Three best laptop computers

Technology is constantly evolving, but there’s one thing that always stays the same: as computers are getting more powerful, they’re also getting smaller and lighter — so it’s no surprise that most users are migrating to laptops from their old, clunky desktop computers.

The laptop market has exploded over the last decade, with new models that are faster, thinner, and more convenient than ever before, and there’s even a third operating system to consider: Google Chrome. This makes it a great time to buy a laptop if you can decipher all of the jargon and know what features to look for.

Luckily, we’ve done all the hard work for you. Read on for everything you need to know about buying your next laptop: the killer features, the marketing hoopla, and the upgrades you won’t want to skip.

Considerations when choosing laptops

When you first start shopping for a laptop, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the technical specifications, details, and jargon. Here are the factors that matter most.  

Operating system: The first decision to make when picking out a laptop is which operating system you want to use: Windows, Mac OS X, or Chrome OS . Each platform has pros and cons, but they can all perform the same basic functions, so your decision should come down to your own personal taste as well as any existing compatibility needs you have. In general, it’s easiest to buy a laptop with an operating system you’re already familiar with, so there’s no new software to get used to while you’re acclimating to new hardware.  

Screen size: Your laptop’s screen size defines how big it is overall, and you can’t upgrade it later, so you’ll need to choose carefully. Laptop screen sizes typically range from 11.6 to 15.6 inches, measured diagonally. If you need a laptop that can display multiple open windows at once, go for one with a larger screen. If you need a laptop that’s easy to travel with and can fit into a small bag, look at models with screens closer to 11.6 inches.  

CPU: Your laptop’s Central Processing Unit (CPU) defines how quickly information is processed and is the single biggest factor when it comes to how fast laptops are. Unfortunately, CPU speeds aren’t standardized across manufacturers, so it can be hard to compare brands. If you’re not certain what type of CPU to look for, but you want a machine that will be fast enough to handle moderate work and the occasional movie, buy a laptop with an Intel i3, i5, or i7 CPU.  

RAM: Random Access Memory, better known as RAM, is the memory in laptops that controls how many tasks can be handled simultaneously. A laptop without enough RAM will definitely feel sluggish, and if you’ve ever sat at a loading screen, you know the pain of waiting for your computer’s RAM to catch up with you. In general, it’s a good idea to buy a laptop that includes as much RAM as you can afford. If you’re not sure how much RAM to look for, start with a minimum of 8GB, which is enough for most users (for now).  

Input methods: All laptops can work with a mouse and keyboard, but a new species of laptop has gained traction in the market: two-in-one Windows models that are both laptops and touchscreen tablets. Two-in-ones are great if you need a machine that can be both a computer with a proper keyboard and a tablet that you can use with touch controls, but they’re usually more expensive than traditional laptops. If you’re a Windows fanatic, or you simply want to be able to kick back and relax with a tablet every now and then, look into getting a two-in-one model — but if not, save yourself the money and limit your search to traditional laptops.  

Weight: Many users forget to consider how much laptops weigh and end up with a laptop that’s a pain to lug around. Laptops can range anywhere from two to seven pounds, depending on the model — and that’s before any accessories, like a power adapter, are factored in. Consider what your ideal laptop weight is before buying, especially if you plan on carrying it with you places.

Tips

As you shop for a laptop, keep these tips in mind.

If you’re not sure how big of a laptop to buy, consider what size keyboard is most comfortable for your hands. Smaller laptops have smaller keyboards, which can be difficult to use if you have larger hands — and vice versa for people with small hands. Consider how big your hands are, and let that influence the size of laptop you choose. Laptops of 15.6 inches are perfect for big hands, and 11.6-inch laptops are ideal for smaller ones.  

If you’re buying a Windows laptop, set up your Windows login ahead of time and enable two-factor authentication for security. Microsoft recently introduced a new login process for Windows, so users now have the option of logging into their computers using their Microsoft.com account, which includes recovery options if you ever get locked out. If you go this route, follow the instructions for enabling two-factor authentication, so you’ll be able to authorize logins from your phone and prevent hackers from gaining access if they ever steal your password.  

If you plan on using your laptop for video games, buy one with appropriate video hardware. Video games consume a lot of resources, particularly when it comes to your laptop’s video hardware. If you’re a gamer who wants to enjoy PC gaming in smooth high definition, buy a gaming laptop or a traditional laptop that includes a discrete video card.

FAQ

Q. Is it difficult to add more RAM to a laptop after purchase? A. It depends. Most laptops aren’t designed to support users upgrading RAM themselves, and many use soldered-on RAM that can’t be removed or replaced. Some laptops are designed for user upgrades to RAM, but in general, it’s best to buy a laptop with plenty of built-in RAM. If you’re not sure how much RAM is enough, start with 8GB.

Q. What are the differences between Windows 10 Home Edition and Windows Home Professional Edition?

A. Windows 10 Home Edition is nearly identical to the Professional version; however, there are a few specific applications (most notably Group Policy Management and Remote Desktop) that aren’t included in Home Edition. Professional Edition is slightly more expensive than Home Edition. If you’re buying a laptop primarily for personal use and want one with Windows, save some money and go with Windows 10 Home Edition.

Q. Should I buy insurance for my laptop? A. Laptop insurance is never a bad idea — it can help cover you in instances where faulty parts or unusual malfunctions cause problems. However, most laptop insurance policies (including AppleCare for Mac laptops) don’t cover theft or damage, which may leave some feeling inadequately protected. Before buying any insurance for your laptop specifically, check with your existing homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy — you may already have good coverage.

Laptops we recommend

Best of the best: Apple 15-inch Macbook Pro  

Our take: Apple continues to make the most elegant, powerful laptops in the world, and the Macbook Pro is their crown jewel. It’s fast, stable, and easy to use, which is pretty much the trifecta for laptops.

What we like: The gorgeous “retina” display creates vivid, lifelike imagery; when armed with 16GB of RAM, it’s especially responsive.

What we dislike: Like all Apple laptops, it’s expensive. The new butterfly keyboards have been problematic for some users.

Best bang for your buck: Acer 11.6-inch Chromebook 

Our take: Acer’s budget Chromebook is perfect for anyone who needs a laptop for casual use.

What we like: With an 11.6-inch screen, this Chromebook is designed for portability. The plastic housing is surprisingly durable.

What we dislike: With only 2GB of RAM and a 16GB hard drive, Acer’s Chromebook will frustrate anyone needing a good computer for work or school. It simply doesn’t have enough memory or storage space to allow for much beyond basic web use.

Choice 3: Microsoft Surface Pro 4 

Our take: Microsoft has perfected the laptop-tablet hybrid with their Surface line, and the Surface Pro 4 is light enough for going anywhere and powerful enough for anything you can throw at it.

What we like: Everything. The Surface Pro 4 is the perfect combination of speed and convenience. The built-in kickstand is perfect for plane rides, and the 2736 x 1824-resolution screen is stunning.

What we dislike: It has a USB 2.0 and a USB 3.0 port, but no USB 3.1 (aka USB-C) ports.

Jaime Vazquez is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.

BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. BestReviews and its newspaper partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links.

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