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.
Core i5 or Ryzen 5 CPU
1920 x 1080 screen (IPS not LCD)
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.
CPU: The “brains” of your computer, the processor has a huge influence on performance, but depending on what you want to do, even the least-expensive model may be good enough. Here’s a rundown:
- Intel Core i9: Supplanting the Core i7 as the new top-of-the-line CPU from Intel, Core i9 processors provide faster performance than any other mobile chip. Available only on premium laptops, workstations and high-end gaming rigs, Core i9 CPUs are only worth their premium price if you’re a power user who uses the most demanding programs and apps.
- Intel Core i7: A step up from Core i5, which Models with numbers that end in HQ or K use higher wattage and have four cores, allowing for even faster gaming and productivity. There are also Core i7 Y series chips that have lower power and performance. Keep an eye out for CPUs that have a 10 in the model number (ex: Core i7-1060G7 for Ice Lake or Core i7-10710U for Comet Lake) because they are part of Intel’s latest, 10th Generation Core Series, and offer better performance. Note that Intel’s H-series 9th Generation CPUs are available now.
- Intel Core i5: If you’re looking for a mainstream laptop with the best combination of price and performance, get one with an Intel Core i5 CPU. Models that end in U (ex: Core i5-7200U) are the most common. Those with the a Y in the name are low power and have worse performance while models with an HQ use more wattage and appear in thicker gaming and workstation systems. Intel’s newest 10th Generation “Ice Lake” CPUs have four cores, and a number of useful features, including Wi-Fi 6 support, Thunderbolt 3 integration and better AI. Read our benchmarking article to see how they perform.
- Intel Core i3: Performance is just a step below Core i5 and so is the price. If you can possibly step up to a Core i5, we recommend it.
Intel Xeon: Extremely powerful and expensive processors for large mobile workstations. If you do professional-grade engineering, 3D modeling or video editing, you might want a Xeon, but you won’t get good battery life or a light laptop.
Intel Pentium / Celeron: Common in sub $400 laptops, these chips offer the slowest performance, but can do if your main tasks are web surfing and light document editing. If you can pay more to get a Core i3 or i5, you’d be better off.
· Intel Core m / Core i5 / i7 “Y Series:” Low-power and low heat allow systems with these processors to go fanless. Performance is better than Celeron, but a notch below regular Core U series.
· AMD Ryzen 4000: A new set of chips that are designed to compete with Intel Core i5 and Core i7. We’ve found Ryzen 4000 chips to outperform equivalent Intel Core processors. For example, the Ryzen 5 4500U CPU delivers about the same performance as an Intel Core i7 CPU. These chips are typically found in much cheaper laptops.
RAM: Some sub-$250 laptops come with only 4GB of RAM, but ideally you want at least 8GB on even a budget system and 16GB if you can spend just a little more. For most folks, 32GB or more is more than enough while 64GB and above is reserved for power users.
Storage Drive (aka Hard Drive): Even more important than the speed of your CPU is the performance of your storage drive. If you can afford it and don’t need a ton of internal storage, get a laptop with a solid state drive (SSD) rather than a hard drive, because you’ll see at least three times the speed and a much faster laptop overall.
Among SSDs, the newer PCIe x4 (aka NVME) units offer triple the speed of traditional SATA drives. Sub-$250 laptops use eMMC memory, which is technically solid-state but not faster than a mechanical hard drive.
Display: The more pixels you have, the more content you can fit on-screen, and the sharper it will look. Sadly, some budget laptops still have 1366 x 768 displays and so do a few business laptops, but if you can afford it, we recommend paying extra for a panel that runs at 1920 x 1080, also known as Full HD or 1080p. Higher-end laptops have screens that are 2560 x 1600, 3200 x 1800 or even 3840 x 2160 (4K), which all look sharp but consume more power, lowering your battery life.
Display quality is about much more than resolution. IPS panels range in color and brightness, so read our reviews to find out if the laptop your considering has a good display. We typically look for an sRGB color rating of over 100% and brightness great than 300 nits results. If you want the very best picture quality and don’t care about battery life, consider an OLED display. You should also keep an eye out for upcoming display technology to hit laptops, including miniLED.
Touch Screen: If you’re buying a regular clamshell laptop, rather than a 2-in-1, you won’t get much benefit from a touch screen and you will get 1 to 2 hours less battery life. On 2-in-1s, touch screens come standard. If you still want a touch screen, check out our best touch screen laptops page.
Graphics Chip: If you’re not playing PC games, creating 3D objects or doing high-res video editing, an integrated graphics chip (one that shares system memory) will be fine, especially Intel’s latest Iris Plus graphics. If you have any of the above needs, though, a discrete graphics processor from AMD or Nvidia is essential.
As with CPUs, there are both high- and low-end graphics chips. Low-end gaming or workstation systems today usually have Nvidia MX250 or GTX 1650 GPUs while mid-range models have RTX 2050 or RTX 2060 and high-end models have RTX 2070 or 2080 GPUs. Nvidia maintains a list of its graphics chips from low to high end.
Nvidia’s rivals, AMD, is Apple’s vendor of choice for graphics cards, although you really shouldn’t buy a MacBook for gaming. AMD is set to launch the Radeon RX 5600M and the Radeon RX 5700M GPUs for laptops later this year, so keep an eye out for those chips. AMD also keeps a list of its graphics cards.
Ports: While the absence of ports is usually not a deal-breaker when choosing a laptop, it’s helpful to get the connections you need right on the system, rather than having to carry a slew of dongles. Most mainstream laptops will have USB 3.0 ports and HDMI out for video. However, an increasing number of laptops use USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 ports that are USB Type-C compatible.
Getting Type-C is a definite plus because you can use it to connect to universal chargers and docks. If you can wait, USB 4 will arrive soon with faster transfer rates and the ability to daisy-chain 4K monitors with one cable. Other useful connections include SD card slots, headphone jacks and Ethernet ports (especially if you’re a gamer).
Connectivity: If you need to use your laptop on the go, consider buying a notebook with 4G LTE support. You’ll have to pay for a data subscription plan, but this will allow you to access the internet away from a router. If you want a laptop with the latest and greatest connectivity options, find one with Wi-Fi 6 support. Wi-Fi 6 offers increased theoretical throughputs and a more stable connection than 802.11ac. We also suggest looking for a laptop with Bluetooth 5, the latest standard that offers improved connectivity with Bluetooth-enabled devices, like mice and headphones.
DVD/Blu-ray Drives: Few laptops come with optical drives, because all software and movies are downloadable, though we’ve kept track of the laptops with DVD drives. However, if you really need to read/write discs and your laptop of choice doesn’t come with a built-in DVD drive, you can always buy an external one that connects via USB for under $20.