how to buy a laptop

Mobile computing isn’t a luxury anymore — these days, having ready access to a laptop is a flat out necessity.

Whether you need to edit video on the go, email your boss, play games, or just keep in touch with family, performance and portability come together when you pick the right notebook.

Although prices have come down, laptops are still a big investment. That’s why you should be confident that you’ve found the perfect laptop to fit your needs and budget before checking out!

That’s where we come in!

From start to finish we’ve got a full guide to walk you through every aspect of the buying process.

Below we start by determining your price range first. Second, we’ll find out what specific types of applications you intend to use to land on the right operating system and hardware.

Next, we’ll drill down into the nuts and bolts of differences between styles and models. We can then walk you through the specifics of when and where to buy your laptop, and finally finish with some tips on keeping your machine working well after you buy!

In this guide you’ll learn

Ready for a laptop crash course so you can easily pick the perfect model without worry? Here’s what we’ll cover!

Part I. Quick Tips Cheat Sheet

For the one that is in a hurry

We’ve got 10 easy steps to break down every major decision when picking a new laptop.

If you don’t have time to earn a degree in computer science and need to know what to pick right now, this is where you should look first.

Part II. In-Depth Buying Guide

For the one who needs to fully understand the process.

First we’ll cover the basic features, help you decide on OS, and move into what you can expect at every price range. 

By the end, you’ll be a tech wizard so you can figure out what you need and what features to ditch.

Part III. Laptop Buying FAQs

For the one that is still wondering

We cover the best places to buy a new laptop and explain when you might want to pick a used model. 

Finally, we explain how and where to read reviews so you know what to expect!

Part I.

Quick Tips Cheat Sheet

Looking for the tl;dr version that rounds up the most important elements of buying a laptop? You can find much more in-depth steps and explanations below, or just peruse the highlights here:  

A. What To Look For In A Laptop — The Basics

1.

Look for any device rated in the 8 – 10 hour range for battery life. More juice on a single charge is better, especially for school or business users.

2.

Pick a model with a screen in the 12 – 14 inch range for the most portability and lightest carrying weigh. Anything smaller is essentially a tablet, and anything larger is usually better suited for gaming or video editing.

3.

Go with a hybrid 2-in-1 model or anything with a detachable keyboard if you need a touch screen and want more portability. To save more money, pick a clamshell instead and ditch the touch screen..

4.

Take a careful look at the types of ports if you are you going to hook up external hard drives or monitors. A minimum of 3 USB ports and an HDMI is standard, but if you don’t mind using an adapter a single USB-C port can work as well.

B. Finding The Right Operating System

5.

Picking a Chromebook is the perfect choice if you want a cheap machine mostly for web browsing and using some light apps.

6.

Selecting a Windows 10 device is the way to go if you need a broader suite of programs or want to game.

7.

Buying a laptop with the Mac OS is a great option if you want high build quality and don’t care for all the bloatware that comes with Windows.

C. Choosing Specs Based On Budget

8.

To spend in the $200 – $500 range, expect a budget machine for web browsing and word processing only and don’t accept anything with less than 4GB of RAM. Make sure to get at least 500GB of hard drive space, unless you are picking a Chromebook with a smaller SSD.

9.

To buy a mid-range device in the $600+ tier for other uses, don’t accept anything with less than 8GB of RAM (16GB will be better for any user) and make sure to buy a faster SSD instead of a standard HDD. Stick with an Intel Core i5 or better processor and look for a full HD screen with 1920 x 1080 resolution.

10.

To buy an $800 – $1500 high end laptop for gaming or video editing, make sure the device has a built-in graphics card that’s at least a GTX 1050 Ti or better. On the RAM front, 16GB of RAM should be your minimum and an Intel Core i7 processor is ideal.Finally, make sure you either get a large SSD, or a 128GB SSD with a 1TB HDD for extra storage.

Part II.

In-Depth Buying Guide

1. How Much Should I Spend When Buying A New Laptop?

There are four main price tiers to look at when picking a laptop, with a fifth ultra high end tier for those who have the money to spend and want bleeding edge tech:

Unless you’ve found a killer Black Friday style deal, anything under $300 is probably going to be a Chromebook or a refurbished Windows machine.

For Windows, don’t accept any model with less than a 500GB HDD and 4GB of RAM in this price range. If you pick something with lower specs than that, you won’t get anything approaching a decent experience.

For a Chromebook at this price range, you want a 16GB or 32GB SSD. Most will also have 4GB of RAM, but there’s more wiggle room here because the Chrome OS doesn’t require as much memory to run efficiently.

More: The Best Cheap Laptop Under 300 Dollars (With School & Work Picks)

This is still the in the “budget” range, but here you start to find some better features.

In most cases, 4 – 6GB of RAM is the maximum you can expect here when buying a new machine instead of going refurbished.

That means your top priorities should be in getting the best CPU, most hard drive space, and finding extra bells and whistles.

Be on the lookout for strong trade offs here to find specifically what you need. For instance, if you prefer speed over storage space, you an often find $400 – $550 laptops with 128GB SSDs instead of the typical 1TB HDD.

Touch screens also become available here, but typically with much lower overall specs.

More: The Best Affordable Laptop Under $500 – 2018 Pick

At this price range, you’re leaving the budget zone behind and should expect high speeds and top build qualities, with a few extra features on top. These machines are for more than just web browsing, and they shouldn’t experience any major slow downs when using multiple programs.

In general, here’s what you should look for in any model over $600:

8GB of physical memory
Minimum of an Intel Core i5 processor. You may not be able to get an 8th gen CPU, but be on the lookout for them anyway as prices can fluctuate.
256GB solid state drive
Security features such as a fingerprint reader

Note that the price will change depending on whether you get a hybrid model with touch screen or instead make a trade off for a dedicated graphics card.

More: The Best Laptop Under $1,000 Of 2018 – 8 Top Performance Choices

At this price point, don’t accept any trade offs in features and make sure you get everything you want.

The only exception to that rule is if you are picking an ultrabook, which offers thin, ultra lightweight designs by culling out a few features.

In most cases, here’s the minimum specs you should be getting in exchange for a $900 – $1200 laptop:

Intel core i7 CPU, which should be a minimum 7th or 8th gen model
16GB RAM, with 32GB preferred if you perform heavy duty video editing or gaming
A dedicated graphics card in the GTX 1050 – 1070 range

You should always get something extra at this range above and beyond what the budget options offer. For instance, make sure you find a backlit keyboard, touch screen, or special hybrid design. If you pick a 2-in-1, it should ideally come with a stylus included out of the box.

Finally, there’s also the extremely high end, cutting edge models in the $2,000+ range. Typically, these desktop replacements with feature Intel Core i9 processors and brand new, top-of-the-line graphics cards. You should also expect full 4k displays at that price range.

More: The Best Laptop Under $1,500 Of 2018 – 5 High End Picks

For the adventurous who aren’t averse to potentially sending a machine back for repair, don’t forget you can often find refurbished units for sale online.

2. Choosing The Right OS

When you have your price range nailed down, it becomes time to decide what operating system is the right fit for your needs. Aside from niche systems like lInux, there are usually three main options when buying a new laptop:

Windows will often be your main pick, simply because it has the most options in terms of apps and programs.

There are downsides of course, as Windows is a resource-hungry OS that frequently slows down while installing large update files.

There’s no question that gamers or anyone using a laptop for business applications will want to go with Windows in the vast majority of cases, however.

If you mostly spend your time online watching YouTube videos, browsing social media, or occasionally playing casual time wasting games, you may be better served with the Chrome OS.

Lacking the overhead of Windows and much more resistant to malware, Chromebooks offer better speeds if you don’t need a ton of physical storage space on your device.

The Chrome OS also now has access to the full Google Play app store, which radically increases your options. From photo editing tools to Microsoft Word to HBO Now, you can get just about anything in app form.

Stay tuned for a full guide on picking a Chromebook coming soon!

Finally, the Mac OS is a solid alternative to Windows if you don’t mind learning a different system. If you use music or video editing software, Mac is an excellent option, and they are also much less prone to viruses and spyware.

For the tech enthusiasts, MacBooks have a few features that Windows machines don’t normally offer, such as high resolution retina displays and the nifty Touch Bar.

3. How To Choose A Laptop — Understanding Different Features

After determining your budget and deciding on an operating system, we can finally drill down into the nitty gritty of hardware specs and extra features.

While the overall performance offered by the RAM and CPU will typically be the most touted factors, there are several other components you need to carefully consider.

Speed is great, but if you don’t get the right type of ports you need or consider battery life and connectivity options you’ve essentially just got a heavy paperweight.

Besides processor speed and memory, we’ll look at screen sizes, the specific form factor and chassis style, storage capacity, and different types of touch pads available from various models.

3.1. Laptop Screen Size & Resolution Options

The old axiom that “bigger is better” doesn’t usually apply when buying a laptop. In most cases, you want to go smaller for enhanced portability. Across the spectrum of different manufacturers and models, these will be your typical size options:

standard laptop screen size.001
It’s important to keep in mind that as you go up in size, you also increase in weight and decrease in battery life.

17 inch screens are typically meant for gamers who don’t mind being plugged into a wall outlet at all times. For the best crossroads between battery life, keyboard size, and display area, we recommend 12.5 inch – 14 inch laptops.

Besides weight and battery life, the screen size will directly affect your keyboard style. If you have large hands, a smaller laptop will feel cramped and uncomfortable to use. On the flip side, smaller units work better for younger children.

Size isn’t the only consideration, however! You also need to look at resolution options, particularly if you plan on watching full movies or frequently playing games. The two most common resolutions available are:

  1. 1366 x 768
  2. 1920 x 1080

For true HD, we recommend going with the 1920 x 1080 option, but that may not always be available in budget models.

If you have more money to spend, you can find even higher resolutions that are referred to as “retina,” 3k, or 4k.

That level of display quality is really only needed for extreme videophiles, as it won’t make a huge difference for standard web browsing or inputting data into spreadsheets.

3.2. Screen Types

Size and pixel resolution aren’t your only considerations when deciding between laptop screen types. You will normally find these two specs mentioned frequently when browsing different options:

  • TN display
  • ISP display
 

TN panels are usually less expensive, but they also have higher response rates, so you often find them in gaming laptops. They also use less power than the more expensive IPS displays.

IPS panels on the other hand are more expensive, but feature better and wider viewing angles.

Have you ever turned a laptop or handheld game console screen and suddenly you couldn’t make out the image? The IPS panel technology eliminates that problem.

dell xps infinity edge
Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 Laptop

Bezel size is another important feature to consider if you want the most viewing area possible. While your typical clamshell device can half a half inch to full ince bezel, some models use Nanoedge bezels with edge to edge displays.These options cost more, but offer a much better viewing experience.

Finally, when picking a touch screen device, be on the lookout for anything with Corning Gorilla Glass.

These models typically cost much more, but the price is worth it because you get a much more durable touch display that is scratch and shatter resistant.

3.3. Form Factor

Directly tied to screen size is the important choice of form factor. While laptops used to only come in one variety — the standard clamshell — you’ve now got several major options to choose from, including:

popular laptop form

This is more than just an aesthetic choice. Many users simply don’t need a machine that can wrap around and lay flat like a tablet.
For those who frequently use touch screen apps however, a hybrid 2-in-1 model can be a life saver. They come in more handy than you may realize as well.

It’s super easy to flip around in tent mode to play a video for your friends. If you prefer to write with a stylus, you can’t beat the functionality of a full laptop that works as a tablet.

Hybrids usually come in smaller sizes, but if you don’t mind spending more you can find 2-in-1 models with full 15 inch displays.

When you use your laptop as a tablet more often than actually typing on the keyboard, we recommend getting a detachable model instead.

These units have all the same specs and features of a full laptop, but you ditch the extra weight of the bottom half. When you have to type up a longer document, it’s simple to just attach the keyboard as needed.

No matter what style you go with, for the most durability be on the lookout for a laptop with a fully aluminum chassis rather than plastic, as they tend to last longer.

3.4. Keyboard Style

Whether you pick a standard clamshell design or get a hybrid model, you also have several choices to consider in the keyboard style, including:

  • Compact
  • Full
  • Backlit
 

What exactly are the differences here?

Compact keyboard

compact keyboardCompact or “travel” style keyboards typically remove the Num Lock and 10 key segment on the right side entirely to save space. They feature a more condensed layout, with the up/down keys usually half the normal size in a single space.

f you want maximum portability, that’s the way to go. 

Full keyboard

full keyboardSome users prefer a standard keyboard layout that’s more like a desktop experience, however.

In that case, look for laptops with a full 10 key layout. These become increasingly rare as you go down in size, so you may have to go with a 14 or 15 inch screen to get the full keyboard.

Backlit keyboard

backlit keyboardHigher end models also typically feature a backlit keyboard, which means each key is lit up. If you work late at night, this feature shouldn’t be overlooked, as it ensures keystroke accuracy.

Gaming models will often feature RGB sectioned keyboards, which can use different backlighting colors to match your games.

Finally, keep in mind the placement of the power button, which can vary between models.

This is an issue of personal preference, but some users don’t like having the power button on the keyboard itself.

If you are used to the power button being positioned above the keyboard, you may end up accidentally turning the laptop off a few times.

3.5. Touchpad

Yep, even the touchpad can vary between laptop models! In general, you have four different styles to look out for:

  • Centered
  • Offset
  • Dual button
  • Streamlined

The main thing to look out for here is whether the touchpad is centered, or offset to the left. This really only matters with full size keyboards where the 10 key segment is present.

With that type of model, a centered touchpad can be more awkward to type on, as the positioning is slightly different than with a desktop keyboard.

If you can actually test out the unit with a display model in a physical retail store, we recommend doing so! That way you can see whether you prefer the centered or offset style.

Next up, take a look to see if the laptop touchpad features individual right or left click buttons. Some newer models ditch that design and instead use a streamlined touchpad with no buttons at all.

These pads work the exact same way, but some users prefer the tactile sensation of the buttons and find it awkward to right click a streamlined touchpad.

3.6. What Makes A Laptop Fast?

With all the big questions on cost, size, and screen type out of the way, now we get to the meat and potatoes of choosing a laptop by looking at the overall performance. There are three main questions you should be asking yourself at this stage:

1. How Much RAM Do I Need In A Laptop?

Simply put, the more RAM your laptop has, the better performance you can expect when running multiple programs.

If you tend to have dozens of tabs open, or use high end photo or video editing software, you want to invest in more memory. The most common RAM configurations available will usually be as follows: 

4GB | 8GB |16GB | 32GB | 64GB

Ram

The lower end of 4GB is quickly becoming obsolete, and is really only meant for budget machines that just browse the web.

If you use nearly any type of software beyond just word processing or web browsing, we highly recommend bumping up to the 8GB threshold. If you want to future proof your machine against new software with higher requirements, 16GB is a solid investment.

On the other side of that equation, you generally don’t need 32GB or higher unless you are using CAD software or playing brand new games on ultra settings.

2. What Is A Good Processor Speed For Laptop?

After you’ve decided on a memory size, it’s time to pick a CPU. While you used to be able to tell how fast a machine would run by looking at the speed measured in GHz, that is no longer the case.

Due to built-in boosting capabilities, the GHz rating is no longer as important as the series and generation of a processor. These will be your most typical options when browsing modern laptops:

Intel Core i3 | Intel Core i5 | Intel Core i7 | Intel Core i9

Processor

Of course, there are also AMD equivalents for machines that don’t use Intel processors, but the progression remains the same.

As you move up the scale, you can expect significantly faster speeds when installing programs or Windows updates. The price goes up correspondingly, however.

The generation is noted by a number code after the processor name. For instance, an 8th gen i5 may have a code such Intel Core i5-8550U, while a 7th gen may be labeled as Intel Core i5-7200U.

For most users, we recommend a Core i5 of at least 7th gen to get the best combination of high speed and low power consumption.

3. Do I Want A Gaming Laptop? – Gaming Graphics Card & Specs

Finally, the type of video card will have a direct impact on how well the laptop can render graphics-intensive programs.

While this mostly matters for gamers, a higher end graphics card may also be a requirement for CAD software or heavy duty video editing tools.

If you intend to play games on high settings, don’t settle for anything with an integrated graphics chip. Instead, you will want to look for a dedicated graphics card in this range:

GTX 1050 Ti | GTX 1060 | GTX 1070 | Radeon 560 | Radeon 580

In most cases, the 1050 Ti model will run the vast majority of games at decent frame rates. The main reason to bump up above that tier at this point is to buy a VR ready laptop.

If you want to use virtual reality devices such as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, be sure to pick a laptop with a GTX 1060 or higher!

3.7. Battery Life

The whole point of a laptop is to untether from a wall outlet and take your device with you wherever you go.

With that in mind, battery life is a crucial component to consider when buying a new laptop. If you’re going to stick in one spot all the time, why not just buy a desktop instead?

In general, gaming laptops will feature significantly reduced battery life over home or office models.

To get the best battery life in the 8 – 14 hour range, be on the lookout for smaller, more compact models with less screen size.

The less power that has to be used to keep a bright display running, the higher your battery life.

You can also bump up the battery life by looking for models with 8th gen processors, and by picking a unit that utilizes lower power consumption DDR3 style RAM.

Be careful when reading estimated battery life specs provided by manufacturers. They list high numbers based on simple web browsing with the screen brightness turned down.

Make sure to read through the reviews from other buyers to find out what the real battery life will actually be!

3.8. Storage

Physical storage capacity is much less of a concern than it used to be for laptop buyers. With so many online backup solutions available, and with USB storage so cheap, it isn’t as important to have a huge hard drive anymore.

In fact, you may notice that laptops with smaller storage capacities tend to cost more. Why exactly is that?

Because newer laptops use solid state drives (SSD) instead of the older hard disk drive (HDD) tech.

SSDs cost more to manufacture, but they offer significantly increased data retrieval speeds. If you want your laptop to boot to Windows in mere seconds, we highly recommend picking an SSD model.

When you want both fast boot speeds and plenty of onboard physical storage, be on the lookout for hybrid drives.

SSHD drives give you more capacity but faster speeds than a standard HDD, while some models combine the two and give you both.

You can get the best of both worlds by booting to Windows on a 128GB or 256GB SSD, while using a secondary 1TB HDD for saving your larger files.

3.9. Connectivity

We’re almost to the end of our look at the most important features, but there are still a few more options to carefully consider, such as connectivity methods.

Of course every laptop in this day and age should come with a WiFi card for connecting to any given wireless network. That isn’t your only option, however.

Some laptops feature built-in Bluetooth adapters for connecting to external devices without using a cord.

This can be extremely handy for streaming audio to external speakers for instance, or using a wireless Bluetooth mouse.

Don’t worry if this option isn’t included however, as USB Bluetooth adapters are available very cheaply via Amazon.

3.10. Other Features

After all the options we’ve presented, it may be hard to believe, but there are still other features to take into account for the best overall laptop experience!

For instance, optical CD/DVD drives are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. You have to look hard to find newer models that include this option.

Since people tend to use USB flash storage for data backup, many manufacturers are ditching the DVD-RW drive entirely to save space.

Security features are also becoming more prevalent. If you don’t want to remember another password (or are worried about someone guessing your password) look for models that have a fingerprint scanner and a lock slot.

touchbar macbook
Touch Bar on Apple Macbook Pro

If you want to go really high tech, newer MacBook models also include the Touch Bar feature that isn’t found in Windows machines.

Like a cross between a button strip and a touchscreen, the Touch Bar predicts what features you use most often in any given program and automatically generates the buttons you may need to use.

Finally, don’t forget to take note of the kinds of ports available! Some laptops won’t include Ethernet ports for wired connections, HDMI or VGA ports for connecting to external displays, or extra USB ports for other peripherals.

3.11. What Is The Best Laptop Brand?

Nearly every brand will feature all of the options we’ve discussed above, but in some cases brand can matter more than you’d think.

Warranties and customer service are two aspects of buying a computer you hope you never have to use, but you want to make sure they are readily available if you need them.

While there are always exceptions and a few horror stories from upset users, a recent user poll from Engadget shows that Dell, HP, Samsung, and Apple have the most satisfied users in terms warranty coverage Lenovo also tends to have the best overall laptop design and user reviews.

Beyond the ability to get a malfunctioning laptop fixed, different brands can offer very different styles and features.

For instance, Lenovo Thinkpad models are usually the only laptops to feature the red TrackPoint button in the center of the keyboard. If you like having a smaller nub closer to your finger to use for browsing through documents, that can be an important feature.

The ASUS Zenbook line on the other hand is specifically known for tiny bezels and extremely thin designs.

Other manufacturers are known for specific types of laptops that break down by usage.

MSI is a great place to start looking for a high end gaming laptop, while if you want a quality 2-in-1 hybrid the HP Spectre is an excellent option at the higher price point.

Part III.

Laptop buying FAQs

While the steps above cover the broad strokes of the laptop buying process, you may still have a few remaining questions. Let’s dive and get them answered!

1. What is the best place to buy a laptop?

The answer to this question depends on how much money you are willing to spend in exchange for quick delivery.

With the exception of a few major sale days a year, heading down to your local Walmart or big box store will usually cost more when buying a laptop than comparing prices online via Amazon or Newegg.

The only clear benefit a local physical store over buying online is in the ability to quickly perform a return. If your device is DOA, it’s much faster to take it back to the store than to ship it back and wait for a replacement.

2. What About A Used Laptop?

 In most cases, we would only recommend picking up a use laptop of it is certified refurbished through the manufacturer.

These laptops are cleaned, repaired, and tested to ensure they work before they are shipped out. Picking up any other kind of use laptop is dicey, as you never know what data might still be on it — or what hardware might be failing.

Be extremely careful when buying used laptops through third party sellers at online outlets. The warranty and return policies tend to be extremely restrictive, and usually feature some sort of “restocking” fee.

3. Where Can I Find The Best Reviews?

We recommend checking two different kinds of reviews to get the most information about your purchase ahead of time.

First up, take a look at the end user reviews through sites such as Amazon to see what normal buyers think of the design and performance. While you will have to deal with a few unhelpful reviews from users who don’t fully understand the hardware, this will give you an excellent baseline idea of how a laptop works.

Second, take a look at professional reviews from laptop-focused tech sites. Pro reviewers may bring up specific features or issues you hadn’t thought to consider that could make a big difference in your experience. More on this at the end of this article!

promotion

Let Us Help You Find Your Perfect Laptop!

If you’ve made it to the end of our buying guide, you should finally be able to answer the question “what laptop is best for me?” with a clear and definitive answer.

No matter your budget or how you intend to use your device, the steps above should clearly break down every option you need to pick at each stage of the buying process.

Still need more help or aren’t sure which specific model to pick? Leave us a comment below with a general idea of your needs and we can respond with a couple of the best models for you!

As a bonus, here is the collection of our best reviews articles!

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Ty Arthur

Ty Arthur

After more than a decade of searching for the perfect gaming rig, Ty knows a thing or two about picking the right hardware. He'd like to share that knowledge with all of you through his work at PortableMonkey.com, whether you need a business machine, college laptop, or killer gaming computer.

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