Buying a new laptop can be an exercise in confusion. There are so many options and decisions to make that it may be tempting to just buy the first one that fits your budget. Take a few minutes to think about what you need in a new laptop—these questions can help you make the best choice. Whether you’re looking for a gift for a new college freshman or an affordable tech treat for yourself, you’ll be sure to get the perfect laptop for your needs.
How Will You Use Your Laptop?
This is probably the single most important question to ask yourself. The right size, computing power, operating system, and technical specifications will all depend on what you’ll be using your laptop for, as well as where and how you’ll use it. If, for example, you plan to carry your laptop around with you — back and forth to class, or to the coffee shop — you’ll want a computer that’s portable and has excellent battery life. A graphic arts student will need more computing power and higher graphics capability than someone who plans to use their new laptop for email, word processing, and connecting online, and a dedicated gamer will want a great graphics card, at the very least. Before you go through the rest of these questions, ask yourself these:
- Will you be using your laptop mostly in one location, or will you be carrying it around with you?
- Do you have specific requirements you have to meet? If you’ll be taking classes or need to run specific software, check the technical requirements of that software to be sure you choose a laptop that can run it.
- How important is graphics quality to you?
- Do you want to use it as a tablet?
What’s the Best Size Laptop?
The size of your laptop will make a big difference if you have to carry it back and forth with you to class. The bigger it is, the more awkward that daily commute can be. On the other hand, when you choose a smaller laptop for portability—or—cost you’ll be sacrificing some screen quality.
- Less than 12 inches: These are the most portable, and generally the least expensive option. They’re a good choice for light users, who don’t need a lot of processing power or high-end graphics, but the small screen size may make it difficult to read or view videos.
- 12 to 14 inches: This size is typically considered the sweet spot between portability and graphics quality. The screen is big enough to read, and the computer is small enough to cart around with you.
- 15 to 17 inches: You’ll pay more for the larger screen, obviously. You’ll get better viewability, but the tradeoff is less portability. Most laptop bags or backpacks with laptop sleeves are made to fit smaller laptops, so you’ll also have to invest in a dedicated laptop carrier if you plan to commute with a larger laptop.
What’s the Best Operating System?
The three main options for laptop operating systems are Windows, MacOS, and Chrome, though you may see some inexpensive laptops with Android operating systems. In general, you’ll be choosing from one of these three operating systems for your new laptop. In most cases, your choice comes down to personal preference, unless you’re planning to run highly specialized software, like Adobe’s Final Cut (you’ll need a Mac) or specialized medical or scientific software, most of which are built to run on Windows.
If you choose Windows, you’ll have a much wider selection of computers to choose from. It’s the most flexible and widely used operating system. Windows 10, released in 2015 and continually updated, gives you the option to operate in laptop or tablet mode, and a Start screen that lets you tile your most-used software and shortcuts for easy access. It’s also designed to work with a touch screen, and interfaces well with accessories like digital pens for sketching and note-taking on Microsoft’s Surface Pro.
New Macs ship with the latest version of MacOS — as of this writing, that’s Mojave 10.14.6. Apple is known for innovation, function, and for its ability to handle high-powered software and graphics with ease. Macs and Macbooks are generally more expensive than PCs, but they hold their value, they have a certain cool factor, and, as noted above, you may need one if you’re going to be running high-end graphics and production software.
Chromebooks, which have carved out a neat little niche in the education sector, have long had a reputation for being lightweight computer options in both size and function, but that’s changing. Google’s Chrome OS is designed to be used when you’re connected to the Internet, which gives you a great deal of portability, but may be an issue if you sometimes need to access your files and apps when you’re not connected.
Chrome is deeply integrated with Google’s suite of services, including Gmail, Calendar, Drive, and Docs, which used to be a limit. Now that Chromebooks can also run Android apps, though, the range of available software is much broader. Chromebooks are also among the least expensive laptops available, with prices for name brand Chromebooks running from around $200 to about $500.
Shop laptops and accessories now:
- Microsoft’s Surface Pro
- Laptop skin
- Hard case cover
- Convertible laptop
- Open box computers
Which Tech Specs Are Most Important?
If you’re not terribly computer savvy, digging into the technical specifications can trigger an anxiety headache. Without going too deep into it all, here’s what you should look for in tech specs when buying a mid-priced (around $600) laptop, according to Laptop Mag.
- Core i5 CPU gives you plenty of processing power. It translates to faster response time, better performance, and longer battery life.
- 1920 x 1080 screen resolution for crisper graphics
- 8 GB of RAM for best operating speed and flexibility.
- SSD storage instead of a hard drive. SSD is lighter and more durable, which is important if you’re planning to cart that laptop around.
How Much Battery Life Do I Need?
Check the expected battery life, unless you expect to be tied to an electrical outlet. Laptop Mag recommends a minimum of 8 hours of battery life. It’s especially important if you plan to use your laptop to, say, catch up on your favorite binge shows during your commute, since streaming video will eat battery life like nobody’s business.
Do You Want a 2-in-1?
Convertible laptops have come a long, long way since the first models, which were clunky and difficult to convert. Convertible laptops come with a bunch of pros: you don’t need to buy a second device, for example. You can use your convertible in PC mode for writing, web browsing, creating presentations, and anything else you’d do on a PC, then switch to tablet mode for watching movies or showing off those presentations you’ve created.
How Much Money Do I Want to Spend?
In the end, your budget will probably determine your final choice, but it shouldn’t necessarily be your starting point. Understanding your options and what to look for in a laptop can help you narrow your choices even before you start price shopping. You’ll often find excellent deals on refurbished or open box computers.
Figuring out what you’re looking for in a laptop will help you choose the best laptop for your particular needs. Once you’ve got the tech specs down, have fun shopping for the personal details — like laptop skins and hard case covers that will make your new laptop just right for you.
Prices are accurate and items in stock as of time of publication.
Deb Powers is a freelance writer who specializes in home, education, and lifestyle topics. She draws on her experiences as a teacher, mother, grandmother, and all-around creative spirit to help others achieve their own goals.