Laptops are tough to shop for because of the many small variations on each model. Here’s everything you need to know – from the pros and cons of hybrids to how to read technical specs – so you can buy with confidence.
Laptops have a “series” name, such as Inspiron or Envy. The general design within a series tends to be similar, but since everything else varies – speed, size, reliability – we wouldn’t recommend buying solely on the strength of a series name.
Aside from a few flagship products – namely the Surface and MacBook lines – you’ll struggle to find the exact models that we’ve tested or your friends recommend, so you need to learn how to weigh up your own options.
First step: design
A crucial early decision is if you want a conventional notebook or a hybrid that can function as a tablet. Also known as convertible or 2-in-1 laptops, hybrids have touchscreens and are smaller and thinner. Their keyboards can be folded back or detached entirely, transforming the “screen” into a standalone tablet.
You should also decide on an approximate screen size. Do you mostly use your laptop for web browsing and want it to fit in carry-on luggage? You probably want a screen size of less than 13 inches. Look for larger if you’ll be watching a lot of video or playing immersive games, or your sight isn’t so good.
- Larger screen sizes
- Space for more ports
- More spacious keyboards
- Less expensive
- Screen only opens to a fixed point
- Most don’t have touchscreens
- Bulkier, and often heavier
- Lighter than clamshells
- Ports can still be used in tablet mode
- Folded keyboard can be used as a display stand
- Keyboard can be disabled in tablet mode
- Not very stable on uneven surfaces
- Often don’t come with a stylus
- Screen can be detached and used as a tablet
- Lighter than clamshells (and fold-backs, when detached)
- Often come with a stylus for drawing or handwriting
- Most ports can’t be accessed in tablet mode
- Not very stable on uneven surfaces
- Often top-heavy (the screen’s heavier than the keyboard)
Second step: budget
Laptops can cost a pretty penny. Before you drop $5000 on a MacBook Pro, think about how often you’ll use your laptop and for which tasks.
If you’re a light user, only browsing the web and using simple apps like word processors, you don’t need to spend more than $1200.
A computer that will get sustained use, or run games or other intensive apps, is worth spending up to $2000.
Think carefully about spending more than $2500. It might be worth it if you’re interested in editing video or playing the newest games, for instance.
Third step: performance
Once you’ve worked out the basics and how much to spend, you want to maximise the speed and power of your notebook. Performance is important because computers slow as they age – so if you opt for the bare minimum, your laptop will soon be unbearably slow.
That means it’s time to dive into technical specifications, but don’t panic – there are only three main things to keep track of.
CPU (central processing unit)
The CPU, often called the “processor”, is fundamental to any computer. It’s the part that actually performs the tasks that make up programs, so CPU speed has a very close relationship with overall computer speed.
Intel and AMD are the two major brands of CPU. Understanding their naming conventions takes some practice, but it goes a long way to choosing a good laptop. The best rule of thumb is that, within the same brand, higher numbers are better.
Intel Core is the most popular family of CPU. It features, from slowest to fastest, the lines i3, i5, i7 and i9.
- Next comes the generation number. The current generation is 13th, but laptops with CPUs as old as 9th gen are still on the market.
- After that are 2-3 SKU digits which can be ignored, and sometimes a letter suffix. You don’t need to learn what they mean, but they can be helpful – for example, “U” stands for ultra-low power, indicating better energy efficiency.
Sitting below the Core family is the Pentium series, followed by Celeron. Both are associated with budget laptops, but Pentium processors are also found in mid-level hybrids.
Ryzen is AMD’s most popular CPU family. It competes closely with Intel Core and follows near-identical naming patterns. Ryzen 5/7/9 are directly comparable to Core i5/i7/i9. The exception is the Ryzen 3 series, which tends to be slightly cheaper and slower than Core i3.
- Ryzen debuted in 2017, so we’re only up to the 7th generation.
- The three SKU digits after the generation number are more important than for Intel – again, higher is better.
- Ryzen debuted in 2017, so we’re only up to the 7th generation.
Other AMD series include Athlon, which tend to appear in lightweight laptops, and A-Series, which are mostly used in Chromebooks.
Recently, MacBook laptops switched to using Apple’s own proprietary processors, bringing them in line with iPhones and iPads. The chips are equivalent to the fastest Intel Core and AMD Ryzen processors.
RAM (random access memory)
Data stored in this kind of memory is lost when the computer shuts down, so it’s useless for storing files. Instead, RAM usually works in tandem with the CPU to store instructions between tasks. All you need to know is that more RAM lets you get more out of your CPU, especially when running multiple programs at once.
For light users, 4GB of RAM is enough. A chronic multi-tasker with lots of open browser tabs might be better off with 8GB. If you do processor-intensive work, such as graphic design or playing the latest games, you could consider 16GB of RAM.
You can get by with a hard drive as small as 32GB if you use cloud storage, such as iCloud or Google Drive, or run a lightweight operating system like ChromeOS or Ubuntu. Otherwise, we’d advise investing in 128GB or more, to avoid future regret.
There are 2 common types of internal storage drive.
HDD (hard disk drive)
- Slow read and write speeds – better for storing files you don’t use very often, such as photos or music
- Cheaper to manufacture, so often appear in budget laptops
- Usually have larger capacities than SSD
- More susceptible to damage if you knock your laptop, as they have physical moving parts
SSD (solid state drive)
- Better speeds, resulting in quicker loading – especially good for intensive tasks such as gaming or watching movies
- More expensive than HDD per GB, often resulting in a smaller storage capacity
- Quieter when performing demanding tasks
- Fully electronic, so less likely to suffer damage if the laptop is knocked or dropped
- Slightly lower power consumption (which also makes overheating less likely)
The safest way to store your files, cloud storage services house your data online. They’re only accessible via the internet, but mean your data is automatically backed up. However, you can’t totally replace your laptop’s internal storage, as its operating system still needs to be housed on-board.
While any laptop can use cloud storage, Chromebooks are designed for it. Because their ChromeOS operating system is lightweight, they need very little internal storage. If you’re on a tight budget, a Chromebook is a good choice – prices start at just $300.
How to choose a laptop or tablet for school
Our advice on buying a BYOD (bring your own device) computer for your child – whether they’re at primary, intermediate or high school.
Other features to consider
Larger laptops usually have larger batteries, but their wider screens also use more power. Faster CPUs use more battery as well. Expect a battery to last for 4-10 hours, though heavy usage at full screen brightness will cut that in half.
Many laptops don’t have a separate graphics card (GPU). Instead, the CPU handles graphical tasks on top of its regular processing. Tasks that require processing power and complex visuals at the same time, such as gaming and video editing, run slower with shared graphics.
Operating System (OS)
Microsoft Windows and Apple macOS are the most common operating systems. However, Google’s ChromeOS is gaining popularity as it’s cloud-based, allowing the laptop to be thinner and lighter because it doesn’t need a strong processor or big hard drive. There are no bad operating systems, so we recommend sticking with what you know unless you have a reason to change.
Along with standard USB ports, newer laptops are likely to use smaller USB-C connections, which allow for a thinner laptop. USB-C is also reversible, so you can insert plugs either way up.
The speed of a port depends on its generation. New computers will have ports running USB 3.0 or later. Older ports could still run USB 2.0.
USB4 will use the USB-C port when it begins appearing in 2021, so USB-C is the connection of the future – the larger, traditional ports may eventually be obsolete.
Before buying a laptop, try out its keyboard as they can vary in size and feel. Make sure the keys aren’t too close together and it’s not awkward for you to use.
Due to size restrictions, laptop keyboards sometimes lack the numeric keypad on the right. If you need one, it pays to check.
Check you’re comfortable with the size and location of the touchpad. Some have physical keys for left and right mouse clicks. If you don’t like using a touchpad, you can still connect a mouse.
An optical (DVD) drive takes up a lot of valuable real estate inside the body, so they’re now very rare. If you need to play DVDs or CDs, it’s easiest to spend $50 on an external plug-in drive.
Check the quality of the hinge, especially for fold-back hybrids. Repeated opening and closing can cause structural faults, with plastic hinges being less durable than metal ones.
For detachable hybrids, check how the keyboard attachment works – will you be able to accidentally bend or break it?
Try before you buy
While our test results can steer you in the right direction, and this guide gets you closer to a decision, minor design details can change your new laptop from a proud purchase to a big regret.
Before buying, try out a few in-store.
Feel how easy it is to pick up and carry, open and close (and fold/detach, if it’s a hybrid).
Consider its size and weight. Is it easy to carry? Would it fit in your backpack?
Test if it’s comfortable to use. How well does it balance on your lap?
Which laptops are most reliable?
We ask thousands of Consumer members about their products to find out which brands are most reliable and satisfying to own. The results are available to members and Digital Pass holders.