Update: We've updated our best Chromebooks and best mobile workstations buying guides with some new information, namely call-outs to the Lenovo N20p Chromebook and the HP ZBook 17, respectively. Scroll down and click through to each buying guide to see what's new.
With Windows 8.1 here and Windows 9 on the way, Ultrabooks taking off in popularity and laptop-tablet hybrids seeing more releases, choosing the right laptop is even more confusing than ever. (Not to mention the upcoming holiday season!)
Cheap laptops, like Chromebooks, are more powerful and capable than ever, while high-end devices are often perfectly good replacements for your desktop computer, able to cope with more intensive programs.
Those after a fast boot up time and a lightweight machine to carry might drool over an Ultrabook.
Serious gamers will want a machine tailored to their graphical and processing needs, while those after flexibility might fancy a convertible laptop-tablet hybrid.
It might seem overwhelming at first – and it can be what with all of the choices – but we're here to help. Believe us when we say that there is a perfect laptop out there for you. With this guide, you'll find not only that, but which is the absolute best.
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 Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus or Acer Aspire S7. And lately, folks have been squeezing dedicated GPUs into the form factor, like the Acer Aspire S3.
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 Carbonand 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 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.
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 EON17-S 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.
What does TechRadar recommend?
We're so glad you asked! Below you'll find what we think are the absolute best laptops in a number of categories, always up-to-date.
The most premium computing experiences around with the price tags to match
Ultrabooks tend to be made with design in mind, so they come in more expensive than most mid-range home laptops. They tend to start from around $999 (about £584, AU$1,063) in the lower end, going to nearly $2,000 (around £1,169, AU$2,129) at the very high end. You're likely to ultimately spend between $899 and $1,500 for a newer model, though you can get some older models for even lower prices.
- See which we think are the best Ultrabooks
Google's Chrome-packed computers make for an unbeatable budget buy
Chromebooks focus on what computing has been all about since the late '90s, the web browser, through Google's Chrome operating system. What should you look out for in a Chromebook? The majority of these Google laptops use either the same or similar low-power components. This is largely what is behind the unquestionable affordability of these mobile rigs – most of which start under $300 (about £175, AU$319).
- Our picks for the best Chromebooks, always updated
Best gaming laptops
These machines excel in pixel-pushing performance with panache
Focused on real-time, 3D image rendering for the latest games, these laptops almost always come with a premium attached. If you want (at least something close to) the PC gaming experience with the flexibility to move around the house, the asking price generally starts at $1,300 (about £760, AU$1,384) at the low end and maxes out at around $3,000 (around £1,753, AU$ 3,194).
- Here are the best gaming laptops that we've reviewed
Best 2-in-1 laptops
Business up front, party in the back – the mullets of the computing world
Otherwise known as hybrid laptops, these devices generally sit in the same price range as Ultrabooks, given their mission to serve as two devices in one. That generally gets you a Windows 8 touchscreen device that either flips around its hinge to become a tablet or detaches from its included keyboard accessory (which hopefully doubles as an extra battery).
- These are the best 2-in-1 laptops at the moment
Best laptops for students
The tech you need to help you land the career you want
Whether you're a freshman in liberals arts or an MBA looking to rock the business world, you need a laptop that will best enable you for the perfect price. While some will naturally be more expensive than others, these are the clamshells best suited for your field of study and, ultimately, your budget.
- Here are the best laptops for students in 2014
Best mobile workstations
The best tech to get you through the work week
Whether you're a small business owner with need for a small, lightweight fleet or a spreadsheet cruncher in need of a locked-down, spacious powerhouse, we know which mobile rig fits you best. Even if you're a digital artist, there's a work-ready laptop out there for you. Just be prepared to spend (or expense).
- These are the best mobile workstations right now