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 your next laptop. Windows and Mac both have a wide selection of laptops for different needs, so you can find the model that’s the best for you. Chromebooks are worth considering too.

There’s more to a laptop than its operating system, so keep reading to find out which laptop is right for you.

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

PCs are an incredibly diverse category. Dozens of manufacturers 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 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 preinstalled with a suite of proprietary software, and each application is well-suited for tasks such as editing video or music. While there are no touchscreens on Macs, you can use Apple’s Sidecar mode to essentially switch control over to an iPad if you really need a touchscreen for something.

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, especially when configured with lots of storage. 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.

For 2020, Apple updated its Macbooks with new butterfly keyboards that many fans had been longing for. The latest lines include a 13-inch MacBook Pro and a 16-inch MacBook Pro, in addition to a new MacBook Air model.

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 as 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.

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 by making some cuts many manufacturers produce great laptops that cost $600 or less. Buyers 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 worth considering include the fantastic Acer Chromebook 15 Spin or the Lenovo IdeaPad 330S. If portability is more important for you, we also love the Microsoft Surface Go 2-in-1, for its great design and exceedingly affordable price.

Mainstream ($600-$1000)

asus zenbook 13 ux333fa

This price range is arguably the best in terms of bang for your 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 range 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 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

If your pockets are a little deeper, there are few better laptops than those found in the premium bracket. 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. 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 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 doing some 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, 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 for 2020 are the Microsoft Surface Pro 6 and the HP Spectre x360 13.

Ultrabooks

Ultrabook is technically a specification that Intel used for extra-light, portable laptops designed to be as easy to carry as possible while still providing great battery life. They use SSDs, Intel Core processors designed to be efficient with power use, 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

Just because business laptops are designed with business users in mind, doesn’t mean they don’t have some intriguing features for the average buyer. 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-oriented 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. 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

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 graphics chips, as well as enough RAM to run modern games.

Gaming laptops tend to be bulkier, typically to accommodate better hardware and larger screens. Their high-powered hardware means that battery life isn’t too strong either — especially on systems with 4K displays. But this isn’t always the case. 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, 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.

CPU/Processor

As with any computer, the CPU carries out most of 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. Note that the pure clock speed of a CPU doesn’t necessarily give the whole picture — if you’re unsure about your options, copy the processor’s 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, and i7 series in 8th-generation models, though we are beginning to see the roll-out of 9th-generation chips in gaming laptops and content creation machines. Further down the road, we’re also starting to see the first 10th-generation Ice Lake CPUs coming in new laptop designs. AMD’s latest chips are its third-generation mobile Ryzen 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 i5-8565U, for example, is a good place to start for most people.

Graphics

A graphics chip generates the images that a program needs to display on the screen. With most laptops, its graphics chip will come integrated into the motherboard. Unlike with a desktop, it’s very rare and difficult to upgrade a laptop’s graphics, so it’s important to buy what you need at the start.

NVIDIA and AMD are the primary vendors for discrete mobile graphics. NVIDIA’s latest series 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 slightly older 10-series or the GTX 1080, 1070, and 1060.

AMD’s offerings are a little different, in that the Vega chips tend to come bundled with a CPU in what AMD calls an accelerated processing unit, or APU. There’s also a growing number of options out there with an Intel CPU combined with AMD Vega graphics core on a single chip. They can be impressively powerful and are worth considering if you find a laptop sporting that hardware at the right price.

There are also rumors of an upcoming RX 5500M mobile GPU which could be far more capable. One to watch ahead of the holiday season.

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 memory, 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 things it can do at any time.

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 drives is how much data it can hold in total. Programs, videos, music: All of these are stored on an internal drive, or in more budget laptops, “flash memory” — the same kind of long-term storage your smartphone has. In contrast to RAM, 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.

An SSD offers a dramatic performance boost over a conventional hard drive and can provide the most dramatic improvement in laptop usage when buying a new system. Make sure your next purchase has one. 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 USB ports that you need. Older laptops tend to use USB-A ports for basic data transfer. Newer laptops typically have a USB-C port, a much more advanced version that can power up devices, transfer high definition video, and move lots of data at once. However, USB-A and USB-C ports — and their cables — are not compatible without using an adapter. A more advanced version of USB-C called Thunderbolt 3 may also be available on some laptops, which increases connection capabilities even more.

If you will be connecting your laptop to a monitor for more large-screen work, you should also make sure that the laptop has the right connections for that monitor, such as USB-C, DisplayPort, or HDMI.

Touchscreen support

A few years ago a touchscreen was a novelty only found on high-end laptops, mostly because the hardware and software simply weren’t mature enough to make them useful for most people. But with the explosion of smartphone and tablet users, Microsoft, Google, and laptop makers have made a huge effort to create a quality touchscreen experience. Touchscreens are now optional even on some budget designs.

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.

In the case of some laptops, you will have to pay for the privilege of touch, so again, think before you buy to see whether it’s something you really need.

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 not always a strict rule for securing a cheap but good laptop. But there are a few different ways you can time your buying 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 on laptops. It’s worth mentioning that laptop supplies tend to run out quickly during this time since it’s one of the busiest shopping weekends of the year.

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 here.

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: A reliable rule of thumb is that older laptop generations will see a price drop once the company is ready to release a new model.

Fortunately, the difference between one laptop generation and the next is usually quite slim, making pre-release months another excellent time to scoop up decent deals on laptops.

Try to scope out manufacturer websites to see what and when new devices are coming out. You may even want to consider signing up for marketing emails so that you don’t miss a deal (at least until you find the perfect buy).

Editors' Recommendations