Laptop Buying Guide: Pro Tips for Choosing a Laptop

Last Edited: June 13, 2018 by

If you are on the market for a new laptop, then you are bound to encounter some major confusion due to the sheer changes that have taken place in the laptop market in the past few years.

The current laptop market is littered with new laptop designs that serve all kinds of purposes, from ultra lightweight productivity beasts geared towards business use, to monstrous gaming laptops that are so heavy that they are better suited at being desktop replacements. On top of this, their appearances have changed too, with laptop manufacturers now producing convertible designs that make use of touch interfaces, breaking away from the traditional clamshell designs. You will find laptops that function as tablets, bending and folding in ways you would never have thought possible. Others are simply slate tablets that come with attachable keyboards that offer notebook style functionality

With the large variety of laptops currently available in the laptop world, we thought that a guide identifying all the latest designs and specs would assist you in a choosing a laptop that fits your particular purpose.

1. Which OS Should You Choose?

Selecting the correct operating system (OS) can be tricky. The three mainstream OSs employed by laptop manufacturers are Windows, macOS and Chrome OS. There are others (Unix, Linux, and more), but most laptops will come with one of the three operating systems mentioned above.

Windows 10

Windows 10

Windows 10 is the most up-to-date version of Windows. New notebooks come pre-installed with Windows 10 and supports features such as touchscreens, finger print readers, dual graphics chips, and more. It is relatively easy to learn and comes with a great digital assistant called Cortana. Windows 10 users enjoy various improvements over the previous versions, such as the neat ability to switch between desktop and tablet modes, which is useful for 2-in-1 laptops, and this is where the touchscreen capabilities come in handy. Windows has constantly worked to improve the user experience since the release of their latest edition of the OS with improvements such as asking Cortana follow up questions or Cortana’s ability to search your emails, its excellent stylus supports that allows you to scribble almost anywhere.

More: The 10 Best Features of Windows 10

Apple macOS High Sierra

macOS

Apple’s macOS High Sierra comes pre-installed on all MacBooks, and it functions in a similar way to Windows 10, except the interface is slightly different. MacOS is based on NeXT, a Unix-like operating system that has its roots in FreeBSD. This makes it a close cousin to Linux and other UNIX-like operating systems. It has an apps dock at the bottom where Windows usually has its start menu and task bar. Its biggest features are Siri integration, Cortana’s counterpart, a neat Auto Unlock ability with Apple Watches and Safari’s built in Apple Pay. One notable drawback of macOS is that it doesn’t support touchscreen capabilities, which is something that is unique to Windows 10 and Chrome OS.

Chrome OS

Chrome OS

Chromebooks are generally less expensive than Windows and macOS laptops, and it comes with Chrome OS, which is based on Google’s web browser, Chrome. It is simple and easy to use, but it has limitations when compared to Windows and macOS. It has a similar interface to Windows with its desktop and application menu, but it doesn’t quite offer the same full desktop operating system as Windows or macOS. This is not necessarily a bad thing however, as the lack of bloat often leads to a speedier overall system. The main apps you use are found in the Chrome browser, but the biggest drawback is that when offline, you can’t use many of the essential web apps. However, Chrome OS does support Android Apps now, allowing you to download Apps off of Chrome Store and Google Play Store. A major plus is that most Chromebooks are fast, highly portable and they have excellent battery life, and are often preferred to Windows or macOS or laptops for these reasons.

More: Five Pros and Cons of a Chromebook

2. Screen Features

Size

Depending on your specific needs, you will need to consider what size laptop to get. Sizes typically range from 11-inches to 17-inches. Larger displays are great for things such as gaming, movie watching, and photo and video editing. Furthermore, larger laptops often come with larger keyboards that are less congested than smaller laptops, which makes them more comfortable to use. However, you should keep in mind that a larger laptop is significantly less portable than a smaller laptop, with the large 17-inch beasts being more suitable for replacing desktops due to their weight and size.

Display types

There are a number of different display technologies employed by laptop manufacturers that deliver different results, with the most notable differences being the color differences and the brightness levels. LED backlit displays are power efficient and often have bright color representations. IPS panels offer the best viewing angles, retaining an accurate color depiction regardless of the color you are viewing from. TN panels are often found on budget laptops. They often make colors look washed out at certain angles and are inferior to IPS displays. Screens that have a glossy finish will generally have richer colors and their blacks are deeper, and matte displays reduce screen glare, but dull down the colors somewhat.

Resolution

The screens resolution affects the sharpness of your picture quality. The resolution ranges from HD to 4K Ultra HD. Let’s have a look at the various resolutions:

  • HD: HD has a resolution of 1366 x 768, and it is often found on the budget laptops. While the picture quality is not as sharp as a 1080p display, the resolution is great for surfing the web, reading emails, and other basic tasks.
  • HD+: HD+ is a resolution of 1600 x 900 is suitable for decent quality video streaming  and for casual gaming.
  • Full HD: 1920 x 1080 is delivers crisp image quality and is suitable for Blu-ray movies and is the preferred resolution for gaming.
  • Retina display: Retina displays are found on certain Apple laptops and offer a higher pixel density than traditional displays, with their resolutions being 2304 x 1440, 2560 x 1600 and 2880 x 1800.
  •  QHD (Quad HD) and QHD+: These display resolutions of 2560 x 1440 and 3200 x 1800 are incredibly crisp and detailed thanks to the high pixel density, and are an excellent choice for professional photo and video editors, as well as gamers. These are often found on higher end laptops that have more powerful hardware.
  • 4K Ultra HD: The 3840 x 2160 resolution is as high as it gets and is reserved for the high end machines. This resolution has four times as many pixels as Full-HD and needless to say, it offers incredibly lifelike picture quality due to its sharpness.

Keyboard and Touchpad

Important things to check when purchasing a laptop is the quality of the keyboard and touchpad. Bad ergonomics often make a bad buy, especially since you’ll be using the keyboard and touchpad the most when you are on your laptop. Make sure that the keys have enough travel when pressed (1 to 2mm is usually best), that they offer tactile feedback, and check that there is enough space between them. Check the palm rest too; if your wrist fits comfortably on the palm rest, as opposed to hanging off the edge, then your shoulders muscles will be doing less work. The touchpad should also be responsive to the touch and they should respond well to multitouch gestures. A keyboard with a pointing stick is often a good buy for those looking for business laptops, allowing you to navigate around your computer without needing to lift your fingers off the keyboard.

Specs and What to Look Out For

In the following section, we will be looking at the main components that you need to look at when picking a laptop: the processor, memory, hard drive, and graphics chip.

Processors(CPU)

CPU

The processor within a laptop is known as a CPU, and it is the brains of the computer. In combination with your systems memory (RAM) it determines how many programs you can run simultaneously, the complexity of software that you can run, and how fast you can run those programs.

  • Intel Core i7: These are Intel‘s top of the line processors for consumers. They are suitable for power users, graphics designers, photographers, videographers, and hardcore gamers. The models that end in HQ or K have four cores and they use higher wattage, meaning more power, while the Core i7 Y series chips have lower power and power usage and therefore lower performance.
  • Intel Core i5: These are mid-range Core processors that offer the best combination of price and performance. You will commonly find i5 models that end in U, such as the Core i5-7200U, and then you also get the Y and HQ chips that we see in the i7s.
  • Intel Core i3: If you are on a budget, then the entry-level Core i3 is perfect for you. It provides more than enough power for everyday Internet browsing and productivity tasks, and it is only a step below the Core i5. If your budget allows it however, we recommend that you got for the Core i5.
  • Core M: These CPUs will usually be found in ultra slim laptops and a decent amount of power for day-to-day use, allowing you to comfortably surf the web and email, and they are usually power efficient and don’t drain your battery as fast as the Core family.
  • Intel Pentium / Celeron: Budget laptops under $500 will make use of the chips. While they do under perform, they perform well enough at web surfing and light document editing. While the Core family of processors will usually push the price of a laptop up quite a bit, we recommend getting a Core i3 or i5.
  • AMD Ryzen Mobile: The AMD Ryzen Mobile chips are AMD’s new CPUs that compete with Intel’s Core i5 and i7.
  • AMD A, FX or E Series: These are budget chips that have a good price-to-performance ratio, and are good for web surfing, video, photo viewing and productivity.

Memory (RAM)

RAM

The memory of a laptop is called random access memory, but is better known simply as RAM, and it works with your CPU to tackle multiple tasks at once. 2GB is the minimum for basic computing tasks, but 4GB is ideal for budget systems, while 8GB is the perfect amount for most. 16GB or more is usually the maximum amount and this is perfect for videographers and photographers, but anything more for the everyday user usually overkill.

Internal storage

In today’s modern laptops, you will often find one of two types of storage, both of which are listed below. In some high-end laptop models, you may even find multiple drives making use of both main types of storage.
SSD

  • Hard disk drive (HDD): These traditional mechanical hard drives are usually inexpensive storage solutions. They are slow and heavy and can generate both noise and heat. There are two main speeds: 5400RPM and 7200RPM, with the 5400RPM being the slowest.
  • Solid State Drive (SSD): Solid state drives, or SSDs, are significantly faster than HDDs, but their storage capacity is often reduced, and if you are looking for an SSD with a large storage capacity, then you will need to pay quite a bit extra. However, they are superior in size, power efficiency and weight, and they don’t produce heat or noise. NVME units are triple the speed of the original SATA drives, and you will often find eMMC memory on sub $300 laptops (more often than not Chromebooks), but it is often soldered directly onto the motherboard. SSDs often lead to a responsive laptop and they decrease boot up times and application loading time.

2-in-1 Convertibles

2-in-1 laptops, or hybrids, are laptops that can usually switch between four modes: traditional laptop, tablet, tent or stand mode. 2-in-1’s have touchscreens for when using them in slate mode. They come in two styles: one where the screen can physically detach itself from the keyboard, and the other style is where the laptops hinges are flexible and can bend 360 degrees, allowing it to change modes. If you do not intend on using your laptops as a tablet, then there is no real reason to purchase a 2-in-1, as traditional laptops still generally offer better performance for the price.

Touchscreen

If you are not looking for a 2-in-1 laptop particularly, then touchscreen laptops are not worth it due to their high demand on the battery, reducing it by 1 to 3 hours. However, for 2-in-1s it is an essential feature, as it allows you to interact with your laptop as you would with a tablet. If you spot a 2-in-1 laptop that interests you, be sure to check what customers say about the responsiveness of the display. Unresponsive touch displays can be incredibly frustrating.

Graphics Chip

Integrated graphics are perfect for those who have no intention of gaming or doing intensive high resolution video editing. For those who are looking for a multimedia machine that does both of the above well, then ideally a discrete graphics processor from either AMD or Nvidia is required. For the most up-to-date laptops, you should be looking out for Nvidia’s GTX 10-series. The GTX 1050 is usually found in entry-level workstations, and while it is an entry-level card, it is powerful enough to run most modern games on decent settings and it will allow you to comfortably edit videos and photos using Adobe’s Creative Suite. The GTX 1050Ti and 1060 are usually found in mid-range workstations and these cards offer plenty of power for gamers, photographers and videographer. The GTX 1060 will also allow you to run VR applications. The GTX 1070, 1080 and 1080Ti will be found in high-end machines, and they are the top of the line cards. Needless to say, they are very powerful cards that will make easy work of games, demanding editing software and VR applications. Both Nvidia and AMD have comprehensive lists of all their current GPUs available for laptops and it is definitely worth checking out. A full list of laptop graphics cards can be found on our best gaming laptops guide.

Ports and Connectivity

Laptops provide you with a host of connectivity options that allow you stay connected to both the Internet as well as to other devices. Most mainstream laptops provide you with the latest wireless and Bluetooth technologies that allows you to connect to your smartphone, speakers as well as other portable devices. Those who travel a lot should keep an eye out for laptops that connect to 4G LTE networks so you can readily access the Web without needing to rely on Wi-Fi to do so.

The following ports are useful for connecting to other external devices and commonly found on laptops:

  • USB 2.0: While these are older ports, they allow you to connect to external hard drives, smartphones, MP3 player, game controllers, and other devices.
  • USB3.0: These ports transfer data faster than the older USB 2.0 ports, but this is only the case when connecting with another USB 3.0 device.
  • USB Type-C: These offer lightning fast speeds and feature connectors that have identical ends that can plug in both upside down or right-side up.  It is video and backwards compatible and it allows you to connect to universal charges and docks.
  • Thunderbolt: These offer ultra-high bandwidth that allow for incredibly fast data transferal between other devices that feature Thunderbolt or a MiniDisplayPort connection.
  • HDMI: This will allow you to connect an external display or projector to your laptop.
  • Media-card slots: This will allow you to transfer photos or video from your camera or video recorder.

3. Battery life

If your plan is to purchase a laptop that you want to use at your desk near an outlet at home or at the office, then you do not necessarily have to worry about battery life. If you are looking for a laptop to use at college, coffee shops, or while you’re away from an outlet, then you should ideally be looking for laptops that offer around 7 to 8 hours of juice at least. A good way to to find out what the battery life of a laptop is to check customer reviews or from reputable tech sites that do hands on testing, such as Notebookcheck, CNet, Laptop Mag, or even checking Amazon or BestBuy customer reviews.

4. Consider Your Budget

Let’s have a quick look at what the difference price ranges will get you:

  • $150 –  $300: Chromebooks are often the cheapest laptops, but you can also get low-end Windows laptops in this price range. Both will generally have very little storage space as well as slow CPUs and little RAM. In terms of gaming, you can expect to play the older classics, but modern day AAA just won’t make the cut. There are also decent refurbished laptop available which often offer better specs, but it will have been used. See the following guides:
  • $300 – $500: You will be able to find a respectable laptop at this price that features some pretty decent specs, such as an Intel Core i3 and a slower mechanical hard drive that will afford you a lot of storage space. Large SSDs are still out of reach, and you will more than likely be settling for HD resolution as opposed to Full-HD. Gaming will be better than on cheaper laptops under $300, but you still won’t get a dedicated GPU. See the following guides:
  • $500 – $1000: In this price range you can get yourself a decent workstation that features a high quality design, a Full-HD IPS display, as well as a fast SSD. For gamers, you can expect to get to get the Nvidia GTX 1050, 1050Ti, or, if you luck, the 1060, but the discreet GPU will usually come at the expense of an SSD, with most manufacturers instead optinf for a larger, but slower, mechanical HDD. See the following guides:
  • $1000 and up: This price range range will get you a laptop that is fitted with premium components that are powerful, efficient and often highly portable. You will be getting top of the line processors, high quality displays that offer Full-HD or higher resolutions, and more than likely a powerful discreet GPU. The more features packed into a single laptop, the more you can expect to pay. You can expect the cream of the crop in this price range for both gamers and for power users. See the following guides:

Conclusion

Taking a leap of faith and purchasing a laptop that seems suited to you can often result in long-term frustrations that could have been avoided from the start with the proper research. Be sure to refer to this guide if you are unsure about what you should looking out for when purchasing your laptop. We will work hard to keep this guide as up to date as possible as new laptop designs and features are released.

About the author

Caydon van Eck

Caydon is a senior buying guide editor at ShopNinja with a focus on laptops and audio gear. He has a keen knack for researching the latest tech trends and gadgets. Other than spending most of his time in front of his computer reading and writing, he enjoys spending his off time immersed in music and games.


See all posts from Caydon van Eck