How do you choose a laptop from the hundreds on the market? Here are our top 10 tips.
Laptops offer brilliant portability and power, but they’re ultimately less flexible than a desktop. Once you’ve made your choice, you’ve made it.
You could just decide upon a budget and grab whatever a big manufacturer such as Dell, Lenovo, HP, or Acer is selling for that price, but what if the machine doesn’t do what you want? What if the keyboard or screen isn’t right, or it doesn’t have all the ports you need? You can’t just swap out your keyboard monitor and while you can do things like upgrade the RAM or move up to a bigger or faster hard drive, doing those things is not as easy as it is on a desktop PC.
For this reason you need to think carefully about what you need your laptop for before you hand over your cash. In this buying guide, we’ll cut through some of the confusion by taking you through the different kinds of laptop available, providing an overview of the different specifications you’ll come across.
When you’re done, read our best laptop round-up.
Video: How to choose a laptop
1. Pick a size
There’s no best laptop overall; it really depends on your own requirements and budgets, and size will play a big part in that.
Laptops tend to be divided into categories based on the diagonal size of their screens, in inches. This is because a laptop’s screen size also determines the overall size of its chassis. A laptop with a huge 17-inch screen will be fantastic for work and gaming, and is likely to feature a decent-sized keyboard to make typing easier, but will be far bigger and heavier than a 13-inch model.
Gaming notebooks are technically laptops, but most of them aren’t what you’d call portable
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You need to think carefully about whether you’ll be travelling with your laptop or using it only at home; there isn’t much point buying an ultra-light 13-inch model (£500-£700 approx) if you’re going to use it on a desk at home most of the time. Likewise, a 17-inch powerhouse (around £600-£1000) makes a good replacement for a desktop PC, but is unlikely to fit in a rucksack, and if it did, you might not be happy with lugging around something that weighs something a little shy of 3kg, like Acer’s Helios 300.
A 15-inch model (around £300-£500) offers a decent compromise between ease of use and portability: as long as it weighs around 2kg or less, you probably won’t mind taking it on the train. If you want something super-lightweight, opt for a laptop with a display of 11-13 inches.
2. Screen resolution
The size of the screen isn’t everything; resolution should also be taken into account. The minimum resolution you’ll generally find is 1,366 x 768 pixels. This is fine for the majority of tasks. It’s even possible to work on two applications side by side with this many pixels, especially since so many modern web pages reformat themselves to suit the available screen space.
The Dell XPS 13 has a high-resolution 13.3-inch screen, which means you’ll have to scale it up to see it clearly
On laptops with smaller screens, a larger resolution doesn’t always mean more space. When a laptop has a greater number of pixels in a small area, the operating system has to scale everything up, or else text and icons would be too small to see properly.
There isn’t a huge amount more space for applications on a 15-inch laptop with a 1,920 x 1,080 screen than on a 15-inch model with a 1,366 x 768 screen. However, the higher resolution does mean that text and icons will be far smoother, and therefore easier to see.
To get an idea of exactly what it is you’re looking for in a screen, it pays to go into a store and try a few out. Your eyesight and working preferences will decide what sort of screen you go for.
3. Form factor
Most laptops still offer a traditional clam-type design, with a screen that folds down onto the keyboard and touchpad. There are a few that buck the trend, however. Some laptops keep the traditional shape but add a touchscreen, which can be fun for creative tasks such as drawing or making music. Others have a touchscreen that can fold back behind the keyboard, turning the laptop into a tablet — these are typically called 2-in-1s.
Models such as Microsoft’s Surface range and the various Asus Transformers have screens which detaches entirely from the rest of the device, to make a proper tablet free from the weight and bulk of the keyboards.
The Microsoft Surface Book is the most expensive 2-in-1 you can buy
These specialist tablets are fine if you want to use the specific applications that take advantage of a touchscreen, such as design or music programs, but they’re far more expensive than standard laptops. If you’re not 100% sure you what or need this flexibility, you’re probably better off sticking with a normal laptop.
Due to the constraints placed on them by the laptop’s physical size, laptop keyboards tend to be more varied than desktop models. For a start, there’s room for a numeric keypad on only larger laptops, and then only on certain models.
Also, many laptops have small arrow keys, or backslash keys that are on the right rather than the left of the keypad. Only some laptops have Home, End and Page Up and Page Down keys, too; if there isn’t a physical key for such functions, you’ll need to use a Function (Fn) key combination instead. If you rely on these keys to navigate around a text document look for a laptop where all these functions are replicated by separate physical keys.
The 12-inch MacBook has ‘Butterfly’ keys, but their shallow travel won’t suit everybody
Laptop keyboards can vary wildly in quality, too. Some are unpleasant to type on thanks to horrid flex in the middle of the keyboard tray when you type. If you’re unable to try out the keyboard for yourself in a shop, we’d recommend that you at least read some reviews to see if there are any major problems. After all, you’ll have to live with a sub-standard keyboard as long as you have the laptop.
The same is true of a laptop’s touchpad. This is one of the foremost ways in which you interact with your laptop, so it needs to work well. Unfortunately, many laptop touchpads are awful. There’s a trend for making the buttons part of the main touchpad, which, when implemented poorly, can mean your cursor jumps all over the place when you perform a click.
The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 has an excellent Precision Touchpad
Plenty of touchpads don’t respond accurately to finger movement, or have squishy buttons that make it difficult to determine whether you’ve registered a click. Most modern touchpads support gestures, where you can use two fingers to scroll or to pinch-to-zoom – but, again, how easy these gestures are to use varies widely between laptops.
Nowadays, many laptops come with Microsoft-approved Precision Touchpads, putting an end to years of mediocre Windows laptop touchpads that were massively outclassed by those found on Apple’s MacBooks. If you do pick up a laptop with a poor touchpad, there’s always the option of carrying a USB travel mouse in your bag, which brings us to…