Buying a laptop, last-minute holiday shopper? We can help

Want to give someone a laptop this Christmas, but can't decide which machine to choose? CNET's Marguerite Reardon offers some advice.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
5 min read

It's getting down to the wire and you still haven't figured out which laptops to get your kids for Christmas.

Have no fear. Ask Maggie is here to help.

The good news is that this is a great time to be in the market for a budget laptop. Today more than ever, consumers don't have to sacrifice as much performance or as many features as they have in the past to stay within their budgets. Processors have improved to the point that a budget laptop can easily handle most of your web browsing and other basic functions. Memory (aka RAM) and storage are relatively inexpensive now, too. Some Chromebooks and Windows 10 laptops, like Lenovo's IdeaPad 100S, even come with additional cloud storage for free.

But which laptop is right for your kids? Should you get a Chromebook or a Microsoft Windows laptop? And is an Apple MacBook really worth the hefty price tag?

Dear Maggie,

I have some last-minute tech questions before Christmas. I would like to get my kids laptops, but I'm unsure what to get. My middle schooler needs one for homework. (I'm tired of giving up my computer.) But I don't want to spend a lot of money. Should I get a cheap Chromebook or an inexpensive Windows machine?

I also have a son who is about to graduate college. He's had a MacBook since high school, and he now needs a new computer, too. Macs are really expensive. Do you think I could get him a Windows PC that is similar but less expensive?

Thanks for your advice.

Last-minute Santa

Laptops for every holiday wish list

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Dear Last-minute Santa,

I hear you on not wanting to break the bank when it comes to getting your family technology for the holidays, and these are great questions. I consulted with Dan Ackerman, a section editor with CNET Reviews, to help you with some advice.


Inexpensive laptops, like the Lenovo Ideapad 100S , can make great Christmas gifts.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Let's start with your first question. But let's be clear about the difference between a Chromebook and other laptops like those running Microsoft Windows. A Chromebook is designed to be used primarily while connected to the internet, with most applications and documents living in the cloud. This means you'll need a good connection to the internet via Wi-Fi. While other laptops may run Windows 10 or Apple's Mac OS X, Chromebooks use Google's Chrome OS, which makes it very different from these other computers.

Chromebook vs. Windows?

A Chromebook will work for most people because 90 percent of what most of us do with laptops is web-based, such as checking Gmail or Facebook; watching videos on Netflix or shopping on Amazon. So for most people a Chromebook offers all the functionality you need, according to Ackerman. And the price is right, with plenty of Chromebooks costing less than $500 and some as little as $150. That's cheaper than most smartphones these days! These inexpensive Chromebooks can also feel "faster" than similarly priced Windows laptops, mostly because they aren't loaded up with software that slows down the processor.

Watch this: Our favorite laptops of 2016

But there are limitations to Chromebooks. Ackerman points out that a Microsoft Windows laptop will give you more flexibility in terms of setup customization, installing and running apps, and basically doing anything you wouldn't do in a Chrome browser window. Students, for example, may need to install a specific app for school, or some web tools may work better in alternative browsers like Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Internet Explorer or Microsoft Edge.

Check out CNET's Best Budget Laptops of 2016 and Best Chromebooks of 2016 for help figuring out which one is right for you.

Apple MacBook vs. Microsoft Windows

Now on to your college kid. It's true that Apple's MacBooks are expensive. The cheapest MacBook Air with a 13-inch screen is at least $999 from Apple. And that device hasn't had a significant upgrade since March 2015. Earlier this year, Apple did give the base model 8GB of RAM as a standard option. But on the chance an update could be coming soon for this line, buying it now could be risky. That said, the next MacBook in the lineup starts at $1,299.

By contrast, you can get a Mac-like experience from a less-expensive Windows laptop, like the Dell XPS 13, which starts at $799. There's also the Razer Blade Stealth for $899. And Microsoft right now is offering lots of good deals on the Surface Pro 4, which doubles as a tablet. You can get one for $799.

Still, none of these devices are as well built as a MacBook. Ackerman said he's confident a MacBook will last you four to five years without really falling apart.

"I'm not sure I'd say that for even premium-priced Windows laptops," he said. "Macs have that OS/hardware synergy, so the touchpad gestures are unmatched, and you get great little features like hitting the spacebar to preview any file."

He also added that a Mac will go to sleep when you close the lid, and wake up when you open it. Even today, that's a "roll of the dice on a Windows laptop."

Check out Ackerman's top picks of laptops from all categories in CNET's Best Laptops of 2016 list. And for more ideas for gadget lovers on your holiday shopping list, check out CNET's holiday gift guide.

The bottom line

So where does all this advice leave you? For your middle schooler, you may want to stick with an inexpensive Windows laptop. This will give you the most flexibility while still not emptying your wallet. For your older son, it's a toss-up. If he really values the features and quality of a MacBook, then it's money well spent. If he can live without that, he'd likely do just as well with a Windows laptop. But keep in mind, it may not last him as long.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.