The Lay of the Laptop Land
The laptop market has undergone major changes in the past few years, and there’s likely to be more confusion in the notebook aisle now than at any other time. Today’s models encompass everything from featherweight, business-savvy ultraportables that barely tip the scales at less than 2 pounds, to lap-crushing gaming behemoths of 10 pounds or more.
Your standard laptop doesn’t look the way it once did, either, with dozens of convertible designs that rethink the standard clamshell to take advantage of touch interfaces. Some laptops double as tablets, with hinges that bend and fold, while other touch-enabled PCs are actually slate tablets that come with hardware keyboards for notebook-style use. There’s simply too much variety in the laptop space for one size or style to fit every person’s needs.
That’s where this buying guide comes in. We’ll brief you on all the latest designs and specs, and parse the current trends, helping you figure out which features you need and how to find the laptop you really want.
The Best Laptop Deals
- Samsung Chromebook 3 Intel Celeron N3060 11.6-Inch Laptop With 4GB RAM, 16GB SSD for $159 at Walmart (list price $229.99)
- Asus VivoBook F510QA AMD A12-9720P Quad-Core 15.6-Inch 1080p Laptop for $259 at Walmart (list price $399)
- Lenovo Ideapad S340 Intel Core i5-8265U 15.6-Inch Laptop With 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD for $389 at Walmart (list price $429.99)
- Apple MacBook Air 8th Gen Intel i5 13.3-inch Laptop with 256GB SSD for $1,099.99 (list price $1,399.99)
Finding the Best 12- to 13-Inch Laptop
At the small-screen end of the spectrum, 12- and 13-inch laptops, or ultraportables (more on these below), are worth considering if you plan on toting your laptop. These models are small enough to weigh 3 pounds or less, but large enough that they include a full-size keyboard and a decent
Sweet Spot: The Best 14- to 15-Inch Laptops
Laptops with 14- to 15.6-inch screens are the most
Screen Giants: The Best 17-Inch Laptops
The largest screens available typically show up in workstation-class and gaming laptops, though there are a few budget desktop-replacement options here as well. A 17-inch screen is large enough to share for presentations, or if you need the extra pixels to immerse yourself in your graphics projects or 3D games. The extra space in the chassis can be used for one or more graphics processors, desktop-class CPUs, or multiple banks of hard drives and SSDs. The larger chassis also usually means a more roomy keyboard. Weight is typically more than 6 pounds at this screen size, and sometimes 10 pounds or more for gaming rigs. These systems aren’t meant to be portable, and they typically don’t have
Almost all offer screen resolutions of at least full HD or 1,920 by 1,080 (often abbreviated “FHD” or “1080p”), while an increasing number feature displays with the big-screen resolution of 4K (3,840 by 2,160 pixels). Between 4K and 1080p, an emerging resolution in panels this size is
Walk down any laptop aisle, and you’ll notice that the selection of laptops has become dramatically thinner and sleeker over the last couple of years. Each of these wafer-thin systems represents a new vision for ultraportable computing: a no-compromises laptop light enough that you’ll forget it’s in your briefcase, with a long-lasting battery that will keep you working even when no power outlet is available. Fast storage, including 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB solid-state drives (SSD), or more
Most important, the entire category has thinned down in general. Whether you’re looking at sliver-thin ultraportables, mainstream PCs, or even gaming machines, laptops of every flavor today are thinner, lighter, and better suited to life on the go. The best of these models will still cost you a pretty penny, particularly if you’re looking for a business system that won’t weigh you down when you travel for work, but they offer remarkable performance and often come with several high-end features as well. Touch screens (with 1080p resolution), full-size HDMI ports, and 8 or more hours of battery life are commonplace, and premium laptops (with premium prices) now come with high-resolution screens, up to 3,840-by-2,160 resolution (4K) at the top end.
The parallel evolution of powerful tablets and laptops’ emphasis on touch capability haven’t just encouraged the growth of those individual categories—they’ve created one that combines them. Hybrid systems, a.k.a. 2-in-1s, are capable of functioning either as a laptop or a tablet, depending on what you need (or want) at any given moment. This gives you a lot more freedom when interacting with the device, and makes it more functional in more places.
There are two types of 2-in-1. The first is the convertible-hybrid, which transforms from a laptop to tablet and back again by rotating all the way around on the display’s hinge. You can also stop at various positions along the way, if you want to stand the screen up on the keyboard like a kiosk display, or if you want to balance it on its edges, tent-style, so you can use just the
If the keyboard is less important, the second kind, the detachable hybrid, might be the better way to go. These are primarily tablets that you can dock with an accessory keyboard for laptop-like functionality. Some of these designs offer docking keyboards with secondary batteries that provide all-day charge, while others opt for Bluetooth keyboards, forgoing the bulk of a docking hinge and connecting wirelessly.
Mainstream and Premium Models
While the entire laptop category has gotten slimmer, there’s still a market for larger “classic” desktop-replacement laptops that blend premium design and function. Desktop replacements aren’t quite as easy to cart around as smaller ultraportables, but these 14- and 15-inch laptops offer everything you need in a day-to-day PC. They have bigger displays, as well as a broader selection of ports and features, and are one of the few categories that still offer optical drives. Screen resolutions run the gamut from 1,366 by 768 for budget systems to the more mainstream 1,920-by-1,080-pixel resolution, up to the 3,840-by-2,160-pixel resolution found on high-end multimedia laptops intended for graphics professionals.
Media and Gaming Machines
Laptop and desktop sales may have started to decline in recent years, with tablet sales expanding to fill the gap, but gaming PC sales have actually increased. For anyone who wants top-of-the-line performance for PC games, the combination of a high-end processor, a potent discrete graphics card, and a large, high-resolution display is well worth the higher prices that such gaming rigs frequently command. And do those prices ever run high—while an entry-level gaming laptop typically starts at about $799, you can expect to pay $3,000 or more for a system with a powerful processor, lots of memory, and one or more high-end GPUs with the horsepower needed to play games with all the graphical details maxed out.
Before you drop a grand or two on a gaming laptop, you should know what you’re getting for your money. Powerful quad-core processors are par for the course, with Intel Core i7 chips pushing serious performance even for non-gaming applications. Discrete GPUs from Nvidia and AMD provide silky-smooth graphics and impressive frame rates; some high-end rigs come with two GPUs, helping justify their high prices. External GPU docks are also an option, connected to the laptop via a Thunderbolt 3 cable. Additional features to watch for include high-resolution displays and hard drives that offer 1TB or more of local storage space, so you can store your entire game library on the machine.
Not all gaming laptops are hulking beasts, however. The sleek designs of ultraportables have given rise to a new breed of machine that puts gaming-level performance into a more portable design, with the sleek build and long-lasting battery life you haven’t traditionally seen in this category. But this high-level performance doesn’t come cheap here, either—gaming ultraportables usually run in the $2,000 range.
Check out our top-rated gaming laptop picks.
Chromebooks are at the other end of the pricing spectrum from gaming laptops. These Chrome
A primary benefit of Chrome OS is that it is relatively immune to the malware plaguing Windows
A recent development is the ability to run Android apps from the Google Play Store on C
Chrome OS has also recently expanded into the tablet form factor to compete with the Apple iPad and Android tablets. Chrome OS-powered tablets like the HP Chromebook x2 and the Google Pixel Slate come without built-in keyboards, which makes them extremely portable. They’re an intriguing option for frequent travelers who don’t need a conventional laptop.
Understanding Laptop Connections: Ports and Slots
Connectivity is key for a modern laptop. Almost every model on the market today offers Bluetooth for connecting wireless peripherals, and Internet connectivity via 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Mobile broadband options, for when there’s no Wi-Fi hotspot handy, include 3G, 4G HSPA+, and 4G LTE, but these are increasingly rare, as users opt for personal mobile hotspots that work with several devices or tether their smartphone to use its broadband connection.
Ultraportables and desktop replacements alike depend upon USB connectivity to work with a broad range of accessories and peripherals. USB 3.0, which offers much greater bandwidth and faster data transfer than USB 2.0, can be found in all but the oldest and lowest-priced designs; it’s usually identifiable by a port colored in blue or labeled with the letters “SS” (for
Although for a while manufacturers like Apple, HP, and Lenovo implemented Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 interfaces as a faster alternative to USB 3.0 for hooking up monitors, storage devices, and docking stations, for the most
Thunderbolt 3 rides in on USB-C’s coattails, using the same plug and socket, with extra circuitry to boost throughput to 40Gbps for humungous data transfers. That’s eight times as fast as USB 3.0, and four times as fast as USB 3.1/USB-C. USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 are showing up in a lot of new laptops, from $229 budget models to $5,000 mobile workstations; Apple MacBooks and MacBook Pros that use it exclusively are among the highest-profile adoptees to date. Because of the general necessity of having thinner, more extensible ports in computer hardware of all types, these two interfaces are rapidly proliferating. This year, Thunderbolt 3 speeds will be integrated into the USB standard, likely dealing a death blow to USB 3.0.
The venerable VGA interface is rapidly disappearing as well, due in part to space constraints in ultraportables that preclude the bulky connector, and newer monitors and projectors that work better with DisplayPort, HDMI, USB-C or Thunderbolt 3. HDMI is especially popular lately, thanks to the demand for connecting laptops to TVs. Alternately, you can use an Apple TV or Google Chromecast device to beam video and audio to your TV wirelessly.
Also becoming scarce is the optical drive. With so many software and game purchases occurring online, and cloud services taking over for many local applications, the optical drive has been dropped from most model lines, with new systems touting slimmer, lighter form factors. For those who still need to install software from a disc or want to enjoy movies on DVD or Blu-ray, you can still find them (particularly on gaming laptops with 15-inch screens), but it takes some hunting. For those without, external USB DVD and Blu-ray drives are as easy to use as built-in drives.
While premium ultraportables rely solely upon SSDs for the performance boost offered by solid-state storage, most mainstream systems use a combination of an SSD and a traditional spinning hard drive. This lets you run programs quickly and still have lots of (slower) storage for your photos, videos, and other files. SSD-only laptops frequently top out at 256GB or 512GB, though you may occasionally see some premium systems with 1TB and larger drives. If you need more hard drive space, a USB 3.0 or USB-C external hard drive should do the trick.
What’s Under the Hood?
The most dominant processor chips come from Intel. Made with ultraportables and hybrid designs in mind, Intel’s latest Core mobile CPUs not only stretch battery life, but they also boast improved graphics processing. (See our picks for the longest-running laptops in terms of battery life.) These latest processors, identifiable by model numbers in the 8000s and 9000s (such as Core i7-8550U), also feature more cores than their predecessors. Nowadays, you will find a true quad-core CPU in your Core i5 laptop, with more power than an older dual-core. Dual-core chips live on, though, in the form of the cheaper Intel Pentium and Celeron CPUs that mostly power Chromebooks and entry-level laptops.
AMD’s own line of processors also offers enhanced performance at low prices, but it can’t match the efficiency gains of Intel’s latest chips. You’ll see the latest Mobile Ryzen chips in some budget and midrange machines, along with a select few models featuring AMD’s Mobile Ryzen plus Vega graphics.
Whether you go with Intel or AMD, you should find an integrated graphics subsystem adequate for graphics tasks, unless you’re a part-time gamer or a CAD user. High-end discrete graphics-processing units are terrific for 3D games, transcoding 1080p
Many laptop designs now incorporate non-removable batteries that can’t be swapped out. While the move toward sealing batteries into the chassis does allow for thinner designs, it removes the possibility of swapping out batteries on the go for longer use between charging. On the other hand, the efficiency gains of Intel’s newest processors mean that most laptops will still last for the better part of a day.
As designs get sleeker and slimmer, manufacturers are using an array of materials in their construction. Plastic (or polycarbonate) is the least expensive and most commonly used material in laptop frames, but manufacturers have shown great ingenuity in making plastic not look cheap. The most common technique is
In the end, though, plastics are often associated with low-priced laptops, while higher-end models rely on metals. Common premium choices include aluminum, which has a more luxurious
Other common chassis materials include magnesium alloy and carbon fiber, both of which add strength while keeping overall weight low. Glass has long been found covering displays, but with ultra-strong variants like Gorilla Glass, you’ll find the material being used in everything from the lid to the touchpad.
Should You Buy an Extended Warranty?
Most laptops are backed by a one-year warranty on parts and labor. The standard warranty is limited, so it won’t cover accidents that stem from, say, spilling a drink on the keyboard or dropping the system to a hard surface.
Most laptop manufacturers also sell accidental coverage as a separate plan on top of optional extended warranties, so you might end up spending close to $300 for three years of comprehensive coverage. Apple offers a maximum three-year extended warranty ($249 to $379), while most Windows-based laptop manufacturers offer up to four years.
Our rule of thumb is that if the warranty costs more than 15 percent of the laptop’s purchase price, you’re better off spending the money on backup drives or services that minimize downtime. Of course, you can’t put a price tag on peace of mind. There are instances when the logic board or the display—the most expensive parts of a laptop—fail, and while rare, such a catastrophe can cost you half of what the laptop is worth. Defective components usually break down during the first year; anything after that is typically attributed to wear and tear. If the breakdown can be attributed to a design flaw, laptop manufacturers will sometimes extend free warranties to cover these flaws, but only for certain models built during limited time periods.
Ready for Our Recommendations?
The systems below, some of the best we’ve recently tested, span the spectrum of features, performance, and price to provide top choices for each type of user. We refresh the list constantly to include the newest products, but because of the large number of laptops we review every year, not every top-rated product makes the cut. For the very latest reviews, and to search for more top-rated products, check out the Laptop Product Guide.
Pros: Compact and classy. Beautiful rose-gold-and-white color scheme. 4K touch screen. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports plus USB-C.
Cons: No HDMI or USB Type-A ports. 4K display isn’t the best for battery life. Loaded models get pricey.
Bottom Line: Dell moves the webcam to where it always should have been, fixing one of the very few faults of the drop-dead gorgeous, highly capable XPS 13. Earning our highest recommendation and a rare five-star rating, the XPS 13 (9380) is, indisputably, the best ultraportable laptop you can buy.
Pros: Integrated stylus. Thin and light. Stylish metal design with multiple color options. Optional 4K display. Webcam privacy filter. Dolby Vision (HDR) support. Excellent battery life.
Cons: No SD-card reader. Ships with some bloatware.
Bottom Line: With a revamped hinge, an integrated stylus, and a sleek design, Lenovo’s Yoga C930 2-in-1 convertible laptop is even better than its winning predecessor.
Pros: Sharp design. High-quality, portable build. Better-than-60fps gaming at appealing price via GeForce GTX 1660 Ti GPU. 144Hz display. Long battery life for a gaming laptop. Solid port selection. Per-key backlighting.
Cons: 512GB of storage in tester unit is a little tight for gaming. A bit of lid flex.
Bottom Line: MSI’s GS65 Stealth delivers better-than-60fps gaming performance and a premium, portable build with long battery life. With no real flaws, an appealing price, and power topped only by pricey alternatives, it’s our top midrange gaming laptop.
Pros: Portable, spiffy design. High-end build quality. Hits well over 60fps while gaming with its RTX 2070 Max-Q GPU. 144Hz display benefits from high frame rates. Per-key RGB keyboard backlighting. Good battery life.
Cons: Garish lid logo. Runs hot while gaming. White “Mercury Edition” costs extra.
Bottom Line: The 2019 Razer Blade 15 Advanced Model takes last year’s slick, winning design and adds peppy, muscled-up Nvidia GeForce RTX graphics. It’s our top recommendation in its class.
Pros: Sharp-looking aluminum design for a budget machine. Excellent battery life. Touch display (as tested) looks great. Comfortable backlit keyboard. Big touchpad.
Cons: Processor could use a pick-me-up. Ho-hum speakers.
Bottom Line: Aluminum-clad and ready for all day off the plug, the Acer Chromebook 514 is a reasonably-priced standout on the premium Chromebook stage that’s right-priced for students and budget buyers.
Pros: Astounding graphics and general computing performance. Desktop-class processor. Nvidia RTX 2080 GPU. Built-in eye tracking. Comfortable keyboard. 144Hz display. Excellent component access for upgrades.
Cons: Heavy, bulky. Requires two power bricks. Expensive. No 4K display option. Very short battery life.
Bottom Line: Packing an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 graphics chip and a desktop-class Intel Core i9, Alienware’s massively rejiggered flagship, the Area-51m, is the best-performing gaming laptop we’ve tested, a monster in every sense a laptop can be.
Pros: Proximity sensor streamlines sign in. Sturdy, sleek chassis. Thin screen bezels, and relatively large 14-inch screen. Excellent touchpad and keyboard. Three-year warranty. Prime-time battery life.
Cons: Relatively low maximum screen brightness. Lackluster audio quality.
Bottom Line: With a deluxe chassis, keyboard, and touchpad, paired with a snappy sign-in feature and superb battery life, Dell’s Latitude 7400 2-in-1 is a top contender among business convertibles.
Pros: Premium build quality. Thin and light. Very good battery life. Quick charging.
Cons: Expensive. Finicky touch screen. Anemic speakers. No Ethernet port.
Bottom Line: The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon offers premium features in a slim and attractive package that business users will love-just be prepared to open your wallet wide for this top-notch ultraportable laptop.
Pros: Premium alloy construction. Elegant convertible design. Sharp high-resolution touch display in new larger size. Discrete Nvidia GTX 1060 graphics. Very long battery life. Multiple configuration options. Xbox wireless controller receiver is integrated.
Cons: 16GB RAM maximum. Surface Pen is an additional purchase. Adding SSD storage is pricey. Some finicky issues required troubleshooting in our tests.
Bottom Line: The Surface Book 2 is a feat of design, a top-of-the-line premium convertible 2-in-1 laptop that’s fast, long lasting, versatile, and portable. It’s even up for gaming.
Pros: Thin-and-light chassis. Near-borderless screen. Good port mix for a trim machine. Touchpad doubles as a number pad. Solid battery life.
Cons: Display could be brighter. Comes with a bit of bloatware.
Bottom Line: The Asus ZenBook 14 is an above-average ultraportable for professionals, with an extremely trim design and some little tweaks that make it pleasant to use and carry.