Among those, we like the 14-inch Lenovo ThinkPad T450s, which has a fantastic keyboard and is at least manageably thin for what it is.Maybe your notebook won’t be leaving the home beyond every now and then, and you’re more interested in treating it like an all-purpose entertainment center. In that case, you’ll likely be okay trading away some portability for a larger 15-inch display. A good screen is the priority here. You should hold out for a panel that’s at least 1080p, with serviceable colors, brightness, and viewing angles on top of that. Loading up on storage is also a good idea, provided you don’t get all your movies and TV shows from streaming services. Maybe you need an optical drive, too. Battery life, on the other hand, becomes less important. This Acer Aspire E5-574G has its flaws (and no disc drive), but looks like a solid budget pick with all this in mind.A 15-incher might also work well if your laptop has to act like something of a mobile workstation. A mainstream Ultrabook (see below) should be strong enough for most people, but if you, say, make and edit media, you want pure power.
That usually comes in the form of 8 or more GB of RAM and a higher-end Intel Core i5 or i7 processor. Again, portability and battery life will take a backseat, and more storage helps. These sort of devices don’t come cheap, but Apple’s MacBook Pro with Retina Display has long been a favorite.Those titanic 17- or 18-inch machines, meanwhile, only make sense if you want to do the kind of high-end productivity mentioned above on a bigger display, or you want an out-and-out gaming laptop. The latter has always been a bit controversial as a concept — something like the Alienware 17 can run the latest AAA games with aplomb, but, aside from having even more dramatic size- and battery-related deficiencies, its shelf life isn’t as long as just building a custom desktop rig. It costs more, too. But if you need at least some portability from such a brawny device, it could work. Just keep an eye on this market, since it's slowly moving toward a greater sense of accessibility.On the exact opposite end of the spectrum are netbooks and other cloud-centric Windows machines. Yes, the little guys are still around. Today, devices like the 11-inch Lenovo IdeaPad 100s put out full Windows 10 for less than $200. They’re never strong, and most have some significant design flaw — the Ideapad’s trackpad doesn’t do multitouch, for instance — but they may appeal to those in search of a lightweight email and web browsing machine that can also run desktop apps in a pinch.
Of course, if you’re only browsing the web, and you’re not beholden to the clamshell form factor, you may just be better off with a tablet. There are more than a few affordable options worth considering.All that said, most people will be after something well-rounded. Upper-midrange Ultrabooks work well here: A quality option like the Asus Zenbook UX305 isn’t “the best” in one particular area, but for $750 it rolls a slim build, nice display, and strong enough performance into a package that’ll be smooth for most occasions.Generally speaking, the $700-900 range will net you a device along those lines, with varying points of strengths from there. Going beyond that will typically result in a more striking design, higher spec count, and other expected luxuries. Sometimes it’ll get you a 2-in-1 device with a detachable tablet screen, a la the Microsoft Surface Book. (Though hybrids like that can often feel awkward.) If you can afford to push or surpass four figures, have at it, but be wary of buying more laptop than you need.
The budget to lower-midrange side of the Windows laptop market is, and has long been, an exercise in compromise. Everything is subjective, but it’s notoriously difficult to find a Windows 10 device that’s easy to call “good” in both performance and build quality until you move around the $600-700 mark. Anything less than that, and you’re usually sacrificing something significant. If its keyboard is comfy, its trackpad is probably finicky. If it’s fast, it’s probably fragile. (It’ll never be that fast, though.) Chances are it’s chunky, with a middling display (goodbye, 1080p) and/or a collection of needless pre-installed apps (“bloatware,” in tech parlance), as well.If only Windows will do — whether due to personal preference or the demands of your work/school — this is still something you’ll have to live with. It’s unfortunate, but you should keep an eye on our budget laptop guide for any models that make their trade-offs in the right places.
If you can keep it simple, though, you might be surprised at how capable a good Chromebook can be. Something like the Toshiba Chromebook 2 is still (mostly) dependent on the web, sure, but you can get plenty of genuine work done in the cloud nowadays, and the airiness of Chrome OS means that the whole thing runs way faster than any Windows equivalent in its price range. For $330, you just aren’t going to find a full HD display or backlit keyboard anywhere else.And now a word about operating systems. Asking whether Windows or Mac is “better” than the other is misguided. Outside of a few system shortcuts and some exclusive apps, both OSes will function similarly for most people; if you can do something on Windows, chances are you can do it on Mac, and vice versa. Sure, Windows 10 takes advantage of touchscreens and is a bit more customizable, while Mac OS X El Capitan better supports iPhones and might be a little easier to just pick up and use. But, with all other things equal, we’d guess your decision will come down to which aesthetic you like best.
What really separates these two is hardware, not software. You’ll notice most of our device recommendations up there run Windows 10 — that’s because it’s more or less the default OS of the laptop world. It’s on everything from $150 to $5000 machines. It plays nicer with higher-end models, of course, but unless you fit into the Chromecast sect mentioned above, there’s a decent chance it’ll be your only choice. Mac OS, meanwhile, only runs on MacBooks. Pretty straightforward. Those start at $900 for an 11-inch MacBook Air and only go up from there. They’re all a tad overpriced for what they can do, but the tight control Apple exerts over its ecosystem has helped it produce a consistently strong lineup. The Air really needs a resolution bump, and the new MacBook’s keyboard is a pain, but if you buy one of these things, you can generally rest assured knowing you’ve got a great general purpose notebook.We’ve used the word “performance” a few times to describe a laptop’s speed, strength, and overall technical quality, but that may seem vague, so let’s run through exactly what we’re talking about.
Display (resolution): You’ll never avoid your notebook's screen, so you should do what you can to make it tolerable. As far as resolution goes, if you can afford something that hits 1920x1080 (or 1080p, or full HD), it’s more than likely worth getting.Unless you go with a nicer Chromebook, though, you’ll have to hit that $600-700 mark to get it. Cheaper Windows devices are often saddled with a 1366x768 panel, which looks noticeably worse, but isn’t the end of the world if you get the rest right. One thing you shouldn’t do is overpay for something like an Ultra HD resolution. If it comes with the higher-end laptop you’re buying anyway, great, but on its own, the difference isn’t huge, and the added pixels will quickly eat up battery life. Display (cont’d): Beyond that, you may be able to choose between an IPS or TN panel. The former usually brings about more vibrant colors that stay lively at wider viewing angles, while the latter tends to have higher refresh rates that could come in handy for gaming. IPS is generally better, but most budget machines will stick you with TN.
Look into whether or not your panel is glossy or matte, too. Which is better largely amounts to how you use your device — glossy screens should look more dynamic in the right light, but they attract more fingerprints and regularly get swallowed by sunlight. Finally, whatever you end up with, you don’t need to go out of your way for a touchscreen. MacBooks eschews touch support entirely, it’s not worth the premium with a Chromebook, and while Windows 10 is made with it in mind, it’s much more usable the traditional way than Windows 8 was.CPU: The central processing unit is your laptop’s mother brain, but again, how deep you should dive depends on how much you’re trying to do. For the sort of do-everything mainstream laptop mentioned above, the best general choice is an Intel Core i5. A Core i3 isn’t a major step down, however, so if you’re paying a little extra for other features and won’t stress the device too hard, it should be fine. (And on a Chromebook, it’s borderline excessive.) A higher-end Core i7, meanwhile, should generally be reserved for a device you plan to put through more intense tasks.
Devices like the Zenbook UX305 and new MacBook run on a newer offshoot called the Core M, which uses less power, makes less noise, and allows for thinner chassis. It gives up some power to get there, coming off weaker than a Core i3 in practice, but it’s not so underpowered that you can’t do the basic, non-professional routine. It just reallocates some of your investment toward a nicer design.Below all that are Intel's Atom, Pentium, and Celeron series, which you’ll find at the lower ends of the market. They aren’t made to get things done, but they’ll survive if you’re only running lighter essentials. Always try to buy the latest versions of these chips where you can. Intel and its rivals refresh their lineups just about every year, so you’re inevitably going to fall behind. We’re on the 6th generation of Core chips as of today, so grab one of those and you’ll lessen the blow from the jump.Intel rules the roost here, but rival AMD still has some footing. In simplified terms, its A series is its equivalent to the Core i5 and i3, while its E series covers budget devices. Intel-powered notebooks tend to be more consistent, but you should be fine with an AMD chip if the rest of the package lines up right.