How to buy the best laptop
By Michael Passingham
Five crucial questions you need to ask to find the perfect laptop.
With hundreds of models to choose from, you'll want to a laptop that ticks the boxes and will last the test of time.
One of the biggest decisions will be how much you want to spend - what many don't realise is that if you're after a good all-rounder for day-to-day tasks, it doesn't have to be a lot.
We award Best Buys to our top-performing laptops, and our cheapest Best Buys costs less than £500. Plus if you're willing to compromise you can find good models for as little as £150.
Follow the steps below and use our interactive tools and tables to find the perfect laptop.
Three of the best laptops
Only the very best laptops from our tough lab tests achieve Best Buy status. Here are three models that impressed enough to make the grade.
This Chromebook may not be the most portable of laptops (and it’s fairly heavy too) but it impressed us enough to become a Best Buy. This is largely down to the speedy operation, thanks to a powerful processor and plenty of RAM, and impressively bright and vibrant touchscreen display. There are some issues – the touchpad feels a bit cheap, and though it offers a decent nine hours of battery life, charging is painfully slow.
The Acer Swift 1 is a cheap laptop that promises effective daily computing and more than all-day battery life. Budget laptops from Acer have scored well in our tests before, so can this one continue the trend, or will it be another budget machine that fails to impress? Our review takes a closer look.
It’s no surprise to us why this model has become such a popular laptop. If you don’t want to spend too much, this is still one of the best sub-£500 laptops on the market. It’s light enough to carry around, but it’s fast, too, crunching through day-to-day tasks with ease. The display impressed us the most – outstanding for the money, offering bright, colourful images, plus the battery lasted over 11 hours in our tests. Great value for money.
In this article:
- Video: How to buy the best laptop
- How much should I spend on a laptop?
- Operating system - what type of laptop do I need?
- How powerful does my laptop need to be?
- What size and resolution of laptop display do I need?
- How much laptop storage do I really need?
Short on time? Watch our two-minute video for the most important laptop buying tips.
Top five questions to ask when buying a laptopBefore you start shopping for a laptop, it will help to know the answers to the following five key questions.
1 - How much should I spend on a laptop?
- Less than £200 – Intel Celeron or Atom processors, 2GB of Ram and 32GB of storage. Won’t be particularly fast, but fine for note taking and browsing the internet.
- Less than £400 – Intel Pentium, Core i3, AMD Ryzen 3 and 4GB Ram. Fast enough for web browsing and research work. Aim for a Full HD screen and an SSD if you can.
- Less than £600 – Intel Core i5, i7, AMD Ryzen 5, 7 and 8GB of Ram. Should be ideal for photo editing and some light video work. Look for a thin and light design, a Full HD screen and an SSD.
- Less than £800 – As above, but in increasingly high-end designs. Look for great battery life on premium ultrabooks
- More than £800 – Some stunning designs, great screens and good speakers. High-end laptops will suit more intensive tasks, such as video editing or playing games. You can buy Apple MacBooks from £950 and above.
On a budget? Skip straight to our round up of the best cheap laptops.
There are three major players when it comes to the software (operating system) your computer runs on. You can find out more in our guide to MacOS, Windows and ChromeOS, or look at our brief summaries below.
Buy a Windows 10 laptop if…
- You prefer the familiarity of Windows
- Have specialist software you can’t live without
- Want a big variety of laptops to choose from
Buy a MacBook if…
- You have a budget of at least £950
- Value longevity and build quality
- Use other Apple products, or are happy to learn a new operating system
Buy a Chromebook if…
- You’re on a budget
- Value simplicity
- Don’t mind working in web-based applications
3 - How powerful does my laptop need to be?
In short: If you need a laptop for light use and note taking, look for Intel Pentium or Intel Core i3 and at least 4GB of Ram for a great experience. Go for Intel Core i5 and i7 and AMD Ryzen 5 and 7 and at least 8GB of Ram if you’re a heavy user. Look for dedicated graphics from Nvidia and AMD if you want to game.
This really matters if you’re planning on using a laptop for photo or video editing, or are an otherwise very heavy user, opening lots of programs and browser tabs.
When looking at laptop processors, you’ll see two main specifications beyond the product name: clock speed (measured in Gigahertz or GHz and number of cores) and Ram.
Think of clock speed as the speed limit on a road and the number of cores as the number of lanes. As on a road, depending on traffic conditions – the tasks being done on your computer – a road might see a greater benefit from more lanes or a higher speed limit.
In the simplest way possible, more of both is better, and each of our reviews will describe what sort of tasks a laptop is good for.
Think of Ram (Random Access Memory) like a desk and your hard drive like a filing cabinet. You pull files out of the cabinet and it takes a while, but once they’re on your desk, you can reach for them instantly. The same is true of Ram; once you have loaded a file from the hard drive, it’s now in the Ram and can be accessed almost instantaneously.
The bigger the desk you have, the more items you can access more quickly, and the same goes for Ram. Most mid-range laptops come with at least 4GB of Ram, and we’d tend to recommend 8GB for people who are heavy web users or usually have lots of documents and pictures open. You can manage with less, but you’ll have to rein in your use.
If you fill up your Ram, some of the things you’re working on will be moved back to the hard drive, making things feel a lot slower. Some cheap computers come with 2GB – this is usually fine on a cheap Chromebook, but some Windows 10 laptops will struggle. When you close a program or file, it is removed from the Ram and makes room for other things to be accessed immediately. This is part of the reason why closing programs you aren’t using can make your computer faster.
4 - Screen – what size and resolution of laptop display do I need?
In short: Unless you have a very low budget, don’t settle for less than Full HD, no matter the size.
A laptop’s screen is one case where bigger isn’t always better. If you want a longer-lasting battery and a more portable device, you may want to go for an 11, 12 or 13-inch display; most of these will weigh between 1kg and 1.5kg. The largest you're likely to see is 15 or 17 inches, with weight increasing to around 2kg to 3kg.
Most machines on the shelves now have a Full-HD 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution display, and high-end models can have even sharper screens with even more pixels up to and beyond 4K Ultra HD. Generally, the higher the resolution, the sharper the picture. Only cheaper laptops should have a lower screen resolution of 1,366x768. This is fine for most people, but if you like to have lots of items on screen at once you’ll prefer a higher-resolution display.
5 - How much laptop storage do I really need?
In short: Go for an SSD unless you really, really need more storage at all times.
Storage capacity, measured in the size of the hard disk drive (HDD) in gigabytes (GB) or terabytes (TB, equal to 1,000GB), determines how many things your PC can hold. Documents, photos, music, movies, programs – they all take up space.
Bigger is usually better, although solid-state drives (SSDs) are often more expensive for considerably less space. This is because they load much quicker and are completely silent. We're also seeing a lot of cheaper laptops (including Chromebooks) carrying eMMC (embedded Multi-Media Controller) flash storage, which is slower than SSDs and gives you very little storage space.
If you cleared out all the stuff on your computer you don’t actually need, how much space do you think you’d have? How much do you have now? Check ‘My Computer’ if you’re using Windows to gauge how big your next laptop’s storage needs to be.
Laptop battery life: manufacturer claims vs reality
In short: Manufacturer battery claims aren’t useful unless you’re only comparing models from the same brand. Use our reviews to get the full picture.
Manufacturers often make heady claims about how long their laptops' batteries last. Our tests ignore the manufacturer claims and involve multiple battery rundowns while simulating web browsing and watching videos. If you're buying a portable laptop that you intend to use when travelling or on your commute, make sure the battery life is at least six hours based on our reviews. We've tested some models that last for more than 10 hours before they need recharging.
Battery stamina on large, desktop-replacement models won't be as crucial, as they'll almost always be near a power socket, but we still mark them down if they run out of juice in under four hours.
Our 2018 investigation into laptop battery claims versus reality found that HP’s claims differed most to our lab findings, with the company claiming 10 hours of battery life on average, while our tests found 6.3 hours was closer to the mark.
Our in-depth battery tests give you the real picture when it comes to battery life on a laptop. Now that you have a better idea of which laptop to buy, browse all our laptop reviews to find a great model that will last.