Laptops

typing on a laptop keyboard

The top performers in our test have an important feature in common.

We've tested laptops on design and use, 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.

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Laptop types

One of your first decisions is choosing which type of laptop — a hybrid or the classic “clamshell”.

Clamshell (standard)

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Pros
  • Processing power similar to a desktop
  • Larger screen sizes
  • Space for more ports
  • More spacious keyboards
Cons
  • Screen only opens to a fixed point
  • Most don’t have touchscreens
  • Bulkier
  • Often heavier than hybrids

Fold-back (hybrid)

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Pros
  • Built-in display stand when folded back
  • Lighter than clamshells
  • Ports can be accessed in tablet mode
  • Keyboard can be disabled when folded back
Cons
  • When carrying folded back, the keyboard can be awkward
  • Not very stable on uneven surfaces
  • Takes time for the OS to switch from laptop to tablet mode
  • Often doesn’t come with a stylus for drawing and handwriting notes

Detachable (hybrid)

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Pros
  • Screen can be detached and used as a tablet
  • Lighter than clamshells; when detached is lighter than fold-backs
  • Often comes with a stylus for drawing or handwriting notes
  • Easy to read e-books on when in tablet mode
Cons
  • Most ports can’t be accessed when in tablet mode
  • Not very stable on uneven surfaces
  • Some keyboards have trouble connecting to the screen, particularly Bluetooth models
  • As the screen is heavier than the keyboard, they’re often top-heavy
  • Takes time for the OS to switch from laptop to tablet mode

Entry-level or top-of-the-line?

Many manufacturers produce a range of laptops under a “series” or “family” name, such as Aspire, Swift or MacBook. While the name remains the same, performance between these models can vary considerably.

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.

Laptops for kids

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.

Features to consider

Time to buy? Make a wish list of specifications and features, and decide which are your wants and “must haves”.

  • Don’t forget to consider your budget. Set yourself a limit and keep an eye out for sales. Laptops are often on special.
  • We recommend looking for a laptop that exceeds your requirements. This leaves you room for your needs changing.

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.

RAM

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.

Storage

Most laptops have one of 2 types of internal storage drive: the larger capacity, but more fragile, HDD or the faster and more robust SSD.

All recommended laptops in our test use SSD storage. Which you choose not only affects your laptop’s performance, but how much you pay at the counter.

SSD (solid state drive)

  • Uses memory chips, similar to RAM (random access memory), and has faster read and write speeds, resulting in better performance.
  • Popular in laptops as it's compact and has no moving parts, which means the odd knock or drop won’t leave you staring at an alarming blue error.
  • Has a higher price tag than HDDs, though this gap is closing.

HDD (hard disk drive)

  • Traditional HDDs operate by storing data on a spinning disk, resulting in that familiar whirring sound.
  • As they have moving parts, they are more susceptible to damage.
  • Are relatively inexpensive and easy to manufacture. Their low cost means they often have large capacities (500GB+), which makes them ideal for budding directors and gamers.

Cloud storage

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.

Try before you buy

Our test assesses design and use, but it’s the small details that can make you feel like your new laptop is a great buy or a big regret.

Before buying a laptop, go to a store and try a few out:

  • Feel how easy it is to pick up and carry, open and close (if it’s a hybrid, does it fold back or detach?).
  • Consider its size and weight. Is it easy for you to carry? Would it fit into your backpack?
  • Play around to see if it would be comfortable to use. Are the keyboard and trackpad cramped or spacious enough? How well does the laptop balance on your lap?
  • Some laptops can be more awkward than you might think. Tip: check where the ports are located. Our writer's pet hate is when the power port is on the opposite side from the power point next to the couch.
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Improving speed

If your laptop is slowing down, don’t give up on it yet. Some simple maintenance and upgrades might breathe new life into it.

Maintenance

  • 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 – if you don’t use a program any more, uninstall it. They take up storage space and may be using system resources in the background.

  • Manage programs that launch at start-up – every computer has a list of programs that automatically launch when the computer starts up. This list can get clogged with seldom-used programs. Unless you use a program daily (for example, internet security) remove it from the list. To see which programs launch at start-up:

    • Windows: Open Task Manager (Ctrl+Alt+Del select “Task Manager”) and choose the Startup tab
    • Mac OS: System Preferences –> Users & Groups select your account and click on Login Items

Upgrades

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.

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Guide to CPUs

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.

Switching computers

If you’re switching from one type of computer to another, here’s what to consider.

From a desktop PC to a laptop

When it comes to performance, a laptop can be just as powerful as a desktop PC 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.

From a standard laptop to a hybrid

Hybrid laptops have touchscreens, which means they can be used like a tablet. Some basic touchscreen tips:

  • There is no double click on the touchscreen, instead they use a long touch.
  • To zoom in, pinch and move your fingers out. Reverse to zoom out.
  • The keyboard will appear on screen whenever you touch a text field/box. If it doesn’t, try touching in some white space, and then touch the box again.

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.

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