There’s no doubt about it — shopping for laptops is hard.
Prices range from under $200 to well over $2,000, and product descriptions are loaded with techie terms and specifications that can be mystifying. Even the basics can be confusing: Some people use the words "notebook" and "laptop" interchangeably, while others insist there are differences — namely, that notebooks are lighter, smaller, and less powerful compared to traditional full-size laptops.
For that matter, there are plenty of other product names that all fall under the umbrella term "laptop." On the PC side, there are the thin and very light ultraportables, designed for mobility; very affordable Chromebooks, which run on Google’s operating system; and ultrabooks, Intel’s trademark, which combine both portability and high performance (albeit at a higher price). You might also see convertibles, or 2-in-1 devices that have touchscreens and can switch from laptop to tablet.
For Apple users, the options are simpler — there’s the highly portable MacBook Air and the more powerful, but heavier and more expensive, MacBook Pro. This doesn’t mean the choice is easy, though, even if you know you want an Apple. Both models can be customized in a number of ways, from increasing processing speed to better graphics performance.
Laptop buying guide
So, given all these variables, how do you choose the best laptop?
The first step is to be clear on what you’re hoping to do with it. For instance, if all you want is to stream videos and edit documents, one of the more affordable ultrabooks or Chromebooks is probably sufficient. Younger students attending virtual classes can easily get by with a Chromebook, which can handle video conferencing, streaming, and game apps. Some even have touchscreens and detachable keyboards, like the Lenovo Chromebook Duet.
On the other hand, if what you need is a solid multitasker for a high schooler, college student, or someone working remotely, then invest in a full notebook or ultrabook with powerful enough CPU (Intel or AMD Ryzen 5 or better) to handle video conferencing, internet browsing, and document editing at the same time.
Here are some things to keep in mind before buying a laptop.
• CPU. A computer’s Central Processing Unit (CPU), or its brain, influences how fast your computer will execute commands and process information. While there are plenty of computer brands on the market, at this point they all use variations of two CPU types — Intel and AMD.
Each of these brands distinguish their processors by generation (currently, 10th and 4th generation, respectively, for Intel and AMD), and newer generations tend to have better performance and are usually faster.
Pay attention to the processor series name and number beside it too. On the slower side of the scale would be Intel Core i3 and AMD Ryzen 3, which are fine for simple tasks such as working on documents, browsing the internet, and streaming. Intel Core i5 and AMD Ryzen 5 are more suitable for editing videos and gaming, while Intel Core i7 or i9 and AMD Ryzen 7 are the latest premium top-of-the-line processors.
Another important detail with CPUs is clock speed or, more commonly, Gigahertz (GHz). This determines how quickly the CPU can retrieve and interpret information. Higher GHz equals faster processor speed. For instance, a 4.10GHz processor has a faster clock speed than a 2.8GHz.
• GPU for gaming. If you want to use your laptop for gaming, look at the GPU, or Graphics Processing Unit. There are two main GPUs companies, AMD and Nvidia, although Intel recently released the Xe Graphics. In order to play without too much lagging, you’ll need a graphics card of at least 6GB for gaming at 1080p resolution and 8GB for higher resolutions, like 4K.
• Storage and RAM memory. There are two types of computer memory: RAM and storage. RAM is temporary memory computers use to store all the immediate information needed when you’re running programs or browsing the web. Storage refers to the hard drive, where all files (documents, videos, photos) are stored for the long haul.
If your goal is only to perform everyday tasks such as working with documents, browsing online, and streaming videos, 256GB of internal storage will most likely be enough. However, if you’ll be working with very large files, you may want to consider more internal storage or an external hard drive. And if you do have remotely serious storage needs, it's probably best to forget about Chromebooks, which are very limited in that capacity.
Now, if you’re a graphic designer or gamer, then get ready to pay a little more not only for storage, but for a system with a solid state drive (SSD) rather than hard drive (HDD). As for RAM memory, 8GB will be ideal in most cases.
1. Best overall: Dell XPS 13
CPU: Intel Core i5 1135 - i7 1185 | RAM: 8GB-16GB | Storage: 256GB-512GB | Graphics: Intel Iris Xe with shared graphics memory
Available in multiple models, including one with a touchscreen, the newest Dell XPS 13 (9310) is the most acclaimed Ultrabook of 2020. It features Intel’s 11th-gen processor, Tiger Lake, a nearly frame-less (bezel-less) Ultra HD display, and an elegant arctic white chassis. Above all, the XPS 13 is known for exceptional performance and speed, and it comes with a long battery life, up to 14 hours.
The XPS 13 is a great multitasker, and it can even handle some light gaming, since it features Intel’s Iris Xe graphics. This doesn’t come cheap though. The XPS starts at about $1,000 for the basic non-touch model, and can go up to $2,000 for models with touchscreen and 4K. However, you’ll be getting a premium ultrabook that will do just about everything right and last you for years.
2. Best for value: Acer Swift 3
CPU: Intel Core i5-i7 10th Gen / AMD Ryzen 5 4500 - Ryzen 7 4700 | RAM: 8GB-16GB | Storage: 256GB-512GB
The Acer Swift 3 is a great choice for everyday tasks such as editing documents, browsing the web, as well as streaming videos. This model is available with both Intel Core and the AMD Ryzen 4000 series, though the latest will give it an extra kick of speed. Its design isn’t an eye-catcher, but its aluminum chassis is pretty thin and light, weighting about 2.7 pounds. It even features a backlit keyboard. And for its power and price (around mid-$600), it’s definitely one of the best value options budget-conscious customers will find. However, be aware that some reviewers say the battery life is great, lasting only about 7 hours.
3. Best 2-in-1: HP Spectre x360 Touch Laptop
CPU: Intel Core i5 - i7 | RAM: 16GB | Storage: 512GB
With a 360-degree hinge that allows it to fold into a tablet, the HP Spectre x360 is a great 2-in-1 option for anyone looking for a versatile ultrabook with powerful performance. It has an elegant design with a nearly non-existent screen frame and a 13.3-inch 4K OLED touchscreen display that offers truly high-resolution images and bright colors. Every Spectre x360 comes with a stylus pen and built-in security features such as fingerprint scanner.
However, despite its display, the x360 may not be the best option if your intention is to edit videos or use intensive graphic applications like Adobe, since it’s said to overheat when running too many processing-heavy programs at once. Some reviewers say the battery dies in as little as 7 hours too.
4. Best for college students: Apple MacBook Air M1
CPU: Apple M1 Chip | RAM: 8GB-16GB | Storage: 256GB-2TB
Thanks to Apple’s proprietary M1 chip processor, the new MacBook Air (late 2020) delivers faster and better CPU speed than previous versions. In fact, the performance is said to rival its more expensive cousin, the MacBook Pro.
The new M1 chip improves performance and efficiency, and enables faster video and image processing than its predecessors. This model features the newly upgraded keyboard — Magic Keyboard — that offers keys with more depth than the flatter and much-complained-about keyboard featured by previous models. Additionally, weighing less than 3 lbs., the new MacBook Air is still one of the lightest laptops out there, which makes it a great travel companion for students.
Speaking of students, Apple offers special education pricing discounts with $100 off MacBook Airs for students and teachers. But owners may need to spend a little extra: The MacBook Air is limited to two Thunderbolt/USB-4 ports, so you'll have to buy an adapter for HDMI, USB-A, and other ports.
5. Best for gaming: Asus ROG Zephyrus G14 VR Ready Gaming Laptop
CPU: AMD Ryzen 7 4800HS - Ryzen 9 4900HS | Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1650 - RTX 2060 | RAM: 16GB | Storage: 1TB | Dolby Atmos surround sound
Consistently ranking among the best gaming laptops of 2020, the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14 is a multitasker that offers a great gaming experience. It combines AMD’s new Ryzen 9 4900HS processor and Nvidia’s RTX 2060 graphics to enable lower power consumption and fast-paced gaming.
With a 14-inch full HD display, the G14 has one of the thinnest and lightest gaming laptop chassis available, making it an attractive option for gamers who also want portability. Additionally, selected G14 models feature 1,215 mini-LED lights in the lid that can be used to display custom images and animations.
6. Best Chromebook for kids: Lenovo Chromebook Duet
Touchscreen | CPU: MediaTek Helio P60T | RAM: 4GB | Storage: 64GB - 128GB
The Lenovo Duet is a versatile and affordable Chromebook that meets the basic computing functions most students need, plus streaming and playing Android games after schoolwork is done.
This 2-in-1 is pretty much a 10.1-inch tablet with a detachable keyboard and a kickstand, making it easily portable. Be aware that, like most 2-in-1 convertibles, the keyboard is on the small side. There's no headphone jack either. But the Lenovo Duet's battery is long-lasting (up to 10 hours), it can run Microsoft’s Office apps, and it retails for less than $300.