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Buying a laptop: everything you need to know, and maybe a little you don’t

In 2010, Apple carved a deep line in the history of portable computing, unveiling a device that would set the template for the imminent flood of tablets that would soon saturate the market. For a brief while, there was speculation that tablets would replace the previous standard of mobile computing, the laptop.

Tablets have certainly exploded in popularity, sure, but despite their ubiquity, the laptop remains a mainstay among computer electronics. It’s sturdy and dependable, and with hardware geared towards performance, laptops are still a viable option for people who want a mobile device that can do a good deal more than what a traditional tablet is capable of.

Related: The worst laptop buying mistakes | Our laptop testing process

Choosing the right laptop can be a complicated process, given there are notable differences in terms of both design and hardware unique to each brand. When you buy a laptop, keep in mind what exactly you will be using your laptop for, whether you intend to lug it from place to place or simply use it as a device to snuggle up with in bed. There is a good deal to consider, so let us guide you through the process.

Mac or PC?

There are few rivalries more contentious than that of Mac vs. PC. For the uninitiated looking to buy a laptop, there is no need to become a hardcore disciple of either sect. You will, however, have to choose between one or the other. While both Macs and PCs will perform all of the general functions a computer ought to do, there are several differences in design and software that distinguish the two.

Apple has always been protective of its brand, releasing products in very deliberate iterations. Any Apple product will follow its standards, whereas any manufacturer can make a PC with unique specs. As a result, Macs are very user friendly. Apple will tell you exactly what you are getting regardless of which Macbook you purchase, and because all Macs come from the same ecosystem, the company’s resourceful support network can easily help with any problems that arise.

Quality design is one of the hallmarks of a Mac. They are built to look and feel elegant. This extends to Apple’s operating system, OS X, which is straightforward to use. Macs also come pre-installed with a suite of proprietary software, and each application is well-suited for tasks such editing video or music. Macs utilize fast hardware, too, so those who want a solid computer but do not know a lot about hardware can rest easy knowing their Mac will perform well during everyday use. That said, this also equates to a higher price tag. Apple computers aren’t known for being cheap.

In many ways, Apple’s strict design standards mean that its products are easy for anyone to pick up and use, regardless of a person’s skill level or familiarity with computers. On the other hand, the rigid design of the Mac means less freedom to customize the device. The available hardware is the hardware you get.

Furthermore, Apple only sells a few different models of Macbook at any given time. In contrast, PCs are an incredibly diverse category. There are dozens of manufacturers who make PCs and the quality and pricing can vary greatly depending on which model and brand you opt for. The fastest PCs will surpass Macs in terms of performance. And many companies tailor their PCs to a specific purpose, such as gaming or business.

Matt Smith/Digital Trends

PCs typically run Windows as an operating system, which is far more open-ended than Mac OS X. There’s also more software available for Windows. In particular, Windows is the standard for game development and many business-related programs.

Overall, those who enjoy Apple’s tightly curated ecosystem will find plenty to love about a Mac. For those who want a bit more freedom in choosing their computer, or those who need hardware suited for a specific task, a PC will be more practical.

Touchscreens: Useful or frivolous?

Perhaps in an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of tablets, many laptop manufacturers have integrated touchscreen monitors into their laptops. Indeed, Windows 8 was designed with touchscreens in mind, and many consumers may find touchscreens to be an easier method of navigation than traditional keyboard and trackpad arrangement.

touchscreen ergonomics touchscreen laptop

Touchscreens can be a double-edged sword, however, and it is important to consider the drawbacks. First, touchscreens will bump up the price of a laptop. Second, they might not provide as much convenience as one may think. In a traditional laptop, the touchscreen will not be as easy to use as on a tablet. You’ll find yourself leaning forward to reach the screen. That becomes uncomfortable.

Some manufacturers have recognized this problem and have built laptops where the keyboard can fold behind the screen, essentially emulating a tablet for easy touchscreen usage. But the quality of these designs varies greatly, so you’ll need to be careful. Read reviews at Digital Trends, and other publications, before buying.

Windows 10 has taken great strides to make the traditional mouse and keyboard experience comfortable again. But for those who merely need or want a laptop for standard purposes, touchscreens are an expensive bauble.

The types of laptops

There are several categories of laptops, manufactured with an aim toward a certain use and audience. When shopping for a laptop, decide what you primarily intend to use the laptop for and seek out a category that aligns with those interests. Below are four of the major types, ranging from netbooks to portable gaming rigs.



Laptops can be expensive, but by making some cuts here and there many manufacturers produce solid computers that cost $500 or less. Consumers who need a laptop for the most basic purposes (word processing, internet browsing, etc) and want to save money may find that a budget laptop is all they need. Budget laptops are generally light on hardware such as graphics or RAM; do not expect to run AAA games or bounce easily between a hundred browser tabs.

Budget laptops also tend to cut out non-critical features like solid state drives. These cuts are not drastic, however. The best budget laptops will still be built to last, with competent construction and ergonomically sensible keyboards and touchpads. In general, entry-level laptops are great for people who may not know a lot about computers and simply want a device that can carry out standard tasks.

Related: The Acer C720P, one of our favorite budget laptops



Originally a Google-made take on netbooks, Chromebooks today come in a variety of specifications, with some offering powerful configurations that can compete with most laptops. What defines a Chromebook is the use of Chrome OS, Google’s proprietary operating system that is designed to run most of its applications from the cloud. In doing so, Chrome OS reduces the need for hard drive space, allowing for slimmer, lighter devices. With typical computers, storing more and more data on the hard drive causes the device to slow down over time. Chromebooks eliminate this as most programs are stored online and run through the browser.

Of course, this also means that Chromebooks are meant to be used primarily with an internet connection. Google has recently encouraged developers to design apps that work offline, however, so users will not be hamstrung by poor connections. For those who work in settings with good Wi-fi and do not want to bog down their computer with installations, Chromebooks are an efficient, affordable option.

Related: Take your Internet to go with our favorite Chromebooks


Lenovo Think Photo

Intel’s proprietary netbooks, Ultrabooks, follow the same general trends of netbooks without sacrificing power. The devices shed unnecessary parts such as  mechanical disk drives and ports, yet retain Intel’s Core processors, meaning they have far more processing power than a typical netbook. That said, they also tend to be expensive.

Related: Capitalize on the latest trend in computing with 10 of our favorite ultrabooks

The 2-in-1


The 2-in-1, or convertible, laptop combines the convenience and ease of a tablet with the utility of a keyboard. There are two main ways of accomplishing this: either the two are attached but the keyboard can fold behind the touchscreen, or the tablet side can be fully detached from the keyboard.

Convertibles can provide a lot of versatility, however they are not necessarily the best devices available. The uniqueness of their design can come with some notable drawbacks, such as weight (especially from the metal hinges on the keyboard) and price. Convertible laptops can often be more expensive than clam shell laptops with comparable specs.

Related: Acer Aspire Switch 10, one of our favorite 2-in-1s

Business laptops

Macbook Business

Laptops, like suits and lattes, have become one of the symbols of the modern professional. Of course, a real professional needs their laptop to do more than just serve as a status symbol. The best business laptops often boast impressive hardware designed to run a slew of professional software, whether the user needs to edit video footage, assemble a presentation, or simply host a conference call.

Given the amount of commuting many jobs require, it’s also important that a business laptop exhibit long battery life, as well as a sturdy frame that can survive constant traveling. Given their robust features, business laptops tend to fall on the pricier end of the spectrum.

Related: Time to grow up! Here are four laptops for the office professional

Desktop replacement


There is no denying the allure of a desktop. They are powerful, can be hooked up to very large monitors, and a full keyboard is a lot easier to use than the often cramped arrangements common to laptops. However, desktops can take up a lot of space, and they’re not convenient to move around.

For those who want the power of a desktop but also want something that is at least somewhat portable, there is the desktop replacement laptop. Generally equipped with a 15-inch display, desktop replacements are large. If you plan on carrying your laptop with you on your daily commute, you will probably need a full backpack and a chiropractor.

The larger screen of a desktop replacement makes it much better for watching shows and movies than the typical laptop, and great desktop replacements will also have decent speakers. This makes them useful as entertainment devices, like a home theater that can be moved easily between rooms. Indeed, desktop replacements find plenty of ways to take advantage of that extra room, such as incorporating spacious keyboards and touchpads.

Related: The Dell Inspiron 15, one of our favorite desktop replacements

Gaming laptops

Gaming Laptop Photo

The games industry requires constant innovation. Graphics keep getting better, levels keep getting bigger and denser, and many games require the ability to hit any of a number of specific keys at the precise moment. Given all this, gaming laptops have to be built to keep up with unceasing march of progress. The best gaming laptops tout high-end processors and video cards, as well as enough RAM to run modern games. Naturally, this puts gaming laptops among the most expensive.

Related: Go big or go home with our favorite gaming laptops

Gaming laptops also tend to be bulkier, typically to accommodate better hardware and larger screens. After all, nobody wants to play something like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt on a 13-inch display. All this is to say that gaming laptops are not as convenient for travel, so make sure to have a large enough bag and be prepared for sore shoulders.


As with any computer, the hardware on a laptop determines what it is capable of doing. Better hardware will naturally be more expensive, so it is important to consider what you are going to use the laptop for and choose hardware suitable for that purpose. A laptop that is only being used for general purposes such as browsing the Internet or writing documents, for example, probably doesn’t need a high-end processor or video card.


As with any computer, the CPU carries out all the processes for the laptop. Any time the computer needs to access or change data, the CPU executes that task. Better CPUs will be able to process more data at quicker speeds.

Graphics and Sound

A video card generates the images that a program needs to display on screen. With most laptops, the video card will come integrated into the motherboard. Unlike with a desktop, it’s very rare and difficult to upgrade a laptop’s video card. For most users, the video card is not something to worry about in particular. The most important uses for a video card are gaming and modeling, in which figures — often three dimensional — need to be rendered.

Speakers will also almost always be built into the laptop. Generally speaking, laptop speakers are not going to be amazing. It would be difficult, after all, to fit a subwoofer and all the necessary components for a great stereo experience within the confines of a laptop. Of course, most laptops provide ports to connect headphones or external speakers if you want a more immersive listening experience.


Memory, often called RAM, refers to the computer’s ability to store and access information for immediate use. Any task currently being done on a computer is using RAM. Essentially, the more RAM a computer has, the more information it can call up at any given time, and thus the more processes it can do at any time.


The amount of storage space on a hard drive is how much data it can hold in total. Programs, videos, music: all of these are stored on the hard drive. In contrast to memory, data in storage does not necessarily need to be in use. A program that is installed on the computer but not currently running would take up storage space but not memory. These days, many laptops use solid state drives — aka SSDs — which are faster and sturdier than traditional hard drives at the expense of storage space.