While it might seem straightforward, knowing how to buy a laptop that fits your needs isn't as cut and dry as it might seem at first. Not all laptops are created equal, and as the consumer PC market has matured over the decades, there has been a lot of differentiation between different kinds of laptops with specific hardware that is better suited for some tasks over others.
While there is still a lot of overlap when it comes to a given user needs, knowing specifically what you need is the first step in buying the right laptop for you. This might sound easier said than done when confronted with rows of laptops at a major retailer or while sorting through the hundreds of options at online stores like Amazon, Newegg, Box, or other major online retailers.
If you don't know exactly the kind of hardware you should look for, don't worry, we're here to help show you how to buy a laptop that will give you the best performance for your money, whether you need a laptop for work or home, for gaming or for business.
How to buy a laptop: first steps
The first step in knowing how to buy a laptop is knowing how much you have to spend on one. The prices for a laptop can range from the extremely affordable Chromebooks to the more expensive MacBook Pro line and even higher into more specialized workstations that can cost several thousands of dollars or pounds.
Setting up a price range for what you're willing to spend is going to greatly help you cull a lot of laptops from consideration and will make the process of buying a laptop much easier.
Next, you're going to need to assess your needs, specifically, what do you need your prospective laptop to do? If you're looking for a laptop for work, are you going to be working with a lot of multimedia files? Are you going to be working with an endless procession of spreadsheets and reports? Do you need something that will need always-on LTE/5G internet access?
In some cases, such as needing LTE/5G connectivity, after accounting for price you might have weeded out nearly all the available options to maybe a good two dozen models. From there, finding the right laptop should be much simpler.
If your needs aren't quite as restrictive, you'll likely need to do a little more work, but don't fret, it's not as confusing as it may appear.
Windows vs Apple vs Chromebooks
The operating system that your laptop uses is going to be one of the most important factors you'll need to decide on, though it isn't as important as it used to be 10 or 15 years ago.
The differences between Windows laptops and MacBooks are growing smaller with each passing year as more of the most popular app suites like Microsoft Office become more platform-independent thanks to cloud computing. We aren't totally there yet, but for most people, the difference between the two major operating systems in terms of available software is pretty much a non-issue.
Chromebooks, however, are a different matter. Chromebooks are an attractive option for many because of their aggressively low pricing, but ChromeOS isn't nearly as robust as the latest Windows and macOS releases and the availability of locally installable software is going to be far more limited than you'll find on Windows or macOS laptops.
However, if you spend the overwhelming majority of your computing time online and rarely install and run any apps from the laptop itself, then a Chromebook is definitely worth looking at since it can save you a lot of money.
Memory vs storage
One of the main points of confusion for a lot of buyers is the distinction between memory and storage capacity, since they seem like they should be the same thing and they are similar in principle.
The difference between memory and storage though is the difference between keeping a shopping list straight in your head while walking down the aisle at a supermarket and having it written down on paper.
The more memory you have, the more working space the computer has when running programs. The more memory, also known as RAM, that a computer has, the less often it will have to refer back to long-term storage for data and instructions to run its programs.
This translates into apps and other software running faster and fewer instances of that spinning hourglass cursor while the program works behind the scenes.
Storage on the other hand isn't as critical to a laptop's actual performance and can be much more easily augmented by external storage solutions like external SSDs and flash drives. However, if you plan on downloading a lot of multimedia content or games that individually take up a lot of storage space, the storage capacity of the laptop is going to matter.
All that said, you will always get better performance with more RAM than you will with a larger SSD or HDD capacity. At a minimum, you should be looking at 8GB RAM minimum for Windows or macOS laptops, with 16GB RAM being the floor if you plan on doing a lot of gaming or working with multimedia files in Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Premiere.
We wouldn't suggest getting less than 256GB of storage capacity, but if you don't plan on downloading your entire Steam library onto your laptop in the hopes that one day you'll get around to playing all those games, most people won't need more than 512GB storage.
1080p vs 1440p vs 4K
When it comes to the display of your laptop, the resolution is not going to be nearly as important as it is when buying a larger desktop monitor. At the sizes we're talking about with laptop screens, the difference between 1080p and 4K is pretty negligible, so here is an area where you can save a lot of money.
If you absolutely need to have a higher quality screen, something in the 1440p range should be more than sufficient. If you need a laptop for professional graphic design, then a higher resolution OLED screen with better color coverage and certification might be appropriate.
If you're looking for the best gaming laptop for your budget, consider displays with better refresh rates like 144Hz and higher as well as better response times, usually defined as 4ms or lower – even if this means going with a display that maxes out at 1080p. With gaming, framerate is generally much more important than a 4K resolution, and a higher refresh rate and lower response time will make for more fluid and engaging gameplay.
Integrated graphics vs discrete GPUs
The last major hardware issue you'll need to consider is whether you need a discrete GPU. If you're looking for a high-performance gaming laptop or you plan on doing a lot of graphic design or 3D modeling work, then you should really consider opting for a discrete GPU over integrated graphics.
You can tell if the laptop you are looking at has a discrete GPU if it lists anything by Nvidia under its graphics category or if it lists an AMD Radeon RX GPU. Laptops with AMD processors can be tricky though since AMD makes both CPUs and GPUs. Generally, most AMD discrete graphics will be anything labeled as AMD Radeon RX 6000-series, not just "AMD Radeon graphics."
When in doubt, you can always ask a customer service rep for clarification or if you're shopping online, sometimes you can find out in the reviews or Q & A section of the product page whether a particular AMD laptop had a discrete GPU.
One last note about CPUs
When it comes to CPUs, just about every modern CPU is fast enough to handle general computing tasks without any trouble. That said, unless you are looking at a very basic Chromebook for checking email and maybe some Netflix streaming, you're going to want to buy a laptop with either an Intel Core and an AMD Ryzen processor, preferably the latest generation Core i5 or Ryzen 5 or greater, specifically the 11000-series for Intel and the 5000-series for AMD.
If you are looking at a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, you can still get Intel-based versions online, but Apple has moved on to the Apple M1 chip, which is perfect for all but the most intensive computing tasks and for now is the only processor option for new MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro models.
If you're looking for a gaming laptop or a creative workstation, a Core i7 or Ryzen 7 is your best option, with Core i9 and Ryzen 9 processors being standard in high-end builds.
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John (He/Him) is the Components Editor here at TechRadar and he is also a programmer, gamer, activist, and Brooklyn College alum currently living in Brooklyn, NY.
Named by the CTA as a CES 2020 Media Trailblazer for his science and technology reporting, John specializes in all areas of computer science, including industry news, hardware reviews, PC gaming, as well as general science writing and the social impact of the tech industry.
You can find him online on Threads @johnloeffler.
Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 (just like everyone else).