Which laptop should you buy?
This isn’t a question with a clear obvious answer. No matter your price category, there are simply too many different types of laptops to choose from. More to the point, there is no single best laptop because there is no single kind of user.
Everyone wants something different. Some people care more about specs. Others care more about screens. You might care more about having a laptop that looks good than having one that can run graphically demanding games. You might not. So when people ask us which laptop or laptop brand is the best, we don't give them an easy answer.
Instead, we give them a list.
A set of criteria that everyone should give some consideration towards before splurging on a new device. Ultimately, it's your money. Taking the time to research and think about how best to spend it might sound a little more tedious and time-consuming than dropping into your local JB Hi-Fi, flashing that cash and walking out with A Shiny New Thing. However, in the long run, it increases the likelihood of you both saving money and ending up with a product that actually suits your needs.
1. Size & Form-Factor
When it comes to laptops, size matters.
Depending on what you plan to be doing with your next laptop, you’ll want to make sure you pick the size that’s the right fit for you. Size isn’t like the RAM or ROM of a laptop, you can’t upgrade it later. You’re locked into whatever form-factor you select up-front, so choose wisely.
Laptops sizes tend to start at 11.6-inches and go all the way up to 17.3 inches. Most brands and OEMS like HP, Dell, ASUS and Acer tend to offer three display sizes - 13.3-inch, 15.6-inch and 17.3-inches. However, some vendors do sell laptops that fall outside these sizes including 11.6-inches, 12.5-inches and 14-inches.
Obviously, if portability is your priority, you’ll want to go for a smaller-sized Windows laptop. They tend to be thinner and lighter than their larger counterparts. Look for laptops that have a screen that is either 12.5-inches or 13.3-inches in size, and a weight between 1kg and 1.5kgs.
However, keep in mind that smaller-sized 13.3-inch machines often don’t support the same high-end Intel Core CPUs or discrete graphics cards you’ll be able to find in their 15.6-inch counterparts. Most of the time, they’ll also feature a less-robust selection of ports. If the kind of work you intend to be using your new laptop for requires a larger display or standalone graphics power, you’ll probably need to look at a larger size.
Beyond specific sizings, there are several different classes of laptop to choose from. Ultrabooks tend to favor a slim and lightweight form-factor over high-end performance. Things like the ASUS Zenbook (review here) and Lenovo’s Yoga (review here) devices fall into this category.
Convertibles (also known as 2-in-1 laptops or 2-in-1 PCs) expand on this by adding the ability to fold away (or remove) the keyboard and use your new laptop in tablet mode. Products like Microsoft’s Surface Go (review here) and Acer’s Chromebooks fall into this category.
Finally, traditional clamshell and gaming laptops tend to boast bulkier form-factors but significantly-beefier specs.
The most important thing to consider here when looking for the best laptop you can buy is that you think about what you’re going to need that laptop to do. It’s rarely ever a case of one size fits all. Some users need something lighter and more portable. Other users need discrete graphics for things like video editing or running high end games. If you need a PC with an optical drive or long battery life, you’ll almost certainly have to look for something larger.
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Once you’ve worked out the size and form-factor of laptop you’re looking for, the search for the best one becomes that much easier - since you can filter your search results by those parameters.
2. Screen Quality
Since you’ll probably end up staring at your laptop screen hours at a time, you’ll probably want to make sure it's as painless as possible to do so. For this, you'll need a screen that is comfortable to look at and feels natural to use. m
To start with, you’ll want to consider whether you want your next laptop to have a touchscreen at all.
These days, touchscreens are very common and they can make some tasks easier than others. Some brands include this feature as standard. Others will demand a modest surcharge.
Unfortunately, opting for a touchscreen can sometimes add a glossiness to the display. Though not a universal trait among touch-sensitive displays, glossier screens are often a little more susceptible to glare. This can be a definite drawback if you’re gaming, watching content or editing images and video content.
Modern touchscreens are much better than their predecessors but, some of the above details persist and if you're more of a natural typist, you might want to consider going for a laptop that doesn’t have a touchscreen.
Next up, be sure to look at the resolution on any laptop you’re thinking of buying. A 1920x1080-pixel resolution (Full HD) should be considered the minimum if you want plenty of space to line up windows and keep things in view.If you splurge on something a little sharper, you probably won't regret it though.
Select modern laptops also now offer 4K resolutions. However, these high-end display panels are generally a costly add-on to an already-expensive product. They're only really going to be worth it for those who really need them. For example, content creation professionals.
Photographers and videographers will also want to privilege laptops that offer better color accuracy and support wider color gamut and HDR standards over those that don't. The key things you're looking for here are Delta E < 1 color accuracy and 100% coverage of the DCI-P3 color gamut.
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If you’re a gamer, it’s also worth taking the time to check the refresh rate on the display of any potential laptop. A faster refresh rate can often provide a sometimes provide a competitive advantage in online games, as it enables a smoother and more responsive play experience. Ideally, you want something with less than 5ms response time or a refresh rate greater than 144Hz.
Lastly, viewing angles are extremely important. A laptop screen that touts IPS (in-plane switching) technology offers the widest viewing angles and the best user comfort. Chances are you’re not always going to be using your laptop in its natural habitat, so a laptop with an IPS display is usually preferred over the opposite.
If possible, take the time to go into a store and try to feel out the differences between different displays for yourself. If your eyes can't see much of a difference between a laptop with a FHD display and one with a 4K one, it might not be worth paying the premium for the latter.
Just keep in mind that display models usually have the settings cranked to the maximum in order to catch your eyes. Otherwise, be sure to check out reviews like those on PC World to get a good overview of the product and whether or not its screen will be able to suit your needs. In 2020, most major laptop displays hit the mark but those that don't make themselves quickly known often when subjected to the scrutiny of a professional reviewer.
3. Keyboard quality
For long typing sessions, you’ll need to get a laptop that has a comfortable keyboard. You don’t want to get a keyboard that packs in every key under the sun (think keyboards that have squished in number pads) because that can translate to a poor overall user experience when hunting for specifics like the arrow or delete keys.
You want a keyboard that has a comfortable layout with full-sized keys and some space around the arrow keys. The keys should have adequate travel on the downstroke and snappy responsiveness when you let them go.
Make sure the keyboard is also backlit. At face value, that might seem like a superficial detail but backlist keys make it much easier to see what you're typing in dimly lit environments.
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As with the screen, it helps to try before you buy, especially if your main task will be typing. Chances are, you're going to find the most comfort with what you know here. If you're used to typing on a laptop keyboard that stretches all the way to the edge of the chassis, you're probably going to find laptops that opt for the same or a similar layout to be easier to type on than the alternatives.
It’s hard to go past any of Intel’s Core-based CPUs when buying a new laptop. Even if you're not versed in the technical details, there's a good chance you've seen the stickers plastered on all new laptops for the silicon giant's Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 propcessors.
For many users, an Intel Core Processor offer the best performance when it comes to multitasking and multimedia tasks. Core i3-based notebooks are generally found in entry-level systems, while Core i5 makes up the majority of mainstream computers.
Core i7-based systems are for those of you who want the best performance from your laptop. However, note that with a Core i7-based system, heat coming through the base of the laptop can be cause for concern, especially if you plan to actually use the laptop on your lap a lot of the time.
Some larger laptops also now incorporate Intel's i9 Core processors. Laptops running on i9 Core processors are even more powerful than laptops running on i7 Core processors. They're able to rival desktops for performance but they do come with a significantly-higher cost than a laptop with an i7, i5 or i3 Core Processor.
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Select vendors now also offer laptops and notebooks that run on AMD’s Ryzen Mobile CPUs. If you’re a gamer, this can be a particularly compelling option worth considering. Ryzen Mobile CPUs tend to be paired with AMD’s own Vega graphics chipsets, which are currently far better for gaming than Intel’s own onboard graphics.
There are a few caveats here but, since laptops powered by AMD's Ryzen Mobile chips tend to be slightly cheaper than their Intel counterparts, they can represent better value for money. Just be sure to read up on our breakdown of the differences first.