Buying a new laptop is often an intimidating process, especially if it’s been a while since you bought your last computer. The technology often changes so quickly that a machine that seemed dazzlingly one year is already passé by the next, making it difficult to keep up. When faced with such a daunting array of choices, it can be tempting to throw in the towel and pick whatever happens to be on sale.
Yet for many of us, a laptop is one of our most-used possessions. It follows us to the office, to campus, and to the neighborhood café. It tags along on long train rides and weekend getaways. We unwind with it on the couch and snuggle up with it in bed. Is it any wonder, then, that buying a new laptop can seem like such a momentous decision?
In this guide, we demystify the many options facing the average laptop-buyer. We can’t make your decision for you, but we can hopefully make it a bit easier. First, we’ll cover some major choices you’ll need to make; then, we’ll discuss the different categories of laptops on the market.
Mac vs. PC
If you mention to friends that you’re looking for a new laptop, likely the first thing you’ll hear is, “Are you buying a Mac or a PC?” By now, we’re all familiar with the rehashed Mac vs. PC stereotypes. The truth is, Macs and PCs are simply good at different things. Want to edit video, run massive simulations, or re-work an 800-layer image in Photoshop? You should probably get a Mac. Want a gaming-friendly computer that’s easy to tinker with, and that offers powerful specs without destroying your budget? You should probably get a PC. If you do opt for the latter, be sure to check out our list of the best laptops for Windows.
Touchscreen vs. traditional screen
This decision may pose more of a challenge, largely because touchscreens haven’t shown a major presence in the laptop market until relatively recently. However, given Windows 8’s numerous touch-friendly features, manufacturers are now scrambling to produce the snazziest and most affordable touchscreen laptop.
For consumers, this may still be a bit of a risky choice. Some laptops are not weighted for easy touch manipulation, tilting at the hinges every time you press the screen. And while a touch-sensitive screen and multi-stroke touchpad may seem like the best of both worlds, the over-abundance of inputs may end up seeming counter-intuitive, especially to more traditional users. Touchscreen devices also pack a considerably more expensive price tag than their traditional counterparts – at least for now. But if you’re already in love with Windows 8, nothing else really compares.
Convertible vs. non-convertible
Convertible laptops may offer a workable compromise for those who want the touch screen experience on a laptop with the convenience of a tablet. With convertibles, the keyboard swings around and under the screen to provide easy touchscreen access – unlike hybrids, where the keyboard detaches altogether from the tablet-like screen, and which therefore can’t really be called a laptop to begin with. Unfortunately, the jury’s still out on the future of convertible laptops and hybrids, but they’re certainly some of the trendiest models on the market right now. Check out our list of hybrids and convertibles and see if any of them strike your fancy.
New vs. refurbished vs. used
If you’ve got your heart set on a laptop that’s a few hundred dollars outside your price range, it may be worth looking into refurbished and used options. A manufacturer-refurbished laptop represents a good middle ground. For these, manufacturers take floor models, demonstration laptops, and devices that’ve been returned, restore them to factory settings, and pass them on to you for about half the normal cost.
Many people choose to sell back or trade in their fairly new laptop so that they can buy a newer model. Generally speaking, manufacturers will go out of their way to get that laptop in tip-top shape and in “like-new” condition. Manufacturer-refurbished computers still come with a limited warranty, so you know at least you won’t get a total lemon. Dig around Newegg or eBay a bit, and you should find the manufacturer’s own listings of their refurbished models. Dell, Lenovo, Apple, and HP all have their own outlet stores as well.
Major laptop types
All laptops are not created equal. Most aim to fill a specific niche, so it’s important to understand what kind of laptop fits your needs before you start shopping. Of course, every kind of laptop represents a tradeoff between price, mobility, computing power, and entertainment potential. You can get started by checking out our list of the best overall laptops, or jump right into the particulars.
Thin and light, Ultrabooks are easy to carry and perfect for the person who brings their laptop everywhere but doesn’t want to sacrifice power. Ultrabooks use low-power Intel Core processors, solid-state drives, and have a unibody chassis. They’re fairly bare bones in terms of ports, and the majority don’t have optical drives. The lack in ports here can be attributed to the UltraBook’s thin body, which has to be less than 0.8 inches thick in order to be called an Ultrabook. Offering more power thanks to their faster processors, extra RAM, better storage, and larger displays with high-quality 1080p resolution, they definitely differ from the below netbooks in both specs and price. Ultrabooks start at about $600 but can be sold for well over $1,000. Though some may think the Ultrabook is on its way out, they’re not dead yet.
Like Ultrabooks, netbooks boast extreme portability, a lightweight profile, and long battery life. While some have predicted the death of the netbook in the wake of tablet popularity and Windows 8 fervor, for now, the category continues chugging along. In part, the endurance of the netbook may owe something to its affordability. Even the best netbooks generally start around $400, about half the price of an Ultrabook. Unfortunately, they also come with about half the functionality. That being said, it’s hard to beat a netbook on bang for your buck when it comes to Web browsing, word processing, and other basic uses. Netbooks are great as student laptops, and serve well as backup computers, especially if you want to take a device on a trip without being terrified of it getting stolen.
While we’ve argued before that you shouldn’t buy the cheapest laptop, value laptops will always retain their place among wallet-conscious consumers. Several of the best budget laptops represent a pared-down version of a successful mainstream laptop, offering users decent specs while doing away with unnecessarily flashy extras. The key to buying a value laptop that will last, rather than become frustratingly inadequate after a season, is to look for components that would have been considered top-notch a year or two ago. That way, even as your value laptop ages, it can keep up with what we expect our computers to do.
Industry computing requires industry-grade laptops. The best business laptops boast durable exteriors for travel, powerful interiors to handle any software, and a wide variety of ports to handle both presentations and data transfers. Often laptops marketed for small business come with added security features, such as a fingerprint scanner. While geared toward office use, a business laptop obviously carries an attraction for anyone who likes to work hard on their computer. However, prices often soar above $1,000, putting them out of range of many who can’t write them off as a business expense.
Most of the best gaming laptops bank on capability rather than portability, pairing bulky 17-inch screens with mind-blowing specs. Gaming laptops are thick, heavy, and often a bit beastly in their design. However, the adage “true beauty lies within” rings true here. High-speed quad-core processors race through operations, aided by vast amounts of RAM. Meanwhile, with a superior graphics card, a top-of-the-line gaming laptop can render any modern game on “ultra” settings with stunningly smooth imagery. Lightning-fast solid-state drives and brilliant 1080p displays generally round out the offerings. Additionally, since gaming requires such advanced visualization capacities, gaming computers are perfect for advanced image editing as well. Generally speaking, they’re both the fastest and priciest models out there. With price tags often over $2,500, it’s hard to justify a gaming laptop unless you plan to spend a significant chunk of time every day on your computer, pushing it to its limits.
Like a gaming laptop, a laptop conceived of as a desktop replacement will be only nominally portable. With screens measuring 16-inches, 17-inches, or even larger, you’ll need specialty bags to fit these behemoths – and the resulting backache may not even be worth it. The best desktop replacements aim to do just what their name suggests – replace all the functionality of a primary desktop computer. Since you could get an actual desktop with similar specs for a fraction of the price, desktop replacements really only make sense for users who plan to move their computer some of the time, but not all of the time. For example, a student spending semesters on campus but holiday breaks back home might opt for a desktop replacement.
What’s your most important requirement in a new laptop? Let us know in the comments