How to Buy a Laptop
So, you need a new laptop?
Shopping for laptops can be challenging, to say the least. You’re now faced with what seems like an endless array of choices, from dozens of brands, with hundreds of models, and prices that can vary wildly, from a few hundred dollars to up into the thousands. Don’t despair!
This Laptop Buying Guide will help you navigate the confusion between all the different systems, tech specs, and more. We’ll show you exactly what to look for and how to buy your new laptop.
Laptop Buying Guide
Buying a laptop is not a simple decision. It can get confusing, and you want to be sure that you’re making an informed choice.
We’re going to show you how to buy your next laptop, and it’ll be way easier than you think.
What to look for when buying a laptop
Before you run straight to browse for new laptops, we can already narrow down choices and silence the noise of systems you don’t need. Your price range, what you’ll use it for, and where you’ll use it will determine where to begin your search.
For this, there are really only three things you need to keep in mind:
The good news here is that it’s never been more affordable to buy a great laptop. Unless you have very specific, demanding needs, you probably won’t need to spend more than about $800. If your needs are modest, even lower prices are available. If you’re in the market for a true desktop-class replacement, or an ultrathin model packed with power, you should expect to pay up to $1,200 or more, depending on the features you opt for.
Much like you wouldn’t buy a Ferrari to take the kids to school, why buy a laptop built for hardcore gaming if you only need to surf the web, watch Netflix, and run basic productivity software? The best laptop for you is the one that does exactly what you need it to do – not one that is designed for someone else’s needs.
There are lots of highly portable laptops at various price points. But keeping things small and portable as you add features to your configuration also adds cost. Think of it this way: There may be two identically powerful laptops, but if one is considerably lighter and smaller, it will be the more expensive model. The good news is that if portability matters, there’s usually a way to get it, if you’re willing to increase your budget.
As we explore the ins and outs of laptops, keep these three considerations in mind. Whether you’re a student, a business traveler, a gamer – or someone who does a bit of everything – by the time we’re done, you should have a strong sense of what you want and what you can afford, which should make your buying decision a whole lot smoother.
Although all of the components of a laptop are important, the technology inside defines how fast and how capable your laptop will be for specific tasks. Keep in mind that while more is better, it will also add cost. Go for the best that you can afford.
The Central Processing Unit or CPU is the brains of the operation, and the single most important part when it comes to what your laptop is capable of. There are two main brands of CPU: Intel and AMD. While both companies make superb CPUs (the brain of a laptop) there are differences.
AMD CPUs tend to be less expensive, and slightly lower in graphics performance than their Intel equivalents. AMD chips can save you money while still giving you plenty of power for your day-to-day tasks – our ThinkPad A Series are a perfect example of a budget-friendly, yet fully featured business laptop.
Top of the line CPUs like Intel Core i7 and i9 are perfect for demanding tasks like photo and video editing, or running CAD software, but plenty of popular apps will run just fine on mid-range processors too.
Learn about the differences between Intel and AMD processors.
RAM & Memory
What is RAM? RAM stands for Random Access Memory, and it’s where the CPU places the files it’s currently working with, like the operating system, and any apps you’ve got open. The greater the amount of RAM, the more apps you can run simultaneously, and the faster your overall system performance will be. For many people, a bigger investment in RAM will offer a more noticeable increase in performance than buying a faster processor.
Read more on what you should know about RAM when shopping for a laptop.
How much RAM do I need?
4GB RAM – Absolute lowest
Unless you’re running Chrome OS, look for a minimum of 4GB of RAM.
8GB RAM – Multitasking and work
For improved speed and multitasking apps, 6-8GB is recommended. Virtually all programs and games will run very smoothly on 8GB if you keep multitasking to a minimum.
16GB RAM – High-performance and gaming
If you want a machine that can power through the most demanding games with ease while you run social media apps, toggle through a sea of open browser tabs, and more, you should opt for at least 16GB.
Hard drives: Laptops will use either a solid-state drive (SSD) or hard disk drive (HDD) for storage – sometimes both! SSDs are tiny and weigh almost nothing. These drives are much faster at reading and writing data than HDDs – plus SSD-equipped laptops boot up in seconds.
However, SSDs cost a lot more per GB of storage than the larger and slower HDDs, so the tradeoff between these two technologies is storage capacity vs. price. Storage capacity on an SSD costs about double what the same space would cost on an HDD.
That said, the advantages of SSDs are well worth the tradeoff, and we strongly recommend you consider whether or not you can live with its lower capacity before you buy a laptop with an HDD.
External hard drives: With external hard drives (HDDs) being so affordable and portable, you may find that you can easily keep your daily files within a 128GB SSD, while keeping your very large, or seldom used documents elsewhere. Some laptops offer both SSD and HDD, in a hybrid arrangement. These laptops give you the speed of an SSD, with the storage of an HDD, but they are more expensive, and they will be heavier than a model that uses just an SSD.
Curious to learn more about laptop hard drives? Read our full explainer.
GPU & Graphics
The graphics processing unit (GPU) is a separate CPU that is dedicated to one task: Making sure that the graphics on your screen appear as quickly as possible, with lots of detail, and fast refresh rates.
If you’re thinking this would help with gaming, you’re right. Gamers, and people who work with professional graphics software, get a big bump in performance from a laptop with a discrete GPU. A discrete GPU is also the key to unlocking virtual reality (VR) capabilities. The rest of us can get by just fine with integrated graphics – the graphics capability built into all modern CPUs. For a complete overview of the differences between laptop graphics cards, check out our deep-dive into graphic cards for gaming computers
As helpful as a great GPU is, it still has to work in tandem with your CPU and RAM. Having a top-of-the-line GPU won’t help much without an equivalent bump in the capabilities of your CPU and memory -- all three components need to compliment one another for the best results.
The recommended specs of your favorite games are your best guide here: NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 1080 is an incredible discrete GPU, but unless you want to play first-person shooter games, like Crysis 3, at the highest resolutions and frame rates, it’s probably overkill.
Nearly as important as the inside components of your laptop are the outside features; screen size and weight can dictate portability, while other features such as side ports have major ramifications for what your laptop can and can’t do. Plus, there’s certainly something to be said for appearance – this is an investment, after all – it should look great!
Display size: How big should your laptop’s display be? On the one hand, a bigger display (14 inches or more) means a bigger space for your content, or movies, and it’s easier on the eyes. But a bigger display means larger overall dimensions for the laptop. Bigger, higher-resolution displays also drain juice from the battery quicker than smaller ones. On the other hand, smaller displays (10-12 inches) usually have lower resolutions, so not only is content on the screen physically smaller, it won’t be as crisp.
As with so many laptop choices, it comes down to how you see yourself using a laptop most of the time. If it’s going to be a desktop replacement, then go big; you’ll really appreciate the larger display. If ultimate portability matters most to you, consider staying at 14 inches or smaller. You can still get a premium, full-featured laptop at this size, but it will be much easier to fit into a briefcase, or backpack, and will weigh less too.
Resolution: A higher resolution display is ideal for tasks like photo and video editing, being able to see two applications side-by-side, and significantly improving the readability of text. Some premium laptops offer up to 4K UHD resolution, which is four times more detailed than standard Full HD displays. This level of detail isn’t a necessity, however. For daily computing, and all but the most demanding game settings, Full HD, or 1920 x 1080 resolution, is plenty and helps you keep your budget in check if you’re looking for a way to spend a little less. Still not sure what’s going to work for you? It’s worth a trip to your local electronics retailer to see different sized displays side-by-side, running at different resolutions.
Touchscreens: If you’re buying a 2-in-1 laptop that can pull double-duty as a tablet, a touchscreen is a must. It’s also starting to become standard on traditional laptops, where it can be a handy option, but touchscreens can have an impact on battery life, as well as a glare due to its glossy surface.
Display type: The majority of laptops use LCD display technology, however there are two sub-types: Twisted-Nematic (TN) and In-Plane Switching (IPS). TN panels offer higher brightness and refresh rates, which makes them ideal for very fast-action gaming. IPS panels are better for color accuracy, and off-angle viewing, yet still provide very good refresh rates.
Ports, like USB 2.0 and 3.0, USB Type-C, HDMI, Thunderbolt, and Ethernet are how you connect accessories like monitors, printers, external storage, and even external graphics cards. How many (and which type) of ports you need depends on the kind and amount of accessories you think you’ll want to connect simultaneously. When in doubt, remember that you can use WiFi and Bluetooth for audio devices, printing, networking and many other tasks, so a few USB ports and an HDMI port will probably be sufficient.
If you’re a student, frequent traveler, or just someone who likes to take their laptop with them wherever you go, weight matters. Regardless of whether you need a laptop for basic tasks, or a high performance machine for demanding activities, you’ll find models that put an emphasis on keeping weight to a minimum. Keep in mind, sometimes prioritizing weight will mean compromising on other features. Ultralight laptops will have fewer ports, and may not be designed for easy memory or battery upgrades or replacements. These laptops also favor SSDs over HDDs to minimize weight and size, so storage capacities will be smaller.
You’ll find that some laptops are more appealing than others. Whether it’s the materials used, the feel of the main hinge as you open it, or the precision of the laptop keys as you type, we all have preferences when it comes to design. And while a laptop’s design can’t be your only consideration, it’s still an important one. After all, you’re going to be spending a lot of time with this machine, so you want one you look forward to using.
What’s it for?
As we mentioned at the start, knowing what you want to do with your laptop is key to being able to buy the right one. Here are three of the most common things people do with their laptops, and which features make these activities faster, easier, or just more fun.
One of the most demanding activities in the world of consumer computing is gaming. Today’s immersive games feature ultra-realistic graphics, online multiuser interactive gameplay, and some even enter the world of virtual reality (VR). Powering these games takes fast processors, discreet graphics (GPUs), lots of RAM, a Full HD screen, and a keyboard built for gaming. Unless you’re strictly into casual games – which will run well on just about any laptop – you’ll want a machine built specifically to handle gaming.
A business laptop is designed and built to place an emphasis on robustness and reliability. These machines may possess the fastest processors on the planet, and the biggest batteries, or set a record for being thin and light, but the goal is always to make you as productive as possible. If you believe that time is money, and you need a laptop that can keep up with your busy career, there are plenty of models to choose from, at price points that go from entry level to premium. Workstations, as they’re known, are some of the most powerful computers for business users.
If you’re a student, your laptop is your life. You do everything on it and it goes everywhere with you. You’re hardly ever apart. The best student laptops are built to be highly flexible – in some cases literally – giving you the ability to transition from note taking to movie editing, to gaming, to binge-watching Netflix, all seamlessly, and often on a single battery charge. The student laptop category has a large selection of models, so you’ll need to really focus on what matters to you, and that includes the operating system: It’s no longer just about Windows; the Chromebook’s Chrome OS is now more capable than ever.
What goes well with it?
As you’re thinking about a new machine, give some thought to the many laptop accessories that can make using and transporting your new PC way more enjoyable.
An external monitor is your opportunity to make your laptop look and feel like a desktop. It gives you a much bigger screen to look at, and in some cases more resolution so you can have more apps onscreen at the same time. Monitors used to be expensive accessories, but today you can find large, high-resolution models for less than $200.
Backpack or travel case
Laptops are designed to go places, but when was the last time you saw one with a handle? To protect your investment and make it easier to take with you, a laptop backpack or travel case is the perfect companion. Padded internal compartments cushion your computer, while multiple zippered pockets give you room for everything else that needs to come along.
Trackpads are great for when space is at a premium, but when you’ve got a bit more room to work, an external mouse (either wired or wireless) gives your work greater precision, more comfort, and more convenience. No laptop owner should be without one.
Whether it’s to expand the finite capacity of your laptop’s SSD, or to backup the contents of your HDD – or both – an external hard drive is a must. Current models are smaller than your smartphone and only require one USB cable. What these offer you in flexibility more than offsets their price, which is likely way less than you think.
Now that you know a bit more about goes into a laptop – and what goes into the laptop buying decision – we’re sure you’ll make the right choice. Before you head out to the store, we’d humbly like to introduce our six laptop brands. We’re confident that whether it’s our ThinkPad, IdeaPad, Yoga, Flex, Lenovo, or Legion line of products, you’ll find a model that’s perfect for you.
It’s the one and only – the line of laptops that businesses have been turning to for decades for machines that are robust and reliable. More and more, people are choosing ThinkPad for personal use, too. ThinkPad laptops pack the industry’s best components into chassis that have been battle tested by millions.
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Where value and features meet. From budget-minded Chromebooks to the most cutting-edge 2-in-1 devices that house tablet and laptop functions in a single, sleek design, IdeaPad defies categorization. If you’re a student who strictly studies, or a student who teaches others humility in Fortnite, there’s an IdeaPad built just for you.
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Now you’ve got game. Lenovo Legion gaming laptops may be capable of a million other tasks, but let there be no doubt: They’ve been designed to be the best gaming laptops you can buy and, if you’re a gamer, you know how much that matters. Lenovo Legion boasts powerful GPUs, ultra-fast memory, glorious displays, and a keyboard built for those who do way more than type.
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As the name suggests, Flex laptops are designed to adapt to a variety of needs, which makes them the perfect laptop for a variety of users. This family of 2-in-1 machines can transition from classic laptop, to presentation mode, to tablet with a flick of the hinge. Choose from Intel or AMD-powered models, in sizes from 11 to 15 inches, and an almost endless number of configurations.
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If you like the flexibility of a 2-in-1, but aren’t willing to compromise on the premium features of the best laptops on the market, the Yoga line is calling your name. Explore Yoga and find the entertainment focused C series, the intricately designed 900 series for those with a strong creative streak, or the 700 series for convertible laptops with the power of discrete graphics and stunning 4K displays.
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With a laser-focus on value, the Lenovo series serves up a classic laptop experience in a versatile, reliable, and affordable package. With a wide variety of screen sizes, processors, RAM, and storage, there’s a model for every user. With prices starting at just $219, there’s also a model for every budget.
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Chromebooks are a more viable option that ever. The cloud-based Chrome OS is fast, flexible, and virtually virus-proof. The newest models now support apps from the Google Play store, giving Chromebooks all of the benefits of a having a full-size laptop, with the ability to run thousands of Android apps. Chromebooks are great for students thanks to their fast boot times, lightweight portability, and affordable prices, but increasingly, business users are turning to them for the same reasons.
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