How to buy the best laptop within any budget

Not sure where to start when buying a new laptop? We'll walk you through the process so you can get the best device possible.

The process of buying a new laptop should take a bit of time. You want to be sure that it's perfect for your needs, and you want to be sure that you aren't paying too much. You also want something worth your money that will last for years to come. To help you shop for the best possible laptop, no matter your budget, we amassed some of the most important aspects to consider.

Important questions to ask before buying a laptop

Before we get into the technical stuff, there are some questions you should ask yourself concerning the laptop you're about to buy.

How much do you want to spend?

Surface Book 2 costs a lot, but might be the best laptop.

Setting a price and sticking to it is a good idea when shopping for a laptop. If you can get a device that meets your needs, and you pay what you wanted to pay, you'll be much happier in the long run.

Premium devices, like the Surface Book 2 can run up to thousands of dollars, but you can also find the HP Spectre x360 or Dell XPS 13 around the $1,000 mark. These laptops are suitable for plenty of tasks, and the more you pay for upgrades, the better performance you'll see.

Mid-range devices usually come in somewhere between $600 and $900, and while you can find something built well, the hardware inside may not be able to keep up with intensive tasks.

Budget laptops can be had anywhere from about $200 and up, and while there are some excellent examples out there — like the CHUWI LapBook 14.1 — many affordable options might not be worth your time.

What will you use the laptop for?

There are a few general uses for which most people buy a laptop: gaming, multitasking and productivity, multimedia editing, or business. Ask yourself what you'll mostly be using the laptop for, and you'll have a much easier time deciding on what type of device you need.

Heavy usage: Gaming and multimedia editing require powerful hardware.

Standard usage: Heavy web browsing, occasional gaming, and productivity require average hardware.

Light usage: Light web browsing, email, and occasional video streaming don't require much power.

What size laptop would you like?

The Lenovo X1 Tablet is portable.

Most laptops are available between 11 inches and 17 inches. Smaller laptops are often 2-in-1 devices that can also be used as tablets, while larger laptops are often used for gaming or multimedia editing.

When choosing a size, remember that a larger display is good for multitasking, but it will also come in a laptop that's heavier and not as easy to carry around when you're on the go. Smaller laptops are easier to tote around, but they often won't have the same level of performance hardware inside.

Decide on an appropriate design

Lenovo Yoga 920 converted to tent mode.

Modern laptops are available primarily in three different designs.

Notebook: This is your standard clamshell laptop with a lid that opens to a maximum of about 180 degrees. Notebooks sometimes come with touch displays, but you'll mostly see them with non-touch options.

Convertible: If you're looking at a laptop with a screen that rotates all the way around to lie flat again, you're looking at a convertible laptop. The design also allows for tent and stand modes, offering you some variety. Convertible laptops use touch displays.

2-in-1: Laptops with a removable keyboard and touchpad are called 2-in-1. You can use them as a tablet without anything attached, but you can also connect the keyboard for a full laptop experience. 2-in-1 devices use touch displays and often have a compatible active pen.

Convertible and 2-in-1 laptops work fine as standard laptops, but they also have the added benefit of working as a tablet. If you hate the idea of a tablet and think you'll be sticking with a standard laptop design, choosing a notebook can often save money.

Choose what type of display you want

Using the Bamboo Ink pen.

Laptop displays, besides size, have a few options to choose from. One of the biggest decisions you'll have to make is whether or not you want a touchscreen. Having touch ability often means you can use an active pen as well as your fingers for navigation, and it makes it possible to use your device as a tablet. Touch displays will usually burn battery faster and cost more, so decide carefully.

For resolution, a lot of budget laptops come in HD (1,366 x 768). HD is useable, but most people prefer at least FHD (1,920 x 1,080) for a crisper picture and more on-screen real estate. QHD (2,560 x 1,440) displays are available on many premium laptops, and 4K UHD (3,840 x 2,160) is where most modern laptops max out. High display resolution affects battery life and raises the cost, so choose something that suits your needs.

Finally, laptop displays usually come with either IPS or TN panels. IPS panels offer wide viewing angles and great color reproduction but often don't offer the same refresh rates as TN panels. TN panels, while not offering the same color quality, are usually cheaper.

IPS vs. TN monitors: Which is best for you?

Choose what type of processor works best

Dell XPS 13 uses an Intel CPU

The processor (CPU) is the "brain" of your PC, so you want something that can handle the rest of the hardware and that can handle whatever tasks you throw at it. There are two brands of CPU you'll usually find in a laptop: Intel and AMD. These two manufacturers produce a lot of different CPUs, but here are some of the common ones you'll find.

Intel

Intel Xeon: Powerful CPUs used in workstations — best for professionals.

Intel Core i7: This is one of Intel's top CPUs, offering great performance for all types of tasks.

Intel Core i5: A great CPU for most tasks, including gaming, as long as you're not looking for heavy multitasking.

Intel Core i3: This CPU is meant for light to medium tasks only.

Intel Core U-Series: Ultrabook-class CPUs that are found in plenty of laptops. These will have a "U" at the end of the designation, such as i5-8250U.

Intel Core Y-Series: These CPUs will have a "Y" in the name designation, such as i7-7Y75. They're often found in budget laptops.

Intel Celeron: Slightly better performance than Intel Atom.

Intel Atom: Low power, low performance.

When shopping, keep an eye out for the number that starts the designation. For example, an i7-8550U means the CPU is eighth-generation, which is currently the latest from Intel.

AMD

AMD Ryzen 7: Four cores and great performance, competing with Intel Core i7.

AMD Ryzen 5: Slightly less power than Ryzen 7, competes with Intel Core i5.

AMD FX, A, or E: Considered "previous-generation" at this point, these chips are found mostly in budget laptops. They offer decent performance for the price but don't set any records.

Get a graphics processing unit that can handle your needs

Using NVIDIA graphics.

A graphics processing unit (GPU) is what handles the graphics in your laptop. You can use a CPU's integrated graphics for light to medium tasks — even some gaming — but for those looking for a gaming laptop or for something that can handle heavy multimedia editing, you'll want to check out a dedicated GPU.

You have options from AMD and NVIDIA here, and there are some differences between laptop and desktop options. For more information about GPUs, check out the following guides.

Go with the right storage for the future

The SSD in the Razer Blade offers great performance.

Storage is more than just a number measuring how much you can store. Sure, 1TB sounds great (and holds a lot of data), but is that 1TB of hard-disk drive (HDD) space, or solid-state drive (SSD) space?

An HDD is going to be much slower at reading and writing but will cost considerably less money. An SSD, however, reads and writes quickly — especially one using PCIe over SATA — but costs more for the same amount of storage. There's also eMMC storage, which is sort of like an SSD but costs less and doesn't deliver the same speed or size.

If you've used an SSD in the past, it's hard to go back to an HDD. If you don't mind waiting a bit longer for apps to load and for Windows to boot, an HDD can save you some money. For more information, be sure to check out these other great resources.

Decide how much RAM you need

4GB of RAM

How much RAM your PC needs depends heavily on what you use it for. If you're sticking to productivity tasks, like checking email, word processing, and web browsing, 4GB is enough, but 8GB won't hurt.

For gaming and VR, you want at least 16GB. Having more wouldn't hurt, either. Likewise, 16GB should be enough for video and photo editing, but more is always a safe bet.

As for whether you want to go with DDR3 or DDR4 RAM, the difference in performance won't likely be noticed at this level.

Check for real battery estimates

Maybe you'd like something with a hot-swappable battery?

Manufacturers always claim a high number when it comes to how many hours a battery can run, but real-life usage often tells a different story.

The best way to actually determine how long a battery will run on a single charge is to read reviews. Testing is usually carried out, and you'll get an idea of how long it will last when under heavy load and when only being used occasionally.

Ideally, you want a battery that can last through a workday. Not having to drag along a charging cable is a nice feeling, and you won't be stuck to an outlet while it charges.

Try out the keyboard and touchpad in person

The keyboard on the ThinkPad 25 is one of the best.

Buying a laptop for productivity reasons and not testing out the keyboard and touchpad is a mistake. Not all keyboards are created the same, and if you get stuck with something uncomfortable, you'll find it hard to repeatedly sit down and use it.

A good keyboard should have adequately spaced keys and enough key travel to not jar the fingers, and touchpads should feel solid when clicked and should track or move well. The only way to discover whether or not you like these parts of a laptop is to use them.

If possible, try to find a demo of the laptop you're interested in. Whether you have a friend with one or you're shopping around at stores, spend some time typing and clicking to get a feel for the hardware.

One more thing: Look out for backlighting on the keyboard and Precision drivers for the touchpad. Both of these features will make your life much better. (The drivers basically enable more gestures and functionality.)

Best laptop by touchpad

Consider port selection

Plenty of ports on the Acer Aspire 5

Unfortunately, port selection is often overlooked by many buyers. In the past, this wasn't as big of a deal since most laptops came with a varied selection, but these days, with the trend of slimness taking over, you'll often find a device with only one or two ports on the entire thing.

USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 are becoming more popular, but USB-A is still sought after, especially for anyone using older peripherals (mouse, keyboards, and external hard drives) with their laptop. There are plenty of adapters and docks available, but that's only if you feel like carrying them around with you.

What's the difference between USB-C and Thunderbolt 3?

For anyone interested in streaming video, HDMI, DisplayPort, or Mini DisplayPort should be considered, but Thunderbolt 3 can also be used for video if you have the correct adapter. If you're often in places where Wi-Fi isn't available, an Ethernet port is recommended.

Generally speaking, try to imagine all the things you're going to use your new laptop for, and plan connectivity, whether with regular ports or with adapters, around that idea.