Maybe your laptop has slowed to a crawl. Maybe it ran out of storage space and you’re tired of shuffling files onto external hard drives. Or maybe you’ve just decided it’s time to treat yourself to something new.
Take it from us, though: It can be a little too easy to succumb to the hype. Don’t let some silky, disembodied voice in a flashy ad persuade you to upgrade — you know better than anyone else when it’s time to invest in a new machine. If you’re thinking of going laptop shopping soon, there are a few questions you should ask yourself before you whip out your credit card.
What do you actually need?
We’re starting with the biggest question of them all, since it really defines the scope of your search. If all you do is poke around online, reading news and embracing — or resisting — the urge to snark on Twitter, you certainly don’t need a $2,000 machine. (In fact, an inexpensive Chromebook would probably do the trick.) The inverse is also true. If you’re looking to edit videos or play gorgeous games, a budget laptop probably won’t cut it.
Here’s a good place to start: Think about the things you do daily and the situations where you find yourself turning to your laptop, and make a list. And, of course, your preference for operating systems should play a role in all this. Are you a longtime Windows person or a Mac devotee? You’ll probably want to stick to what you know best, though both new operating systems pack new features you should keep in mind before making your final call. From there, you can turn that list of needs into features to look out for.
If you’re constantly ferrying lots of files around, you might want to prioritize lots of storage space — and maybe even a solid-state drive (SSD) instead of a traditional hard drive, so you don’t have to wait as long to access them. If your eyes maybe weren’t what they used to be (I can relate, believe me), bigger screens are the way to go. If you want more than anything to kick back in a coffee shop while cruising the skies in Microsoft Flight Simulator, a dedicated graphics card is almost a must. And if you’re a creator — or are trying to become one — wrangling and editing big video files is easier if you have a processor with lots of cores and loads of RAM.
Keeping track of all those parts can be more than a little confusing, so here’s a little cheat sheet to help you keep them straight.
- RAM: Think of this as a laptop’s working memory. You’ll generally want at least 8GB, but get as much as you can afford.
- CPU: A laptop’s brain, also known as the processor. Intel and AMD make nearly all of the CPUs in Windows laptops. Many new models use Intel’s latest, 11th-generation CPUs, from i3 (the most basic) to i9 (the most powerful). AMD is gaining ground with its Ryzen mobile processors, ranging from the Ryzen 3 series (most basic) to the high-powered Ryzen 7 series. Meanwhile, Apple now uses its own processors in all of its new laptops. The M1 can be found in Apple’s sub-$1,500 laptops, while the new M1 Pro and M1 Max offer more speed to those who can afford it.
- SSD: Otherwise known as a “solid-state drive.” You’ll store your files on these the same way you would on a more traditional hard drive, but SSDs can make accessing those files faster, and they’re less prone to damage if you drop your laptop.
- Screens: You know how big a screen you need better than anyone, but pay attention to what kind of display your future laptop has. OLED (organic light emitting diode) screens offer deeper blacks and more vivid colors compared to traditional LCD (liquid crystal display) screens, but they’re more expensive. And if you know you’ll need a lot of space to work with, consider a screen with a 3:2 aspect ratio instead of a 16:9 widescreen display.
What could make your life easier?
Now that you’ve got your list of needs set, take a few moments to think about what your laptop could do to make your life a little easier.
Many people probably stick to keyboards and trackpads when using their laptops, but if you’re an avid artist or note-taker, consider a laptop with a touch screen and a stylus. (Unfortunately, Apple’s Mac laptops are a non-starter in this department.)
Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Studio ($1,599+) is an example of a laptop that takes note-taking and art especially seriously. It combines a touch-sensitive screen — which isn’t all that uncommon for Windows laptops — with a pivoting design that can put that screen in front of the keyboard. The end result? A sort of laptop-easel hybrid for easier movie bingeing. You can even fold the screen down so it sits nearly flush against the keyboard, turning it into a tablet for easier note-taking and sketching.
Or maybe you frequently find yourself itching for more screen space but don’t want to carry around another monitor. ASUS’s ZenBook Duo ($999+) has a smaller, secondary screen just above the keyboard where you can view documents, extra browser tabs or extra controls for creative apps.
Meanwhile, if you’re already an iPhone user, there’s a strong argument to stick with Apple for your next laptop. The company has built plenty of features that bridge the gap between smartphone and computer, like easy file transfers through AirDrop and the ability to respond to incoming calls and messages on your MacBook.
How much do you want to spend?
Unless you have a serviceable desktop sitting around, you’re probably going to spend a lot of time with your new machine, so it’s worth paying to make sure it has enough horsepower to last at least a few years.
But that doesn’t mean you need to go out and put a big dent in your bank account. For basic Web browsing, Chromebooks can be hard to beat, and you can get a great one for $600 or less. Coincidentally, $600 is also what I’d consider the floor for an undeniably good Windows laptop.
Decent gaming laptops generally start at around $1,000, though prices can shoot through the roof if you want the best possible performance. Once you tiptoe north of $1,000, niceties like premium designs and crisper screens become more common, as do higher-end processors and more RAM. And if you’re okay with spending $1,500 or more on a laptop, you’re starting to look at the most powerful, feature-packed machines out there.
Things are a little different with Macs. Right now, Apple doesn’t sell any of its laptops for less than $1,000, though there are some exceptions — deals from third-party retailers are pretty common, and students can claim the company’s M1 MacBook Air for $900 with their school discounts. Just like with Windows PCs, though, you’ll start to see big gains in performance as you shell out more money, until you hit the company’s new, top-of-the-line M1 Pro and M1 Max MacBook Pros ($1,999+).
Look, I know — we’re still in a pandemic, and you shouldn’t wander into a crowded, big-box store unless you feel fully comfortable with it. But actually seeing and touching a new laptop can give you some insights that company websites and reviews might not offer.
There’s a pretty good chance you’ll spend a lot of time typing on your new laptop, so take that keyboard for a test drive. Ditto for the trackpad — they’re not all created equal, which means some can be a lot more frustrating than others. If you know you’re going to have to spend lots of time on Zoom calls, fire up the webcam and check out the quality. After all, no one wants to look lousy in front of others if they can help it. And though the security systems at stores don’t always allow it, pick up the laptop if you can and get a feel for its heft.
How easily can you upgrade it?
Unless you’re willing to spend ungodly sums of money, there will come a point when your laptop stops working as well as it used to. Rather than buy a new laptop, one of the best things you could do for your wallet — and possibly even the environment — is upgrade it yourself.
Consider a laptop’s RAM, for instance — this acts as a computer’s working memory, and the more your laptop has, the snappier it’ll perform. Many readily available laptops make it easy enough to swap out important parts. Ditto for a laptop’s SSD or hard drive. The problem is, not every company makes this as easy as it should be.
Apple’s M1 MacBooks are a great example of this. Because the company’s chips use an all-in-one design, it’s near impossible to add more RAM or upgrade your storage without serious, exacting surgery. (It’s possible that might have changed in the new laptops Apple announced this week, but the company did not provide an official comment.) Microsoft is no saint, either: Its pricey new Surface Laptop Studio isn’t meant to be opened up by anyone other than authorized technicians, and the results may not be pretty if you try it yourself.
But there are some companies out there that make upgrading computers a priority. Framework, an upstart laptop maker founded in San Francisco, is one of them. The company’s namesake notebook looks like an unassuming Windows laptop at first, until you notice that each of its ports can be popped out and rearranged however you like. You can even buy additional ones if you want to replace, say, a USB port with an HDMI port for connecting external monitors.
And the best part? If you ever do need to crack open a Framework laptop for upgrades, the tool you’ll need to do it actually comes in the box. Too bad the rest of the industry isn’t this pro-consumer.