Laptop buying guide: What to look for in 2019 and what to avoid

Here's everything you need to know about buying your next laptop

Choosing the right laptop can be a complicated process, given the notable differences in both design and hardware. 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. Prefer to skip the research and buy what’s best? Then check out our favorite laptops.

Mac, Windows, or something else?

The first big consideration to take when it comes to picking your new laptop is what operating system you want it to run. While traditionally that debate was dominated by Apple’s MacOS and Microsoft’s Windows, today, it’s also worth considering Google’s Chrome OS, which tends to come on much more affordable laptops.

While there are certainly comparable hardware and features offered with these platforms, there are some stark differences between them which are important to consider.

Windows

dell xps 15 2 1 in review front display

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.

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

Windows-powered devices come in a variety of shapes and sizes. A standard laptop with a clamshell design and a keyboard-mouse interface is easy to find. Touchscreen Windows laptops can be found even in the lower price brackets, and more elaborate designs include fold-back screens or even detachable tablet-keyboard combos, such as Microsoft’s own Surface Book range. Windows laptops also commonly come with touchscreens, which is not something you’ll find on any Apple MacBook offerings — unless you count the Touch Bar.

Unlike Apple’s more limited line up of hardware, there is plenty of choice in the Windows laptop space. Whether you opt for a major manufacturer like Lenovo, or Dell, or one of Microsoft’s own devices, you have a ton of options with Windows laptops.

MacOS

Macbook Air (2018) Review

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, MacOS, which is straightforward and intuitive. Macs also come pre-installed with a suite of proprietary software, and each application is well-suited for tasks such as 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, they don’t tend to sport the most powerful graphics chips, and tend to have a much higher price tag than their Windows and Chrome OS counterparts. 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 and irregular hardware refreshes mean that they aren’t always the most up to date.

Apple recently simplified its MacBook lineup, removing both the 12-inch MacBook and the non-Touch Bar MacBook Pro. That leaves you with just two options: The MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro, both of which got small upgrades in 2019. For a look at what we most recommend in that lineup, check out our more detailed guide to the best MacBooks.

Chrome OS

Acer Chromebook 514 review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Google’s Chrome OS is a little different from the other two main offerings. It powers “Chromebook” laptops and is based on Google’s Chrome browser. That means that it can’t run desktop applications like the other two platforms can. That’s great if you’re the kind of PC user who only needs a laptop to read emails, watch Netflix, and occasionally play the odd mobile game. It’s not so great if you want the full functionality offered by a desktop platform.

That said, Chrome OS is quick and more versatile today than it’s ever been, with support for thousands of Chrome extensions and a plethora of Android apps — though they don’t always scale well with larger laptop displays. Hardware choices are also much more varied today than they’ve been in the past, with powerful offerings, like Google’s own Pixelbook, which perform and look very much like premium Windows and MacOS laptops. There are even 2-in-1 options like the Pixel Slate or HP Chromebook x2.

Chrome OS is certainly a less capable platform than Windows and MacOS, but if it fits the bill for what you want to do on your laptop, you can save a lot of money by going with Google’s platform over the other two.

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