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 E14 (14") is 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.
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.
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.