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What to look for in a Laptop and what to avoid

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

Luckily there is no coronavirus for laptops yet but the rest you need to make an informed decision on what type of Laptop, Notebook, or Chromebook to take you will find here in this article. Whether you’re loyal to Windows, a Mac fan, or willing to try something new, you should know what to look for in your next laptop. Windows and Mac both have a wide selection of laptops for different needs, so you can find the model that’s the best for you. Chromebooks are worth considering too.


There’s more to a laptop than its operating system, so keep reading to find out which laptop is right for you.


Mac, Windows, or something else?

The first big consideration to take when it comes to picking your new laptop is what operating system you want it to run. While traditionally that debate was dominated by Apple’s MacOS and Microsoft’s Windows, today, it’s also worth considering Google’s Chrome OS, which tends to come on much more affordable laptops.

While there are certainly comparable hardware and features offered with these platforms, there are some stark differences between them which are important to consider.


Windows

PCs are an incredibly diverse category. Dozens of manufacturers make PCs, and the quality and pricing can vary greatly depending on which model and brand you opt for. The fastest PCs will surpass Macs in terms of performance and many companies tailor their PCs to a specific purpose, such as gaming or business.

PCs typically run Windows as an operating system, which is far more open-ended than MacOS, and updated more frequently. There’s also more software available for Windows. In particular, Windows is the standard for game development and many business-related programs.

Windows-powered devices come in a variety of shapes and sizes. A standard laptop with a clamshell design and a keyboard-mouse interface is easy to find. Touchscreen Windows laptops can be found even in the lower price brackets, and more elaborate designs include fold-back screens or even detachable tablet-keyboard combos, such as Microsoft’s Surface Book range. Windows laptops also commonly come with touchscreens, which is not something you’ll find on any Apple MacBook offerings — unless you count the Touch Bar.

Unlike Apple’s more limited line up of hardware, there is plenty of choice in the Windows laptop space. Whether you opt for a major manufacturer like Lenovo, or Dell, or one of Microsoft’s own devices, you have a ton of options with Windows laptops.


MacOS

Apple has always been protective of its brand, releasing products in very deliberate iterations. Any Apple product will follow its standards, whereas any manufacturer can make a PC with unique specs. As a result, Macs are very user-friendly. Apple will tell you exactly what you are getting regardless of which MacBook you purchase, and because all Macs come from the same ecosystem, the company’s resourceful support network can easily help with any problems that arise.

Quality design is one of the hallmarks of a Mac. They are built to look and feel elegant. This extends to Apple’s operating system, MacOS, which is straightforward and intuitive. Macs also come preinstalled with a suite of proprietary software, and each application is well-suited for tasks such as editing video or music. While there are no touchscreens on Macs, you can use Apple’s Sidecar mode to essentially switch control over to an iPad if you really need a touchscreen for something.

Macs utilize fast hardware, too, so those who want a solid computer but do not know a lot about hardware can rest easy knowing their Mac will perform well during everyday use. That said, they don’t tend to sport the most powerful graphics chips, and tend to have a much higher price tag than their Windows and Chrome OS counterparts, especially when configured with lots of storage. Apple computers aren’t known for being cheap.

In many ways, Apple’s strict design standards mean that its products are easy for anyone to pick up and use, regardless of a person’s skill level or familiarity with computers. On the other hand, the rigid design of the Mac means less freedom to customize the device. The available hardware is the hardware you get. Furthermore, Apple only sells a few different models of MacBook at any given time and irregular hardware refreshes mean that they aren’t always the most up to date.

For 2020, Apple updated its Macbooks with new butterfly keyboards that many fans had been longing for. The latest lines include a 13-inch MacBook Pro and a 16-inch MacBook Pro, in addition to a new MacBook Air model.


Chrome OS

Google’s Chrome OS is a little different from the other two main offerings. It powers “Chromebook” laptops and is based on Google’s Chrome browser. That means that it can’t run desktop applications as the other two platforms can. That’s great if you’re the kind of PC user who only needs a laptop to read emails, watch Netflix, and occasionally play the odd mobile game. It’s not so great if you want the full functionality offered by a desktop platform.

That said, Chrome OS is quick and more versatile today than it’s ever been, with support for thousands of Chrome extensions and a plethora of Android apps — though they don’t always scale well with larger laptop displays. Hardware choices are also much more varied today than they’ve been in the past, with powerful offerings, like Google’s own Pixelbook, which perform and look very much like premium Windows and MacOS laptops. There are even 2-in-1 options like the Pixel Slate or HP Chromebook x2.

Chrome OS is certainly a less capable platform than Windows and MacOS, but if it fits the bill for what you want to do on your laptop, you can save a lot of money by going with Google’s platform over the other two.


The types of laptops

There are several laptop categories, manufactured with a certain use or audience in mind. When shopping for a laptop, decide what you primarily intend to use the laptop for and seek out a category that aligns with those interests. Here are some broad categories and a couple of our favorites for each.


Entry-level

Laptops can be expensive, but by making some cuts many manufacturers produce great laptops that cost $600 or less. Buyers who need a laptop for the most basic purposes (word processing, internet browsing, etc) and want to save money may find that a budget laptop is all they need. Budget laptops are generally light on hardware such as graphics or RAM; do not expect to run AAA games or bounce easily between a hundred browser tabs, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable.

This is a category where Chromebooks shine by ditching some of the fancier features of Windows and MacOS laptops, but there are options from those two camps. The best budget laptops will still be built to last, with competent construction and ergonomically sensible keyboards and touchpads. In general, entry-level laptops are great for people who may not know a lot about computers and simply want a device that can carry out standard tasks.


Mainstream

This price range is arguably the best in terms of bang for your buck. You get much better internal hardware than the entry-level offerings, but you’re not paying a premium for some of the fancy materials used in manufacturing the most expensive of laptops. You have to sacrifice the odd feature and you aren’t going to see a super-powered graphics chip for your money, but the systems at this price range are truly excellent laptops.

The fact that this section is such a sweet spot for the industry means that you have plenty to choose from too. There are laptops with great displays, laptops with powerful processors, beautiful looking laptops, and ones that are light and portable with great battery life. You may not find a system that ticks every one of those boxes, but the best laptops under $1,000 are some of our favorites.


Premium

If your pockets are a little deeper, there are few better laptops than those found in the premium bracket. For a little extra money, you gain longer battery life, improved performance from more powerful internal hardware, larger and higher-resolution displays, and overall better build quality. This bracket contains some of the best laptops you can buy today, so if you’re a bit more of a power-user and can afford it, this is the class of laptop you should consider most.

Despite the inflated cost of the premium laptop category, there is still plenty of choices. You can pick up stellar laptops in the 13-inch form with plenty of general computing power and connectivity options. If you’re interested in doing some gaming on the side or content creation, you’ll want to jump up to a 15-inch laptop with a six-core processor and a dedicated graphics card.

This category even contains our favorite laptop of the past few years, the Dell XPS 13. If you want something a little heftier and more capable of content creation, the Dell XPS 15 is worth considering too. For gamers, the Razer Blade is the best laptop we’ve ever come across (and there’s a new 2020 version out), while the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme offers real power in a supremely rugged chassis.


2-in-1

The 2-in-1, or convertible, laptop combines the convenience and ease of a tablet with the utility of a keyboard. There are two main ways of accomplishing this: either the two are attached but the keyboard can fold behind the touchscreen, or the tablet side can be fully detached from the keyboard.

Convertibles can provide a lot of versatility, however, they are not necessarily the best devices available. The uniqueness of their design can come with some notable drawbacks, such as weight (especially from the metal hinges on the keyboard) and price. Convertible laptops are often more expensive than clamshell laptops with comparable hardware.

When it comes to buying a 2-in-1, some are better laptops than they are tablets, and some are better tablets than they are laptops. Think hard about which ‘mode’ you’re likely to use more before buying and do so accordingly.


Ultrabooks

Ultrabook is technically a specification that Intel used for extra-light, portable laptops designed to be as easy to carry as possible while still providing great battery life. They use SSDs, Intel Core processors designed to be efficient with power use, and carefully designed clamshell bodies. This became a very popular type of computer, and many people began applying the name “ultrabook” to any compact, lightweight laptop that was designed for easy transport.


Today, any lightweight laptop with an SSD and Intel processor may be called an ultrabook, although that isn’t quite accurate (some are now referred to as ultraportables instead).


Business laptops

Just because business laptops are designed with business users in mind, doesn’t mean they don’t have some intriguing features for the average buyer. Although they might not always offer the looks of more mainstream systems, they tend to pack exceptional battery life under the hood and have more rugged and tough shells to take a beating while out and about. They tend to have slightly larger displays too, often with great color accuracy if they’re aimed more at video editors and photographers.

Due to a greater emphasis on security and privacy, these laptops are also much more likely to offer you better protective systems like biometric validation and professionally-oriented software packages.

The biggest downside to a business laptop is that it’s usually on the expensive side. If that’s less of a concern for you and you’re not a gamer, there are few better laptops out there than those aimed at business users and commuters.

One of the most iconic laptop lines in the business category is the Lenovo Thinkpad, and the recent X1 Carbon is a fantastic entry in that range.


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