It used to be simple: everyone had a Windows laptop unless you wanted to pay a premium for a Mac. Now there are pricey Windows machines, super-affordable Chromebooks and Apple’s prices keep on rising. But there’s more to consider: style, weight, screen size and resolution, build quality, processor speed and availability of the right programs. Read on for the best route through the minefield.
Types of laptop and operating systems
The simplest way to start thinking about the kind of laptop you want is to pick an operating system. If you want macOS, the most intuitive and elegant of the software systems, you can only choose an Apple machine. The widest range of programs and applications are available on Windows laptops, so if there’s a program you need that’s only available on Windows, that’s the choice made for you. And if you only need the laptop for word processing, web browsing and so on, you might be able to manage with a Chromebook. Here we explain the main types in more detail.
These are still the most widely used computers, by far, thanks to the enormous range of applications and most familiar interface. The latest version, Windows 10, combines traditional PC styling (a desktop with folders of programs) with a tablet-style look of app icons arranged on a grid. It also works with hybrid laptops where the screen detaches or folds back on itself to work like a tablet. Windows machines are available with or without touchscreens so that may be a consideration. Microsoft makes the software and more recently has created a small but excellent range of hardware too – the Surface series.
Google’s OS is slick and simple. It was originally designed to work only when your laptop was connected to the internet. The premise was that all the heavy processing would be done in the cloud so there was no need for a powerful chip in the laptop, thus reducing costs greatly. But the Achilles’ heel was that offline the hardware was very limited. Now, though, the main programs (Google’s email, document, spreadsheet and presentation software) largely work when you’re offline, too. Some Chromebooks work with Android apps as well. Google makes its own Chromebook called Pixel.
Apple makes the hardware and software for its computers, resulting in an integrated system which works beautifully. The MacBook Air was a game-changer – a laptop so slim and light it was first revealed when then Apple CEO Steve Jobs slid it out of an envelope. The range is small: as well as the Air there is the MacBook and the extra-powerful MacBook Pro, which has great innovations like the Touch Bar. This is where the top row of function keys is replaced by a narrow touchscreen where the virtual buttons change according to what you’re doing. The Pro range is far from cheap, mind. There are no touchscreen MacBooks, nor any with a slot for a sim card for continuous internet access.
Make sure you look out for the following relevant features when buying.
Screen size and weight
Do you only plan to use this laptop in your study, or do you want to be able to carry it around the house or take it with you everywhere? Once you’ve decided that, other things flow from it. If you know for sure that on your desk is the main place to work, you can plump for a bigger screen and a heavier machine, which can be cheaper. But a lighter, smaller laptop is best if you want to throw it into your carry-on to check your email on holiday – though please remember, it’s meant to be a holiday.
If you only need to check your email, post a Facebook update, browse the internet, write letters or do your accounts, then you can manage with a pretty basic machine. You can snap up a Windows laptop or a Chromebook for under £200, while the cheapest Mac laptop is the MacBook Air at £949 – though note that the Mac has great build quality, a better processor and is good value for what it offers.
The more powerful the processor and the greater the active memory (called RAM, see below), the faster your laptop will run. It’ll even start up more quickly when you turn the computer on. A slower processor is cheaper but might feel slow and unresponsive. The main brands of processors for computers are Intel (which dominates the market) and AMD, whose chips can be a little more competitive on price.
Price will be your main concern but there are plenty of elements which contribute to the cost, such as the number of cores, where each core effectively works as its own processor so more is often better but not always essential. For instance, the Intel Core i3 chip has two cores but the Core i5 and Core i7 on desktop PCs have four cores. Laptops have different processors and other rules apply.
Clock speed is another important factor, telling you how many calculations a processor can perform in a second. It’s measured in gigahertz (GHz). As you’ll have guessed, faster equals better. There are more elements, such as hyper-threading where an operating system shares processing within a core to make things run faster. These things can all get pretty complicated and most of the time it’s good to be guided by the components the computer manufacturer specifies.
More RAM means web pages load faster, you can have more open files or programs at one time and so on. So, how much RAM you need depends on your uses for the computer, though certainly more is better. Every computer will have a maximum compatible amount of RAM. On Windows machines, basic users will find 8GB is okay, while 16GB is good for working with bigger programs like databases and video editing. Power users can go for 32GB or even 64GB of RAM, though most of us won’t need that. Games, as usual, are very memory-demanding so if this will be a big part of your computer usage, either choose a dedicated gaming PC or plump for 8GB as an absolute minimum – 16GB is certainly better.
Apple computers such as the MacBook or MacBook Air automatically come with 8GB while the most powerful iMac can have up to 32GB of RAM.
If you are configuring a computer and have several options offered to you, then you’re almost always better off going for more than the minimum. RAM prices have fallen significantly over the years and increasing this kind of memory makes sense.
In most computers it’s possible to upgrade the amount of RAM you have and this is a cost-effective way of boosting the power of an ageing laptop or desktop. Companies such as the excellent Crucial (uk.crucial.com) has simple tools to help you choose what’s right for your system or can even scan your machine to work out which upgrades are compatible. As a guide, Crucial sells 8GB of RAM for a Dell laptop for around £60.
Graphics are what make games, videos and other programs look their best – if you’ve ever played a videogame on an under-powered laptop you’ll know that the stuttery images as it’s unable to keep up with rendering the right graphic, quickly becomes dull.
So if gaming is your priority, then if you don’t plump for a proper gaming computer, at least make sure you have a dedicated, separate graphics card. Some chips have graphics capabilities built in, which will be enough for some.
You can buy a graphics card later but there are often severe compatibility limitations on a desktop and compatibility and physical limitations on a laptop. Sorting it all at the time of purchase is best.
You’ll be using the laptop without mains electricity at least some of the time so be sure to check battery life. Many last a full working day with ease but some, especially at the lower end of the price range could conk out way before that – not good if you’re planning to watch movies on a long train journey, say.
All laptops have wi-fi. Some additionally have space for a sim card so you have more widespread internet access, though as said before, Apple doesn’t have this on its machines. But connectivity also means there are sockets on the machine. Most have USB sockets (though sometimes only one) and many have a slot for a camera’s memory card.
The latest MacBook and MacBook Pro models only have a headphone jack and only one other kind of connector called USB-C. This handles power as well as data and is certainly the way of the future, but for now it means you’ll need an adaptor to plug in anything with another connector on it.
From high-end to budget to ones best for kids, we’ve tested a range of laptops to find out which ones are worth buying. Here, we’ve picked out a few of our most popular reviews.
1. HP Stream 14: £230, Very
- Good budget option
- 14 inch screen and 32GB of storage (can add extra using SD memory card)
- Battery lasts for eight hours
- Reasonably lightweight
Find out more about budget laptops
2. Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar: From £1,749, Apple
- Brilliant new Touch Bar technology which can be customised
- Super-slim and lightweight
- Trackpad and keyboard is comfortable to use
- Up 10 15 inch display and has high resolution
- In-built fingerprint sensor on power button
Find out more about high-end laptops
3. Venturer Bravowin S: £199.99, Argos
- Excellent laptop for kids
- Reasonably priced
- Tablet and laptop as screen detaches from keyboard
- Eight-hour battery life
Find out more about laptops for kids
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