While tablets get all the attention these days, there’s a reason why laptops continue to be the computing device of choice for most people. Laptops offer real keyboards for faster typing, they’re better at multitasking, and they offer a lot more power for everything from editing video and creating PowerPoints to playing the latest games. So what type of laptop should you get?
There’s a wide variety of sizes, features and prices, which makes choosing the right laptop a challenge. That’s why you need to figure out what your needs are. To make the right call, just follow these eight tips.
This is not an easy question to answer, especially if you’ve never considered making the switch from Windows to Mac. But this quick overview of each platform’s strengths and weaknesses should help.
Windows notebooks are generally more affordable (starting under $400) and offer a much wider range of design choices from more than a dozen major vendors. Unlike Apple, Microsoft and its partners allow users to buy notebooks with touch screens, as well as convertible designs that let you easily transform from notebook to tablet mode.
If you’re used to the Windows interface, but haven’t tried Windows 8, you may be in for a jarring surprise. The new OS has replaced the Start menu with a tile-based start screen and a raft of new full-screen, touch-friendly apps. However, Windows 8 still has a desktop mode for running all your existing apps. Many vendors offer Windows 7 as an option if you custom configure your notebook online.
In general, Windows notebooks provide more business-friendly features such as biometric and smartcard verification and Intel vPro systems management.
MORE: Top 10 Ultrabooks
Apple OS X Mountain Lion
Apple’s MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros offer an easy-to-use operating system in OS X Mountain Lion. In fact, some say Mountain Lion is easier to navigate than the newer and bolder Windows 8. MacBooks offer iOS-like features such as Launch Pad for your apps, superior multitouch gestures, and Auto Save and Resume so you can pick up on your work right where you left off.
MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros also tend to outclass most Windows machines when it comes to industrial design, the touchpad and display quality. While Windows PCs offer more software choices, Apple makes it easier to find and install programs with the Mac App Store. However, Apple’s notebooks start at $999.
Before you decide anything else, you need to figure out just how portable you need your laptop to be. Laptops are usually categorized by their display sizes:
11 to 12 inches: The thinnest and lightest systems around have 11- to 12-inch screens and typically weigh 3 to 3.5 pounds. However, at this size, the screen and keyboard will be a bit too cramped for some users.
11-inch Laptop Reviews and 12-inch Laptop Reviews
13 to 14 inches: Provides the best balance of portability and usability. Laptops with 13- or 14-inch screens usually weigh between 3.5 and 4.5 pounds and fit easily on your lap while still providing generously sized keyboards and screens. Shoot for a system with a total weight under 4 pounds, if possible.
13-inch Laptop Reviews
15 inches: The most popular size, 15-inch laptops are usually quite bulky and heavy at 5 to 6.5 pounds, but also cost the least. If you’re not planning to carry your notebook around often or use it on your lap, a 15-inch system could be a good deal for you. Some 15-inch models have DVD drives, but you’ll save weight if you skip it.
15-inch Laptop Reviews
17 to 18 inches: If your laptop stays on your desk all day every day, a 17- or 18-inch system could provide you with the kind of processing power you need to play high-end games or do workstation-level productivity. Because of their girth, laptops this size can pack in high-voltage quad-core CPUs, power-hungry graphics chips and multiple storage drives. Just don’t think about carrying these 7 pound-plus systems anywhere.
17-inch Laptop Reviews
The most impressive specs in the world don’t mean diddly if the laptop you’re shopping for doesn’t have good ergonomics. Does the keyboard have solid tactile feedback and enough space between the keys? Is the touchpad smooth to operate or jumpy? Do the mouse buttons have a satisfying click, or do they feel mushy? How well do multitouch gestures work? You should be able to zoom in and out with ease, as well as select text with the touchpad without the cursor skipping around.
If you’re shopping for a Windows 8 notebook, test the touchpad to make sure that gestures don’t activate accidentally as you get close to the edges.
In general, Apple and Lenovo offer the best keyboards and touchpads. Dell and HP are generally pretty reliable in this category, too.
Notebook specs such as CPU, hard drive, RAM and graphics chip can confuse even notebook aficionados, so don’t feel bad if spec sheets look like alphabet soup to you. What you need really depends on what you plan to do with your laptop. More intensive tasks such as 3D gaming and HD video-editing require more expensive components.
Here are the main components to keep an eye on.
As with CPUs there are both high- and low-end graphics chips. Nvidia maintains a list of its graphics chips from low to high end as does AMD. In general, workstations and gaming notebooks will have the best GPUs, including dual graphics on the most expensive systems.
Since the launch of Windows 8, we’ve seen a number of hybrid laptop designs that double as tablets. These include the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, which has a screen that bends back 360 degrees to turn into a slate, tablets that pop off of their keyboards like the HP Envy x2 and notebooks with slide-out keyboards like the Sony VAIO Duo 11.
In most cases, these devices don’t provide as good of a slate experience as dedicated tablets or as strong of a notebook experience as clamshell-only devices. If you like the idea of occasionally using your laptop in slate mode, a convertible like the Yoga is a versatile choice. But if you want the flexibility of using your device as standalone tablet, a detachable design is best.
Even if you only plan to move your laptop from the desk to the couch and the bed or from your cubicle to the conference room, battery life matters. Nobody wants to be chained to a power outlet, even if there’s a socket within reach. If you’re buying a 15-inch notebook, look for at least 4 hours of endurance. Those who plan to be fairly mobile should shop for notebooks that offer more than 5 hours of battery life, with 6-plus hours being ideal.
If given the choice, pay extra for an extended battery; you won’t regret it. Keep in mind that some notebooks (such as the MacBook Air) feature sealed batteries that you can’t easily upgrade yourself.
To determine a notebook’s expected battery life, read third-party results from objective sources — LAPTOP notebook reviews, for example — rather than taking the manufacturer’s word for it. Your actual battery life will vary depending on your screen brightness and what tasks you perform (video eats more juice than Web surfing).
These days, you can buy a usable laptop for under $500, but if you can budget more, you’ll get a system with better build quality, longer battery life, a sharper screen and stronger performance. Here’s what you can get for each price point.
Your laptop is only as good as the company that stands behind it. Accurate and timely technical support is paramount, which is why LAPTOP evaluates every major brand in our annual Tech Support Showdown. This past year Sony came in first place, followed by Apple and Samsung.
Support is only part of what makes a notebook brand worth your money. You also have to consider how the manufacturer stacks up to the competition in terms of design, value and selection, review performance, and other criteria. In our 2013 Best and Worst Laptop Brands report, Apple placed first, followed by Lenovo and ASUS.