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How we test laptops

You’ve read our laptop reviews. You’ve read our conclusions. And now you’re wondering how we came to them.

Good question. Reviews often lack context, which is evident in the wildly different scores some laptops receive from different publications. Conflicting opinions can actually make buying a laptop more difficult if the review’s criteria isn’t made clear.

Allow us to lift the veil. Here we’ll explain the benchmarks we use for objective testing and the perspective from which we approach subjective topics. We don’t expect everyone to agree with our opinions, but we hope that sharing our process will leave you better equipped to decide what laptop best fits your needs.

Also check out our list of the best laptops as chosen by our reviewers. 

The hands-on experience

The senses of sight and touch allow us to make first judgments about the laptops we receive for review. Different laptops are made of different materials such as plastic and aluminum. While metal is generally considered “premium” compared to plastic, that’s not always the case – a thin piece of metal may feel less sturdy. We strive to describe both the materials used in a laptop’s construction and how those materials hold up in real-world scenarios.

During our time with a laptop – usually a week – our initial impressions are tempered by the passage of time. A finish that was at first beautiful and unique may become annoying if it attracts dirt and fingerprints too easily, and a design that seemed mundane may grow on us through its utility.

Ultimately, hands-on impressions are subjective, no matter how much time we spend with each laptop. However, our experience handling many laptops gives a unique perspective on these products, making it possible to develop informed opinions about where each product we review stands against the competition. At the least, we want our readers to leave a review with a strong idea of how a laptop looks and feels in the real world.

Interface interaction

Quality of the keyboard and touchpad is always important, and we devote an entire section to these vital user-interface tools.

We look for keyboards that offer solid key feel. To be more specific, we look for keys with a crisp action that quickly rebound when a finger is removed. Keys should not wobble or skew when pressed along a key’s side instead of the center, and there should be no flex along the width or length of the keyboard when a key is completely depressed.

Toshiba Kirabook 2014 review touchpad

Touchpads need to have buttons with similar qualities, preferably in the form of separate left and right keys. Alternatives are acceptable if their quality holds up. The pad itself should respond quickly to touch and allow a finger to glide across it without friction. Multi-touch gestures should be included, and we look for them to operate without a jerky or uncertain feel.

Most of our reviews barely mention touchscreen quality because most implementations provide nearly identical feel. Instead, we spend time talking about related features like a convertible laptop’s hinge or a touchscreen all-in-one’s software.

Display and audio impressions

Though the design of a laptop is in the eye of the beholder, the display and audio systems on these products straddle the line between what is subjectively pleasant and what can be objectively measured.

We attempt to incorporate a bit of both in to our judgment of a these components. Using the laptop naturally reveals the quality of the display, but there are also tests used to provide a measurable impression. We use the Spyder4Elite color calibration tool and its built-in quality measurement suite to test the display’s brightness, black levels, color gamut, contrast, and screen uniformity. We don’t report all of these numbers in every review unless they stand out in some way. Our benchmarks are conducted in a darkened room to make sure ambient light does not skew the results.

Audio quality is judged by a number of subjective tests. A typical benchmark includes YouTube HD, podcasts, and streaming music. During our tests, we constantly adjust the volume to see how (or if) performance degrades as the speakers become louder. We also report on bundled audio quality tools, such as equalizer’s or noise cancellation features, if they are installed.

Hot stuff

Heat is always an issue for laptops. Fast processors give off plenty of warmth while operating, but the slim frame of a laptop leaves little room for airflow. The way a notebook deals with the buildup of heat directly impacts usability.

Ideally, a laptop should not warm significantly on either the top or the bottom, but it’s rare that this is the case. We take note of where a product warms as we use it both on a desktop and in our laps and measure hot-spots with an infrared thermometer. The results are often referenced in our reviews.

MSI GX70 gaming laptop bottom

In addition to this real-world testing, we use stress test programs such as OCCT and Furmark to simulate the maximum possible load that a laptop might encounter. While doing this, we also make note of reported CPU and GPU temperatures to see if they become hot enough to be a potential source of instability.

We also measure fan noise during our temperature tests. We use a decibel meter in an environment where ambient noise does not exceed 38 decibels. Noise is measured during idle, at full CPU load, and at full GPU load.

A lasting impression

Battery Eater is our primary synthetic benchmark, and we use both the Standard and Reader’s Test. Standard simulates an extremely high workload. Reader’s Test simulates simple productivity, such as reading and editing Word documents. There’s usually a large gap between the results produced, and that’s to be expected. The load placed on a laptop significantly impacts endurance.

We also test battery life with the Peacekeeper browser benchmark. This simulates how long a laptop will last when used for heavy Web browsing. The benchmark runs continually until the battery gives out.

All of our battery benchmarks are conducted at 70-percent display brightness with Power Saver selected in Windows power management. However, we will use a manufacturer’s custom power management settings if they ship with the laptop and can be configured to keep the display lit during our tests.

The test chamber

Most of our judgments take place during real-world use. For example, we usually use the laptop being reviewed to actually write the review, meaning the reviews you read on our site are written on the laptop pictured in the review’s photos. When it comes to performance benchmarks, however, each laptop has to spend some time alone, cranking through an array of tests.

Our current suite includes:

  • Sisoft Sandra (processor)
  • 7-Zip (processor)
  • PCMark 7 (full system performance)
  • 3DMark 06 (graphics)
  • 3DMark 11 (graphics)

Laptops designed for gaming are also judged by gameplay experience in titles Diablo 3, Far Cry 3, and Skyrim. We use FRAPS, a well know benchmark program, to take accurate framerate readings. Interpretation of the results matters as much as the numbers themselves. A laptop that scores very well in our processor benchmarks, for example, may fail to impress us if it also posts a poor score in PCMark 7, which tests multiple components and then bundles them in an overall result.

Reaching a verdict

The most difficult part of every review is the verdict. This is where we decide if we’re going to recommend a laptop and determine how the outcome of each section fits together to form a final score.

Verdicts are usually handed down from the perspective of what the laptop is built to accomplish. Poor battery life on a gaming laptop won’t significantly impact the score, but an ultraportable with the same problem could lose several points.

Competition must also be considered. Laptops are becoming better with each passing year as each brand tries to better its peers. Most of today’s laptops offer an experience that is reasonably pleasant, and none fail as a computer. But most people need just one laptop, and they want the best available, which is where the little details – such as key feel and fan noise – make a difference.

Value is also important. We don’t expect to see a high-resolution display and quad-core processor in a laptop that ships at $500, and we won’t knock it for lacking those features. A laptop that costs $1,500, however, may lose points if it skimps on hardware.

We hope that everyone reading our reviews will be able to understand our thoughts and our conclusion. Even if you don’t agree with our final verdict, the information.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published November 2011 and updated February 2013 to reflect new changes in our review process.