If you’re in the market for a new laptop, it pays to do your homework ahead of time. The laptop market is a lot more crowded than it used to be, with viable options at every price point ranging from $300 to $3,000. But before you overspend, you’ll want to make sure you know what you’re looking for — and the features you don’t need to pay extra for.
Finding the just-right laptop is a matter of determining the right balance of features like screen size, processing power, and even the number of available ports you need. You’ll also need to consider what you might want to pay extra for; for example, if you’ll be traveling with your laptop a lot, it will probably be worth it to spend a little more for a thin-and-light model.
The first decision you’ll need to make is what operating system you prefer: Google’s ChromeOS, Apple’s macOS, or Microsoft Windows. Here’s what you need to know about each, along with our favorite models.
Chromebooks are laptops that run Google’s ChromeOS, an operating system based on the Google Chrome browser. While learning a whole new operating system might sound daunting, ChromeOS is literally just a browser with some local file storage added, so it’s perfect for anything that can be done in a browser — which, let’s face it, is just about anything.
Chromebooks have a reputation for being inexpensive, modestly powered machines—which makes sense, because most of them are—but it’s also possible to find models that are fast enough to keep up with even the most demanding work.
Generally, if a Chromebook is under $400, it will be fast enough for schoolwork, web browsing, and the occasional streaming movie. Don’t expect it to move mountains, but do count on it to get the job done. If a Chromebook is between $400 and $800, you’ll get a very capable machine that’s ideal for working from home and won’t ever feel pokey. Chromebooks in this price range are overkill for casual users but will work well if you’re a college student or a work-from-home warrior. Chromebooks in the $800 and up range are for professionals who absolutely need the processing power and higher screen resolutions.
Chromebooks come in three different screen sizes: 11-inch, 13.3-inch, and 15.6-inch. Start by deciding how big you want your screen to be, then consider our top picks.
The Acer Chromebook Spin ($329) is one of the most flexible models we’ve ever seen. The 360-degree touchscreen swivels, so it’s easy to use as a tablet or a laptop. The Spin’s 11-inch screen means it fits easily in any bag or purse, so it’s ideal for instances where you need a computer handy, but you don’t want the added weight of a larger model. It’s also one of the few models in its price range to include USB-C ports, which are quickly becoming essential.
Lenovo’s Chromebook Flex 5 ($478) is one of our favorite Chromebooks because it makes smart compromises to deliver above-average performance with a below-average price tag. The Flex 5 features a touchscreen, an FHD (1080p) display, and up to 10 hours of battery life on a single charge. If you’re looking for a machine for basic to moderate tasks and you need one that will last all day without a problem, keep the Flex 5 on your short list.
We like the ASUS C523 ($466) because it’s got sleek looks, a big screen, and a battery that lasts up to 10 hours. The included USB-C and microSD ports are also a nice touch.
Because most Chromebooks are so inexpensive, it’s easy to overlook pricier models like the Google Pixelbook ($1,266.95) or its smaller counterpart the Pixelbook Go ($649). Google’s own hardware delivers an incredible experience, so if you’re looking for a best-of-everything Chromebook, check out the Pixelbooks — just be forewarned that they’re on the expensive side.
Apple’s MacBook laptops are some of the most capable, usable, and expensive computers around. They run macOS, a traditional operating system famous for being slick and easy to learn. MacBooks are solid laptops on their own, but with Apple products, the real fun is in the product synergy: MacBooks can natively work with iPhones, AirPods, and even software services to unlock cross-product functionality. For example, if you own an iPhone, you can seamlessly take and transfer phone calls using a MacBook.
MacBook laptops are pricey, but they’re generally worth the investment: they’re stable, they last forever, and they hold their resale value.
Currently, there are two main flavors of MacBook: the MacBook Air, a thin-and-light model that sets the standard for ultraportable laptops, and the MacBook Pro, a beefier laptop that has more horsepower (and, if you’re looking for it, a larger screen).
The MacBook Air is the “one size fits most” model, while the MacBook Pro models bring faster CPUs and more RAM, making it more appropriate for students and professionals who work with demanding applications.
If you’re shopping for a MacBook, start by considering if you need the portability of the MacBook Air or the more powerful internals of the MacBook Pro.
We love the MacBook Air ($949.99) because it’s powerful enough for most home and business users, and it also happens to be a beautiful piece of machinery. If you’re not sure you can justify the money, think of it this way: With a MacBook Air, you’re investing in a computer that is light enough to go anywhere and reliable enough to still be plenty fast in three to five years.
The MacBook Pro 13-inch ($1,249) offers a few key upgrades from the MacBook Air — namely, a much faster processor and a Touch Bar (for one-touch activating apps). If you need the extra CPU heft of a MacBook Pro but still want an average-sized laptop, the MacBook Pro 13-inch is the sweet spot.
The MacBook Pro 16-inch ($2,099) is the best of the best: the version of the MacBook that has the fastest CPU, the biggest screen, and the most file storage. We love the 16-inch model because it’s incredibly thin — and not all that much heavier than the MacBook Air. If you need a top-notch Mac that can go anywhere, this is the one to get.
Windows laptops have come a long way. Microsoft Windows 10 is the most refined version of the OS yet, and it includes “Tablet Mode” for making apps touchscreen-friendly on supported hardware.
Whether you’re a long-time fan of Windows or brand new to it, it’s easy to pick up, and more stable than ever.
Windows laptops are made by dozens of manufacturers, so it can sometimes be hard to discern which ones are worthwhile. Here are our general guidelines:
There are plenty of good Windows laptops available, but these are the cream of the crop.
We like the ASUS VivoBook 15 ($459) because it’s got a 15.6-inch FHD display that’s perfect for streaming movies and an i3 processor that’s fast enough to keep up with all of your basic tasks. If you’re looking for a laptop for a younger student or for streaming, this is a solid value.
The Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 ($819.99) is more expensive than most Windows laptops, but based on the quality of the lightweight design, it’s a direct competitor to the MacBook Air that’s more affordable and includes a touchscreen.
The Dell XPS 15 ($1,952.05) is almost unfair to other laptops, because it’s essentially a portable powerhouse/gaming PC. It’s thin, light, and yet somehow still manages to pack in an NVIDIA GTX 650 video card for 4K gaming and a staggering 32GB of RAM. If you’re a gamer, a fan of 4K movies, or you just need the best Windows laptop available — check out the XPS 15.
Jaime Vázquez is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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