Laptop Buying Guide: 8 Essential Tips
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Laptops are compact enough to carry with you, yet powerful enough to run demanding applications. Notebooks are the best tool for doing serious work or play whether you’re at home, on the road, or in a college classroom.
Whether you are just browsing the web, need to type a research paper, work on video production, or play some of the best PC games, it’s all best done on a laptop. So how do you know what to look for in a laptop? Well, we’ve put together this laptop buying guide to help answer that question for you.
Laptops come in a wide variety of sizes, features, and prices, which makes choosing the best laptop a challenge. That’s why you need to figure out what your needs are.
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- 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.
- If you’re spending over $600, shoot for these minimum specs:
- CPU: Core i5 or Ryzen 5
- Screen: 1920 x 1080 IPS
- RAM: 8GB
- Storage: SSD instead of a hard drive
- 9+ hours of battery life in our test is ideal if you plan to take your laptop anywhere.
- Consider a 2-in-1 laptop (either a convertible or detachable) if you want to use your laptop as a tablet. If not, a standard clamshell notebook may be a better choice.
- Chromebooks are ideal for kids and students or as secondary laptops, but their functionality keeps growing. Windows 11 laptops and MacBooks both offer plenty of functionality; which platform you prefer is a matter of personal taste.
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1. Pick a platform: Windows 11 vs. macOS vs. Chrome OS?
Depending on your needs this could be an easy choice, but if you don’t have any existing loyalties to a platform or specific software that you need this can be a challenging question to answer. If you are in that latter camp here’s a quick overview of each platform’s strengths and weaknesses to help you decide.
Most laptops come with one of three operating systems: Windows, Chrome OS, or macOS (for MacBooks only).
Windows 11 (or Windows 10)
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The most flexible operating system, Windows 11, runs on more laptop models than Chrome OS or macOS. Windows notebooks range in price from under $150 to several thousand dollars and offer a wide array of features from touch screens to fingerprint readers to dual graphics chips. Windows 11, the latest version of Microsoft’s flagship operating system, provides a number of improvements over Windows 10, including the revised interface, the new Microsoft Store, handy features like Snap View.
Since its launch in October 2021, Windows 11 has also added a host of improvements, including Focus Sessions and a Do Not Disturb mode. The 22h3 update also came with notable performance and battery optimization enhancements. Windows 11 laptops are great for students, researchers, and business users, and they’re still the only gaming laptops anyone should consider.
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All MacBooks come with Apple’s latest desktop operating system, macOS Ventura. Overall, the operating system offers similar functionality to Windows 11, but with a different take on the interface that substitutes an apps dock at the bottom of the screen for Microsoft’s Start menu and taskbar. Instead of the Cortana digital assistant, Mac users get Siri. They can also perform transactions with Apple Pay, take calls or texts from their phones, and unlock their laptops with an Apple Watch.
However, macOS isn’t made for touch, because no MacBook comes with a touch screen. While Apple did bring iPad apps to its laptops starting with macOS Big Sur (iPad and iPadOS apps can run natively on M1 and M2 Macs), you have to rely on a touchpad or mouse to navigate them. Ventura also brought Apple’s Stage Manager for handling multitasking, which is a useful feature, although it can take time to adjust to it.
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Found on inexpensive Chromebooks such as the Samsung Chromebook 3. Google’s OS is simple and secure, but more limited than Windows or macOS. The user interface looks a lot like Windows with an application menu, a desktop, and the ability to drag windows around, but the primary focus is still the Chrome browser. While newer Chromebooks, like the Lenovo IdeaPad Duet 5 Chromebook can run Android apps, they still aren’t always optimized for use in a laptop form factor.
If you need a device to surf the Web and check email, navigate social networks and chat online, Chromebooks are highly portable and tend to offer good battery life at low prices. They are also extremely popular with schools, parents, and increasingly businesses because they are hard to infect with malware. For educational use, they offer something closer to a full laptop experience and are more functional than most tablets. If you need a Chromebook, look for one with at least 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. A screen with a 1920 x 1080 resolution is preferred and you can now find 4K and OLED models, like the aforementioned IdeaPad Duet 5.
2. Decide if you want a 2-in-1
Many PC laptops fall into the category of 2-in-1 laptops, hybrid devices that can switch between traditional clamshell mode, tablet mode and other positions in between such as tent or stand modes. 2-in-1s generally come in two different styles: detachables with screens that come off the keyboard entirely and convertible laptops with hinges that bend back 360 degrees to change modes.
Most of these systems are much better at serving one purpose than the other, with convertibles being laptops first and detachables offering a superior tablet experience. However, if you don’t see the need to use your notebook as a slate, you’ll usually get more performance for your money with a traditional clamshell laptop.
3. Choose the right size
Before you look at specs or pricing, you need to figure out just how portable you need your laptop to be. Laptops are usually categorized by their display sizes:
- 11 to 12 inches: The thinnest and lightest systems around have 11- to 12-inch screens and typically weigh 2 to 3 pounds.
- 13 to 14 inches: Provides the best balance of portability and usability, particularly if you get a laptop that weighs under 3.5 pounds.
- 15 to 16 inches: The most popular size, 15-inch laptops usually weigh 3.5 to 5.5 pounds. Consider this size if you want a larger screen and you’re not planning to carry your notebook around often.
- 17 to 18 inches: If your laptop stays on your desk all day every day, a 17-inch laptop or the newly emerging 18-inch laptops could provide you with the kind of processing power you need to play high-end games or do workstation-level productivity.
4. Check that keyboard and touchpad
The most impressive specs in the world don’t mean diddly if the laptop you’re shopping for doesn’t have good ergonomics. If you plan to do a lot of work on your computer, make sure the keyboard offers solid tactile feedback, plenty of key travel (the distance the key goes down when pressed, usually 1 to 2mm) and enough space between the keys. If you’re buying a Windows laptop, be sure it has Precision touchpad drivers.
(Image credit: Phillip Tracy/Laptop Mag)
Look for an accurate touchpad that doesn’t give you a jumpy cursor and responds consistently to multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom. If you’re buying a business laptop, consider getting one with a pointing stick (aka nub) between the G and H keys so you can navigate around the desktop without lifting your fingers off the keyboard’s home row.
5. Pick your specs
Notebook components such as processor, hard drive, RAM, and graphics chip can confuse even notebook aficionados, so don’t feel bad if spec sheets look like alphabet soup to you.
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Here are the main components to keep an eye on.
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:
- Apple M1 and M2: Apple’s custom silicon, the ARM-based M1 and M2 chips crush the competition when it comes to a balance of raw performance and endurance. Opt for the Pro or Max variants if you need even more power for tasks like content creation or programming.
- Intel 13th Gen CPUs: Intel’s 13th Gen Raptor Lake processors are the state of the art for Intel in 2023. From the HX series at the high-end to the balanced P-series and thin-and-light friendly U-Series, Intel is delivering a superior performance to battery life ratio than we’ve seen in recent years.
- Intel 12th Gen CPUs: Intel’s 12th Gen Alder Lake processors power the previous generation of laptops. To summarize, Alder Lake — a 7-nanometer chip — offers updated integrated Iris Xe graphics with up to 5.5Ghz speeds as well as Thunderbolt 4 support. The Intel EVO brand sets parameters for top laptops, including a minimum of 9 hours of battery life.
- AMD Ryzen 7000: The Ryzen 7000 chips from AMD are just rolling out now, so we are still waiting to get laptops with them in our labs for texting, but the company claims we can expect a roughly 78% boost to CPU performance at the top end. If it can still maintain its excellent battery life along with it that will be incredibly compelling.
- AMD Ryzen 5000 and 6000: Intel’s previous generations were a massive leap for the company and remain reasonable options on more budget-friendly laptops. We found Ryzen 5000 and 6000 chips to be equal to or better than their equivalent Intel 11th and 12th gen. Not only do you get great performance and endurance but Ryzen-equipped laptops tend to be cheaper than their Intel counterparts.
- Intel Core i9: 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. Typically feature 14 total cores.
- Intel Core i7: A step up from Core i5, models with numbers that end in H use higher wattage and have between 10 and 14 cores, allowing for even faster gaming and productivity. There are also Core i7 P and U series chips that have lower power and performance. Keep an eye out for CPUs that have a 12 in the model number because they are part of Intel’s latest lineup.
- 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 are the most common with lower power and performance to preserve battery life while models with a P use more wattage, while still offering better efficiency than the H-Series.
- Intel Core i3: Performance is just a step below Core i5 and so is the price. If you can 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: Still found 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.
- AMD A, FX or E Series: Found on low-cost laptops, AMD’s processors — the company calls them APUs rather than CPUs — provide decent performance for the money that’s good enough for web surfing, media viewing and productivity.
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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 99% of users, 32GB is more than enough, while 64GB and above is reserved for professional power users or high-end gamers.
Storage (SSD): As important as 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.
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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, 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 you’re considering has a good display. We typically look for a DCI-P3 color rating of over 85% and brightness great than 300 nits. If you want the very best picture quality consider an OLED display or miniLED, but read reviews of these models carefully as there can be battery trade-offs.
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.
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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 Iris Xe graphics. If you have any of the above needs, though, a discrete graphics processor from Nvidia or AMD is essential.
As with CPUs, there are both high- and low-end graphics chips. Low-end gaming or workstation systems today usually have Nvidia GTX RTX A1000 or RTX 3050 Ti GPUs while mid-range models have RTX 4050 or RTX 4050 Ti and high-end models have RTX 4070 or above chips. Nvidia maintains a list of its graphics chips from low to high end.
Nvidia’s rivals, AMD, launched the Radeon RX 7000 GPUs at CES in January of 2023. 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. However, many mainstream laptops now only offer USB Type-C, Thunderbolt 4, or USB4 ports that are USB Type-C compatible. Having legacy USB 3.0 ports, an audio jack, an SD card reader, and HDMI can be useful, but depending on the type of laptop you are considering these features are growing harder to find.
With that said, USB Type-C is a definite plus because you can use it to connect to USB Type-C hubs or docking stations that can give you any combination of ports you might need.
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Connectivity: If you need to use your laptop on the go, consider buying a 4G LTE laptop or 5G laptop. 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: Very 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 we strongly recommend leaving this off the wish list for your laptop and buying an external DVD drive.
6. Don’t Skimp on Battery Life
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If you’re buying a large, bulky notebook or a gaming rig that you’ll use only on a desk near an outlet, you don’t have to worry about battery life. However, if you plan to use the laptop on your lap, even if it’s at home and or work, you’ll want at least 7 hours of endurance, with 9+ hours being ideal. To determine a notebook’s expected battery life, don’t take the manufacturer’s word for it. Instead, read third-party results from objective sources, such as our reviews.
MORE: Laptops with the Longest Battery Life
7. Plan Based on Your Budget
These days, you can buy a usable laptop for under $200, but if you can budget more, you’ll get a system with better build quality, stronger performance and a better display. Here’s what you can get for each price range.
- $150 to $250: The least-expensive notebooks are either Chromebooks, which run Google’s browser-centric OS, or low-end Windows systems with minimal storage and slower processors, such as the HP Stream 11 and the Lenovo Chromebook Duet. Use these as secondary computers only or give them to the kids.
- $350 to $600: For under $600, you can get a notebook with an Intel Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5000 CPU, 4 to 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD, all respectable specs. However, there are sure to be some trade-offs to hit that price. There are outliers like the Lenovo IdeaPad Duet 5 Chromebook or the Samsung Galaxy Book.
- $600 to $900: As you get above $600, you’ll start to see more premium designs, such as metal finishes. Manufacturers also start to add in other features as you climb the price ladder, including higher-resolution displays and SSDs. The Apple MacBook Air M1 is typically in this price range along with Asus ZenBook 13 UX325EA.
- Above $900: At this price range, expect notebooks that are more portable, more powerful or both. Expect higher-resolution screens, faster processors, and possibly discrete graphics. The lightest, longest-lasting ultraportables, like the Acer Swift 5, tend to cost more than $1,000. High-end gaming systems and mobile workstations usually cost upward of $1,500 or even as much as $2,500 or $3,000.
MORE: Best Laptops Under $500
8. Mind the Brand
Your laptop is only as good as the company that stands behind it. Accurate and timely technical support is paramount, which is why Laptop Mag evaluates every major brand in our annual Tech Support Showdown. This past year Razer came in first place, followed by Apple and Lenovo in a tie for second place, while Dell and Asus settled for a shared third-place finish.
Support is only part of what makes a notebook brand worth your money. You also have to consider how the manufacturer stacks up to the competition in terms of design, value and selection, review performance, and other criteria. In our 2020 Best and Worst Laptop Brands report, HP placed first, followed by Asus and Dell. We’ve also rated gaming laptop brands, with MSI taking first place and Acer and Alienware rounding out the top three. Look out for updated versions of those reports in the coming months.
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Sean Riley has been covering tech professionally for over a decade now. Most of that time was as a freelancer covering varied topics including phones, wearables, tablets, smart home devices, laptops, AR, VR, mobile payments, fintech, and more. Sean is the resident mobile expert at Laptop Mag, specializing in phones and wearables, you’ll find plenty of news, reviews, how-to, and opinion pieces on these subjects from him here. But Laptop Mag has also proven a perfect fit for that broad range of interests with reviews and news on the latest laptops, VR games, and computer accessories along with coverage on everything from NFTs to cybersecurity and more.
Laptop buying guide: what to look for in 2023
Whether you’re loyal to Windows, a Mac fan, or willing to try something new, you should know what to look for in a laptop before making an investment. There’s more to consider than just the operating system. Does it have the screen you want? Are there ports that support your peripherals? Can it play games at 1080p – or higher? These are among the many considerations you need to weigh.
- Mac, Windows, or something else?
- The types of laptops
- What you need to know about hardware
- Best time to buy your laptop
In this guide, we explain what you should look for in 2023, and what you need to avoid. Many options are available to you for both Windows 11 and Chrome OS, whereas Apple limits its MacBooks to a more limited number of configurations. Continue reading to find out which laptop is right for you, and be sure to check out our list of best laptop brands before you get started.
Mac, Windows, or something else?
The operating system should be your first major consideration. While that debate was once dominated by Apple’s macOS and Microsoft’s Windows, Google’s Chrome OS is now a very popular alternative typically offered on much more affordable laptops.
While there are certainly comparable hardware and features offered with these platforms, there are some stark differences between them that are important to consider.
Lenovo Slim 9i Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Windows-based PCs are an incredibly diverse category. Dozens of manufacturers make them, and the quality and pricing can vary greatly depending on which model and brand you choose. The fastest models will surpass Macs in terms of performance, and many companies tailor their Windows PCs to a specific purpose, such as gaming or business.
Windows PCs come in a variety of shapes and sizes. A standard laptop with a clamshell design and a keyboard-mouse interface is easy to find, such as the lightweight Surface Laptop line. Windows touchscreen laptops can be found even in the lower price brackets, which is not something you’ll see on any Apple MacBook — unless you count a brief fling with the Touch Bar.
More elaborate designs include fold-back screens or even detachable tablet-keyboard combos, such as Microsoft’s Surface range. Meanwhile, Apple reserves the 2-in-1 design for its iPad Pro family combined with a Magic Keyboard, as you won’t see a convertible or detachable MacBook.
On the software side, Windows is far more open-ended than macOS. It’s the standard for game development and many business-related programs, empowering a larger software library. Windows enjoys major updates with new features more frequently, too: Biannually versus annually as with Apple’s macOS. Note that Chrome OS has a less rigid update schedule and is more likely to get smaller updates more often.
Unlike Apple’s more limited hardware lineup, there is plenty of choice in the Windows laptop space. Whether you opt for a major manufacturer like Lenovo, Dell, or one of Microsoft’s own devices, you have a ton of options.
Apple has always been protective of its brand, releasing products in very deliberate iterations. Any Apple product will follow its standards, whereas any manufacturer can make a Windows or Chrome OS-based PC with unique specs. As a result, Macs are very user-friendly and stable. And because they come from the same ecosystem, Apple’s resourceful support network can easily help with any problems that arise.
Quality design is one of the hallmarks of a Mac. They are built to look great, feel elegant, and have incredible displays, which translates to a much higher price tag than many of their Windows and Chrome OS counterparts, especially when configured with lots of storage. Apple computers aren’t known for being cheap.
Macs use fast hardware but rarely sport the most powerful graphics chips as seen in Windows-based PCs — and unlike many PCs, it is nigh impossible to upgrade components, so you are stuck with the specs that you purchase on day one. Still, those who want a solid computer but do not know a lot about hardware can rest easy knowing their Mac will perform well during everyday use. Apple’s hardware also advanced significantly in late 2020 and 2021, when the company switched processors to their own in-house chips. The newest M2 processor is an incredibly fast CPU for creators, with machines like the MacBook Pro 14 with the M2 Max offering blistering performance and surprisingly awesome efficiency. Today, the MacBook Pro offers the best combination of high speed and battery life you can buy.
Apple’s strict design standards extend to the operating system, macOS, which is straightforward and intuitive. Unlike Windows, the platform includes a suite of proprietary office and media-editing software, and each application is well-suited for its targeted task. It’s no surprise Apple is often the choice of designers and photographers (although models like Microsoft’s Studio Laptop Studio are putting up serious competition thanks to innovative designs and digital pen support).
Finally, while there are no touchscreens on Macs, you can use Apple’s Sidecar mode to add an iPad as a second wireless screen with touch support.
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Google’s Chrome OS is different from Windows and macOS. Based on the Chrome browser, this platform initially focused on web-based apps and affordability. While the latter still holds true, Chrome OS has evolved over the years to support more traditional desktop software and mobile apps, similar to its rivals.
Chrome OS powers Chromebooks. These devices are typically more affordable than Windows-based PCs and MacBooks due to their lower hardware requirements. They’re ideal for schools and other institutions, and customers who just need a laptop to browse social media and make online purchases.
However, hardware choices are also much more varied today than in the past, with powerful offerings, like the HP Dragonfly Pro Chromebook, that perform and look very much like premium Windows and macOS laptops. There are even 2-in-1 options like the HP Chromebook x360 14 and the affordable detachable tablet Lenovo Duet 5 Chromebook with an OLED display.
Overall, Chrome OS is quicker and more versatile today than ever. Its foundation is still web-centric, but the platform now supports Google Play and Android apps, making it the ideal notebook companion if you have an Android phone. It even mimics Apple’s iMessage, allowing Chromebook owners to text from their laptops without picking up the phone.
Moreover, Chrome OS supports Linux, opening up the platform to traditional desktop software, like GIMP and Steam. The drawback is that the library isn’t as diverse as Windows or even macOS, and Linux support is still in beta. Still, the maturity of Chrome OS has proven to be a strong contender in a market dominated mainly by Windows.
Overall, if Chrome OS fits the bill for what you need in a laptop, you can save a lot of money by going with a Chromebook.
The types of laptops
There are several laptop categories, manufactured with a certain use or audience in mind. When shopping for a laptop, decide what you primarily intend to use the laptop for and seek out a category that aligns with those interests. Here are some broad categories and a couple of our favorites for each.
Entry-level ($500 or less)
Laptops can be expensive, but manufacturers know that not everyone can afford a $2,000 machine. Buyers who need a laptop for the most basic purposes and want to save money can find great laptops that cost $500 or less.
In general, budget laptops are ideal for people who may not know a lot about computers and simply want a device that can carry out basic tasks. They’re built to last despite the low price, with competent construction and ergonomically sensible keyboards and touchpads. One great example is the Lenovo Chromebook Duet 3 detachable tablet, which manages to be quite usable with a surprisingly good display for only $300.
These laptops are typically light on hardware, meaning you won’t find loads of RAM or high-performance graphics, making them less ideal for AAA games or keeping hundreds of browser tabs open. They’re not incapable of decent performance, just limited as to what you can do compared to higher-priced models.
This is a category where Chromebooks excel, as they ditch some of the fancier features of Windows and macOS laptops, but there are options from Windows as well. You won’t find a macOS laptop for under $500.
Dell XPS 13 Plus
This price range is arguably the best in terms of bang for your buck. These laptops are often truly excellent. You get much better internal hardware than the entry-level offerings, but at the cost of premium features, high-powered graphics chips, and fancy materials.
The fact that this section is such a sweet spot for the industry means that you have plenty to choose from. There are laptops with great displays, laptops with powerful processors, beautiful laptops, and ones that are light and portable with great battery life. You may not find a system that ticks every one of those boxes, but the best laptops under $1,000 are some of our favorites. This is also where you’ll find your least expensive macOS machine, the entry-level MacBook Air M1, but you can also squeeze in the newer MacBook Air M2. Dell’s excellent XPS 13 is also available in this price range.
Dell XPS 15 Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
This bracket contains some of the best laptops you can buy today. For a little extra money, you gain longer battery life, improved performance from more powerful internal hardware, larger and higher-resolution displays with more exotic technologies like OLED and mini-LED, and overall better build quality. If you’re a bit more of a power user and can afford it, this is the class of laptop you should consider the most.
Despite the inflated cost of the premium laptop category, there are still plenty of choices. You can pick up stellar laptops in the 13-inch form with plenty of general computing power and connectivity options. If you’re interested in gaming on the side or content creation, you’ll want to jump up to a 15-inch laptop with an eight-core (or more) processor and a dedicated graphics card.
This category even contains a more modern version of our favorite laptop of the past few years, the Dell XPS 13 Plus. If you want something a little heftier and more capable of content creation, the Dell XPS 15 is worth considering too. For gamers, the Razer Blade 14 is one of the best laptops we’ve come across for highly portable performance, while the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme offers real power in a supremely rugged and upgradeable chassis.
If you’re an Apple fan, we’d recommend the MacBook Pro. It’s costly, but it offers the best combination of performance and battery life.
Microsoft Surface Pro 9
The 2-in-1 laptop combines the convenience and ease of a tablet with the utility of a keyboard. This category includes two most common designs: Convertible and detachable. The convertible can serve as a tablet by flipping the keyboard under the screen. The detachable is essentially a tablet with a removable keyboard but it looks and feels like an ultra-thin laptop when combined. There are other types of 2-in-1s, such as the pull-forward design epitomized by the Microsoft Surface Studio Laptop, the HP Elite Folio, and the Acer ConceptD 7 Ezel.
Two-in-ones can provide a lot of versatility but are not necessarily the best devices available. The uniqueness of their design can come with some notable drawbacks, such as weight (especially from the metal hinges on the keyboard) and price. These 2-in-1 laptops are often more expensive than clamshell laptops with comparable hardware.
When it comes to buying a 2-in-1, some are better laptops than they are tablets, and some are better tablets than they are laptops. Think hard about which “mode” you’ll likely use more before buying, and do so accordingly.
Our favorite 2-in-1 laptops for 2021 include the Microsoft Surface Pro 9 and the HP Spectre X360 13.5, always a reliable line for professionals.
XPS 13 9315 Digital Trends
The term “ultrabook” is technically a specification that Intel used for extra-light, portable laptops designed to be easy to carry while still providing great battery life. They use SSDs, power-efficient Intel Core processors, and carefully designed clamshell bodies. This became a very popular type of computer, and many people began applying the name “ultrabook” to any compact, lightweight laptop designed for easy transport.
Today, any lightweight laptop with an SSD and Intel processor may be called an ultrabook, although that isn’t entirely accurate (some are now referred to as ultraportables instead). You can find some good examples in our list of the best 13-inch laptops.
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 10
Business laptops offer some intriguing features for the average buyer despite targeting professionals. Sure, they might not always offer the looks of more mainstream systems, but they tend to pack exceptional battery life and have more rugged and tough shells.
The biggest downside to business laptops is that they’re usually expensive. They typically offer slightly larger displays paired with excellent color accuracy, especially if they’re aimed more at video editors and photographers. They are also much more likely to offer better protective systems like biometric validation and professionally oriented software packages due to their greater emphasis on security and privacy.
One of the most iconic laptop lines in the business category is the Lenovo ThinkPad, and the latest ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 10 is a fantastic entry in that range. We also love the flagship ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 5 — it’s our favorite business laptop.
Gaming laptops must be built to keep up with the unceasing march of progress. The best tout high-end processors and graphics chips, as well as enough RAM to run modern games. Anything less can render the hottest titles unplayable.
High-tier gaming laptops tend to be bulky, typically to accommodate better desktop-like hardware and larger screens. Their power-gulping components mean that battery life isn’t great — especially on systems with 4K displays. But this isn’t always the case, as our favorite gaming laptops tend to offer a good middle ground or offer more stealth gaming ability.
The category has also received a number of important upgrades in display technology that make the gaming experience even more enjoyable. OLED has made its way to gaming laptops, offering the usual excellent colors and inky blacks, and mini-LED just made its debut in 2023 such as on the Asus Zephyrus M16. Gaming laptop displays have also reached new heights in terms of refresh rates, with 240Hz panels increasingly common and even 480Hz displays being available. Faster refresh rates mean that the displays can now keep up with the superfast components and offer high-speed gaming without tearing and ghosting.
What you need to know about hardware
As with any computer, hardware determines what a laptop can do. Better components will naturally be more expensive, so it is essential to consider the laptop’s primary role and choose hardware suitable for that purpose. A laptop purchased to browse the internet or write documents, for example, doesn’t need a high-end processor or video card.
As with any computer, the CPU is the brains of the notebook and does most of the general work. When the computer needs to access or change data, the CPU executes that task. Better CPUs will be able to process more data at quicker speeds. However, keep in mind that a CPU’s pure clock speed doesn’t necessarily paint the whole picture. If you’re unsure about your options, copy its model number (such as “Core i7-13700H”) into a web search to compare your choices.
The current offerings from Intel are its Core i3, i5, i7, and i9 series in 13th-generation models. You can see the generation in the chip’s part number, shown immediately after the dash. For instance, the i7-13700H is a 13th-generation CPU. Meanwhile, AMD’s current notebook chips are its fifth-generation mobile Ryzen 7000 Series CPUs, though they are a bit more difficult to find in laptop offerings.
The Intel 13th-gen chips are hybrid designs, similar to Apple’s M1, although not based on the ARM architecture as are Apple’s. There are more cores than in previous Intel CPUs, with a mix of performance and efficiency cores meant to provide both faster and more efficient performance. They’re making their way to laptops in 2023, and tests have shown the highest-end 24-core Core i9-13900HX to rival Apple’s M2 Max in CPU performance. Most laptops, especially midrange and premium machines, should make the transition to Intel’s 13th-gen architecture throughout 2023.
The Ryzen 7000 uses an updated version of the current architecture and so will be significantly faster than AMD’s previous offerings. Just as important are the updates to the integrated Radeon graphics, with the implementation of the RDNA3 architecture that’s used in AMD’s discrete GPUs and should bring increased performance in modern games.
When it comes to picking a laptop based on its CPU, newer is almost always better. Try to avoid buying a laptop with a CPU that’s a few generations old. Unless you’re doing something intensive like video editing, don’t worry about buying a chip outside of the midrange. The 12 cores available in the Core i5-1350P, for example, offer enough performance for almost anyone.
A Graphics Processing Unit, or GPU, is a chip that generates all images you see on the screen. Most lower-end laptops ship with integrated graphics, which means the component is mounted inside the main processor. For instance, nearly all Intel laptop chips include integrated graphics, namely the Intel Iris Xe in higher-end models and Intel UHD graphics at the lower end. AMD produces Accelerated Processing Units, or APUs, that combine CPU and GPU cores on the same chip (die) similarly.
Other laptops have an additional graphics chip/module soldered into the motherboard. These chips are called “discrete GPUs,” and typically can’t be removed by the typical laptop owner. Nvidia and AMD are the primary vendors of these chips.
Nvidia’s latest laptop GPU family is the GeForce RTX 4000 Series, including the RTX 4050, 4050 Ti, 4060, 4070, 4080, and 4090. These will be in the most expensive, most powerful gaming and business-class laptops, though some recent models may use older chips like the RTX 3050 that still perform well. Laptops based on the RTX 4000 Series are increasingly common and provide excellent gaming and creative application performance.
AMD discrete laptop graphics like the RX 7000M and 7000S offer vastly improved performance over integrated solutions, though they are far less common than Nvidia’s solutions.
Although some laptops offer adequate sound right out of the box, such as the MacBook Pro, most laptops don’t have the room to fit decent speakers inside the casing. Most laptops provide ports to connect headphones or external speakers if you want a more immersive listening experience, although there’s a movement among some vendors to do away with the audio jack. The Dell XPS 13 and XPS 13 Plus are two examples.
RAM, often referred to as system memory, refers to dedicated hardware for temporarily storing and accessing information for immediate use. All current tasks store data in RAM, like the web browser currently displaying this guide.
Essentially, the more RAM, the more information a computer can call up at any given time, and thus the more things it can do. However, unlike storage (see below), RAM does not store data indefinitely. Once RAM loses power, all held data is lost.
How much RAM do you need? 8GB is the sweet spot for most. You’ll want to jump up to 16GB or more, though, if you’re running intensive applications or doing any kind of content creation.
The amount of storage space on a laptop’s internal drive(s) is how much data it can hold indefinitely. All data, from installed programs to downloaded music, reside on an internal storage device. Today, most devices are based on NAND Flash technology, commonly solid-state drives (SSD). Spinning hard disk drives (HDD) are becoming hard to find. Chromebooks tend to provide less storage space thanks to the lesser requirements of Chrome OS and the tendency to store more data in the cloud.
In contrast to RAM, data in storage does not necessarily need to be in use. An installed program that is currently inactive takes up storage space but not memory. As mentioned above, most modern laptops now use solid-state drives (SSDs), which are faster and more reliable than traditional hard drives. There was once a major price difference between laptops with SSDs and HDDs, but given the scarcity of the latter that price advantage no longer applies.
An SSD uses NAND Flash to store data, which doesn’t have moving parts. It offers a dramatic performance boost over a conventional hard drive – which does have moving parts — and can provide the most dramatic improvement in laptop usage when buying a new system.
Make sure your next purchase has an SSD as the primary drive, although that’s almost guaranteed. If you need more space, grab a big external drive too.
Ports can quickly become confusing on a laptop due to a complex labyrinth of terminology. Make sure to focus on the USB ports that you need.
Some laptops continue to offer USB-A ports to support legacy devices, like peripherals and external drives. They’re rectangular ports with squared corners and only work with a one-side-up connector. This interface supports USB 2.0 (480Mbps), USB 3. 2 Gen 1 (5Gbps), or USB 3.2 Gen 2 (10 Gbps), depending on the laptop manufacturer.
Most laptops today don’t offer USB-A ports due to their size. Instead, you’ll see one or more of the newer USB-C ports. This interface is smaller, narrower, and more rounded than USB-A. It’s generally used with several technologies, including Thunderbolt 4 (40Gbps) on Intel-based laptops (AMD doesn’t support Thunderbolt 4), USB 3.2 Gen 1, USB 3.2 Gen 2, and DisplayPort, depending on the laptop manufacturer. USB-C requires a different, thinner either-side-up connecter.
If you plan to connect a second external monitor for more large-screen work, make sure that the laptop has the right connections for that monitor, such as USB-C, DisplayPort, or HDMI. You may find VGA on old models, and video output is possible through USB-A using DisplayLink drivers and the appropriate adapter.
It used to be that you had a choice between IPS LED displays of various quality and resolution, mainly Full HD (1920 x 1080), WQHD (2560 x 1440), or 4K UHD (3840 x 2160). Most laptop displays were in the 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio except for Apple’s MacBook displays which were taller at 16:10 and Microsoft’s Surface line standardized on the even taller 3:2. Both provide better productivity thanks to displaying more vertical information.
Flash forward to 2023, and laptop displays have taken some serious leaps. Buying a laptop today involves a decision between a bunch of different display options, and they’re all for the better.
First, we have new technologies like organic light-emitting displays (OLED), Samsung’s quantum light-emitting diode (QLED), and Mini-LED (mainly used by Apple) that all provide incredibly deep contrast, tons of brightness, and dynamic and accurate colors. Even IPS displays have gotten better, with improved contrast, brightness, and colors that make them great options for creative professionals.
Next, the industry is transitioning to taller displays, 16:10 and the even taller 3:2. You can still buy 16:9 laptops, especially in gaming machines, but most new laptops have taller displays. As mentioned earlier, that’s a boon for productivity, providing more vertical space for documents and web pages. You get some letterboxing when watching video, but that’s a small price to pay for a more productive environment.
Finally, display resolutions are all over the map. For example, Dell has been using 3.5K (3456 x 2160) displays in its XPS 15 OLED machines, and other manufacturers have their own resolutions as well. This is a mixed bag — if you want a true 4K display in an XPS then you need to pick an IPS version. There are tradeoffs, but that also means there are more power-efficient options with higher resolution than Full HD but not quite as power-hungry as full 4K.
Touchscreens were once exclusive to high-end laptops mainly because the hardware was expensive and touch-based screens didn’t seem practical. What helped merge the two technologies was the tablet craze and the PC market’s need to regain its footing. Enter the touch-centric 2-in-1 PCs and the overall reduction in manufacturing costs. Touchscreens are now more common — even on some budget designs — unless you own a MacBook.
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Windows 11 has gone a long way toward making these touchscreen and combination designs more viable. The interface and software are designed with touch in mind, including conventional programs like Office and the Edge browser. Third-party software, like Google’s popular Chrome browser, also offers great touch support.
While touch may seem to be an interesting feature given that you smudge up a smartphone every day, consider if it’s important on a laptop. Touch makes sense on a 2-in-1 device, and even on laptops that can lean back in Stand Mode. If you don’t think a touch screen on a clamshell design will be practical, however, don’t dump extra bucks into a feature you’ll never use.
Best time to buy your laptop
One of the most common questions about buying a new laptop is when to shop to get the best deals. There’s no strict rule for securing a cheap but good laptop. But there are a few different ways you can time your purchase window to find a good deal. Consider these timelines if you’re in the market for a new laptop.
Black Friday and Cyber Monday: These two dates in November are probably the most obvious ones for finding amazing deals. However, act fast, as laptop supplies tend to run out quickly. If you wait for the post-Thanksgiving rush, it may be hard to get the laptop you want, so you may not want to wait too long.
You can get ahead by heading online beforehand to see where the best deals — and shortest lines — will be. Doing your research in advance is a smart strategy.
Back-to-school season: Many retailers offer lower prices to help accommodate students who need new laptops for school. The fall is a great time to shop if you want a more affordable device with a steep discount, even if you aren’t a student heading back to class.
A couple of months after a big release: When a company prepares to release a new model, they typically lower the price of older generations of laptops. Both manufacturers and retailers do this to deplete stock, so there is both physical space to display new releases and customer demand for it.
In reality, there are sometimes minimal differences between laptop generations. This makes it a good idea to watch tech news so you can get a laptop at a great price in the months before a newer model is released. One caveat is the switch from Intel 11th-gen to Intel 12th-gen machines, where the differences will be much more substantial.
Another tip is to search manufacturer websites to stay up-to-date on what’s in the queue and when these new devices will be released to the public. Signing up for their newsletter could be beneficial, ensuring that you never miss a deal. Once you snag the best deal, you can simply unsubscribe from the newsletter, so you don’t get the emails anymore.
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Gaming Laptops – All Series｜ASUS CIS
Intel Core i9 12 generation
Intel Core i9-12900H
Intel Core i9-12950HX
Intel Core i7 12 generation
Intel Core i7-12650H
Intel Core i7-12700H
Intel Core i5 12 generation
Intel Core i5-12450H
Intel Core i5-12500H
AMD Ryzen 9 6000 Series
AMD Ryzen 9 6900HS
AMD Ryzen 9 6980HX
AMD Ryzen 9 6900HX
Intel Core i9 11 generation
Intel Core i9-11900H
Intel Core i7 11 generation
Intel Core i7-11370H
Intel Core i7-11800H
Intel Core i5 11 generation
Intel Core i5-11400H
Intel Core i5-11300H
Intel Core i9 10 generation
Intel Core i9-10980HK
Intel Core i7 10 generation
Intel Core i7-10870H
Intel Core i7-10875H
Intel Core i7-10750H
Intel Core i5 10 generation
Intel Core i5-10300H
AMD Ryzen 95000 series
AMD Ryzen 9 5980HX
AMD Ryzen 9 5980HS
AMD Ryzen 9 5900HX
AMD Ryzen 7 5000 series
AMD Ryzen 7 5800HS
AMD Ryzen 7 5800H
AMD Ryzen 9 4000 series
AMD Ryzen 9 4900HS
AMD Ryzen 7 4000 Series
AMD Ryzen 7 4800HS
AMD Ryzen 7 4800H
AMD Ryzen 7 3000 series
AMD Ryzen 7 3750H
AMD Ryzen 7 6000 series
AMD Ryzen 7 6800HS
AMD Ryzen 7 6800H
AMD Ryzen 5 5000 series
AMD Ryzen 5 5600H
AMD Ryzen 5 4000 series
AMD Ryzen 5 4600HS
AMD Ryzen 5 4600H
Intel Core i7 9 generation
Intel Core i7-9750H
Intel Core i7 8 generation
Intel Core i7-8750H
Intel Core i5 8 generation
Intel Core i5-8300H
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