Laptop Buying Guide - Part 1
Want to skip all the details and research and just buy a great laptop? Current favorites include the Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, Summer 2012), which probably the most universally useful all-around consumer laptop you can buy; the Lenovo IdeaPad 13, the best example of the new Windows 8 touch screen taptop/tablet convertibles; and the Origin EON17-S, which offers the latest components, hand-assembled specifically with gamers in mind.
Most buying guides and shopping advice tends to get bogged down in the specs, mechanically listing sub-categories within sub-categories. Instead, I'll break out the most important things to know when looking for a new laptop, with deeper explanations available in any of our in-depth system reviews. To start with, here are my three cardinal rules for buying a laptop.
Three rules for buying a laptop
1. Don't buy too much laptopGo back four or five years, and $1,000 was considered a good price for a budget laptop. Today, that's considered very high-end, and only one company, Apple, gets away with regularly charging more than that.
So when a reader e-mails us to say something along the lines of: "I'm looking for a laptop for school, and I've only got $1,500 to spend," we generally tell them to ease up on the gas pedal and look at a mainstream, midsize laptop for $700-$800 or so as a starting point.
And it's not just underpowered plastic boxes in that price range, either. We've seen Intel Core i5 CPUs, slim, reasonably attractive bodies, and even 128GB SSD hard drives in that price range -- which is more than adequate for most users, unless you're planning on editing a lot of HD video or playing very high-end PC games.
Long story short, consumers have been buying too much laptop for years. The brief era of $300 Netbooks took them too far in the other direction, and now we've comfortably settled at a happy medium.
2. Think about traveling lightThe first question I have when someone asks, "What kind of laptop should I buy?" is this: How many days per week to you plan on carrying your laptop around with you?
The answer to that should determine what screen size your laptop should have, which largely defines the system size and weight. Everyday commutes suggest a lightweight 13-inch ultrabook (similar to the MacBook Air). Less common now are ultraportable laptops with 11.6-inch screens.
For carrying your laptop around two or three days per week, you might be able to get away with a standard 13-inch laptop, such as a MacBook Pro. More common midsize laptops, such as the 15-inch model probably sitting on your desk right now, are really not much fun to lug around more than once a week or so.
Lastly, if you're convinced you're never going to need to take your laptop along with you, or at best very, very rarely, then a big 17-inch or larger desktop replacement is a viable option. Keep in mind that most of these big laptops can't run for very long away from a power outlet.
3. Design is kingIf there's one thing we've learned from benchmarking and testing hundreds of laptops, it's that under the hood, a lot of these systems are awfully similar. I'd go so far as to say that, with most laptops constructed from the same pool of stock CPUs, hard drives, RAM, and video cards, it's dangerously close to being a commodity product.
That's where design comes in. If most laptops within a given class, and with similar components, are going to run similarly, it's the look and feel that's really going to push you towards one model over another.
Think of a laptop as a very visual extension of your personality. You may carry it around with you all day, or even all over the country. You send e-mails from it, store personal photos and documents, and use it to connect with people on social networks.
Like any personal accessory, such as a jacket or a pair of glasses, you should choose a laptop with a style and design that works for you, as well as one with a keyboard and touch pad you find comfortable and easy to use. That's what Apple nails really well -- the parts inside of a MacBook are not that different from other laptops (although the operating system is another story), but the human interface tools are fantastic, and the design has become a standard for what a lot of people think a laptop should look like.
The current fad for thin ultrabooks backs this up, as well as the hype that high-design laptops such as the Samsung Series 9 or HP Envy 14 Spectre inevitably generate.
A laptop is a big investment that you'll probably have to live with every day. If it comes down to choosing between a design you love and a minor difference in specs, I'd point out that nearly all mainstream laptops are powerful enough for everyday computing tasks, so go with a great design.
Laptop Buying Guide - Part 2
The categoriesThere are many ways to categorize laptops, and we've seen systems chopped into multimedia, gaming, thin-and-light, ultrabook, ultraslim, and ultraportable. You'll see the term "ultrabook" used a lot. It's not technically a laptop category, but instead a trademarked Intel marketing term, bestowed on laptops that meet Intel's requirements. Most are MacBook-Air-like thin 13-inch laptops, but you'll also find 14 and 15-inch ultrabooks.
As a way to cut through the clutter, we use screen size as the primary category definition for laptops -- which ties nicely in with our advice above on choosing a laptop based on how often it will travel with you. Here are the most common laptop categories you'll find on CNET.
Ultraportable (11-to-12-inch displays)
Ultraportable systems with 11- and 12-inch screens are less common now than they were a couple of years ago, with thin 13-inch ultrabooks taking their place. These typically have low-voltage AMD E-series or Intel Core i3 CPUs, and run $399-$499.
The only screen size distinctive enough to earn its own category, these systems occupy a unique space in the industry. A 13-inch laptop is the smallest size we'd be able to work on comfortably all day, and at the same time, the largest size we'd consider carrying around more than once or twice a week. Apple's MacBook Pro and the Toshiba R835 are popular examples.
The new class of ultrabook laptops threatens to split this category. While ultrabook is a trademarked Intel term, it's largely taken to mean a lightweight 13-inch laptop that's under 18mm thick, with SSD storage. Within a year or two, I think most, if not all, 13-inch laptops will be nearly ultrabook-thin, and the use the marketing term will fade. In other words, everything will be an ultrabook, so it won't need a special name.
Midsize (14, 15, and 16-inch displays)
The traditional 15-inch laptop, along with its less-common 14- and 16-inch offshoots, make up this category. Although technically mobile products, mainstream or midsize laptops tend to stay anchored to one location, or only move around within a single home or office.
Most midsize laptops have dual-core CPUs, most commonly from Intel's Core i-series line, along with 4GB of RAM, and large hard drives with at least 320GB of storage space. High-end extras such as discrete GPUs and Blu-ray drives are uncommon but available. Intel also allows for some 14 and 15-inch laptops to use the ultrabook name, if they meet certain size and spec requirements, but most of the bigger ultrabooks so far have been on the thicker side.
The midsize category covers the widest ground in terms of price and features, starting at around $500 and going well past $1,000. Most typical are $700 to $900 configurations.
Desktop replacement (17-inch or larger display)
These massive 17-inch and larger laptops are meant to literally replace your old desktop, monitor, and keyboard combination with a single device that can also be easily transported in a pinch.
Quad-core CPUs are common, as are discrete graphics cards from Nvidia or AMD. We'd ask for a full 1080p screen, which is 1,920x1,080 resolution, and perfect for playing back Blu-ray or high-def digital content.
While 17-inch screens are more common, there are a handful of 18-inch models, and these large desktop replacement laptops make good hybrid entertainment centers for the den or dorm room, putting your computing, video, and music devices in a single box.
Leftover laptop categories
There are other types of laptops, of course, but the categories above will cover nearly any product you're seriously considering. For the sake of historical context, here are a few other laptop categories you may run into.
- Ultrabook: This trademarked Intel marketing term is generally taken to mean "a Windows laptop kind of like a MacBook Air." But, it's actually much broader than that, and we've seen ultrabooks that have 14-inch displays, non-SSD hard drives, and even discrete graphics. The precise definition can be a bit slippery, and different standards apply to different screen sizes, but general guidelines include: no more than 18mm thick (21mm for laptops larger than 13-inches); at least 5 hours of battery life; a primary or secondary SSD drive.
- Netbook: These 9-to-11-inch laptops were popular from 2007-2010, because they offered basic functionality for as little as $299. In the end, there were just to many compromises, and consumers turned elsewhere. Most netbooks used Intel's Atom CPU.
- UMPC: The ultra-mobile PC was a short-lived category, packing low-power processors into tiny devices about the size of Nintendo DS or Sony PlayStation Vita. That they ran the full Windows OS was interesting, but these systems were too expensive and hard to use to make a dent.
- Tablet: This rarely means a stand-alone Windows-powered slate, but instead usually refers to laptops with swiveling touch screens or screens that detach from keyboard docks (we call those convertibles or hybrids). Up until now, these have been rare, but expect a big push in laptop/tablet combos of all types with the release of Windows 8.
- Gaming laptop: A sub-genre of the desktop replacement, only a handful of companies -- Alienware, Origin, etc. -- really specialize in gaming laptops. Most super-serious gamers go the custom desktop route.
Laptop Buying Guide - Part 3
CPUs/ProcessorsLike it or not, you still have to pay at least some attention to specs and components. Here are the current Intel and AMD processors, and where you're most likely to find them.
This company (also the parent of of the GPU maker formerly known as ATI) has recently launched second generation of A-Series accelerated processing units, previously known by the code name Trinity. Rather than CPU, or central processing unit, AMD these days uses the term APU, or accelerated processing unit, meaning that a CPU and discrete-level GPU are combined.
Named the A4, A6, A8, and A10, these new laptop processors claim to double the performance over the previous generation of AMD APU chips, and to offer up to 12 hours of battery life in laptops. They are available in dual-core 17-watt and quad-core 25-watt and 35-watt versions. Note that far fewer laptops are available with AMD processors then Intel ones.
You'll also run across the E-series, called the E1 and E2, mostly in inexpensive 11-inch ultraportable laptops. For basic on-the-go use, it's fine, but not suited for all-day desktop computing. AMD has a list of current processors here.
If you're looking at a laptop (or a desktop PC, for that matter), chances are it has an Intel CPU in it. The current line confusingly has the same product names as the previous two generations. But the new chips, introduced in the second half of 2012, are also known by the code name Ivy Bridge (the previous generation was Sandy Bridge).
The 2012 Ivy Bridge (or third-generation) laptop CPUs are easy to spot, as they have a part number that begins with the number 3. For example, one of our Ivy Bridge test systems has an Intel i7-3720QM CPU. A similar Sandy Bridge test system from last year had an Intel Core i7-2820QM. A more detailed list of processors is available from Intel here.
- Core i3 -- Found in many budget and midrange laptops, this dual-core CPU is fine for everyday computing.
- Core i5 -- Intel's mainstream processor, found in many 15-inch, and even some 17-inch laptops, usually between $600 and $1,000.
- Core i7 -- Available in both dual-core and quad-core versions, expect to find this in more expensive performance machines, although unless you're a gamer or serious video editor, it's unlikely you need this much power.
- Pentium and Celeron -- Yes, Intel still makes these low-lower chips, which have been the bane of our Labs testing team for years. If at all possible, avoid laptops with these parts. Step up to a low-end Core i3 instead, or the AMD E-series for 11-inch laptops.
Hard drives and storageYour new laptop is going to have either a traditional spinning platter hard drive (HDD), or a solid state hard drive (SSD), which is flash memory, similar to what you'd find in an iPhone or SD card. We've also seen a few examples of hybrid drives, where a small SSD (perhaps 20GB or 32GB) is paired with a larger HDD. In theory, this lets the system boot faster and helps apps open quickly, but stores bulky music and video files on the standard hard drive.
- HDD -- Found in the vast majority of laptops, platter hard drives are large and inexpensive, but also add weight, heat, and lots of moving parts to your laptop. Look for at least a 320GB hard drive, even in a budget system. Most drives run at 5400rpm (revolutions per minute), but some run faster, at 7200rpm, useful for streaming data quickly from the hard drive when editing video or playing games.
- SSD -- These drives run cool and quiet, and produce less heat, but they're also much more expensive, with smaller capacities. Apple's 11-inch MacBook includes only a 64GB SSD for $999, but most have a 128GB drive, with a 256GB upgrade available at significant extra cost. SSD is doubtlessly the future of computer storage, but for now, the small capacities mean they aren't ideal for things like large video collections.
Frequently Asked QuestionsWhat kind of ports and extras do I need?
A couple of USB ports are a minimum. Most laptops now include at least two USB 3.0 ports, which are faster than the older USB 2.0 version, but only when used with compatible USB 3.0 devices, such as external hard drives. An SD card slot should be non-negotiable, as well as an HDMI video output. Every laptop includes Wi-Fi now, and will be compatible with virtually any Wi-Fi signal or router.
What kinds of ports and extras can I skip?
The old-style VGA video output still shows up on most laptops, but unless you need to connect to something like an old CRT monitor, it's not required. Displayport for video or Thunderbolt (another high-speed data connection) are only needed if you have compatible hardware. An Ethernet jack often gets skipped on the thinnest laptops in favor of Wi-Fi. It's better to have it for emergencies, but also not the end of the world if you don't have it. Bluetooth is potentially useful, but only if you have a Bluetooth mouse, speaker, or headset you plan to use, otherwise skip it or turn it off to save battery life.
Do I need an optical drive?
The answer is starting to trend towards 'no,' and a good number of thin, lightweight laptops now skip the optical drive. We haven't missed it, but some people are definitely still tied to CDs or DVDs as a storage or media playback format.
Do I need a graphics card?
Unless you plan on playing serious PC games on your laptop (Skyrim, Battlefield 3, etc.), you can get away with using the graphics capabilities built into laptops by default. Intel's current version is called HD 4000, and while it's not for serious gamers, you should be able to get away with playing casual or older games, or even newer games such as Diablo III if you keep the visual settings set to low.
Shouldn't I just get a tablet instead?
If all you're doing with your laptop is watching Netflix movies, reading online news, and playing Bejeweled, sure. My iPad is the single most-used piece of tech I have, and there are many tasks it excels at. But, if you're writing and creating documents, sending more than one-line e-mails, or even doing semi-serious online research, there's no substitute for a traditional keyboard and touchpad. Other laptop (and desktop) benefits include the ability to run just about any software imaginable, high-level PC gaming, and video, photo, and audio editing apps that no tablet can touch. Some of the new generation of laptop/tablet hybrids offer the best of both worlds, but we'll have to test more of them in our Lab to pass judgement on Windows 8 tablets.
What's better, Windows or Mac OS X?
That's a loaded question if there ever was one. Windows users appreciate the flexibility of that operating system, allowing for extreme tweaking and personalization. It's available on a nearly limitless variety of hardware, and with Windows 8, Microsoft has created a much more touch and tablet-friendly OS, with a slick, modern look that's a big break from the past.
Apple's operating system, on the other hand, is only available on a handful of desktops and laptops. That said, the joint hardware/software platform makes for a much more stable/predictable overall experience, and many prefer the user-friendly OS X layout and controls. Finally, Windows has a much larger available software library, especially when it comes to free software and games.
What about Windows 8?
The next version of Microsoft's operating system debuted in October 2012. If you purchased a laptop before that but after June 2, 2012, you can, in most cases, upgrade to Windows 8 for $15. Other upgrades generally cost $40. That said, upgrading between operating systems can cause a lot of problems, so make sure to back up important data first. Nearly every PC maker also has new laptop models specifically designed to work with Windows 8 and its iPad-like interface and touch support. By now, any new laptop you buy will have Win8 pre-installed on it, so virtually every PC buyer will be using it eventually. For a list of new Windows 8 laptops, desktops, tablets, ans hybrids, see our master list here.
Where can I find the latest laptop reviews?
All the newest laptops news and reviews can be found here at CNET.com/laptops.