Laptop buying guide

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

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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. Here are some broad categories and a couple of our favorites for each.

Entry-level ($600 or less)

best budget laptops buget acer aspire e 15
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Laptops can be expensive, but by making some cuts many manufacturers produce great laptops that cost $600 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, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable.

This is a category where Chromebooks shine by ditching some of the fancier features of Windows and MacOS laptops, but there are options from those two camps. 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.

Some great entry-level laptops that are worth considering include the Acer Aspire E 15 and the Acer Chromebook 15.

Budget mainstream ($600-$1000)

Asus Zenbook UX330UA
Asus Zenbook UX330UA

This price bracket is arguably the best in terms of bang for buck. You get much better internal hardware than the entry-level offerings, but you’re not paying a premium for some of the fancy materials used in manufacturing the most expensive of laptops. You have to sacrifice the odd feature and you aren’t going to see a super-powered graphics chip for your money, but the systems at this price point are truly excellent laptops.

The fact that this section is such a sweet spot for the industry means that you have plenty to choose from too. There are laptops with great displays, laptops with powerful processors, beautiful looking 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’re looking for a laptop between $600 and $1,000, you can’t go wrong with the Asus ZenBook UX330UA or Dell Inspiron 15 7000.

Premium ($1,000+)

Dell XPS 13
Greg Mombert/Digital Trends

If your pockets are a little deeper, there are few better laptops than those found in the premium bracket. For a little bit extra money you gain longer battery life, improved performance from more powerful internal hardware, larger and higher-resolution displays, and overall better build quality. This bracket contains some of the best laptops you can buy today, so 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 is still plenty of choice. You can pick up stellar laptops in the 13-inch form factor with plenty of general computing power and connectivity options, or opt for something a little larger like a 15-inch model with a dedicated graphics chip for off-hours gaming.

This category even contains our favorite laptop at the moment, the Dell XPS 13. If you want something a little heftier and more capable, the XPS 15 is worth considering too. For an alternative brand option with plenty of plus points in its own right, the HP Spectre 13 is also worth looking into.

2-in-1

Surface Pro

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 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 are the Microsoft Surface Pro and HP Spectre x360 13.

Business laptops

Surface Book 2 op-ed header
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Just because business laptops are designed with business users in mind, doesn’t mean they don’t have some intriguing features for the average consumer. Although they might not always offer the looks of more mainstream systems, they tend to pack exceptional battery life under the hood and have more rugged and tough shells to take a beating while out and about. They tend to have slightly larger displays too, often with great color accuracy if they’re aimed more at video editors and photographers.

Due to a greater emphasis on security and privacy, these laptops are also much more likely to offer you better protective systems like biometric validation and professionally-orientated software packages.

The biggest downside to a business laptop is that it’s usually on the expensive side. If that’s less of a concern for you and you’re not a gamer, there are few better laptops out there than those aimed at business users and commuters.

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. HP’s EliteBook X360 G2 is another great option, with solid build quality and a standard three-year warranty.

Gaming laptops

Razer Blade Stealth

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 the 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 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. Their high-powered hardware means that battery life isn’t too strong either — especially on systems with 4K displays.

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.

The most powerful gaming laptops are made by companies like Asus and Razer. These dedicated machines start high and go higher in terms of price. For bargain hunters, there are more mid-range systems that have a GPU like a GTX 1060, which are perfectly capable modern gaming machines, but they won’t be able to run everything at Ultra settings with 4K resolution like some of the heftier laptops out there.

If you don’t mind paying for the privilege, two of the best gaming laptops are the Acer Predator 17 and the Razer Blade.

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