The gap between tablets and laptops is shrinking. Where once there was a clear use case for a convenient, portable computer you could throw in a backpack and take with you on a plane, high-performance devices like the Surface pro and the latest iPads blur the line between modern touchscreen tablets and traditional laptops.
But as much as they’ve begun to resemble laptops, most tablets run on mobile versions of full operating systems and so are limited in the apps and programs they can handle. For getting serious work done while on the move, the humble laptop is still your best option.
There’s a bewildering array of choice in the market, from high-end gaming machines costing thousands of pounds, to budget Chromebooks for under £100. To start searching for the laptop that’s right for you, you should consider what you’ll be using it for, how often, and where.
A laptop that will spend its life perched on your desk or next to the sofa doesn’t need a long-lasting battery. One that you’ll take with you when travelling needs to be small enough to carry around, without sacrificing comfort. If you’re studying, your laptop should be fast and reliable. We’ve rounded up the eight best laptops for students here.
Two-in-one laptops feature detachable screens, or keyboards that fold entirely out of the way, so you can easily switch between browsing on the sofa and getting work done at your desk. High-performance laptops can tackle any task a full desktop computer can, but they’ll leave a giant hole in your bank balance. Here’s our selection of the 10 best high-end laptops.
Apple users have the privilege of choosing from a smaller selection of laptops, but there are still considerations to be made before you can land on the right choice. To help you out, we’ve put together an expert guide to buying a MacBook in 2021.
To help you choose a laptop that’s right for you, here we’ve put together a buyer’s guide to walk you through some of the basics, along with some of our favourite laptops currently on the market.
You can trust our independent round-ups. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.
Types of operating system
Your laptop’s operating system is the underlying software on which everything runs. The operating system affects how your desktop looks and behaves, as well as which apps and programs you can use.
Only Apple laptops run Mac OS, while almost every other laptop on the market runs on Microsoft Windows. In the past few years, however, a third operating system has entered the mainstream. Google’s Chrome OS behaves more like a web browser, taking advantage of cloud-based software rather than running apps on the device itself.
Let’s take a look at some of these operating systems in more detail.
Microsoft’s decades-old operating system is so universal, it’s become synonymous with the word PC itself. You’ll find Windows pre-installed on almost every laptop that isn’t made by Apple, and because it’s widely used across so many industries it’s compatible with most software applications. It’s also the best operating system for playing videogames, as historically it’s been the platform of choice for games developers to work with.
The latest version is Windows 10, designed to work seamlessly across tablets, PCs and laptops. While Microsoft readily licences its operating system out to other laptop manufacturers such as Dell and Lenovo, the company also produces its own devices: the Surface range of laptops and tablets.
Our recommended Surface device is the latest Surface pro 7 (£779, Microsoft.com), boasting laptop-class performance in a tablet form.
Chrome OS (Chromebook)
Google’s operating system doesn’t run traditional desktop programs. Instead it behaves more like the Chrome web browser, using online apps such as Google Docs, as well as some Android apps. This sounds limiting — and for most users it is — but there are upsides. Because most of the processing is happening over the internet, laptops running Chrome OS (known as Chromebooks) don’t need to be so powerful. This means they boast a longer battery life, are much cheaper, far more secure, and boot up faster than regular laptops.
If you do most of your work inside your browser, a Chromebook makes sense. Google allows other manufacturers to make Chromebooks, but the search giant also produces its own laptop running Chrome OS, called the Pixelbook go.
Mac OS (MacBook)
As well as making its own hardware, Apple designs its own proprietary operating system to run on that hardware. Unlike Windows — which is built to run on everything from servers to cash machines — Mac OS is precision-engineered to run exclusively on MacBooks and iMacs. That means it’s more reliable, less prone to crashing, easier to fix and generally offers better performance.
Mac OS is the operating system of choice for creatives, owing to its historic compatibility with video, audio and graphic design suites. While gaming on Mac OS has improved in recent years, most videogames (especially high-end games with demanding graphics) are designed to run on Windows PCs.
Most laptops are available in a handful of different configurations, so you can customise and choose which features matter most to you. Here are some of the main features to look out for when buying a laptop.
How large a screen you need depends on where you plan to use the laptop. If the device is going to sit on a desk in your study for the majority of the time, you can indulge in a larger display with a higher resolution. If you want something you can easily throw in a bag, or that you can confidently balance on a fold-out tray table on the train, go for something smaller and lighter.
Treat it as a balancing act: smaller laptops naturally have smaller keyboards, which can be uncomfortable to use for long periods.
To use a well-worn analogy, the CPU is the brain of the laptop. Most processors today are made up of two or more physical cores. The more cores you’ve got, the more powerful the laptop is.
For basic home use — checking emails, scrolling through Twitter, watching dog videos on YouTube — a dual-core processor offers plenty of processing power. For more intensive tasks such as video editing and gaming, choosing a CPU with four or more cores will improve performance and reduce stuttering.
Memory, or RAM, determines how many tasks your laptop can handle at the same time. If you regularly work with very large documents, editing files that are multiple gigabytes in size for example, RAM will give your laptop the headroom it needs to keep things from grinding to a halt.
How much you require depends on how you plan to use the laptop. 8GB is the bare minimum and will happily handle everyday use, but it’s worth bumping this up to 16GB if you can. Memory is one of the cheaper parts of the machine to upgrade and — as newer laptops become faster — one of the quickest to make it obsolete.
The size of your hard drive determines how many files you can store before you have to start deleting things to make room. With the advent of online streaming, cloud-based storage and better hard drive space management tools, the average user doesn’t need to worry so much about local storage limits. 256GB is a fine starting point for everyday use.
What’s more important is the type of hard drive. A solid state hard drive (or SSD) has no moving parts and is faster to access, allowing for quicker file transfers and boot up times. A traditional hard drive (or HDD) is slower but far less expensive, and so comes in larger capacities.
If you’re serious about playing games on the go, then it’s best to choose a dedicated gaming laptop for the task. High-end videogames require a lot of processing power, which — thanks to our old pal thermodynamics — necessitates extra cooling and larger fans. Graphically intensive software will quickly drain the battery of slimmer laptops, while also making them sound like a jet engine during take off.
If you’re after a traditional-looking laptop that can capably handle a few mid-range games, we recommend the Dell XPS 15 (£1,999, Dell.com). It isn’t a dedicated gaming laptop, but it’s an all-round powerhouse with enough resources to run almost anything you throw at it.
Integrated graphics (where the graphics processing unit is part of the CPU) is the bare minimum in this category, and will do the trick if you don’t plan on playing any games. If you’d like the option to dip into some Sea of Thieves once in a while, a discrete GPU from Nvidia or AMD will be your options.
Batteries are large, heavy and expensive, and while capacities have improved greatly in recent years, laptops have balanced this out by becoming more power-hungry. Generally speaking, most modern laptops are built to survive a full working day before needing a charge. If you want something longer-lasting — or you’re willing to sacrifice some battery life for a slimmer machine — there are options at either end of the spectrum.
Chromebooks are generally more energy-efficient, and some models can last days without being plugged in. If you travel long distances or plan on using your laptop to watch movies on the go, a beefier battery is essential.
Be wary of the laptop’s advertised longevity too. While useful for comparison, in the real world laptops nearly always run out of juice faster than the manufacturers claim.
The best laptops in 2021
Looking for an easy answer? Here’s a selection of some of our favourite laptops.
Apple Macbook air
Best: For Apple lovers
Lightweight and slim, Apple’s razor-thin Macbook Air is a beautiful piece of hardware design. Powered by the new M1 processor, it packs outsized performance for a laptop of this size. It came top in our guide to the best high-end laptops, too.
Buy now £999, Apple.co.uk
Dell XPS 13 2-in-1
With a stunning display and a sleek design, the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 represents the pinnacle of hybrid laptop design. The display folds out a full 360-degrees, effectively turning the device inside out for easy use as a tablet. It also featured in our guide to the best lightweight laptops.
Buy now £1,099, Dell.com
Best: For gaming
A blisteringly powerful gaming laptop, the Alienware Area-51m requires two separate power cables to satisfy its thirst for electricity. It might make all the lightbulbs in your house dim when you switch it on, but this gaming laptop is more powerful than most dedicated desktop games machines.
Buy now £2,349, Dell.com
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