The 9 Best Laptops of 2021

These are the best laptops for work, gaming, graphic design, and more.

The Ultimate Laptop Buying Guide
The Ultimate Laptop Buying Guide
Introduction

Our editors independently research, test, and recommend the best products; you can learn more about our review process here. We may receive commissions on purchases made from our chosen links.

The laptop has replaced the desktop PC for a lot of users, and there are a bewildering array of choices and specs out there.

For most people, the choice comes down to where you want a machine running Windows, or Apple's MacOS. Many find Apple machines easier to use, but Windows laptops offer a lot more flexibility.

For Windows fans, our experts say you should just buy Dell's XPS 13 9310. while Apple fans and those who don't have a preference should just buy the Macbook Air.

Your needs will largely determine what you need out of a laptop. If you want to replace your desktop computer, you'll want more power in your laptop. If you're more of a traveler, you might prefer something lightweight and highly portable. It's also important to get it right, as it's often very difficult to upgrade a laptop.

However, you can expand laptops with external computer monitors, keyboards, and external hard drives, but that cuts down on the portability that drew you to a laptop in the first place.

Our experts have looked at dozens of laptops and we've rounded up our favorites. Read on for our picks!

The Rundown
Best Windows:
Dell XPS 13 at Amazon
Best Ultraportable, Apple:
Apple MacBook Air at Amazon
The M1 processor can stand toe-to-toe with just about any other processor on the market today.
Best for College Students:
Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 at Amazon
We love the Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 for college students because of its 3:2 aspect ratio.
This is a great looking laptop with impressive power and specifications that's right at home gaming or editing video.
Best for Gaming:
Razer Blade 15 at Amazon
If you're looking for a powerful laptop with all the features gamers love, this is a great choice.
Best Ultraportable, Windows:
Microsoft Surface Laptop Go at Amazon
If you like to roam from task to task and coffee shop to coffee shop, the Surface Laptop Go is a great machine to carry.
Best for Professionals:
Apple MacBook Pro at Amazon
Our tester got an insane 18 hours of 4K video streaming at max brightness.
Considering everything this offers, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better value out there.
Best for Photo Editing:
HP Spectre x360 15t at Amazon
You get 16GB of RAM, 1TB SSD, and a 10th generation Core-i7 processor that will keep things running smoothly, even during the longest photo editing sessions.

Best Windows: Dell XPS 13 9310

Dell XPS 13 9310
What We Like
  • Extremely portable

  • Amazing display

  • Keyboard and trackpad are both awesome

  • Battery life is great

What We Don't Like
  • Fingerprint sensor is touchy

  • Not a lot of I/O

The Dell XPS series of laptops has always been one of our top pics. Though we haven't had the chance to test the Dell XPS 9310, we did take its predecessor, the 7390 for a spin.

Our reviewer Andy really enjoyed the 7390's minimalist design, made from aircraft aluminum and carbon fiber and the 9310 continues that tradition. The latest XPS upgrades to an 11th generation processor and comes with 8, 16, or 32 GB of RAM with storage options ranging from 256GB all the way up to 2TB. The screen also comes in configurations from FHD+ up to UHD+. On the 7390, Andy really liked the display, calling it "sharp and color accurate, with excellent viewing angles." 

On the I/O front, you have just two USB-C Thunderbolt 4 ports, a microSD card reader, and a headphone jack. That's it. If you want to plug anything else in, we recommend picking up a USB Hub to go along with it. There is no discrete GPU, relying instead on integrated graphics processors. That's ok, unless you plan on doing some really heavy lifting with this laptop, like gaming or video editing. Overall, even though we haven't tested this one directly, we have tested the XPS line thoroughly enough to believe that this next generation builds upon what was already a great feature set. This laptop offers the right combination of power and value to earn our top pick.

Screen Size: 13.4 Inches | Resolution: 1900x1200 | CPU: Intel Core i7-1185G7 | GPU: Intel Iris Xe Graphics | RAM: 32GB | Storage: 512GB SSD | Touchscreen: Yes

"Navigation is a breeze, thanks to the excellent keyboard that is quite large for such a small laptop, and the keys have a satisfying clicky response."Andy Zahn, Product Tester

Best Ultraportable, Apple: Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (M1, 2020)

2020 Apple MacBook Air
What We Like
  • Super fast

  • Keyboard is awesome

  • Gorgeous display

  • Great battery life

What We Don't Like
  • Limited ports

  • Bad webcam

  • No design evolution

  • Lacking a touchscreen

Apple has gone all-in with the M1 chip that debuted just under a year ago. Our reviewer, Jeremy, tested the M1-powered Macbook Air and came away very impressed. The M1 processor can stand toe-to-toe with just about any other processor on the market today. It flies when it's running apps designed for the processor and the Rosetta 2 compatibility layer makes up the rest.

Apple's signature magic keyboard and trackpad are both excellent. As for the display, Jeremy calls it "a beautiful 13.3-inch Retina display with a native 2560x1600 resolution, 400 nits of brightness, and Apple’s proprietary True Tone feature." What that means is you get a bright, clear display that's as good as anything on the market apart from Apple's wildly expensive Macbook Pro range.

Apple claims you'll get all-day battery life out of the laptop, and we found that to be a conservative estimate. Jeremy got around 12 hours of continuous video testing out of the laptop.

Jeremy found the design of the Macbook Air disappointing, with virtually no evolution in design from the previous generation. That means you get the same lack of ports and a notoriously bad webcam. While the new Macbook is an impressive machine, all the upgrades come on the inside with the same outside shell. Overall, we'd recommend this Macbook if you don't already have the previous generation. If you do, there's little reason to upgrade.

Screen Size: 13.3 Inches | Resolution: 2560x1600 | CPU: Apple M1 | GPU: Apple 8-core GPU | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 256GB SSD | Touchscreen: No

"Apple made some massive changes between the last MacBook Air and this one, but you can’t actually see any of them. The physical design of the MacBook Air (M1, 2020) is exactly the same as the 2019 model, so if you’ve seen one of those, you know exactly what you’re getting here." — Jeremy Laukkonen, Product Tester

Best for College Students: Microsoft Surface Laptop 4

Microsoft Surface Laptop 4
What We Like
  • Gorgeous

  • 3:2 aspect ratio is useful

  • Fast performance

  • Great Trackpad

  • Great audio

What We Don't Like
  • No design evolution

  • Poor build quality

  • No LTE support

  • Display is lackluster

Microsoft does not only make the operating system that powers a majority of computers in the world. It also makes some of the best-designed computers as well. We love the Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 for college students because of its 3:2 aspect ratio. The taller screen gives you more room to read and write.

The keyboard and trackpad are both responsive with good feedback, but one area where the laptop really excels is in sound quality. Matthew Smith, our reviewer writes, "The Surface Laptop 4 has punchy speakers with excellent volume. There’s great separation between lows, mids, and highs, which avoids the muddy sound that is common to many laptops as speaker volume nears maximum. There’s no subwoofer, so the bass can sound flat, but the Laptop 4 provides some sense of depth without overwhelming the rest of the track you’re enjoying."

Battery life is also excellent, with Microsoft advertising all-day battery life, which is important when going from class to class. This laptop features newer generations of both AMD and Intel processors, which helps with performance and battery life. Base storage doubles the Laptop 3 at 256GB, but while we like this laptop a lot, there's not enough of an upgrade here if you already have the Surface Laptop 3.

Screen Size: 13.5 Inches | Resolution: 2256x1504 | CPU: AMD Ryzen 4680U or Intel Core i5/i7 | GPU: AMD Radeon Graphics or Intel Iris Plus Graphics | RAM: 8GB, 16GB, 32GB RAM | Storage: 256GB, 512GB, 1TB SSD | Touchscreen: Yes

"A tall 3:2 display aspect ratio defines the laptop’s boxy shape. This was the Surface Laptop’s most distinctive feature on its debut and had the benefit of providing more usable screen space." Matthew Smith, Product Tester

Best for Power: Acer Predator Triton 300 SE

Acer Predator Triton 300 SE
What We Like
  • Very portable

  • Display is gorgeous

  • Monster performance

  • Solid wireless connectivity

What We Don't Like
  • Annoying ports

  • Unimpressive battery life

  • Excessive Bloatware

The Acer Predator Triton 300 SE is a gaming laptop, but it doesn't look the part. Rather than decking it out in RGB lights everywhere, the Triton 300 has an understated look that belongs on a boardroom tablet just as much as it belongs in a gamer's desk. The laptop is powered by an 11th generation Core-i7 processor, 32GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD. Inside all that, there's also an NVidia GeForce RTX 3060 discrete graphics GPU which gives this laptop a ton of power. The tradeoff is that this laptop's battery life is pretty bad.

The 14-inch display and built-in speakers are both impressive. Our reviewer says the speakers "pack a sonic punch" which is not often said about laptop speakers. The Triton 300 SE comes with good Wi-Fi 6 speeds. Matthew, our reviewer, writes, "It delivered network speeds of over 800 megabits per second (Mbps) near my router, which is typical. Every Wi-Fi 6 laptop I review manages that. I was impressed by its performance in my detached office, where the Triton 300 SE hit up to 195Mbps. By comparison, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Titanium hit only 40Mbps in the same space."

As for complaints about the laptop, they're largely superficial. The ports on the side of the laptop are located near the front, so cable management becomes an issue. Our reviewer noted there was a lot of bloatware installed upon first powering up. That's not awesome, but most of it can be removed down the line. But if you can get beyond that, this is a great-looking laptop with impressive power and specifications that's right at home gaming or editing video.

Screen Size: 14 Inches | Resolution: 1920x1080 | CPU: Intel Core i7-11375H | GPU: Nvidia RTX 3060 | RAM: 8GB, 16GB, 32GB RAM | Storage: 512GB SSD | Touchscreen: No

"The display delivers impressive contrast and vibrant color for a mid-range gaming laptop. I noticed this in every game I played."Matthew Smith, Product Tester

Best for Gaming: Razer Blade 15 (2021)

Razer Blade 15
What We Like
  • Awesome GPU

  • Super high refresh rate

  • Solid speakers

What We Don't Like
  • Unimpressive Design

  • Heavy

  • No biometric login

  • Bad battery life

The Razer Blade is Razer's flagship line of gaming laptops. This machine has a 10th generation Core-i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, and the features that gamers will really appreciate, the 144Hz refresh rate and NVidia GeForce RTX 3060 discrete GPU. All that power built into a small portable machine is powerful for gamers and creators alike.

Most striking of course is the RGB backlighting in the keyboard which always gives a gaming PC a distinct look. Bordering the side of the keyboard are top firing speakers which, according to our reviewer Andrew, "do a solid job of delivering game and media audio, as well as music. They’re clear and thankfully stay that way pretty high into the volume settings, and the Razer Blade can get pretty loud."

Laptops are meant to be portable and there are two parts of this laptop that fly in the face of that. The first is the weight. At just under five pounds, this is not meant to be tossed into a backpack for a long commute. The second is battery life. The discrete GPU taxes the battery in this machine, giving it a fairly limited life off the power cord. Speaking of limited, the laptop also lacks any kind of biometric login mechanism. There's no fingerprint reader and the webcam is not Windows Hello compatible. 

But overall, this is a powerful gaming laptop for those who don't mind sitting down next to an outlet. The machine is portable enough to go to gaming sessions, but we wouldn't want to commute with it. But if you're looking for a powerful laptop with all the features gamers love, this is a great choice.

Screen Size: 15.6 Inches | Resolution: 1920x1080 | CPU: Intel Core i7-10750H | GPU: NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3060 | RAM: 16GB | Storage: 512GB SSD | Touchscreen: No

 "Assuming you don’t mind being tethered to a wall outlet most of the time, the Razer Blade 15 provides impressive gaming experiences in an appealing, portable form factor." Andrew Hayward, Product Tester

Best Ultraportable, Windows: Microsoft Surface Laptop Go

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go
What we Like
  • Very portable

  • Very nice design

  • 3:2 aspect ratio is useful

  • Full touch screen

  • Keyboard and trackpad are outstanding

What We Don't Like
  • Not much power

  • Heats up under a load

  • Limited I/O

  • Poor camera

Microsoft's Surface Go laptop is one of the best Ultraportables you can get in the Windows space. Along with the 3:2 aspect ratio that gives you extra screen real estate for your productivity, you also get Microsoft's great design aesthetic including an option for an Alcantara keyboard deck. Speaking of the keyboard, our reviewer Andy describes it as, "quiet and tactile with soft, almost luxurious keycaps" and the trackpad is one of the best he's seen on a laptop of this size.

Of course, in order to remain ultraportable, Microsoft had to sacrifice I/O.  There is only one USB-C port along with a headphone jack. If you plan on using peripherals with this device, you'll be living #donglelife. The Surface Laptop Go also has a tendency to run hot; its compact nature tends to run into thermal and airflow issues. But you'll get a respectable GFXBench score of 5,378 from the Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM. You also get a touchscreen on this laptop, a rarity in the ultraportable space.

The bottom line here is this laptop won't do much heavy lifting for you, but it is a productivity machine designed for medium tasks like writing, researching, and browsing on the go. At 13 hours, battery life is very good. It can handle an entire workday with aplomb. So if you like to roam from task to task and coffee shop to coffee shop, the Surface Laptop Go is a great machine to carry.

Screen Size: 12.4 Inches | Resolution: 1536x1024 | CPU: Intel Core i5-1035G1 | GPU: Intel UHD Graphics | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 128GB SSD | Touchscreen: Yes

"The Surface Laptop Go is certainly not the most powerful laptop around, but with 8GB of RAM, an Intel Core i5-1035G1 CPU, and a fast solid-state drive for storage it feels zippy and responsive." Andy Zahn, Product Tester

Best for Professionals: Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (M1, 2020)

Apple introduced the Macbook Pro with M1 chip in 2020.
What We Like
  • Awesome battery life

  • Great performance

  • Hi-res retina display

  • Top notch trackpad and keyboard

What We Don't Like
  • Lacks touch screen

  • Not a lot of ports

  • Poor base storage

When Apple introduced the M1 processor in late 2020, it introduced the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro at the same time. The main difference between the two is the MacBook Pro has an extra core in the processor and a fan that helps keep that processor cool. That means you can push it harder. All told, the MacBook Pro is a little thicker, a little heavier, but a lot more powerful than the MacBook Air. 

The headline for this computer is the display. Our reviewer Alice wrote, "Apple continues to deliver with its 13-inch 2560x1600 Retina display, but this time with the True Tone technology that premiered on the 9.7-inch iPad Pro and has been present on every generation since. This interesting bit of tech uses four different sensors to automatically adjust the white balance on your display based on your current lighting environment. This technology isn't about increasing resolution and cramming in more pixels per inch, but sharpening color clarity and accuracy to a razor's edge to provide the truest image possible."

In 2019, Apple refitted its keyboards and a grateful nation breathed a sigh of relief. The 2020 Macbook Pro used the same keyboard with its great travel and tactile feedback. As for battery life, our tester got an insane 18 hours of 4K video streaming at max brightness. That just shouldn't be possible. Add to that Apple's expanding catalog of ARM-compatible apps and this is a solid buy for creators and professionals.

Screen Size: 13.3 Inches | Resolution: 2560x1600 | CPU: Apple M1 | GPU: Apple 8-core GPU | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 256GB SSD | Touchscreen: No

"This year's MacBook represents the best value we've seen in an Apple laptop for some time." Alice Newcome-Beill, Associate Commerce Editor

Best Design: ASUS ROG Zephyrus G14

Asus Zephyrus G14
What We Like
  • Slick trackpad and keyboard

  • Great Design

  • Fast refresh rate

  • Great price

What We Don't Like
  • Missing webcam

Any Zahn, our reviewer calls the ASUS ROG Zephyrus G14 a trifecta of power, portability, and value, and "an exceptional machine by any definition." There's a lot to break down there, so let's take them point by point.

When it comes to power, the ROG Zephyrus G14 sports an AMD Ryzen 9 processor, GeForce RTX 2060 Max-Q graphics card, 16GB of RAM, and 1 1TB M.2 NWMe PCIe SSD. Andy says this gets you "lightning response times." This is a 14" laptop, so it has a small footprint and is definitely portable. The display is a little smaller than we like in gaming machines, but that's the only knock we'd have against it. The discrete GPU doesn't adversely affect battery life. You still get 10 hours off the plug which is unheard of in a gaming laptop. 

When it comes to value, that's self-explanatory. You can find this laptop for right around $1,500 which is pretty great for the specifications that come with it. You also get a great keyboard and trackpad and a 120hz display which enhances the gaming aspect of the device. Overall, considering everything this offers, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better value out there.

Screen Size: 14 Inches | Resolution: 1920x1080 | CPU: AMD Ryzen 9 4900HS | GPU: NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2060 Max-Q | RAM: 16GB | Storage: 1TB SSD | Touchscreen: No

"A great feature of the Zephyrus G14 is the inclusion of a fingerprint reader that’s built into the power button." — Andy Zahn, Product Tester

Best for Photo Editing: HP Spectre x360 15t

HP Spectre X360 is a 2-in-1 convertible.
What We Like
  • Very cool design

  • 2-in-1 convertible

  • Awesome 4K display

  • Great keyboard

What We Don't Like
  • Very heavy

  • Loud

  • Hot

When it comes to photo editing, photographers spend more time looking at their computer screen than they do looking through their viewfinder. The display on the HP Spectre x360 is one of the best around, Our reviewer Jeremy calls the 4K display "remarkably crisp, and the colors...rich and bold," though it doesn't get bright enough for his tastes.

This is a 2-in-1 computer that converts to a tablet or tent mode in addition to laptop mode. It's a heavy tablet at over four pounds, but tent mode can be useful for editing photos. There's also the keyboard which is quite comfortable to use in long typing sessions. From a design novelty standpoint, the USB-A ports in the corners of the laptop are slick, if slightly impractical. 

When you're running the laptop under a load, this laptop gets hot and a little noisy when the fans kick in. The GPU is an NVidia GTX 1650Ti which is a little dated, especially when compared to modern systems. But you get 16GB of RAM, 1TB SSD, and a 10th generation Core-i7 processor that will keep things running smoothly, even during the longest photo editing sessions.

Screen Size: 15.6 Inches | Resolution: 3840x2160 | CPU: Intel Core i7-10750H | GPU: Nvidia GTX 1650Ti | RAM: 16GB | Storage: 1TB SSD | Touchscreen: Yes

 "The HP Spectre x360 15t isn’t perfect, but it hits all the right notes in terms of style, performance, and price." Jeremy Laukkonen, Product Tester

Final Verdict

Overall, we love the Dell XPS 13 as the best overall laptop on this list. The balance of power, design, and affordability all come together in a great product with an amazing keyboard. If you want something more portable, then look to the Apple MacBook Air.  This device packs a surprising amount of power in its ultraportable frame. With more and more developers making native ARM apps for Mac, the MacBook Air is only going to get better.

About Our Trusted Experts

Adam S. oud has been writing in the tech space for almost a decade and exclusively on laptops. Adam hasn't had a desktop computer since 2008 because he just never stays still. Trackpads for life!

Andrew Hayward, who reviewed our top pick, the Dell XPS 13, is a Chicago based writer with over 14 years of experience covering tech and gaming. He loved the XPS for its lavish design and excellent performance, and also reviewed the Apple MacBook Air, our "Best for home use" selection, which he found slim, attractive, and packed with useful features.

Andy Zahn has been writing for Lifewire since 2019, covering the last tech and consumer gadgets. He focuses particularly on laptops, desktops, and gaming.

Alice Newcome-Beill is Associate Commerce Editor for Lifewire. Aside from editing and updating hundreds of roundups, she's previously been published in PCMag, PC Gamer, and GamesRadar. She tested the MacBook Pro (M1, 2020) and loved the capabilities of the new M1 chip and the 18-hour battery life.

Jeremy Laukkonen also penned a pair of reviews for the machines in our roundup. His obsession with technology tempted him away from the automotive industry to become a full-time ghostwriter for several major tech trade publications and a product tester for Lifewire. He loved the Acer Aspire E 15's full HD display and long-lasting battery, and called the HP Spectre x360 15t a "high water mark" for 2-in-1s. He also tested the MacBook Air with the M1 chip, praising its excellent performance and long-lasting battery.

Matthew Smith is a veteran consumer tech journalist who's been reviewing products since 2007. His expertise includes PC hardware, gaming, laptops, smartphones, and more. He was formerly the Lead Editor of the product reviews team at Digital Trends.

What to Look for in a Laptop

The primary advantage of laptops versus their desktop counterparts is portability, though there's still a lot of variance in the laptop marketplace in terms of weight and dimensions. Ultrathin models tend to be more feature-locked. That means you can't upgrade them, and that's usually because of space considerations. While it's certainly possible to get a very powerful laptop that's also lightweight and highly portable, you'll generally end up paying significantly more for the privilege.

Display & screen size

Because it's next to impossible to replace your laptop's display, it should be one of your top considerations when buying a new machine. Resolution is crucial, and will determine the crispness and sharpness of images; generally, 1920 x 1080 (1080p or FHD) is sufficient for smaller models, though if you're going to be doing a significant amount of image or video editing, or want the best graphics in games, a 4K display is the way to go. When it comes to the best laptops out there, 1080p should be considered the bare minimum.

Screen size is one of the first things people look at when buying a laptop. Like TV and smartphone screens, laptop screens are typically measured corner-to-corner (diagonally), and not from side-to-side. Most people want a screen that’s large enough so they won’t be squinting when trying to read an email or research a topic, but people have different preferences when it comes to portability. Some people want a laptop that’s as lightweight and portable as possible, while others are going to keep the unit stationary for the most part, and only move it around the house occasionally.

Compact: 11- to 14-inch display

If you’re looking for something ultra-lightweight you can take with you on the go, a compact laptop may be a good solution. You can easily find a compact laptop that’s extremely lightweight (under four pounds), and many have slim profiles.

Some people think that compact laptops come with bottom-end specifications, but going with a compact size doesn’t necessarily mean you have to sacrifice performance. You can absolutely find compact laptops that are powerful enough for work, like the MacBook Pro 13-inch and the Dell XPS 13. If you don’t want to spend a lot of cash, and you just want a more basic unit, you can also find budget compact laptops for under $300, like the Lenovo IdeaPad S310.

Average: 15- to 16-inch display

Although there’s not exactly a standard when it comes to laptop screen sizes, the 15- to 16-inch range is pretty common—you’ll often see laptops sized at 15.6 inches. This size is ideal for those who keep their laptop at a desk for the most part, but still like to have the option to take it along with them on the go.

The price you’ll pay for a laptop this size depends largely on the specifications and the brand. The MacBook Pro 16-inch will cost you upwards of two grand, while you can buy the Acer Aspire 5 for under $500. You can find a Chromebook this size for around $300 to $400.

Large: 17-inch display or larger

Large laptop displays often come with the advantage of better viewing angles. The 17.3-inch size is common in gaming laptops, as a larger screen can make for a better gaming experience. Gamers may find the compromise in portability is well worth it for a bigger, better screen, especially if this new laptop is acting as a desktop replacement. Typically, you’re going to pay upwards of a grand for a good laptop this size. Budget options in this size are rarer, but you can occasionally find options this size for around $500, like the Lenovo IdeaPad 340.

Laptop vs. Hybrid

Hybrid laptops, or 2-in-1 laptops, are designed to serve as both a laptop and a tablet. These are devices like the Surface Pro, Asus Chromebook Flip, and the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1. Hybrids typically have a touchscreen, and they have either a removable keyboard or a hinged keyboard you can flip around and out of the way when you want to use the device as a tablet .

Although 2-in-1 devices offer additional flexibility, you have to be even more careful when selecting a hybrid. Some have undersized keyboards, some perform well as a tablet but poorly as a laptop, and others lack processing power. You may end up with an expensive device that serves as a mediocre laptop and bulky tablet when you could spend the same money and get a stellar laptop. This is not to say there aren’t good 2-in-1 options out there. It just means you have to consider the device’s merits in both categories and decide whether that flexibility is worth the extra cost.

Keyboard and controls

Although it sometimes gets neglected during the shopping process, the keyboard is an essential part of a laptop’s quality, functionality, longevity, and comfort.

CPU

A laptop's CPU, or central processing unit, is a chip that acts as its brain. Several factors affect a CPU’s performance, from heat to other components in the system, but these are some of the main factors to look at in a CPU that can quickly help determine its quality: The manufacturer, the number of cores, and the clock speed.

For years, Intel has been known for creating powerful and reliable CPUs. You’ll also see brands like AMD. Both Intel and AMD are a pretty safe bet when it comes to processor brands, and it’s a good idea to opt for a more recent generation, rather than choosing a laptop with a processor that’s three generations old. Ideally, you're looking for a Core i7 or Core i9 from Intel's latest generation (the generation is denoted by the first number(s) of the model number, so a Core i7-11375H is an 11th gen chip) or one of AMD's Ryzen 5000 Series options.

Most modern processors will have at least two cores. What are CPU cores? Well, they’re basically separate CPUs. And, since a computer isn’t like a human—its brain isn’t as good at multitasking as ours—a computer can benefit from having more than one “brain.” The more cores a computer has, the better it can multitask, and the faster it can compute (generally speaking).

If you have a dual-core processor, does that mean your computer can only perform two tasks at a time? Not really. Processor cores have threads as well, which also help the computer multitask. So, even if your laptop is only a dual-core, modern hyper-threading makes it possible for laptops to efficiently perform multiple tasks simultaneously. You should opt for a higher-core processor if you’re going to be working extensively on your laptop, performing a lot of video or photo editing, or conducting time-consuming research.

Even more important than the number of cores, your processor’s speed is essential for day-to-day operation. You want a laptop that can keep up with your demands. Speed is measured in GHz, and it’s important for tasks like gaming and watching videos.

RAM

RAM, or random access memory, is important in a laptop because it helps the machine access information it needs quickly. Imagine RAM like your bedroom closet. When you need something from your closet, you can just go in and grab it, as opposed to driving all the way to the storage unit or going into the attic and searching through a bunch of boxes. You can randomly access the items in your closet, without having to go through too much effort or take too much time.

RAM is similar for a computer. That’s why more RAM is better. The more it can randomly access (without having to go through too much effort), the better and faster it can perform. You want a laptop with at least 8GB of RAM if you’re doing any sort of demanding task like working. But, if you’re only using your laptop for basic tasks, the bare minimum amount of RAM you can get away with is 4GB.

You may also see laptops with DDR4 RAM and DDR3 RAM. DDR stands for Double Data Rate, and the number represents the version. DDR4 RAM is more efficient, and therefore, it’s preferable over DDR3.

SSD vs. HDD storage

Some laptops will have an SSD (solid-state drive), some will have an HDD (hard disk drive), and some will even have both an SSD and an HDD. Because they don’t have any moving parts, SSDs are generally faster and more reliable than HDDs. However, SSDs are significantly more expensive, so for the same cost, you won’t get nearly as much SSD storage space as you’d get with an HDD. But, with cloud storage becoming cheaper and more readily available, storage capacity isn’t as important as it once was either.

If you’re using your laptop for basic functions, 256 GB of SSD storage should be more than sufficient. You may even be able to get away with 128 GB, and you can always add an external hard drive if needed. However, if you’re planning on using your laptop for gaming, video editing, or media, you’ll want a laptop with more storage.

Ports

Does the laptop have enough USB ports? Does it have an HDMI port? What about a card reader? How about a headphone jack? Examine all of the devices you plan on connecting to your laptop—mice, headphones, speakers, monitors—and make sure the laptop has compatible ports for each of your devices.

Battery Capacity

Battery capacity is especially important for those who plan on taking their laptop on the go. If you’re keeping your laptop at a desk most of the time, battery capacity isn’t as important.

A laptop with stellar battery life, like the LG Gram 15, will last around 12 to 13 hours on a single charge. Some laptops will have a much shorter capacity of around five or six hours. Chromebooks tend to have long battery lives because the operating system doesn’t require as much power to operate.

Other features

If you’re planning on watching a lot of content or listening to music on your laptop, check out the speakers. Most laptops have stereo speakers, but some speakers have special tuning that leads to better sound.

Do a lot of video chatting and social networking? You may want a laptop with a good-quality webcam, and you can also find webcams that support features like face tracking or facial recognition.

Do you use a voice assistant? Check and see if your laptop includes Siri, Cortana, or Google Assistant.

Lastly, if you want a touchscreen, you don’t necessarily have to go with a 2-in-1. If you’re not the typing type, a lot of laptops offer touchscreen technology as well. But, keep in mind these features use a lot of battery power, so you may not want to opt for a touchscreen laptop if you’re seldom going to take advantage of the feature.

Operating systems, brands, and manufacturers

Which is better: Windows or Mac? This has been a great debate for quite some time, and now Chrome has entered into the operating system war. So, should you go with Windows, Mac, or ChromeOS? It depends.

macOS

macOS laptops are pricey, but the OS is generally considered reliable, secure, and user-friendly. Mac is ideal for work and general use, but it’s not as good for gaming. If you want a macOS laptop, you don’t have as many product options as you would if you were to go with Windows 10 or ChromeOS. The most affordable MacBook, the MacBook Air, starts at $999 retail, while the most expensive MacBook, the MacBook Pro 16-inch, starts at $2399.

ChromeOS

ChromeOS is a more minimalistic OS, and it’s designed for basic computing, social networking, and web-based activities. Chromebooks run fast on lesser hardware, and they typically have good battery capacity. You can also find Chromebooks at very low price points, but they’re much more limited in terms of their features. If you’re doing most of your work online and in collaboration programs like Slack, you could probably even use a Chromebook for work. You can find Chromebooks from a variety of different manufacturers, including Google, HP, Samsung, Lenovo, and Acer.

Windows 10

A Windows 10 laptop will serve well for just about anyone from gamers to professionals to basic users. Windows offers a great deal of flexibility, a variety of programs and features, and you can find Windows laptops at virtually every price range. Windows 10 laptops come in brands like Dell, HP, Lenovo, Asus, and more.

One important note is that Windows comes in various flavors like Windows 10S, Windows 10 Home, and Windows 10 Pro. Of those, Windows 10S is the most unique. Windows 10S is a security-conscious version of Windows which limits installed apps to those available in the Windows app store. Most Windows 10S computers can be converted to Windows 10 Home, but that is a one-way trip. There's no going back to 10S.

FAQ
  • Should I get a laptop or an all-in-one PC?

    Both laptops and all-in-one (AIO) PCs are highly portable, and they carry many of the same compromises. They both can be hard to upgrade due to space considerations. Both are essentially a single unit (though AIOs typically need a mouse and keyboard). Laptops are far more portable since everything you need is in one unit. AIOs are more difficult to travel but they typically have much larger screens. A typical laptop maxes out at around 17 inches while an AIO can be as large as 32 inches. AIOs also typically do not have internal batteries so they always need to be plugged in. Based on those considerations, you can make the choice of which is best for you.

  • Can I connect my laptop to a larger screen or use dual screens?

    Typically, the answer is yes. Most laptops have some kind of video out capability. That will usually take the form of either an HDMI port or a USB Type-C port. You'll want to check the specifications for an individual laptop before you buy, but that's usually how it is done. Usually, the process is just connecting a cable from your laptop to the monitor, and then configuring the layout of your monitors. You can usually mirror content to both screens, extend your desktop across both screens, or close your laptop and just work on the external monitor.

  • Is it ok to leave my laptop plugged in all the time?

    You will find conflicting information on this, but the best answer is, not really. Batteries as a rule do not like extremes. That means they don't like to be all the way empty or all the way full. Leaving a laptop plugged in will usually leave your battery all the way full. Short term, this won't hurt your battery too much, but long term you will degrade your battery faster. Some laptops will have a software solution in place that lets you intentionally "top off" the battery at 50-60%. This will help your battery's strength in the long term. All the being said, if you plan to buy a laptop and leave it plugged in full time, consider a desktop or all-in-one PC that doesn't have a battery.

Was this page helpful?