Technology

Product overview

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Laptops

15dec laptops hero default

We’ve tested standard and hybrid laptops.

The top-performing models have an important feature in common. Here’s what you need to know before you buy.

From our test

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Hybrid or clamshell?

One of your first decisions is choosing which type of laptop — a hybrid or the classic “clamshell”? Here are the pros and cons of each.

Clamshell (standard)

16jul clamshell laptop product type default product type

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)

16jul fold back hybrid product type default product type

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)

16jul detachable hybrid product type default product type

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

Storage

All recommended laptops in our test use SSD (solid state drive) storage. Have SSDs deposed the humble HDD (hard disk drive) as the storage of choice?

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. Which you choose not only affects your laptop’s performance, but how much you pay at the counter.

  • 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. However, they’re relatively inexpensive and easy to manufacture. Their low cost means they often have large capacities (500GB+).

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

  • There is an even more robust form of storage with unlimited capacity – cloud storage. This is 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.

Features to consider

  • Screen size – 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.

  • Battery life – 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.

  • Storage size – Ensure the laptop’s hard disk drive (HDD) or solid-state drive (SSD) is big enough. Hybrids have a slim standard hard drive, an SSD, or a combination of these. Some laptops, such as Chromebooks, have comparatively small hard drives and store the majority of their data in the cloud.

Windows and Apple OS X are the main operating systems. But Google’s Chrome OS is gaining popularity.
Windows and Apple OS X are the main operating systems. But Google’s Chrome OS is gaining popularity.
  • Connection type – 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.

  • Processor – 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. We think an i5 or m3 CPU, or higher, with at least 4GB RAM should suffice for the average user. For more information, see our guide to CPUs below.

  • Graphics – 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.

  • Operating System (OS) – 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.

  • USB ports – 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.

  • Keyboard – 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.

  • Numeric keypad – 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.

  • Touchpad – 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.

  • Optical (DVD) drive – 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. For example, none of our tested laptops had one. However, you can buy an external DVD drive.

Size does matter

When we tested the Asus TP200S, it only had a 32GB HDD. While you can get this model with a larger hard drive, we tested the base model. It barely had enough room for the operating system, Windows 10, and there wasn’t room for us to install the latest updates at the time of testing.

Laptops with a small hard drive are aimed at users who use cloud storage and run a relatively small OS such as Chrome. We think the minimum hard drive size for laptops running the larger Windows OS should be at least 64GB, so installing critical updates doesn’t become an issue.

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.

Makers

There are 2 major laptop CPU manufacturers: Intel and AMD. Most computers bought at retail stores will have processors from one of these manufacturers.

Series

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.

Cores

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

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.

64-bit and 32-bit

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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