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Laptop buying guide
The most important things to know when shopping for a new laptop, hybrid, or Windows tablet.
While our laptop and mobile PC buying guide will give you the tools to go out and research, shop for, and buy the perfect laptop, hybrid, or Windows tablet, there’s no harm in starting off with a few favorite picks for 2013.
It’s hard to go wrong with the latest version of Apple’s MacBook Air. Both the 13-inch and 11-inch models have updated Intel Core i5 processors and excellent battery life. For a Windows version of something similar, check out Samsung’s expensive 13-inch Ativ Book 9 Plus, which has a better-than HD screen. The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2 Pro has a similar higher-res display and a flexible hinge that converts into a tablet, for less than $1,000. A very inexpensive option that’s still usable for online surfing and sharing is the 14-inch HP Chromebook 14, which runs the Chrome OS from Google.
Since the 2012 version of our buying guide, a couple of big-picture things have changed. Windows 8 (recently updated to Windows 8.1) is now the default operating system, and its tile-based interface means that touch screens are now standard in nearly every new laptop. And, after years of few if any Windows tablets, the Win 8 era has given us dozens of them, and many are not just basic slates, but ambitious hybrids with flipping, rotating, or even detachable screens.
Most buying guides and shopping advice tend to get bogged down in the specs, mechanically listing subcategories within subcategories. Instead, I’ll break out the most important things to know when looking for a new laptop, with deeper explanations available in any of our in-depth system reviews. To start with, here are my three cardinal rules for buying a laptop.
Three rules for buying a laptop
1. Don’t buy too much laptop
Go back several years, and $1,000 was considered a good price for a budget laptop. Today, that’s considered premium, and only one company, Apple, gets away with regularly charging much more than that (but that doesn’t stop others from trying).
So when a reader e-mails us to say something along the lines of: “I’m looking for a laptop for school, and I’ve only got $1,500 to spend,” we generally tell them to ease up on the gas pedal and look at a mainstream slim laptop for $700-$800 or so as a starting point.
And it’s not just underpowered plastic boxes in that price range, either. Intel Core i5 CPUs and touch screens in slim, reasonably attractive bodies, with 128GB SSD hard drives are available in that price range — which is more than adequate for most users, unless you’re planning on editing a lot of HD video or playing very high-end PC games.
Long story short, consumers have been buying too much laptop for years. The brief era of $300 Netbooks took them too far in the other direction, and now we’ve comfortably settled at a happy medium. Touch screens and hybrids have moved average prices up a bit, but $999 or less can still snag you an excellent premium laptop or hybrid.
2. Think about traveling light
The first question I have when someone asks, “What kind of laptop should I buy?” is this: How many days per week to you plan on carrying your laptop around with you?
The answer to that should determine what screen size your laptop should have, which largely defines the system size and weight. Frequent commutes suggest a lightweight 13-inch ultrabook (similar to the MacBook Air). Making a surprising comeback are ultraportable laptops with 11.6-inch screens, including several recent 11-inch hybrids and Windows tablets, where you may only have to take the screen with you and leave the keyboard base at home or the office.
More common midsize laptops, such as the 15-inch model probably sitting on your desk right now, are really not much fun to lug around more than once a week or so.
Lastly, if you’re convinced you’re never going to need to take your laptop along with you, or at best very, very rarely, then a big 17-inch or larger desktop replacement is a viable option. Keep in mind that most of these big laptops can’t run for very long away from a power outlet, and very few we’ve seen so far in the Windows 8 era have touch screens.
3. Design is king
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from benchmarking and testing hundreds of laptops, it’s that under the hood, a lot of these systems are awfully similar. I’d go so far as to say that, with most laptops constructed from the same pool of stock CPUs, hard drives, RAM, and video cards, it’s dangerously close to being a commodity product.
That’s where design comes in. If most laptops within a given class, and with similar components, are going to run similarly, it’s the look and feel that’s really going to push you toward one model over another.
Think of a laptop as a very visual extension of your personality. You may carry it around with you all day, or even all over the country. You send e-mails from it, store personal photos and documents, and use it to connect with people on social networks.
Like any personal accessory, such as a jacket or a pair of glasses, you should choose a laptop with a style and design that works for you, as well as one with a keyboard and touch pad you find comfortable and easy to use. That’s what Apple nails really well — the parts inside of a MacBook are not that different from other laptops (although the operating system is another story), but the human interface tools are fantastic, and the design has become a standard for what a lot of people think a laptop should look like.
The current fad for thin ultrabooks backs this up, as well as the hype that high-design laptops such as the Samsung Ativ 9 or Asus Transformer Book inevitably generate.
A laptop is a big investment that you’ll probably have to live with every day. If it comes down to choosing between a design you love and a minor difference in specs, I’d point out that nearly all mainstream laptops are powerful enough for everyday computing tasks, so go with a great design.
There are many ways to categorize laptops, and we’ve seen systems chopped into multimedia, gaming, thin-and-light, ultrabook, ultraslim, and ultraportable. You’ll see the term “ultrabook” used a lot. It’s not technically a laptop category, but instead a trademarked Intel marketing term, bestowed on laptops that meet Intel’s requirements. Most are MacBook-Air-like thin 13-inch laptops, but you’ll also find 14- and 15-inch ultrabooks. We sometimes call systems that are similarly thin but don’t meet Intel’s sticker requirements “fauxtrabooks,” or just ultrabook-like.
As a way to cut through the clutter, we use screen size as the primary category definition for laptops — which ties nicely in with our advice above on choosing a laptop based on how often it will travel with you.
Ultraportable (11-to-12-inch displays)
Ultraportable systems with 11- and 12-inch screens are making a comeback, thanks to new laptop entries from Sony and Apple, and hybrids from Lenovo, HP, and others. These typically have low-voltage Intel Atom CPUs, or sometimes AMD E-series chips. The 11-inch Windows 8 tablets can start for as little as $499, and go up from there, usually asking another $100 or so for a keyboard dock.
The only screen size distinctive enough to earn its own category, these systems occupy a unique space in the industry. A 13-inch laptop is the smallest size we’d be able to work on comfortably all day, and at the same time, the largest size we’d consider carrying around more than once or twice a week. Apple’s MacBook Pro and Air and the Sony Vaio Pro 13 are popular examples.
As previously mentioned, “ultrabook” is a trademarked Intel term, but it’s largely taken to mean a lightweight 13-inch laptop that’s under 18mm thick, with SSD storage. We’re almost at the point where most, if not all, 13-inch laptops are nearly ultrabook-thin, and the use of the marketing term may fade. In other words, when everything is essentially an ultrabook; it won’t need a special name.
Some hybrids and convertibles also fall into the 13-inch category, although a 13-inch tablet screen is a bit on the unwieldy side.
Midsize (14-, 15-, and 16-inch displays)
The traditional 15-inch laptop, along with its less-common 14- and 16-inch offshoots, make up this category. Although technically mobile products, mainstream or midsize laptops tend to stay anchored to one location, or only move around within a single home or office.
Most midsize laptops have dual-core or quad-core CPUs, most commonly from Intel’s Core i-series line, along with 4GB or 8GB of RAM, and large hard drives with at least 320GB of storage space. High-end extras such as discrete GPUs and Blu-ray drives are uncommon but available. Intel also allows for some 14- and 15-inch laptops to use the ultrabook name, if they meet certain size and spec requirements, but that’s rare.
The midsize category covers the widest ground in terms of price and features, starting at around $500 and going well past $1,000. Most typical are $800 to $1,000 configurations.
Desktop replacement (17-inch or larger display)
These massive 17-inch and larger laptops are meant to literally replace your old desktop, monitor, and keyboard combination with a single device that can also be easily transported in a pinch.
Quad-core CPUs are common, as are discrete graphics cards from Nvidia or AMD. We’d ask for a full 1080p screen, which is 1,920×1,080 resolution, and perfect for playing back Blu-ray or high-def digital content.
While 17-inch screens are more common, there are a handful of 18-inch models, and these large desktop replacement laptops make good hybrid entertainment centers for the den or dorm room, putting your computing, video, and music devices in a single box. We’ve also seen 18-to-20-inch all-in-one desktops with detachable screens that become, in essence, giant tablets of varying portability.
Hybrids, tablets, and convertibles
The majority of mobile PCs with screens that detach, flip over, or fold down to a slatelike shape have screens between 11.3 and 13.3 inches, and behave largely like traditional clamshell laptops in the corresponding groups above. Some, such as Lenovo’s Yoga series, really do look and feel like regular laptops most of the time, while others, including Microsoft’s Surface Pro, are meant to spend more time in tablet mode.
Intel Atom and Core i5 CPUs are common, which is why some hybrids cost $499, and others more than $1,000. Few models are really ready to be mainstream consumer products yet, largely because Windows 8 still doesn’t feel fully baked as a tablet OS. Plus, many of the detachable keyboards and touch pads for these systems are terrible. That said, if you’re looking for a smaller laptop, we’d definitely recommend checking out a few hybrids of the same size, in addition to clamshell laptops.
Like it or not, you still have to pay at least some attention to specs and components. Here are the current Intel and AMD processors, and where you’re most likely to find them.
This company (also the parent of the GPU maker formerly known as ATI) has recently launched new generation of accelerated processing units. Rather than CPU, or central processing unit, AMD these days uses the term APU, or accelerated processing unit, meaning that a CPU and discrete-level GPU are combined.
You’ll most likely find the new AMD A4, A6, A8, and A10 chips in upcoming systems from Acer, HP, and others in spring 2014, offering welcome options for the budget- and midpriced-PC shopper. Note that far fewer laptops are available with AMD processors than Intel ones.
If you’re looking at a laptop, tablet, hybrid, or even a desktop PC, chances are it has an Intel CPU in it. The current line confusingly has the same product names as the previous three generations. But the new chips, launched starting in June 2013, are also known by the code name Haswell (the previous generation was Ivy Bridge).
These 2013 fourth-generation CPUs are easy to spot, as most have a part number that begins with the number 4. For example, Sony’s new Vaio Pro 13 has a 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U CPU. A more detailed list of processors is available from Intel here.
The performance difference between last-gen and current-gen CPUs is modest. However, Haswell has offered significant battery life improvements in the first wave of laptops we’ve tested so far, passing 12 hours in the 13-inch MacBook Air. There’s a real-world battery life payoff in seeking out a Haswell-equipped laptop, and we’d wait for whatever model you’re looking at to be updated if it’s going to be used frequently on the go.
Core i3 — Found in many budget and midrange laptops, this dual-core CPU is fine for everyday computing.
Core i5 — Intel’s mainstream processor, found in many 15-inch, and even some 17-inch laptops, usually between $600 and $1,000.
Core i7 — Available in quad-core versions, expect to find this in more expensive performance machines, although unless you’re a gamer or serious video editor, it’s unlikely you need this much power.
Pentium, Celeron, and Atom — Yes, Intel still makes these low-power chips, which have been the bane of our Labs testing team for years. If at all possible, avoid laptops with Pentium and Celeron chips. The latest version of the Atom, formerly code named Bay Trail, offers decent performance and excellent battery life for smaller tablets and hybrids.
Xeon — High-end workstation chips. You’ll basically never run across these, unless you’re interested in Apple’s new cylindrical Mac Pro desktop or some other nonconsumer system.
Hard drives and storage
Your new laptop is going to have either a traditional spinning platter hard drive (HDD), or a solid-state hard drive (SSD), which is flash memory, similar to what you’d find in an iPhone or SD card. We’ve also seen a few examples of hybrid drives, where a small SSD (perhaps 20GB or 32GB) is paired with a larger HDD. In theory, this lets the system boot faster and helps apps open quickly, but stores bulky music and video files on the standard hard drive.
HDD — Still found in the majority of laptops, platter hard drives are large and inexpensive, but also add weight, heat, and lots of moving parts to your laptop. Look for at least a 320GB hard drive, even in a budget system. Most drives run at 5,400rpm (revolutions per minute), but some run faster, at 7,200rpm, useful for streaming data quickly from the hard drive when editing video or playing games.
SSD — These drives run cool and quiet, and produce less heat, but they’re also much more expensive, with smaller capacities. Apple’s 11-inch MacBook includes only a 64GB SSD for $999, but most have a 128GB drive, with a 256GB upgrade available at significant extra cost. SSD is doubtlessly the future of computer storage, but for now, the small capacities mean they aren’t ideal for things like large video collections.
Frequently Asked Questions
What kind of ports and extras do I need?
A couple of USB ports are a minimum. Most laptops now include at least two USB 3.0 ports, which are faster than the older USB 2.0 version, but only when used with compatible USB 3.0 devices, such as external hard drives. An SD card slot should be non-negotiable, as well as an HDMI video output. Every laptop includes Wi-Fi now, and will be compatible with virtually any Wi-Fi signal or router.
What kinds of ports and extras can I skip?
The old-style VGA video output still shows up on most laptops, but unless you need to connect to something like an old CRT monitor, it’s not required. DisplayPort for video or Thunderbolt (another high-speed data connection) are only needed if you have compatible hardware. An Ethernet jack often gets skipped on the thinnest laptops in favor of Wi-Fi. It’s better to have it for emergencies, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have it. Bluetooth is useful, but only if you have a Bluetooth mouse, speaker, or headset you plan to use; otherwise skip it or turn it off to save battery life.
Do I need an optical drive?
The answer is trending toward “no,” and a good number of thin, lightweight laptops now skip the optical drive. We haven’t missed it, but some people are definitely still tied to CDs or DVDs as a storage or media playback format. That said, there are still many people tied to optical media, so for them, it’s a must-have.
Do I need a graphics card?
Unless you plan on playing serious PC games on your laptop (Skyrim, Metro: Last Light, and so on), you can get away with using the graphics capabilities built into laptops by default. Intel’s current version is called HD 5000, and while it’s not for serious gamers, you should be able to get away with playing casual or older games, or even newer games if you keep the visual settings set to Low.
Should I get a tablet or a laptop?
Windows tablets have disappointed for years, but the current Windows 8 generation is definitely showing signs of life. Especially because Win 8 is built for touch-screen use (although it’s far from perfect), and most Windows 8 tablets and hybrids have a laptoplike mode or accessories that make them more universally useful. If you’re doing a lot of typing or touch-pad navigation, I’d still stick to a traditional laptop, or at best a very laptoplike hybrid, such as Lenovo’s Yoga line.
What’s better, Windows or Mac OS X?
That’s a loaded question if there ever was one. Windows users appreciate the flexibility of that operating system, allowing for extreme tweaking and personalization. It’s available on a nearly limitless variety of hardware, and with Windows 8, Microsoft has created a much more touch- and tablet-friendly OS, with a slick, modern look that’s a big break from the past.
Apple’s operating system, on the other hand, is only available on a handful of desktops and laptops. That said, the joint hardware/software platform makes for a much more stable/predictable overall experience, and many prefer the user-friendly OS X layout and controls. Finally, Windows has a much larger available software library, especially when it comes to free software and games.
Should I buy now, or wait for the next update/upgrade/OS/CPU/etc.?
That’s the million-dollar question, and it applies to nearly every technology category. Every new piece of hardware is a step closer to obsolescence with each passing day, and there’s always a new version coming at some point in the not-too-distant future. Once you accept that, it’s a lot easier to just relax and buy a product you’ll enjoy using, without succumbing to upgrade envy