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How to buy a laptop
It’s hard to keep up with all the changes, price and options when buying a laptop, so where to start? Our guide tells you all you need to know:
Because laptops have very limited upgrade options, you need to think carefully about what you need your laptop to do before you buy.
Choose a size and weight
Laptops are categorised on the diagonal size of their screens, in inches. That means a laptop with a 17-inch screen (£1500+) will be fantastic for work and gaming, but will be big and heavy.
Meanwhile, an ultra-light 13-inch model (£700-£1000 approx) is great for portability, but doesn’t always offer the best performance.
A 15-inch model (around £1000-£1500) offers a decent compromise. As long as it weighs around 2kg or less, you probably won’t mind taking it on the train.
- Read our guide to the best ultrabooks
- Read our guide to the best laptops
- Read our guide to the best budget laptops
Decide screen resolution
A higher resolution allows for text and icons to appear far smoother and easier to see. Most laptops have a default resolution of 1920 x 1080 (Full HD) these days.
You can even get laptops with a 3840 x 2160 (4K) resolution, but that’s only really worthwhile if you’ve subscribed to a premium Netflix plan or your gaming with high-end hardware. A 4K display is usually a massive drain on the battery, and also drives up the price considerably.
A 2560 × 1440 (Quad HD) resolution is considered by many to be the sweet spot, as it isn’t too demanding on the battery, yet still gives supported content a lovely visual boost.
Decide a form factor
Most laptops still offer a traditional clam-type design, with a screen that folds down onto the keyboard and touchpad. Some keep the traditional shape but add a touchscreen, which can be fun for creative tasks such as drawing or making music.
Convertibles – aka 2-in-1 laptops – have a touchscreen that can fold back behind the keyboard, or even detach, turning the laptop into a tablet. These specialist tablets are great for running design or music programs, but are more expensive than standard laptops.
- Read our guide to the best thin and light laptops
Work out your ideal keyboard
Laptop keyboards can vary wildly in quality. Some are unpleasant to type on thanks to horrid flex in the middle of the keyboard tray when you type and others don’t offer much travel for a satisfying press – another reason to try before you buy.
The same is true of a laptop’s touchpad. Unfortunately, many of these are poor and don’t respond accurately to finger movement, or have squishy buttons that make it difficult to determine whether you’ve registered a click. One answer is to look for laptops with Microsoft-certified Precision Touchpads.
Ports are important if you like to use external monitors, USB drives or peripherals. USB-A is likely the one you’re most familiar with, in a rectangle shape that resembles a duck’s bill. This supports the largest number of devices right now, but is gradually being phased out.
USB-C is the more modern port option which looks like a smaller rectangle but with curved edges – you’ll find on modern Android smartphones and your Nintendo Switch. This offers faster transfer speeds than USB-A, while also allows laptop manufacturers to make slimmer devices.
Ethernet (network) and HDMI (display) ports were traditionally incorporated on laptops too, but are also being phased out. You can buy adaptors that will allow modern laptops to connect up to these formats via USB-C though.
What performance do you need?
The processor determines the performance of a laptop, but it can be a confusing area to navigate.
Intel and AMD try to make this more understandable by using performance tiers: Core i3 / Ryzen 3 for basic web browsing and office work, Core i5 / Ryzen 5 for for more intensive tasks such as editing large images, and Core i7 / Ryzen 7 for a powerhouse performance in gaming and encoding video.
However, the generation of the processor is arguably just as important. For example, Intel’s 10th Generation i5 chip will be considerably more powerful than a 7th Generation counterpart. Right now, we’d suggest going for Intel’s 10th Generation Core processors or AMD’s Ryzen 3000 Series.
In terms of RAM, we suggest opt for at least 8GB, but the rule is, get the most you can afford.
- Read our guide to the best Intel processors
Decide your graphics needs
Most laptops rely on their main processor’s integrated graphics chipset, usually called something like “Intel HD Graphics”. This can play simple 3D games at low resolution at low to medium detail settings.
If you’re more serious about games then you’ll need a laptop with an additional Nvidia or AMD graphics chipset. Only expensive laptops with dedicated graphics can play the latest games at high detail levels.
- Read our guide to the best games laptops
Small, light laptops generally offer superior battery life to larger models, chiefly due to being equipped with less powerful low-voltage processors and a smaller screen.
Expect five to seven hours for a general-purpose 15-inch laptop, and eight to 10 hours or more from a small, highly portable one. Some high performance laptops may well only give you around four-five hours of unplugged use.
An SSD (solid state “hard drive”) will make your laptop boot faster – expect 128Gb as a bare minimum but 500Gb or more ideally. SSDs with the PCI-Express (PCIe) standard are several times faster than a regular SSD and can make a huge difference to performance.
The capacity of your SSD is also important. We’d recommend you go for at least 512GB storage, but 256GB isn’t too bad if you’re on a budget.
Decide your operating system
Windows 10 laptops will be familiar to most people, although watch out for the newer Windows 10 S models which only allow software installs from the Microsoft App Store.
Alternatively, Chromebooks are useful for people who are happy to be restricted to Google apps (including Android), or who mostly use Web services. These don’t run Windows 10 programs but tend to be a lot cheaper, so are popular with schools and university students.
Finally, there’s always the Macbook for Apple fans. These also don’t run Windows software, but will tend to be the most expensive option compared to the above.