How to buy the best laptop
How to buy the best laptop
By Michael Passingham
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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.
Starting the process of buying a laptop involves lots of decisions, so in this article we’ve distilled the key factors into five categories.
Follow the steps below and use our interactive tools and tables to find out what sort of laptop you should be looking for.
In this article:
- 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?
- Laptop battery life: Manufacturer claims vs reality
Our expert’s top laptop picks
Just want some recommendations? We’ve picked three great laptops from three different price brackets.
Top pick laptops of the month
This laptop did well in our tests, but it was always a hard sell given its very high price. Since then, this 14-inch laptop has had its price slashed several times and at the start of January could be bought for under £1,000. That's still fairly steep, but much more attractive than its original price.
This laptop did well in almost every measure, but was let down by its screen. We've still highighted it this month because, as of the start of January, the whole range is on heavy discount at Currys, which means you'll be able to pick up a model with a better screen for less cash.
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.
If you’re wondering what budget to set for yourself, you should consider also what you’re going to be using your laptop for. This list of prices and specs should set you in the right direction.
- 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.
See our choosing tool below for more information about different price points.
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
- 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
- You’re on a budget
- Value simplicity
- Don’t mind working in web-based applications
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.
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.
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.
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.