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

Choosing the right laptop can be a complicated process, given the notable differences in terms of both design and hardware unique to each brand. When you buy a laptop, keep in mind exactly what 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.

The types of laptops

There are several laptop categories, 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.

Entry-level

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Laptops can be expensive, but by making some cuts 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. 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.

Chromebooks

Chrome OS is a Linux-based operating system that expands the already-impressive functionality of Google’s free Chrome browser into a full desktop platform. Chromebook laptops excel at web-based tasks performed on light hardware – a Celeron-based Chromebook with half the RAM of a similar Windows laptop can perform quite well in comparison. Since Chrome OS is free and open-source, and the hardware requirements are lower than Windows, it’s often found in inexpensive laptops as cheap as $300 or less. More premium options compete with Windows-powered laptops at the $800 price point and above.

Unlike Windows laptops, which often come with pre-installed “bloatware” that can slow down a system and annoy the owner, Chromebooks are relatively clean. Each Chromebook has software that’s basically identical to the rest (except for a few hardware features like touchscreen support), and Google sends regular updates to all Chrome OS devices directly from its servers so they stay up to date. The cloud-based focus of Chrome OS is especially useful if you rely on Gmail and similar Google tools: log in to your Google account on startup, and all your customization from a Windows or Mac OS Chrome browser will instantly sync over.

Chrome OS has its drawbacks as well. Because it’s a web-focused platform, almost every major app is either a browser extension or a web tool. Some, like Google’s Docs, can run locally, but most require an active internet connection. Recent updates have added Android apps to a few Chromebooks, and they should come to all models eventually, but that’s not enough to overcome the huge advantage that Windows and Mac OS have for stand-alone third party applications.

Thin-and-light

Lenovo Think Photo

Intel began its “Ultrabook” push as a rigid set of definitions for a premium thin-and-light laptop spec that could compete with the MacBook Air, but lately the term has become generic. This segment of laptops offers a premium option focused on mobility, usually with a 13-inch screen (though slightly larger and smaller models are available). With models starting at around $700 and going as high as $2000, there’s a lot of variety to be had.

Typically what separates a thin-and-light from a budget laptop is material quality and a few premium components. These machines are thinner and lighter, usually with some kind of stronger chassis made of aluminum or magnesium. They’ll have a more stylish look than budget laptops as well. Even cheaper thin-and-lights might come with upgrades like an SSD, a touchscreen, or a backlit keyboard, but none of them are big enough to include a disc drive. Dell’s XPS 13, widely regarded as the best thin-and-light laptop of the last several years, fits into this category.

2-in-1

Microsoft Surface Book
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

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.

Newer systems combine the premium build and components of an ultrabook with the versatility of a two-in-one, like the Microsoft Surface line. These designs offer impressive power and performance, though their limited dimensions often mean all-day battery life is not on the table. While some convertible laptops fall in the $6oo range or lower, premium options usually start at around $1,000 or more.

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.

Many jobs require traveling and moving around, 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.

Business laptops typically use a 14 or 15-inch screen, though some can be smaller or larger. They often omit a touschreen and other niceties. Dell’s Latitude series and the Lenovo ThinkPad line are often favored by corporations (and especially IT departments) for durable builds and excellent keyboards. Business laptops start at around $1,000, but prices can climb quickly if they’re configured with powerful hardware or add-ons like spare batteries.

Desktop replacement

Asus Zenbook UX501VW

Asus Zenbook Pro UX501

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

There’s no denying the allure of a desktop. They’re 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 17-inch display, desktop replacements are thicker than your average mobile computer. If you plan on carrying your laptop with you on your daily commute, you will probably need a full backpack and a chiropractor. However, some modern designs (like the XPS 15 or the ZenBook Pro) have attempted to combine desktop replacement power and battery life with a smaller, lighter design.

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.

Desktop replacements typically start at around $1,400 or more. Adding the latest, fastest processor, more storage space, or 4K resolution screens can drive the price much higher.

Gaming laptops

Gaming Laptop Photo

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.

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.

Though some larger companies like Dell and Asus offer gaming laptops with their Alienware and Republic of Gamers sub-brands, the segment is dominated by boutique manufacturers like Falcon Northwest and Razer. These dedicated machines start high and go higher in terms of price. For bargain hunters, desktop replacement laptops can sometimes be configured with a high-power mobile graphics card for a less-expensive option that can still run recent games.

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