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How to buy the best laptop

How to buy the best laptop

By Michael Passingham

Article 1 of 2

Which? has reviewed hundreds of laptops over the past decade and found Best Buys from as little as £200 to well over £1,500. Find out how to choose the perfect model with our in-depth buyers' guide. 

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There’s no one-size-fits-all laptop: What’s right for you won’t be ideal for somebody else. 

You may want a model with super-long battery life, or the one that has the sharpest, brightest display. Do you want to watch movies on it? Or do you simply need a portable workstation?

We'll help you narrow down your options so you can work out what features you really need, and how much to spend.

To see all of our top-rated models, head to our Best Buy laptops.

Cheap laptops

Cheap laptops can be cheerful, as our reviews have found in the past. In fact, it’s often the case that cheaper laptops end up being more portable and having better battery life than their more expensive counterparts. It is largely true, however, that the less you pay for a laptop, the slower it will be.

However, we have found that most laptops nowadays are fast enough to use for basic tasks without frustration. Pay attention in our reviews to what sort of tasks we recommend doing on any given laptop, and look for the at-a-glance summary near the bottom of every review under the Tech Specs tab.

If all you're after is a low-priced laptop for basic everyday tasks, we’ve hand-picked the best laptops for under £500.

Ultrabooks and ultra-portable laptops

Ultrabooks has gone from being a term coined by processor manufacturer Intel to a catch-all for premium laptops that are both thin and light. These laptops often score well in our tests, thanks to their excellent portability, long battery life and fast performance. Most ultrabooks are fast enough to handle photo-editing tasks along with browsing the web with lots of tabs open. They can weigh as little as 1kg and a modest model can be found from around £500.

Large laptops

If you're a home user that's accustomed to a traditional desktop PC, it may seem a bit daunting to make the change to a laptop. But it needn't be – many 15- and 17-inch machines have the same features that you'll be used to, such as DVD drives, ethernet ports and large, comfortable keyboards. You can even plug in your mouse via a USB port.

And if the whole family uses one computer, these large-screen laptops usually have plenty of space to store files, photos and music, and enough power to handle everyday tasks.

Laptop features explained

The amount of technical specifications and jargon used by laptop manufacturers and retailers is dizzying. Here’s what you need to know.

Storage space

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.

For more, read our guide to SSDs vs HDDs.

 

Processors

The processor is the brain of your laptop, and this is one component that can really ramp up the price. A processor’s ability to perform tasks is measured in gigahertz (GHz, one billion ‘cycles’ per second), and this is also known as clock speed. But there’s another thing to consider, the number of cores. A processor with more cores (such a dual-, quad-, six-core and beyond) may well be faster in certain tasks than a laptop with a faster clock speed.

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 (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.

Read more in our guide to processor brand names and models.

Memory (Ram)

Not to be confused with storage space, memory, known as ‘Ram’ (random access memory), is measured in GB and determines how much information your computer can store in its short-term memory.

Think of the Ram 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 access 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.

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 have lots of documents and pictures open. You can manage with less, but you’ll have to temper your usage. 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.

Screen size and resolution

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, then you may want to go for an 11, 12 or 13-inch display; most of these will weigh between 1 and 1.5kg. The largest you're likely to see is 15 or 17 inches, with weight increasing to around 2 to 3kg.

Most machines on the shelves now have a Full-HD 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution display, and premium 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 machines 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.

Laptop ports and drives

Most modern laptops don’t come with built-in DVD drives, so we’ll be sure to make a point of it if one does.

 

Even ports are becoming fewer and farther between, especially when it comes to ultra-thin and light laptops. USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports are crucial for plugging in things such as a mouse, while you’ll want to see an HDMI port if you’re looking to connect to an external monitor. Thin and light laptops often forego full-size USB ports entirely and opt for USB-C. This is a smaller, reversible port (which means there’s no such thing as upside down any more), but there is still a relative dearth of products that actually have a USB-C to plug into them. Most laptops come with an adapter in the box, so you can use regular USB equipment with a USB-C port. However be sure to check the laptop’s box contents before buying to ensure you don’t end up stuck without a port to connect your flash drive.

Battery life

Manufacturers often make heady claims about how long their laptops' batteries last for. 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, then make sure the battery life is at least six hours. We've tested some models that last for more than 10 hours before they need recharging. Battery stamina on 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.

Ready to buy? Browse all our laptop reviews to find the perfect model.

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