Like any other major purchase, in buying a laptop you're battling for your bottom dollar. This is a decision that you're making for the next few years, at least. So, if buying a laptop is like going to battle, arm yourself with our guide to the grittier details of picking out a shiny new notebook.
Break down the types of laptops for me
Back in the day, there were simply laptops for leisure and those for labor. Today, there are several options for both sides of the fence, some of which jumping back and forth over it. Let's start with the basics:
These laptops are essentially devices that must meet certain standards of thinness, lightness, power and size established by processor-maker Intel in an effort to help Windows-loyal notebook vendors compete with Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air a few years ago.
The result has been some seriously premium machines that have lately been enough to rival Apple's best. Think of laptops under an inch thin with long battery life and crisp screens, like the Dell XPS 13 (2015) or Asus Zenbook UX305.
Designed almost solely for work, hence the name, these usually beefy laptops have one thing in mind: productivity. Vendors generally equip these units with professional-grade GPUs, like the Nvidia Quadro series or AMD FirePro line.
Other characteristics of workstations include a wider variety of ports and easier access to internals than most consumer-grade notebooks. Not to mention more legacy inputs, like trackpoint cursors, and hardware-level security options, like fingerprint scanners. Examples include the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon and HP ZBook 14.
These laptops run on an all-new operating system created by Google and called Chrome OS. As the name implies, Chromebooks rely almost solely on Google's homebrewed browser, Chrome. This means that everything from creating word documents to listening to music to printing and beyond is handled with the Chrome browser.
The result is a system that can run with super low-end hardware, which lends Chromebooks to best serve the budget market and education sector. Of course, Chromebooks are best in areas with wireless Internet access, but Google has vastly boosted their offline functionality over the years. Check out the Dell Chromebook 11 and Toshiba Chromebook 2 for a better idea.
2-in-1 laptops (or hybrid laptops)
If you find yourself jumping back and forth between your laptop and tablet, then perhaps the hybrid was made for you. Enabled by Microsoft's dual-purpose Windows 8, these devices either come as tablets than become more like laptops with accessories, or as laptops that can detach from their keyboards and become tablets in a pinch.
Of course, the idea is to provide one device that successfully serve both use cases, rather than have homes and businesses overwhelmed with gadgets for every scenario. The category has fought an uphill battle toward mainstream acceptance, but by far the most shining example of its potential is Microsoft's own Surface Pro 3 as well as the HP Spectre x360.
You'll always know a gaming notebook when you see one: hulking size, pulsating lights, garish paint jobs and whirring fans. But with thin-and-light (and stylish) products like the Razer Blade or MSI GS60 Ghost Pro, even that paradigm is starting to shift.
Generally speaking, gaming laptops are equipped with the latest mobile GPUs from Nvidia and AMD in order to play the latest games close to how well they run on their more sedentary counterparts. (In some cases, they're enough to outright replace the desktop.) Look at the Origin EON15-X and Alienware 17 for more perspective.
General use laptops
Notebooks of this sort are tough to categorize. They still adhere to the standards established decades ago of what a laptop is, only vastly refined. Given how the market has siloed itself into several distinct categories at this point, this variety of laptops is generally considered "budget" or "mid-range".
Ranging in screen sizes from 11 to 17 inches, there usually aren't many stand-out characteristics with these mostly-plastic clamshells. These laptops are easy to peg as jacks of all trades: readily able to handle all of your daily tasks, but suffer in more extreme or specifically demanding scenarios.
Go big or go, well, small
Across all categories, laptops generally range in size between 11 and 17 inches, with a few outliers in both directions. Your decision on what size laptop to purchase should consider these two factors: screen real estate and weight.
Firstly, your laptop's screen size directly dictates how much content it can display and the size of it, of course. However, also keep in mind that, as you increase screen size, its resolution should also rise. You should accept nothing lower than 1366 x 768 for laptops between 10 and 13 inches, and nothing lower than 1920 x 1080 for those 17 to 18 inches.
Second: be prepared for each 2-inch bump up in screen size from 11 inches, expect an increase in weight of about a pound, more or less. Of course, there are exceptions, like recent thin-and-light designs that tend to buck this trend. You might want the biggest, sharpest laptop screen around, but are you willing to cart that around in your backpack?
What features should you look for?
Like most consumer technology, laptops often come chock-full of features that you may or may not need. The features listed below are ones that you shouldn't do without in your next laptop.
USB 3.1: The latest standard in USB data transfer technology offers a lot of advantages including a reversible plug plus the ability to send data faster and even power. However, this new standard has only begun making its way into a limited subset of machines including the new MacBook and Chromebook Pixel.
We suggest that you instead keep an look our for USB 3.0 ports. Be sure that the notebook you buy has at the very least one of these for speedier file transfers between your laptop and, say, a USB 3.0 flash drive.
802.11ac Wi-Fi: For what seems like the longest time, 802.11n was the fastest wireless Internet available. But in the past year, even quicker 802.11ac routers have cropped up, with laptop makers just now catching up. If you plan on streaming or downloading a lot of files and content to your laptop, you should strongly consider this as a selling point.
SD card reader: With the inevitable smartphone camera takeover of the point-and-shoot industry, many notebook vendors are quick to send these media slots to the chopping block. But whether you're a photography enthusiast or just still fond of your compact shooter, the lack of an SD card reader might be a deal breaker.
Touchscreen: While the merits of a touchscreen on an otherwise normal laptop are questionable, no one knows whether that will be the case in a few year's time. Though, it could also be an expensive. In short, sort your personal priorities before plunging on a touch panel.
Questions to ask before buying
Before you run off and buy the coolest-looking laptop, ask yourself these basic questions. They should help point you toward the notebook that's right for you.
What will you primarily use the laptop for?
If it's just the standard web browsing, occasional video streaming, and video calling mom back home, then you might want to consider going the mainstream or budget route. Big into gaming? Then there's your answer. If you travel quite a bit and need something as thin and light as possible, then consider an Ultrabook. Your primary function with the laptop will almost always send you in the right direction.
How much do looks matter to you?
Laptops come in all shapes, makes, models and sizes – not to mention coats of paint … or plastic … or metal. If you're the type that scoffs at fellow coffee shop-goers for their ugly computing devices of choice, then you'll probably want one encased in aluminum, or at least a quality soft-touch plastic. But beware, being pretty comes with a price.
How much are you willing or able to spend?
This is the ultimate barometer for the laptop you're about to buy, and never should you spend outside of your means. Your disposable income will dictate which laptop category you should spend your shopping time within, and ultimately save you time.
*Bonus tip: Be sure to check both online and brick-and-mortar retailers for the best possible deal on a given laptop. Good luck!
Originally contributed by Dan Grabham and Joe Osborne