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29 October 2020

How to buy the best laptop

Five crucial questions you need to ask to find the best laptop for your needs and budget.
laptop
Michael Passingham

With hundreds of models to choose from, you'll want to find 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 £200. 

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, with one MacBook, one Windows and one Chromebook to get you started.

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83%
Best Buy
£1,179.97
Reviewed

The quintessential laptop for everything from professional creatives to students on design courses, not much comes close to this pricey laptop. If your profession requires industry-standard software and you also want something portable with a great screen, and need a laptop for getting through complex tasks, this is the ultimate option.

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82%
Best Buy
£629.00
Reviewed

This is our new favourite Chromebook. It's thin, light, has a great screen and is reasonably fast, too. It's more expensive than most Chromebooks, but it's also substantially better.

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70%
Best Buy
£400.00
Reviewed

If you’re looking for a laptop for less than £400, look no further than this one. It has a thin and lightweight design, a Full HD screen and performance that’s good enough for all your daily computing tasks. What’s more, it’s the cheapest Best Buy we’ve tested in almost three years. Read our full review for the verdict on this budget machine.

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Ready to shop right now? Browse all the best laptops from our tests or answer three quick questions to find the best laptop for you. 

Video: How to buy the best laptop

Short on time? Watch our two-minute video for the most important laptop buying tips.

Top five questions to ask when buying a laptop

Before 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 very light note taking and browsing the internet.
  • Less than £300 – Newer Intel Celeron processors, 4GB of Ram and up to 64GB of storage. Again, won't be hugely fast but offers a better level of performance for lightweight tasks.
  • Less than £450 – 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 £999 and above.

On a budget? Skip straight to our round up of the best cheap laptops.

2. Operating system – what type of laptop do I need?

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 £999
  • 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.

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 over £300 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 okay and usually usable, but these screens not only lack fidelity; their cheap nature means they're also lacking when it comes to how well colours are displayed.

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 15 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.

Is lighter better?

Another key question, which we touched upon in the section about screen size, is weight. Lighter is better, of course, but there are some cons to be aware of when it comes to the thinnest and lightest laptops.

The number of compromises you’ll need to make when prioritising portability in a laptop are becoming fewer and further between. That said, our tests have shown that this market can still be hit and miss, so it pays to do your research and read reviews. Look out for these common pitfalls found on ultra-thin and light models:

Poor battery life – while portability is great, and frees you from lugging around a huge bag, we’ve found some ultra-thin laptops have compromised on battery size in order to get the weight down. The good news is that plenty of laptops don’t fail at this hurdle, so you don’t have to suffer the consequences.

Constrained performance – Very thin laptops often have the same processors found in their larger siblings. However, powerful processors generate lots of heat, and if the laptop is too thin to have space for an effective cooling system, the processor has no choice but to occasionally slow itself down to prevent overheating. This typically doesn’t affect basic tasks such as web browsing and working on documents, but sustained tasks such as photo editing and video rendering will see a significant drop in performance. Our lab tests check each laptop’s performance in all sorts of scenarios, so these issues come to the fore.

Not enough ports – This one you can spot from a mile off simply by looking at the spec sheet. Some laptops are so thin that a standard USB port or HDMI port simply won’t fit, so manufacturers simply don’t put any on. This is often resolved by adding USB-C ports that are capable of doing all sorts via an adapter. Bear in mind that most laptop brands don’t supply an adapter in the box, so you may have to spend a bit extra.

Bendy build quality – In the quest for record-breaking lightness, some manufacturers choose space-age metals and impressive alloys to get their laptops down to the desired weight. Others just use cheap plastic. It’s worth checking to see how robust a laptop is before buying, especially if it’s going to spend a lot of its life out and about. Our reviews give a build-quality rating for each model.

Where to buy a laptop

When buying a laptop, make sure you're handing your money over to a reputable seller. Check the retailer's returns policy and pay attention to customer feedback and reviews. For more details on shopping online safely and arranging refunds for faulty products, see our advice on shopping online

Currys PC World, Argos, John Lewis and Laptops Direct are some of the most searched-for laptop retailers at the time of writing. We’ve included links to these retailers handpicked because of their stock availability, best value price or warranty options. 

  • Currys PC World – hundreds of laptops from brands including HP, Dell, Apple and Lenovo, with free delivery offered on all orders. Prices start at under £200 and if you find it cheaper elsewhere, Currys promises to beat or match it. 
  • Argos – offers a large mixture of laptops with prices starting at just under £200 for basic models and going up to nearly £3,000. You can get same-day, in-store collection at selected Sainsbury's stores and you can bump up your Nectar points, too. 
  • John Lewis – stocks lots of different types of laptops including gaming, 2-in-1 and home office models. You'll receive a two year warranty at no extra cost and if you have any questions, John Lewis also offers a technical support service. 
  • Laptops Direct – computing specialist that sells a large range of new and refurbished laptops, starting from a couple of hundred pounds. You can opt for a finance plan or buy outright and it's free delivery to most of the UK.
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