When you’re in the market for a new laptop, you’re beset by choices at every price level. So how do you pick which laptop is best? It’s a matter of matching up first your budget, and then the features that are most important to you when picking your ideal laptop. Everyone’s needs are different whether you’re a student, office worker, creative artist, gamer or retiree, so there’s no one “best” answer to the question, really.
What’s important isn’t the “best” laptop – it’s getting the best laptop for your needs. Here’s how to choose the best laptop for every budget and need. I’ve highlighted the key features you must look for in each case, but also those that are less vital for most users. It doesn’t mean that they’re not nice to have if you can afford them – but they’re certainly less of a priority.
Focus on: Portability, battery life
Less vital: Cutting edge CPU, large screen
A laptop is a must-have item for students at any level of education and across any subject you might be studying. It’s super common for student laptops to be budget models, but (outside of programming and graphic artist/video needs) that’s generally OK, because what you need to focus on here are other variables.
If you’re going to be carrying that laptop around all day, ideally look for a thin and light model rather than something chunky to avoid shoulder strain. Smaller laptops – with 14-inch screens or so – are also advisable, as they’ll enable you to learn from even the smallest study desk (or in a pinch, your lap).
Battery life is the other key factor here, because if you’re moving from classroom to classroom (or lecture hall to lecture hall) there won’t always be opportunities to plug in and recharge as you go.
On a tight budget
Gaming laptops and creative professional laptops
Focus on: GPU, Screen size and quality
Less vital: Battery life, lightweight construction
Gaming laptops live and die on the quality of their graphics processing units, or GPUs. Most standard notebooks use use an integrated GPU for visual display, which is sort of OK in a gaming sense if you’re happy running at lower resolutions and frame rates. But if you’re after a serious gaming rig, you need something with a meaty separate GPU on board, the faster the better.
The other key factor here is the display screen. It’s not just a question of how big, but also how good and fast in terms of the screen’s resolution and the display refresh rate, especially if your gaming passions are for rapid-fire first-person shooter (FPS) titles.
So why are gaming and creative professional laptops bundled together? It’s largely because if you do need a laptop for pro-grade creative work editing video, touching up photos or making high-end designs, you largely need the exact same kinds of features. The GPU in this case isn’t helping you beat your foes via your reaction times, but instead churning numbers as fast as possible to make sure your video editing takes as little time as possible.
I’ve not included a budget entry in this category, because “budget gaming/creative laptop” really isn’t a category that properly exists.
Everyday laptops (Retiree, At-Home Worker)
Focus on: Battery life, CPU
Less vital: Separate GPU, larger display
Whether you’re a retiree only using a laptop lightly, or you just need a home laptop to help you balance the budget and pay the bills, you don’t have to break the bank getting the latest and greatest laptop. In this category your needs are light, and as a result the hit on your wallet can be as well.
So, what should you look for? Battery life is still good to have, because even for an at-home unit, you’re not always going to want to be plugged into a wall socket all the time. Go for a decent mid-range CPU – Intel Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5 – to ensure a system that’s not just fast enough for now, but also for a good few years to come and you should be right.
Again, if your budget can stretch to it there’s nothing wrong with using an ultraportable business or gaming heavy laptop in this category; it’s just that the price point of those models is maybe overkill for what you really need, and as a result the price points for these laptops are a little different.
On a tight budget
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Windows better than Mac?
No, but the same is true in reverse. Apple’s MacBook line of laptops sit in the premium price space and have good features and value for that money, but also a more guided computing experience that works well if you’re also an iPhone or iPad user. Microsoft’s Windows has an edge in gaming, but beyond that you can get just about every productivity application you could ever want for either platform. With many apps effectively running via web browsers these days, the switch to and from either platform is nowhere near as tricky as it used to be either.
Are there better or worse laptop brands?
This one’s a tad tricky to quantify, because the reality is that just about everyone’s had a good or bad experience with a particular brand. Outside the Apple bubble, the vast majority of laptop brands are actually built in just a handful of factories, so the differences there more come down to the specifications and designs that those manufacturers specify – and then the price point they want to hit.
Generally speaking, you do get what you pay for, however. A lower cost laptop will generally have slower internal components but it’s also more likely to be a little cheaply built, where premium models tend to be a tad more robust.