Laptop buying guide: What to look for in 2020, and what to avoid

Whether you’re loyal to Windows, a Mac fan, or willing to try something new, you should know what to look for in a laptop before making an investment. There’s more to consider than just the operating system. Does it have the screen you want? Are there ports that support your peripherals? Can it play games in 1080p? These are considerations you need to weigh.

In this guide, we explain what you should look for in 2020, and what you need to avoid. There are many options available to you for both Windows 10 and Chrome OS, whereas Apple limits its MacBooks to a limited number of configurations. Continue on to find out which laptop is right for you.

Mac, Windows, or something else?

The operating system should be your first major consideration. While traditionally that debate was dominated by Apple’s MacOS and Microsoft’s Windows, Google’s Chrome OS is now a very popular alternative typically offered on much more affordable laptops.

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

Windows

Windows-based PCs are an incredibly diverse category. Dozens of manufacturers make them, and the quality and pricing can vary greatly depending on which model and brand you choose. The fastest models will surpass Macs in terms of performance, and many companies tailor their Windows PCs to a specific purpose, such as gaming or business.

Windows PCs 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, which is not something you’ll see on any Apple MacBook — unless you count the Touch Bar.

More elaborate designs include fold-back screens or even detachable tablet-keyboard combos, such as Microsoft’s Surface Book range. Meanwhile, Apple reserves the 2-in-1 design for its iPad Pro family, as you won’t see a convertible or detachable MacBook.

On the software side, Windows is far more open-ended than MacOS. It’s the standard for game development and many business-related programs, empowering a larger software library. Windows enjoys major updates with new features more frequently too: Biannually versus annually with Apple’s MacOS.

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

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 Windows or Chrome OS-based PC with unique specs. As a result, Macs are very user-friendly and stable. And because they come from the same ecosystem, Apple’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, which translates to a much higher price tag than their Windows and Chrome OS counterparts, especially when configured with lots of storage. Apple computers aren’t known for being cheap.

Macs use fast hardware, but they don’t tend to sport the most powerful graphics chips as seen in Windows-based PCs. Still, 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.

Apple’s strict design standards extend to the operating system, MacOS, which is straightforward and intuitive. Unlike Windows, the platform includes a suite of proprietary office and media-editing software, and each application is well-suited for its targeted task.

In many ways, all of this translates to products that 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 installed hardware is the hardware you get — there’s no swapping out the memory or storage.

Finally, while there are no touchscreens on Macs, you can use Apple’s Sidecar mode to essentially add an iPad as a second wireless screen with touch support.

Chrome OS

Acer Chromebook 514 review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Google’s Chrome OS is different than Windows and MacOS. Based on the Chrome browser, this platform initially focused on web-based apps and affordability. While the latter still holds true, Chrome OS has evolved over the years to support more traditional desktop software and mobile apps, similar to its rivals.

Chrome OS powers Chromebooks. These devices are typically more affordable than Windows-based PCs and MacBooks due to their lower hardware requirements. They’re ideal for schools and other institutions, and customers who just need a laptop to browse social media and make online purchases.

However, hardware choices are also much more varied today than 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.

Overall, Chrome OS is quick and more versatile today than it’s ever been. Its foundation is still web-centric, but the platform now supports Google Play and Android apps, making it the ideal notebook companion if you have an Android phone. It even mimics Apple’s iMessages, allowing Chromebook owners to text from their laptops without picking up the phone.

Moreover, Chrome OS supports Linux, opening up the platform to traditional desktop software, like GIMP and Steam. The drawback is that the library isn’t as diverse as Windows or even MacOS, and Linux support is still in beta. Still, the maturity of Chrome OS has proven to be a strong contender in a market mostly dominated by Windows.

Overall, if Chrome OS fits the bill for what you need in a laptop, you can save a lot of money by going with a Chromebook.

The types of laptops

There are several laptop categories, manufactured with a certain use or audience in mind. 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. Here are some broad categories and a couple of our favorites for each.

Entry-level ($600 or less)

Acer Chromebook 15 Spin Review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Laptops can be expensive, but manufacturers know that not everyone can afford a $2,000 machine. Buyers who need a laptop for the most basic purposes and want to save money can find great laptops that cost $600 or less.

In general, budget laptops are ideal for people who may not know a lot about computers and simply want a device that can carry out standard tasks. They’re built to last despite the low price, with competent construction and ergonomically sensible keyboards and touchpads.

These laptops are typically light on hardware, meaning you won’t find loads of RAM or high-performance graphics, making them less ideal for AAA games or keeping hundreds of browser tabs open. They’re not incapable of decent performance, just limited as to what you can do compared to higher-priced models.

This is a category where Chromebooks excel, as they ditch some of the fancier features of Windows and MacOS laptops, but there are options from those two camps. For example, the Acer Chromebook 15 Spin and the Lenovo IdeaPad 330S are fantastic. If portability is more important, the Microsoft Surface Go 2-in-1 has a great design and an exceedingly affordable price.

Mainstream ($600-$1,000)

asus zenbook 13 ux333fa

This price range is arguably the best in terms of bang for your buck. These laptops are truly excellent. You get much better internal hardware than the entry-level offerings, but at the cost of premium features, high-powered graphics chips, and fancy materials.

The fact that this section is such a sweet spot for the industry means that you have plenty to choose from. There are laptops with great displays, laptops with powerful processors, beautiful laptops, and ones that are light and portable with great battery life. You may not find a system that ticks every one of those boxes, but the best laptops under $1,000 are some of our favorites.

If you want a great gaming laptop in this price bracket, the Dell Gaming G3 is a powerful option, while the ZenBook 13 UX333 remains one of the best laptops under $1,000.

Premium ($1,000+)

Dell XPS 13 2019 review (9380)
Riley Young/Digital Trends

This bracket contains some of the best laptops you can buy today. For a little extra money, you gain longer battery life, improved performance from more powerful internal hardware, larger and higher-resolution displays, and overall better build quality. If you’re a bit more of a power-user and can afford it, this is the class of laptop you should consider most.

Despite the inflated cost of the premium laptop category, there are still plenty of choices. You can pick up stellar laptops in the 13-inch form with plenty of general computing power and connectivity options. If you’re interested in gaming on the side or content creation, you’ll want to jump up to a 15-inch laptop with a six-core processor and a dedicated graphics card.

This category even contains our favorite laptop of the past few years, the Dell XPS 13. If you want something a little heftier and more capable of content creation, the Dell XPS 15 is worth considering too. For gamers, the Razer Blade is the best laptop we’ve ever come across (and there’s a new 2020 version out), while the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme offers real power in a supremely rugged chassis.

If you’re an Apple fan, we’d recommend the MacBook Air. The MacBook Pro is an option too, but that’s more for power users and offers less bang for your buck.

2-in-1

surface pro 6
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

The 2-in-1 laptop combines the convenience and ease of a tablet with the utility of a keyboard. This category includes two specific designs: Convertible and detachable. The convertible can serve as a tablet by flipping the keyboard under the screen. The detachable is essentially a tablet with a removable keyboard but looks and feels like an ultra-thin laptop when combined.

Two-in-ones can provide a lot of versatility but 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. These 2-in-1 laptops are often more expensive than clamshell laptops with comparable hardware.

When it comes to buying a 2-in-1, some are better laptops than they are tablets, and some are better tablets than they are laptops. Think hard about which “mode” you’re likely to use more before buying and do so accordingly.

Our favorite 2-in-1 laptops for 2020 are the Microsoft Surface Pro 6 and the HP Spectre x360 13.

Ultrabooks

The term “ultrabook” is technically a specification that Intel used for extra-light, portable laptops designed to be easy to carry while still providing great battery life. They use SSDs, power-efficient Intel Core processors, and carefully designed clamshell bodies. This became a very popular type of computer, and many people began applying the name “ultrabook” to any compact, lightweight laptop that was designed for easy transport.

Today, any lightweight laptop with an SSD and Intel processor may be called an ultrabook, although that isn’t quite accurate (some are now referred to as ultraportables instead). You can find some good examples in our list of the best 13-inch laptops.

Business laptops

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2018) review
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Business laptops offer some intriguing features for the average buyer despite targeting professionals. Sure, they might not always offer the looks of more mainstream systems, but they tend to pack exceptional battery life and have more rugged and tough shells.

The biggest downside to business laptops is that they’re usually on the expensive side. They typically offer slightly larger displays paired with great color accuracy, especially if they’re aimed more at video editors and photographers. They are also much more likely to offer better protective systems like biometric validation and professionally oriented software packages due to their greater emphasis on security and privacy.

One of the most iconic laptop lines in the business category is the Lenovo Thinkpad, and the recent X1 Carbon is a fantastic entry in that range. We also love the flagship X1 Extreme — it’s our favorite business laptop for 2020.

Gaming laptops

Razer Blade base model compared
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Gaming laptops must be built to keep up with the unceasing march of progress. The best tout high-end processors and graphics chips, as well as enough RAM to run modern games. Anything less can render the hottest titles unplayable.

High-tier gaming laptops tend to be bulky, typically to accommodate better desktop-like hardware and larger screens. Their power-gulping components mean that battery life isn’t great — especially on systems with 4K displays. But this isn’t always the case, as our favorite gaming laptops tend to offer a good middle ground or offer more stealth gaming ability.

Alienware’s Area-51m is more of a traditional gaming laptop with super-powerful hardware and a bulky frame, but the Razer Blade is a much more modern take on a gaming laptop design.

What you need to know about hardware

As with any computer, hardware determines what a laptop can do. Better components will naturally be more expensive, so it is important to consider the laptop’s primary role and choose hardware suitable for that purpose. A laptop purchased to browse the internet or write documents, for example, doesn’t need a high-end processor or video card.

CPU/Processor

As with any computer, the CPU is the brains of the notebook and does most of the general work. When 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. However, keep in mind that a CPU’s pure clock speed doesn’t necessarily paint the whole picture. If you’re unsure about your options, copy its model number (such as “Core i5-9400H”) into a web search to compare your choices.

The latest offerings from Intel are its Core i3, i5, i7, and i9 series in 10th- and 11th-generation models. You can see the generation in the chip’s part number, shown immediately after the dash. For instance, the i5-9400H is a 9th-generation CPU.  Meanwhile, AMD’s latest notebook chips are its third-generation mobile Ryzen 4000 Series CPUs, though they are a bit more difficult to find in laptop offerings.

When it comes to picking a laptop based on its CPU, newer is almost always better. Try to avoid buying a laptop with a CPU that’s a few generations old. Unless you’re doing something intensive like video editing, don’t worry about buying a chip outside of the midrange. The four cores available in the Core i5-1135G7, for example, offer enough performance for almost anyone.

Graphics

A Graphics Processing Unit, or GPU, is a chip that generates all images you see on the screen. Most lower-end laptops ship with integrated graphics, which means the component is mounted inside the main processor. For instance, nearly all Intel laptop chips include integrated graphics. AMD produces Accelerated Processing Units, or APUs, that combine CPU and GPU cores on the same chip (die) in a similar fashion.

Other laptops have an additional graphics chip/module soldered into the motherboard. These chips are referred to as “discrete GPUs,” and typically can’t be removed by the typical laptop owner. Nvidia and AMD are the primary vendors of these chips.

Nvidia’s latest laptop GPU family is the RTX 20 Series, including the RTX 2060, 2070, and 2080 — with some Max-Q versions which are cooler and quieter.  These will be in the most expensive, most powerful gaming and business-class laptops, though some recent models may be using the GTX 16 Series or the older GTX 10 Series. Laptops based on the RTX 30 Series could make an appearance in Q1 2021.

There’s also a growing number of options out there with an Intel CPU combined with AMD Vega graphics core and dedicated video memory on a single module. They can be impressively powerful and are worth considering if you find a laptop sporting that hardware at the right price.

AMD discrete laptop graphics like the RX 5500M and 5600M offer vastly improved performance over integrated solutions, though they are far less common than Nvidia’s solutions.

Audio

Although some laptops offer adequate sound right out of the box, such as the MacBook Pro, most laptops don’t have the room to fit decent speakers inside the casing. Most laptops provide ports to connect headphones or external speakers if you want a more immersive listening experience.

Memory

RAM, often referred to as system memory, refers to dedicated hardware for temporarily storing and accessing information for immediate use. All current tasks store data in RAM, like the web browser currently displaying this guide.

Essentially, the more RAM, the more information a computer can call up at any given time, and thus the more things it can do at any time. However, unlike storage (see below), RAM does not store data indefinitely. Once RAM loses power, all held data is lost.

How much RAM do you need? 8GB is the sweet spot for most. You’ll want to jump up to 16GB or more, though, if you’re running intensive applications or doing any kind of content creation.

Storage

The amount of storage space on a laptop’s internal drive(s) is how much data it can hold in total indefinitely. All data, from installed programs to downloaded music, reside on an internal storage device. These devices either rely on traditional platter-based hard drive technology or NAND Flash technology. Chromebooks tend to use the latter in small amounts.

In contrast to RAM, data in storage does not necessarily need to be in use. An installed program that is currently not active takes up storage space but not memory. Many modern laptops now use solid-state drives (SSDs) which are faster and more reliable than traditional hard drives, but more expensive when comparing identical capacities.

An SSD uses NAND Flash to store data, which doesn’t have moving parts. It offers a dramatic performance boost over a conventional hard drive – which does have moving parts — and can provide the most dramatic improvement in laptop usage when buying a new system.

Make sure your next purchase has an SSD as the primary drive. If you need more space, grab a big external drive too.

Ports

Ports can quickly become confusing on a laptop due to a complex labyrinth of terminology. Make sure to focus on the USB ports that you need.

Most laptops tend to offer USB-A ports to support legacy devices, like peripherals and external drives. They’re rectangular with squared corners and only works with a one-side-up connector. This interface supports USB 2.0 (480Mbps), USB 3.2 Gen 1 (5Gbps), or USB 3.2 Gen 2 (10 Gbps), depending on the laptop manufacturer.

Thinner laptops like Ultrabooks and MacBooks generally do not offer USB-A ports due to their size. Instead, you’ll see one or more USB-C ports. This interface is smaller, narrower, and more rounded than USB-A. It’s generally used with several technologies including Thunderbolt 3 (40Gbps), USB 3.2 Gen 1, USB 3.2 Gen 2, and DisplayPort, depending on the laptop manufacturer. USB-C requires a different, thinner either-side-up connecter.

If you plan to connect a second external monitor for more large-screen work, make sure that the laptop has the right connections for that monitor, such as USB-C, DisplayPort, or HDMI. You may find VGA on old models, and video output is possible through USB-A using DisplayLink drivers and the appropriate adapter.

Touchscreen support

Touchscreens were once exclusive to high-end laptops mostly because the hardware was expensive and touch-based screens didn’t seem practical. What helped merge the two technologies was the tablet craze and the PC market’s need to regain its footing. Enter the touch-centric 2-in-1 PCs and the overall reduction in manufacturing costs. Touchscreens are now more common — even on some budget designs — unless you own a MacBook.

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Windows 10 has gone a long way towards making these touchscreen and combination designs more viable. The interface and software are designed with touch in mind, including conventional programs like Office and the Edge browser. Third-party software, like Google’s popular Chrome browser, also offers great touch support.

While touch may seem to be an interesting feature given that you smudge up a smartphone every day, consider if it’s important on a laptop. Touch makes sense on a 2-in-1 device, and even on laptops that can lean back in Stand Mode. If you don’t think a touch screen on a clamshell design will be practical, however, don’t dump extra bucks into a feature you’ll never use.

Best time to buy your laptop

One of the most common questions about buying a new laptop is when to shop to get the best deals. There’s no strict rule for securing a cheap but good laptop. But there are a few different ways you can time your purchase window to find a good deal. Consider these timelines if you’re in the market for a new laptop. 

Black Friday and Cyber Monday: These two dates in November are probably the most obvious ones for finding amazing deals. However, act fast, as laptop supplies tend to run out quickly. If you wait for the post-Thanksgiving rush, it may be hard to get the laptop you want, so you may not want to wait too long.

You can get ahead by heading online beforehand to see where the best deals — and shortest lines — will be. Doing your research in advance is a smart strategy.

Back-to-school season: Many retailers offer lower prices to help accommodate students who need new laptops for school. The fall is a great time to shop if you want to get a more affordable device with a steep discount, even if you aren’t a student heading back to class.

A couple of months after a big release: Generally, companies will lower the price of older laptop generations when they are all set to release a new model to the world. This is the manufacturers’ and retailers’ attempt to eliminate the outdated models and open up space for the new ones.

In reality, there are minimal differences between laptop generations. This is why the pre-release months offer another excellent opportunity to snag a good deal on a laptop you like.

Another tip is to search manufacturer websites to stay up-to-date on what’s in the queue and when these new devices will be released to the public. Signing up for their newsletter could be beneficial, ensuring that you never miss a deal. You can always unsubscribe after you find the perfect laptop.

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