Laptop buying guide
Our best tips and buying advice when shopping for a new laptop, hybrid, or Windows tablet.
Buying a mobile PC was hard enough when the were only traditional clamshell laptops to choose from. Today, we not only have plenty of those, but also standalone tablets with full PC operating systems and processors, as well as hybrids, which can have screens that detach or fold out of the way.
On top of that, most laptops today include Microsoft's Windows 8 as an operating system, but the radically different Windows 10 is coming in the summer of 2015 (but skip down to our FAQ for why you shouldn't worry about it).
That's a lot to consider, even before getting into screen size, budget, or task-specific features, so we'll instead begin with a few favorite picks that should get you pointed in the right direction.
For a budget laptop, check out the $199 HP Stream 11, a very inexpensive 11-inch clamshell laptop that runs Windows 8 on a low-power Intel Celeron chip. It does the basics well enough, and actually has decent battery life. Most of your other budget choices will be Chromebooks running Google's Chrome OS, which is basically the Chrome Web browser and little else. The $299 Toshiba Chromebook 2 keeps the price down and has a better-than-average screen. Just remember that Chromebooks are, by definition, online-only machines.
With the 13-inch MacBook Air selling for $999, MacBooks have truly gone mainstream, and that remains a useful, affordable all-day laptop. That said, the current 13-inch version of the MacBook Pro adds so many features, including a higher-res Retina display, that it's worth an extra $300. We've frequently looked at how your budget and needs can help determine which MacBook is right for you.
The best tablet-based hybrid remains the Microsoft Surface Pro 3, thanks to its powerful components and excellent snap-on keyboard cover. For an example of a hybrid that feels more like a traditional laptop, Lenovo's excellent ThinkPad Yoga has a clever keyboard that hides in the base when the screen is folded over into tablet mode.
For more of our favorite portable PCs, top choices in different categories can be found in our list of the Best Laptops of 2015.
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 pegging its least-expensive laptop at just around that (the 11-inch MacBook Air is $899).
So when a reader emails 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 to $900 or so as a starting point.
And it's not just underpowered plastic boxes in that price range, either. Intel Core i5 CPUs and touchscreens 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 working with 4K video or playing very high-end PC games.
Long story short, many consumers have been buying too much laptop for years. Touchscreens and solid state hard drives have moved prices up a bit, while Chromebooks and sub-$200 experiments such as the Intel Compute stick have pulled in the other direction.
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). Even better, ultraportable laptops with screen that measure 12 inches or less, are now coming equipped with better processors and higher resolution screens.
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, so it's worth thinking about getting a smaller one and connecting it to an external monitor for desktop use.
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 an option. Keep in mind that most of these big laptops can't run for very long away from a power outlet, and the intended audience for the handful we've seen lately is primarily PC gamers.
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 incorporating 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 emails 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 touchpad 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 12-inch MacBook or Dell XPS 13 inevitably generate.
A laptop is a big investment that you'll probably have to live with every day for at least a few years. 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.
Straight talk about processors
The companies that make the processors (or CPUs) powering nearly all laptops issue regular updates to their product lines every year or two. Market-leader Intel is currently on the fifth generation of its Core i-series CPUs, and you'll frequently see computers labeled as having a Core i3, Core i5, or Core i7 processor. Some very, very thin systems use an offshoot Intel calls the Core M, but in our tests of Core M systems, both performance and battery life have been disappointing (even in the new 12-inch MacBook), especially considering the premium price for most Core M systems.
Budget laptops, and many small hybrids, will have an Intel Atom, which is a lower-power CPU that's fine for basic Web surfing and video streaming, but will inevitably frustrate in all-day work situations.
For mainstream use, an Intel Core i5 (from the current fifth generation or previous fourth generation) is a good starting point. Rival AMD is on the sixth generation of its A-series processors. You're more likely to see those in lower-cost laptops, but we've always found battery life to be lacking next to comparable (if more expensive) Intel-powered systems.
Hard drives and storage
Your new laptop is going to have 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're also seeing more 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 -- Found in a diminishing number 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 they produce less heat, but they're also more expensive, with smaller capacities. Capacities from 256GB to 512GB are more common now, but budget hybrids and ultraportables may have only a tiny 32GB or 64GB SSD, which will hold the operating system files and little else.
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 (mini-DisplayPort is also becoming popular). Every laptop includes Wi-Fi now and will be compatible with virtually any Wi-Fi signal or router. Make sure to look for the current spec for Wi-Fi, which is 802.11ac.
The future may portend a single-cable world where everything is connected via USB-C (as in the case of the 12-inch MacBook), but that's not common enough right now to be truly useful.
Do I need an optical drive?
The answer is almost always "no," and nearly every laptop outside of a few 15-inch and 17-inch models now skip the optical drive. We haven't missed it, but some people are definitely still tied to CD, DVD or Blu-ray as a storage or media playback format. Worst-case scenario: get an external drive for under $50.
Do I need a graphics card?
Unless you plan on playing serious PC games on your laptop (The Witcher 3, Grand Theft Auto V, and so on), you can get away with using the graphics capabilities built into laptops by default. Intel's current version is definitely not for serious gamers, but you should be able to get away with playing casual or older games, or even some newer games if you keep the visual settings set to Low and drop the in-game resolution. That said, both desktop and laptop GPUs are more powerful than ever, and a set of top-tier Nvidia Titan X cards can drive a desktop's price up past $9,000.
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 10, Microsoft hopes to correct some of the missteps and negative buzz that surrounded the all-over-the-place Windows 8.
Apple's operating system, on the other hand, is available only 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. The next major update, called OS X El Capitan, is expected in the fall of 2015.
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/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.
But what happens to my Windows 8 machine when Windows 10 is released?
It's important to note Windows 10 will be available on July 29 as a free upgrade (for the first year of availability) to existing Windows 7, Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 users, so upgrading will be less of a hassle than in the past.
Many PC makers are shipping new products just before the Win 10 release with Windows 8 still installed, with the expectation that buyers will download Windows 10 almost immediately.
Where can I find the latest laptop and hybrid reviews?
All the newest mobile PC news and reviews can be found here at CNET.com/laptops, while our updated list of the best laptops in different categories can be found here.