A laptop won’t revolutionize the minutiae of your life the way a smartphone can. You can’t easily whip one out to kill time in the elevator, capture a breathtaking sunset, or pay for a cup of coffee.
But in the years since smartphones took on all these jobs, laptops have honed their own talents. Amazing battery life and breathtaking screens are now common, if you look in the right place for them. The graphics muscle to play games at full HD is affordable. And those basic old-guard features that you won’t find on any mobile device, such as touchpads and full-size keyboards, tend to get better with almost every generation.
With great features, though, has come great fragmentation. Amazon, Newegg, and even your local electronics megamart have a dizzying array of cheap laptops, gaming laptops, 2-in-1 laptops, Chromebooks, and ultraportables. Here at PC Labs, we review as many laptops as we can—hundreds each year—so we’ve seen pretty much every remix of laptop you can buy.
Assess Your Budget: How Much Do I Need to Spend?
Don’t care about cutting-edge design and powerful components? You might be satisfied with a cheap laptop. Today’s market is flooded with basic but full-featured models with list prices under $500. Shopping holidays like Prime Day and Black Friday, and actual holidays like Presidents’ Day, bring frequent sales, discounting some of these models even further. Most of them will handle word processing and e-mail checking just fine, but they’ll struggle with other tasks, such as keeping many web browser tabs open at once.
The Best Laptop Deals This Week
Dell Inspiron 15 Intel i7 512GB Laptop Plus Blue Yeti Mic — $749.99 with code 50OFF699
MSI Sword Intel i7 RTX 3050 Ti 512GB SSD 15.6" Laptop — $995.00 (List Price $1,299)
Lenovo IdeaPad 3 Ryzen 5 256GB SSD 8GB RAM 14" Laptop — $531.17 (List Price $609.99)
Dell G15 Intel i5 RTX 3050 512GB SSD 15.6" Laptop — $849.99 (List Price $1,084.98)
Dell Inspiron 16 Plus Intel i7 RTX 3060 1TB 3K Laptop — $1,229.99 with code 50OFF699
Increasing your budget to around $1,000 will unlock access to nearly all of the cutting-edge features modern laptops offer. These include slim, sturdy aluminum chassis, brilliant touch-enabled 4K displays, powerful processors and graphics chips, and batteries that will last all day and well into the night. The major caveat in this price range is that you’ll have to pick and choose which features are most important. You might be able to land a laptop with a beautiful 4K display or a cavernous terabyte of solid-state storage at this price, but probably not one with both.
If your piggybank has $2,000 or more, you can choose almost any combination of features you want. Even the most powerful laptop that money can buy, though, must still obey the laws of physics. Powerful hardware generates heat, and the cooling mechanisms that such components require take up space. Hardcore gamers who want a 17-inch display and a screaming-fast graphics processor that requires bulky cooling pipes and fans can’t expect to find it in a thin, light laptop.
Which Operating System to Get in My Laptop?
Most laptops you’ll run across in-store or at your favorite online seller will run Windows 10 (unless the seller is named “Apple”), but Microsoft’s best-known product isn’t necessarily the best operating system for everyone. Thanks to the ascendance in recent years of Google’s Chrome OS up the ranks of budget laptops, there’s now an alternative to Windows at every price level. The tipping point for non-Windows laptops is around $1,000; above a grand, your main alternative to a Windows 10 machine is a MacBook; below it, it’s a Chromebook.
What's an Ideal Size and Weight?
Most people searching for a general-purpose laptop should choose one that measures about half an inch thick and weighs 3 pounds or less. In general, these are the maximum dimensions and heft a laptop can have for us to consider it an ultraportable, and for most users, portability is the key to maximizing use and enjoyment.
Aiming for that weight and thickness, in most cases, will limit the laptop’s screen size to 13 or 14 inches, although a few models with 15-inch or larger screens now fit into the ultraportable category. At most of these screen sizes, you can find models in either the conventional “clamshell” laptop shape or a 2-in-1 convertible design. The latter has a hinge that rotates the screen 360 degrees so you can use it as a makeshift tablet or prop it up like a tent for watching movies.
How Much Storage and Memory Do I Need?
Most laptops above entry-level come with solid-state drives (SSDs), which use memory cells instead of a spinning platter (the classic hard drive) to store data. Since information stored in cells is much faster to access, SSDs are the best and most common drive configuration. They’re also immune to jolts and bumps that might crash a spinning platter’s heads.
Some laptops‚ especially larger-chassis ones designed for gaming, come with both kinds of drive: a small SSD to hold the operating system, essential apps, and a few games, and a larger spinning one to store the bulk of your game files or other space-consuming media. That’s a perfectly fine option if you’re looking to save some money or simply need the maximum possible local storage amount, but you should stick with an SSD-only setup whenever possible.
Should I Consider a Refurbished Laptop?
Every manufacturer and reseller has different standards for refurbishing previously used laptops. A slight discount on a rigorously tested MacBook Pro that Apple sells with the same warranty as a new one might be worth the cost savings, while a laptop refurbished by a third party you’ve never heard could be chancy. It’s best to buy any refurbished machine directly from the manufacturer’s online store as opposed to from a reseller, especially a reseller that may be hawking refurbs from “marketplace" sellers or third parties on its platform.
Some of these resellers or their third parties will rate their refurbished stock with a grade. (It pays to ask who has done the refurbishing—the manufacturer itself, or the reseller.) We’ve seen refurbished laptops being sold and rated with grades of A, B+, B, C, and so on, to reflect the relative amount of wear and tear on the machine. There is no universal grading system for refurbished PCs, however. It’s generally up to the reseller what the grade means, and thus it can vary from seller to seller. We’re wary of machines graded this way and strongly recommend insisting on an ironclad return policy in the case of purchases like these, if you decide to roll the dice. You could end up pleasantly surprised, but usually, a refurbished-laptop deal that looks too good to be true...is.
Where to Go From Here?
Shopping for a laptop is an exercise in patience. An ultra-competitive market means that even if you’ve got specific requirements, you can almost certainly find a handful of excellent models that will meet them, and another handful of perfectly serviceable but ho-hum models that will, too. Now that you know which specifications to look for, we hope that parsing the good from the bad will be much easier. We update our top picks frequently, and you can find our current favorite laptops below.