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Laptop buying guide: 8 essential tips to know before you buy

By Phillip Tracy April 10, 2020

Spend your money on the perfect laptop using this laptop buying guide

Dell XPS 13 (2020)

(Image credit: Future)

Laptops are compact enough to carry with you, yet versatile enough to run demanding applications. It’s the best tool for doing serious work or play whether you’re at home, on the road or in a college classroom. For those reasons, we’ve compiled lists of the best business laptops and best college laptops, not to mention our best laptops rankings for most users. 

While standalone tablets and smartphones are always popular, most people realize that everything from typing a research paper to crunching video to gaming works better on a laptop. So what type of laptop should you get? We put together a laptop buying guide to help you out.

There’s a wide variety of sizes, features and prices, which makes choosing the best laptop a challenge. That’s why you need to figure out what your needs are. 

Quick Tips

These are the most important things to consider when choosing a new laptop. For a lot more detail, see the sections below.

  • 12.5 to 14-inch screens offer the best balance between usability and portability. Larger screens are fine if you don’t travel much and smaller models are great for kids.
  • If you’re spending over $600, shoot for these minimum specs: Core i5 CPU 1920 x 1080 screen 8GB of RAM SSD Storage instead of a hard drive.
  • 8+ hours of battery life is ideal if you plan to take your laptop anywhere at all.
  • Consider a 2-in-1 laptop (either a bendback or detachable) if you want to use your laptop as a tablet. If not, a standard clamshell notebook may be a better choice.
  • Chromebooks are good for kids and students and their functionality is expanding rapidly. Windows laptops and MacBooks both offer plenty of functionality; which platform you prefer is a matter of personal taste.
laptop buying guide rows of laptops

1. Pick a Platform: Mac, Windows or Chrome OS?

This is not an easy question to answer, especially if you’re not familiar with both Macs and PCs. But this quick overview of each platform’s strengths and weaknesses should help.

Most laptops come with one of three operating systems: WindowsChrome OS or MacOS (for MacBooks only). Choosing the right one is a personal preference, but here’s a quick summary of what each offers.

Windows 10

windows 10 home page screenshot

The most flexible operating system, Windows, runs on more laptop models than Chrome OS or Mac OS X. Windows notebooks range in price from under $150 to several thousand dollars and offer a wide array of features from touch screens to fingerprint readers to dual graphics chips. Windows 10, the latest version of Microsoft’s flagship operating system, provides a number of improvements over Windows 7 and 8, including the ability to switch between tablet and desktop modes, a revamped Start menu with live tiles and the powerful Cortana digital assistant. 

Since its launch in July 2015, Windows 10 has also added a host of improvements, including the ability to use follow-up questions with Cortana, search your email using natural language and use your stylus to scribble almost anywhere. Windows 10 laptops are great for students, researchers and business users, and they’re the only machines gamers should consider. 

MORE: 100+ Windows 10 Tips to Help You Master Microsoft’s OS 

Apple macOS Catalina

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

All MacBooks come with Apple’s latest desktop operating system, macOS Catalina. Overall, the operating system offers similar functionality to Windows 10, but with a different take on the interface that substitutes an apps dock at the bottom of the screen for Microsoft’s Start menu and taskbar. Instead of the Cortana digital assistant, Mac users get Siri. They can also perform transactions with Apple Pay, take calls or texts from their phones and unlock their laptops with an Apple Watch. 

However, macOS isn’t made for touch, because no MacBook comes with a touch screen. The latest macOS Catalina operating system brings iPad apps over to Mac, as well as secondary display support for iPads and new accessibility features. 

MORE: MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: What Should You Buy?

Chrome OS

google chrome os home screen

Found on inexpensive Chromebooks such as the Samsung Chromebook 3. Google’s OS is simple and secure, but more limited than Windows or macOS. The user interface looks a lot like Windows with an application menu, a desktop and the ability to drag windows around, but the main app you use is the Chrome browser. The downside is that many of the “web apps” you use don’t work particularly well offline. However, that’s changing as almost all Chromebooks, including the high-end, Google PixelBook, can now run Android apps.

If you need a device to surf the Web and check email, navigate social networks and chat online, Chromebooks are highly portable and tend to offer good battery life at low prices. They are also extremely popular with schools and parents, because they are hard for kids to infect with malware and more functional than most tablets. If you need a Chromebook, look for one with at least 4GB of RAM and 16GB of storage. A 1920 x 1080 resolution preferred and 4K is better but very uncommon. Pay extra to get a 2-in-1 if you plan to use Android apps.

MORE: Best Chromebooks Available Now

2. Decide If You Want a 2-in-1

Many PC laptops fall into the category of 2-in-1 laptops, hybrid devices that can switch between traditional clamshell mode, tablet mode and other positions in between such as tent or stand modes. 2-in-1s generally come in two different styles: detachables with screens that come off the keyboard entirely and flexible laptops with hinges that bend back 360 degrees to change modes. 

Most of these systems are much better at serving one purpose than the other, with bend-backs being laptops first and detachables offering a superior tablet experience. However, if you don’t see the need to use your notebook as a slate, you’ll usually get more performance for your money with a traditional clamshell laptop.

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