptops is what’s under the hood. Before you make a purchase, you should understand that these cheaper machines lack the processing and graphics power to handle complex programs, games, or tons of open tabs and windows.
This isn’t to say that entry-level laptops don’t perform well. These machines have plenty of processing power for basic tasks; they just reveal their shortcomings when it comes to more intensive tasks.
Performance Laptops – $600-1500
A massive step up from the budget-minded laptops in the entry-level category, these sub-$1500 machines offer significant hardware and performance upgrades, and they’re powerful enough to handle many of the more processing-intensive tasks that the entry-level laptops can’t manage.
These laptops have more powerful processors and longer battery life. They’re typically lightweight and well designed with excellent displays and premium finishes.
In this price range, you’ll also find quite a few laptops that are capable of more demanding tasks, such as gaming, editing, and content creation. You’ll need to do your homework, but it’s entirely possible to purchase a performance laptop that delivers the speed and power you need for under $1,500.
Premium – $1,500+
The premium category is typically reserved for super users and gamers who need the utmost in performance and power. These laptops have the power and flexibility necessary for higher-level functions like audio and video editing or multiplayer gaming.
For the additional cost, users are treated to cutting-edge processors and graphics cards, top-of-the-line displays, and unbeatable build quality.
For the average user, the extra power, performance, and convenience features that these devices provide are overkill. But, they’re practical requirements if you’re going to be engaging in processor-intensive activities like gaming or editing.
Different Types of Laptops
Within the entry-level, performance, and premium categories, there are also many different types of laptops:
2-in-1 laptops combine the functionality of a laptop and a tablet. While the design may seem gimmicky, many people find 2-in-1 machines to be the best fit for the way they work and live.
2-in-1’s come in two styles: convertible or detachable. Convertible laptops feature keyboards that fold under the screen, allowing you to use them as a tablet. Detachables are essentially tablets with removable keyboards. With the keyboard, it looks like a slim laptop, and without it, it functions like any other tablet.
These devices are usually better at one thing than the other. When shopping for a 2-in-1, ask yourself whether the laptop functionality or tablet functionality is most important to you, and look towards devices that perform better for the tasks you need most.
For the extra versatility a 2-in-1 provides, you’ll pay a premium. You can expect a 2-in-1 to cost a few hundred dollars more than a laptop with similar hardware and performance specs would cost.
Ultrabooks & Ultraportables
Ultrabook is a marketing term that Intel created to denote a class of thinner and lighter laptops offering excellent battery life that is as rugged and durable as other laptops.
The term is often used interchangeably with ultraportable. Any device that offers a streamlined design and an Intel processor could be called an Ultrabook.
Business laptops emphasize features that make them attractive for people who are often conducting business on the go. These machines are more rugged than a typical laptop, and they forgo the sleek and streamlined design that’s popular today in favor of something that can stand up to anything you can dish out.
What these laptops lack in a streamlined design or sex appeal, they make up for with bulletproof security measures and a built-to-last exterior. The displays are often larger and offer exceptional color accuracy, and they offer security features like biometric validation to ensure the information on the laptop doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
Business laptops are usually expensive, and they often fall into the premium category. These machines might not have as much graphic or processing power as similarly-priced models, but they’re usually more durable with better security features.
Most gamers gravitate towards desktop systems as that form more closely aligns with the needs of the modern gamer. Still, there are plenty of gamers who need a more portable system, and modern gaming laptops can offer the performance of a desktop system while still providing the portability of a laptop.
Gaming laptops are usually larger and bulkier to accommodate the array of ports that gaming requires. While gamers usually pair laptops with a larger display, the onboard display is also incredibly advanced, allowing users to play the newest and most demanding games without any additional equipment.
Under the hood, gaming laptops feature cutting-edge processors and high-performance graphics cards to meet the demands of the newest games. As you’d imagine, all of these performance-minded components make gaming laptops some of the most expensive devices on the market.
The operating system your laptop will run plays a critical part in what you’ll be able to do with your laptop, so it’s a primary concern when choosing how to buy a laptop. Each OS has its strengths and weaknesses. Depending on what you’ll be using your laptop for, it won’t be hard to decide which operating system is a fit for you.
With over a billion devices running Windows, it’s no surprise that this OS is the most popular in the world. Virtually every program under the sun can run on Windows, and you’ll need this OS if you rely on its flagship business programs like Outlook, Office, and Excel.
Windows offers a wide variety of features and programs that are perfect for both personal and professional use. So whether you’re looking for a work computer or just want something simple for homework or accessing social media, there are an enormous array of laptop options for every kind of user. Not only does Windows have an extensive library of apps to choose from, but it has plenty of fun games too!
It’s also safe, secure, easy to use, and compatible with all your devices, which means you can transition seamlessly between your new laptop and a PC, tablet, or smartphone.
Apple is unique in that they’re a hardware manufacturer that also makes the operating system for that hardware. The software is tied to the hardware, so you can’t have one without the other. Choosing to use macOS also means choosing a MacBook laptop.
Apple’s operating systems are considered to be the most user-friendly, and they offer a beautiful layout that’s favored by many professionals as well. Photographers, graphic artists, audio engineers, and videographers have gravitated towards the macOS for years.
The caveat is that some programs—specifically Microsoft’s suite of applications— aren’t available on macOS, and you can’t pick the hardware of your choice.
Google’s ChromeOS is a wise choice for laptop users who need a computer for basic tasks. If most of your needs are confined to a web browser, ChromeOS could be ideal for you. This operating system isn’t anywhere near as powerful or customizable as the competition, but laptops that run ChromeOS are the most affordable around by far.
ChromeOS is powerful enough for the basics, like streaming, word processing, and browsing the web. It’s limited as far as programs go; you won’t be able to run Microsoft programs or the Adobe creative suite, but if you don’t rely on those programs you may find this OS to be an ideal fit.
If you’re a techie who likes to tinker with your computers, you might find Linux to be a fun and worthwhile alternative to the heavyweights like Windows and Apple. You can run Linux on virtually every piece of hardware ever created, and it’s remarkably customizable. The caveat is many programs, like the Adobe Creative Suite or Microsoft Office can’t run on Linux.
Sure, there are viable alternatives to most of these programs that work with Linux, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble working around the limitations if you decide that Linux is the best fit for you.
The vast majority of today’s laptops are sleek, streamlined, and beautifully designed. Underneath the hood is where the true differences lie. In this section of our laptop buying guide, we’ll cover the key differences that define different pieces of hardware and what to look for when shopping for your new laptop.
The computer’s CPU (central processing unit) is the “brain” of a computer, and it plays a critical role in every process the computer carries out. The processor communicates with other components inside the computer and provides instructions on what to do according to the information the CPU receives from the programs the computer is running.
You’ll find processors in virtually every device with a screen, including TVs and cell phones. These chips often perform multiple functions and may share space with other components like the graphics card, GPS services, WiFi, and more. These arrangements are especially common in smartphones.
For years, the processor market was a two-horse race. Intel was the heavyweight of the industry while AMD served as the scrappy upstart helping to push chip innovation. Today, there’s a bit more competition in the market, although Intel and AMD still dominate.
Intel makes the largest line of processors, including their m3 processors that you’ll see in a few of the more affordable Chromebooks. Additionally, their lightning-fast i9 Intel Core processors have the speed and power necessary for content creation and modern gaming. Most laptops feature an Intel i3, i5, or i7 processor.
AMD has been the “little brother” to Intel for years, but they’ve been narrowing the gap with powerful chips that deliver unparalleled battery life. AMD’s Athalon and C-Series chips are typical in Chromebooks and other affordable laptops, while their Ryzen line is common in high-end performance laptops, and their popularity continues to grow.
Qualcomm got into the processor game more recently. Their Snapdragon processors were originally for Android phones, but they’ve since diversified and you’ll now find the Qualcomm Snapdragon in budget laptops, as well. While these processors get the job done, they’re nowhere near as powerful or fast as the offerings from Intel or AMD.
Apple decided to throw its hat into the ring more recently. While their new Apple Silicon chips are in their infancy and only available in the MacBook Air and Pro models, early benchmarks suggest that there’s about to be a new major player in the processor arena. Of course, Apple’s chips will be exclusive to their computers, so you’ll only need to worry about the splash they make if you plan on going with a MacBook.
Processor Characteristics to Consider
When evaluating a processor, there are three crucial areas to consider: clock speed, cores, and threads.
Clock speed is an approximate measure of how many processes a CPU can carry out each second. The higher the clock speed, the more processes the CPU can complete. Clock speed isn’t the end-all-be-all of a CPU, but it’s a critical measure for gaming. If your primary concern is gaming, always opt for the highest clock speed possible.
The cores of a processor can function independently, carrying out different processes within a program to increase the overall speed. Think of the adage “two heads are better than one,” in this case.
Today’s processors have a minimum of two cores, while higher-end computers often possess four, or eight cores. Some laptops aimed at super users have even more cores. If you’re using your laptop for content creation or editing, a CPU with more cores will provide you with faster and more reliable operation.
Threads function as virtual cores and facilitate faster performance for each CPU core. Most processors provide two threads for each core, but some offer more threads or only a single thread.
For multi-taskers, super users, and people who use heavyweight creative programs, having multiple threads per core is critical, as they can provide faster speeds. For gamers, threads aren’t as important as clock speed.
Graphics processors or GPUs handle all of the graphical output for your laptop, and they’re a critical topic we’ll cover in this laptop buying guide.
Anything that displays on your screen is the responsibility of the GPU. In desktop computers, there’s plenty of space to mount large and powerful graphics cards. In a laptop, this is more of a challenge, since there’s so little real estate to dedicate towards different components.
To solve these space concerns, most laptops offer a GPU that’s mounted on the same chip as the CPU. This arrangement is called an integrated GPU. It’s a marvel of engineering that mounting the GPU and CPU together is even possible. Unfortunately, there are some trade-offs with this configuration.
Integrated graphics cards are highly capable, and you’ll have no problem streaming movies in 1080p or playing simple games on a laptop with an integrated graphics card. For more intensive activities, such as games with huge processing demands or video editing, laptops with integrated graphics tend to fall short.
Those who have more demanding graphic requirements will find that integrated graphics cards fall short of delivering what they need. Gamers, video editors, and super users find themselves gravitating towards laptops that offer discrete graphics cards. Discrete graphics cards are graphics cards that are mounted elsewhere on the board, away from the CPU.
Discrete graphics cards are larger and more powerful than those that are integrated into the CPU. With a discrete graphics card, you’ll be able to enjoy nearly all the power and performance that a desktop PC would provide, within the compact form of a laptop.
We say almost because there are some caveats to reworking a graphics card from its desktop form into something compact enough for a laptop. There are usually some clock speed differences between the same GPU if the manufacturer offers both desktop and laptop versions of the chip.
While a discrete graphics card is a practical requirement for high-end gaming and editing laptops, there are some pitfalls to be aware of. As you’d imagine, a discrete GPU is more expensive than an integrated one. Not only is a discrete GPU more powerful, but they’re also more challenging to build.
The manufacturer must account for needing to make the processor smaller, shield it from heat more efficiently, and optimize its power consumption to improve battery life. Beyond the extra cost, machines with discrete graphics cards are typically bulkier and less streamlined than a similar laptop that utilizes an integrated graphics card.
If you’re gravitating towards a particular brand of GPU, keep in mind that most machines with Intel CPUs utilize Nvidia GeForce graphics cards. AMD manufactures their own GPUs under their Radeon line, and you’ll never see an AMD system that doesn’t also feature a Radeon GPU.
The next crucial hardware consideration is the amount of memory or RAM the system has. RAM is temporary storage that allows the system to quickly and easily recall information that’s needed for immediate use. The programs you’re running, the web browser you’re reading this article on, and any add-ons you’re running all use RAM to recall information.
The more RAM a laptop has, the more information the computer can store at once. More RAM storage means more multi-tasking, faster operation, and a seamless user experience.
For the average person, 8GB of RAM provides the ideal blend of performance and price. Less expensive laptops often offer 4GB of RAM or less. For more intensive tasks, you can expect these models to become bogged down and perform sluggishly. People who demand the utmost in speed and performance from their laptop will likely need a machine that offers 16GB of RAM.
In addition to the memory that stores temporary information for programs and processes, your new laptop will also need plenty of storage for your programs, files, media, and more. Unlike RAM, which acts as storage for the programs currently running on your computer, data storage takes up space whether it’s running or not.
Today’s laptops rely almost exclusively on SSD or solid-state drives for storage. SSD drives are more compact, store more data, and provide dramatically faster performance compared to the spinning drives of the past. Many inexpensive laptops still rely on SATA drives, which are smaller, slower, and less effective.
With a desktop computer, you usually have more than enough room to add additional hard drives if you find yourself needing more storage. With a laptop, you don’t have that liberty. It’s virtually impossible to add more internal storage to a laptop. For this reason, you should always purchase a device with the largest solid-state drive you can afford.
One of the final pieces of hardware you’ll need to concern yourself with are the available ports that the laptop has. Evaluating the array of ports a laptop offers can feel like an exercise in frustration. Each manufacturer offers a different array of ports, and some manufacturers offer a frustratingly limited selection.
If you plan on using your laptop with an external display, you’ll want a laptop that offers plenty of different display ports. USB-C, DisplayPort, and HDMI are most popular, and you’ll occasionally see VGA outputs, although they’re becoming increasingly rare.
Older models and business laptops have USB-A ports which support USB 2.0 and USB 3.2 protocols. Thinner laptops can’t accommodate these larger ports and have replaced them with newer and faster USB-C ports. USB-A ports are still a nice feature to have, as so many devices still rely on them to interface with your computer, but you can make do without them if you need to.
A quality laptop should include at least one USB-C port, a USB-A port, an SD card reader, and a headphone jack. A USB-C charging port is a handy feature to have, but it’s another one you can live without if need be.
Additional Features to Consider
A laptop’s hardware will largely determine what you can and can’t do with the machine, but other features determine how easy and enjoyable it is to use and communicate with.
Virtually all quality laptops include a webcam, but there are still several on the market that manage to omit one, as puzzling as that may sound.
Many sub-$1,000 laptops still include a 720p webcam, which gets the job done despite its antique experience. A quality webcam may be a larger concern for you these days, as we adjust to life in a more Zoom-dependent world. Gamers will no doubt want a higher-quality webcam if they plan on using it to stream gameplay.
Ease of Use
Chances are, you’ll be using your laptop often, and for extended periods of time. You’ll want a computer that’s easy to use, intuitive, and comfortable. You’ll want to consider things like the keyboard and trackpad layout, and how the keys feel under your fingers. It may seem small, but these details are critical in a computer you’ll likely be using every day.
You’ll also want to consider characteristics like how easy the laptop is to carry, whether you can open it with one hand, and how the laptop’s hinges feel when you open your machine.
Everybody wants to ensure their laptop is secure should it ever fall into the wrong hands. But, if you’ll be conducting business from your computer, there’s even more reason for concern if your device is ever lost or stolen.
For the security-obsessed, you’ll find that many laptops offer biometric validation in the form of a fingerprint, retinal, or facial scan. These security measures represent the best ways to protect your data, and they’re a feature that everybody should consider.
However, there are some other security features to look for when purchasing a new laptop, including:
Antivirus Software and Anti-Malware Protection
Antivirus is a must when purchasing a new laptop. These programs prevent, detect, and remove viruses and threats that could harm your computer. Unfortunately, as technology advances, so do the bad guys. Whether it’s to steal your identity or just ruin your day, cybercriminals are up to no good.
The reality is that web-based attacks are on the rise and often disguised as something else. They can fool you into downloading malware, giving up your passwords or personal information, or stealing money from your accounts.
Firewalls also protect your computer from virus and malware threats. In addition, firewalls monitor Internet and network traffic to safeguard you against suspicious connections. Thankfully, both Windows and Mac laptops already have built-in firewall protection on their systems. However, some users prefer even more safeguards.
Additional software firewalls are a great option if you want to improve your laptop’s security even more. Paid options include Bitdefender Total Security, Avast Premium Security, and Norton 360 Premium. With these products, you can get features like anti-ransomware protection, file shredding, and anti-phishing. They will even protect your laptop’s webcam and microphone from being hacked by a third party.
Keep in mind you can adjust these settings according to what is necessary at any given time, so all possible risks will be minimized while maintaining internet connectivity simultaneously!
If you’re looking for a laptop featuring the highest security available, machines like the Librum 14 are available that take protection to new levels. The Librum was created with privacy and safety in mind, and it features a kill switch that physically disconnects and disables the mic and camera when necessary. This feature ensures you no longer have to put a post-it over your webcam and virtually guarantees that nobody will be watching or listening to you. The brand even offers an anti-interdiction service for those concerned about hardware tampering during shipping.
Most laptops come packaged with an antivirus program and firewall pre-installed, so make sure that it is one that you trust before proceeding with any other installation or setup steps. If you’re not sure which brand of malware protection suits your needs best, there are online safety experts available who can help, or you can simply ask your retailer.
When to Buy a Laptop
You can’t always plan ahead when you need a new laptop, particularly if you’re replacing a device that breaks suddenly. If you’re lucky enough to have time to plan your purchase, there are a few times when you can usually score the best deals.
Retail holidays like Black Friday or Cyber Monday are obvious choices for scoring a great deal. Amazon’s Prime Day also features plenty of incredible laptop deals. Back to school season is also a great time to score a good deal.
Keep an eye on tech news, as most manufacturers begin to offer deep discounts to their existing stock when they have a new model debuting in the near future. There’s usually minimal differences between laptop generations, so this is an excellent way to score a deal on a laptop that meets your needs.
Where to Buy a Laptop
What’s the best place to buy a laptop? That will depend on your needs and budget, but in general, you can either purchase directly from the manufacturer or opt for a third-party retailer.
Often, shoppers overlook the simplicity of buying a laptop right from the brand’s website, yet most manufacturers also offer their products direct to consumers. To purchase, you can simply Google the website for the brand you are interested in purchasing, whether it be Microsoft, Apple, Dell, Acer, or another company. The advantage of going through the manufacturer’s site is that you may have technical questions that will be easier to resolve, plus you can often customize the machine to meet your specific needs.
The other option is to purchase from a third-party retailer. The most popular vendor is, of course, Amazon. If you know exactly what you are looking for, the online giant may be your best option, especially if you want fast delivery.
Be aware, however, that although Amazon is known for its low prices, the structure is more variable with electronics. Prices can vary considerably between Amazon sellers, so if you’re looking for a deal, you might want to dig deep and compare.
Another option for those who prefer to purchase a laptop online is Newegg. It’s the largest online retailer of tech products in the US, and they consistently earn top ratings with consumers. With Newegg, you can find exactly what you want from just about any brand, sorting your options according to features, availability, and price. Plus, they have a very knowledgeable support staff that you can access through chat.
Similar to Newegg, TigerDirect also offers a large selection of tech products from various brands. You can sort laptops according to style, manufacturer, and price. Plus, you can filter the results to look for specific features. This is a great site to compare prices, especially if you know the brand and model of the laptop you are looking for.
If you are the type of shopper who needs to physically see a product before buying it, Best Buy is an easy choice. With over 1,000 stores in the US, you can usually find a retail shop close to where you live. Of course, you can also purchase online with Best Buy and have your laptop delivered.
Additionally, Best Buy is probably your quickest option since you can take your new machine home right away. Alternatively, if you want a new laptop today but don’t want to go shopping, you can purchase one online and pick it up within a few hours.
Shopping for a laptop can feel like a massive undertaking, even after reading our guide to laptops. There’s much to learn and plenty of research to do to fully understand which laptops on the market are going to be a solid fit for you. Using this guide to laptops as your jumping-off point, you should be well on your way to selecting the best laptop for your needs.
Do your research, take time to try out different laptops in stores, and you’ll begin to develop a much more complete picture of your perfect device.