We’ve tested laptops on design, performance, battery life and display.
Not sure whether to go with a hybrid laptop or the classic “clamshell”? We explain the pros and cons of each type, plus features to look for and tips for improving the speed of your laptop.
What is a hybrid laptop?
A hybrid laptop combines a tablet with a laptop. They’re also known as convertible or 2-in-1 laptops.
They’re smaller and thinner than a standard laptop, and have touchscreens and hinges that allow the keyboard to be flipped over, rotated or detached entirely, which then transforms the “screen” into a standalone tablet. Their smaller size sometimes means they don’t have the processing power of larger standard laptops. A hybrid gives you a tablet’s portability, but with the advantages of having a keyboard and ports, such as USB and mini HDMI.
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Often there will be a flagship model, likely the one you’ll see advertised on TV. It will have a large storage drive, plenty of random access memory (RAM), a powerful processor and possibly a separate graphics processor for running the latest games and editing software. These laptops also come with a large price tag.
Next up is the mid-range model. Aimed at families and business people, this machine isn’t as flash but can easily handle multi-tasking and daily computing.
Lastly, there’s the entry-level model which is suitable for light computer users. These have limited computing power and storage. They are a good fit if you’re only web browsing, using email and word processing.
Kids are likely to want to play games or download music and video, so look for one with separate graphics and a large storage drive. If it’s for school, check the school’s minimum requirements for “bring your own device” (BYOD) laptops.
Do you want a traditional clamshell laptop or a hybrid, where the keyboard either folds back or detaches?
Hybrid laptops have two main methods of connecting: docking — which is where small ports on the screen and keyboard join together — or Bluetooth. Bluetooth uses more power, which can affect how long your charged battery lasts.
Battery life can be an issue for laptops and hybrids in particular. Due to their compact size, they generally have smaller batteries, so you may have to charge it after only a few hours use. You should expect a laptop battery to last between 4.5 and 10 hours, depending on its capacity.
How you’re going to use your laptop is crucial for deciding your optimal screen size.
If you want to watch lots of videos, work on multiple programs simultaneously, or have sight issues, you’ll want a screen that’s at least 14 inches. A smaller screen is better for travelling or if you only use your laptop for web browsing and social media.
If you’re mainly a web browser who only watches the occasional online video, consider a laptop with an 11- or 13-inch screen with a lower resolution (for example, 1920x1080). If graphics are important to you, look for a higher-quality screen (3200x1800) and consider a separate graphics processor and memory.
Laptops don’t generally have a graphics card and instead the general processing and graphics processing jobs are shared by the CPU. This means graphically intensive programs, such as gaming and video editing, can slow down other computer processes. Games for young children are usually fine though as their graphics tend to be more simplistic.
Unless you’re considering a Chromebook which stores the majority of its data in the cloud, look at hard drives with a minimum of 64GB. In terms of speed and type of storage, SSDs are the fastest, followed by eMMCs, then HDDs. If you’re planning on playing games or storing large files, a large SSD (256GB+) is best.
4GB of RAM will be fine for the average user, but if you do processor-intensive work, such as graphic design or play the latest games, then look for a model with at least 8GB.
How fast your computer runs often depends on the central processing unit (CPU). But how well a CPU performs also depends on how much random access memory (RAM) is installed.
The CPU is like the engine of a car and the RAM is the number of cylinders in the engine. The bigger the engine size and the more cylinders it has, the less it has to work when you’re working it hard.
For only internet use, a basic entry-level processor is fine, otherwise a “beefier” processor such as an i5 or i7 with plenty of cores (for example, quad-cores), is best.
Microsoft Windows and Apple OS X are the main operating systems. However, Google’s Chrome OS is gaining popularity as it is a cloud-based OS, meaning the computer doesn’t need a big processor or hard drive so the laptop can be thinner and lighter.
There aren’t any “bad” operating systems, so we recommend sticking with what you know. However, if an OS has something in particular you want, such as Apple’s video-editing prowess or Chrome OS’s focus on cloud storage, then switching could be a good idea.
There are two types of USB port currently being used in laptops, USB-A — the standard USB port that has been commonly used for years, and USB-C, a new smaller version that lets data, video, sound and power all to be transferred from the same port.
Being able to share all this from one port means a laptop can be thinner and lighter. Another advantage of USB-C is it can be inserted into a port either way, meaning there is no “incorrect” way to plug it in.
However, a downside of these ports is that they require different adapters to use with other devices, such as your TV, printer or phone. How fast a USB port runs depends on the protocol it’s running. Most new computers will have ports running USB 3.0 or 3.1, but older ports could be running USB 2.0. Most laptops have 2 or 3 USB ports, with most using USB 3.0.
Before buying, try out a laptop’s keyboard. They can vary in size and feel, so you’ll want to see if it works for you. Make sure the keys aren’t too close together and it’s not awkward for you to use.
Laptop keyboards are often smaller than standard keyboards, this means they often don’t have a numeric keypad and instead only have the number keys across the top of the keyboard. If you need a keyboard to have a numeric keypad, it pays to check.
Touchpads are the compact version of a mouse, this allows laptops to be self-contained portable computers. Check you’re comfortable with the size and location of the touchpad. Some have physical keys for simulating left and right mouse clicks. If you don’t like using a touchpad, you can still connect a mouse.
If you think you need a DVD drive, make sure the model you look at has one. Once commonplace, these drives are now much rarer. However, you can buy an external DVD drive.
Which you choose not only affects your laptop’s performance, but how much you pay at the counter.
Laptops with a small hard drive are aimed at users who use cloud storage and run a relatively small OS such as Chrome.
We’ve tested some laptops that only have 32GB storage drives. That’s barely enough room for Windows 10, and not enough to install the latest OS updates. This is a security risk, as these updates often include security patches. If you’re running Windows 10, look for a minimum storage drive size of at least 64GB.
Cloud storage is an even more robust form of storage where your data is stored online by a service such as Google Drive or Dropbox. It is only accessible via an internet connection, but a bonus is your data is always backed up. However, it doesn’t totally replace a laptop’s internal storage as the operating system still needs to be housed somewhere.
While any laptop can use cloud storage, Chromebooks are designed to store user data to the cloud. They run the lightweight operating system, Chrome OS, which means they can have as little as 16GB of internal storage. If you’re on a budget, Chromebooks are a good choice, with prices starting from $300.
It’s clear the days of HDDs in consumer laptops are numbered. But until the cost and size of SSDs can match them, we’ll continue to see both available. Regardless of drive, you can also future-proof and protect your data by using cloud storage.
Spectre and Meltdown are two security flaws that have been in the headlines recently. These vulnerabilities can leave your personal data at risk.
What do they affect?
These vulnerabilities are unusual in that they concern the hardware – specifically the central processing unit (CPU), whereas most security flaws affect the software on your computer. Any device with a modern processor (this means everything from iPhones to Windows computers) are at risk from these two. Meltdown affects only Intel processors while Spectre affects all brands.
How do they work?
Programs are made up of a series of individual processes a CPU performs. To save time, many CPUs pre-emptively perform calculations that are the likely next step in a process and the resulting speculative data are stored. This speculative data can contain sensitive data, such as credit card numbers.
Meltdown operates by “melting” security barriers between your CPU and these processes, allowing a “bad” process to target and “steal” any speculative data.
With Spectre, a “bad” process tricks a “good” one into handing over its speculative data.
So far, these flaws haven’t been exploited “in the wild”, but lab tests show it can be done.
How to stay protected?
To patch the flaws, install the latest operating system update for your device and keep it up to date, further patches will be released in coming months. While updates could slow your device down, it’s a small price to pay to protect your information.
Install the latest OS updates: Updates can speed up your laptop and plug critical security holes.
Clean up storage: Audit your files (it doesn’t hurt that much). Keep your most frequently used files, remove anything you don’t need and move everything else to external storage, such as the cloud.
Remove old programs: Uninstall programs you don’t use anymore. They take up storage space and could be using system resources in the background.
Manage programs that launch at start-up: Computers have a list of programs that automatically launch on start-up. Unless you use a program daily (for example, internet security), remove it from the list. To see which programs launch at start-up:
You can upgrade some laptop components, but keep in mind a botched DIY job can void your warranty.
RAM: Upgrading RAM can increase the speed of daily tasks, such as web browsing. It’s a fairly easy process on most laptops.
Storage drive: Replacing an older hard drive (HDD) with an SSD will improve your laptop’s start-up speed and everyday performance. This is more complicated as you will need to reinstall the operating system (you’ll likely need a product key) or clone your old storage drive.
Battery: Laptop batteries can gradually lose charge capacity. Replacing the battery can give your laptop a new lease on life.
Before you get out the screwdrivers, make sure your laptop can be upgraded and check new components are compatible (see your laptop manufacturer’s website). Consider how difficult it’s going to be, some laptops have easy access panels to components such as storage and RAM. If in doubt, search the internet for a step-by-step guide or video of someone upgrading the same model.
The CPU (central processing unit, or processor) is a computer’s “brains”. It carries out all the tasks your computer needs to run.
There are 2 major laptop CPU manufacturers: Intel and AMD. Most computers bought at retail stores will have processors from one of these manufacturers.
Each processor is labelled with a name marking the series (also called generation) of processor it is. The latest Intel laptop series are sixth generation (formerly called Skylake), and the latest AMD laptop processors are the A-series.
A CPU consists of a series of cores. The more cores it has, the more tasks the computer can do simultaneously. For heavy users, we recommend a quad-core or higher processor.
Frequency is the speed (also known as clock rate) your CPU can potentially operate. It’s measured in gigahertz (GHz) and each processor core has the same frequency. If you’re planning on playing graphically intensive games, it can affect how smoothly the game plays.
In previous years, computers and operating systems were 32-bit, and before that they were 16-bit. Now, most new computers are 64-bit. These measures are a type of computer architecture. Before installing software, check it’s compatible with the architecture your computer is running. For example, you can install 32-bit software on a 64-bit computer, but you can’t install 64-bit software on a 32-bit computer.
When it comes to performance, a laptop can be just as powerful as a desktop but there are some drawbacks.
A laptop has limited ports compared to a desktop, as there is less space to install them. Laptops usually have between 2 to 3 USB ports and an HDMI or mini HDMI port, whereas desktops usually have at least 6 ports and can potentially have as many as you can fit.
Laptops can get hot, which can be uncomfortable if you’re using one on your lap.Make sure a laptop’s exhaust vents are clear. If you don’t, then a laptop can’t expel the hot air it generates and its interior heats up. Over time, this can damage a laptop’s internal components.
A laptop will have a trackpad. It allows you to control the cursor by running your finger over the pad’s surface. Your finger’s movement is interpreted the same as the movements of a mouse. However, if you still crave a mouse, you can easily add one.
Laptops have a smaller keyboard and unless you buy a large laptop, you will often find the numeric keypad is missing and less commonly used keys have been combined. For example, you may find the F4 key and the volume down key are combined. To activate F4 you need to hold down the Fn (function) key first.
Laptops, and especially hybrids, tend to have shared graphics. This means the same processor and memory is used for running the computer and the screen. Any graphics and processing activity, such as playing games, are slower with shared graphics.
For hinged models, check the quality of the hinge. Repeated movement of a hinge can cause structural issues – plastic hinges aren’t as durable as metal hinges.
If the hybrid has a detachable screen, check how the screen and keyboard attach. If it docks with a small plug connecting the screen and keyboard, check there are substantial parts of the body around this plug so you don’t accidentally bend or break it.
If the keyboard connects through Bluetooth, remember using Bluetooth can reduce a laptop’s battery charge.