The top performers in our review of laptops are the HP Spectre x360, the Gold Award winner; the Dell Inspiron 7000, the Silver Award winner; and the Acer Aspire R13, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing a laptop computer to meet your needs, along with details on how we arrived at our ranking of the top 10 products.
You may not realize it, but the laptop computer has been around for over 30 years, though the earliest iterations were little more than glorified typewriters. For decades, traditional desktops provided more computing power, more storage and better monitors at a lower cost. By the mid-1990s, the household desktop was common, but few families saw the value in a laptop computer. However, as the internet progressed from the tethered dial-up modems to the wireless routers of the 2000s, the laptop evolved to fill the need of restless legs, allowing you to roam around and stretch your legs as you worked. Once the clunky gadget of bankers, executives and the military, the laptop is now a necessary tool of the people.
Since portability is the primary value of a laptop, you should pay close attention to the size and weight and compare this to what you can achieve with the processor and memory. While the modern laptop doesn't weigh over 20 pounds like the older ones, you will still feel the difference between a 6-pound and a 4-pound laptop. If you use your laptop for school, where you'll be walking from class to class with it in a backpack or saddlebag, you'll welcome the smaller, lighter models. If you're recording a band's live show at a music venue, you'll welcome the heavier, more powerful laptop.
There are many different types of laptops. You can spend a few hundred dollars for a simple notebook computer or several thousand dollars for a powerful gaming laptop. Some are only powerful enough for browsing the internet and writing emails, while others are capable of running creative suites of video- and photo-editing software without a problem. The type of laptop you choose should match the purposes you have in mind for it. Do you need it for work? Do you want to watch movies or stream your favorite TV shows on it? Are you a creative-minded person or a gamer? Our laptop review compares the all-around best laptops. To find out more, you can read our articles on laptop computers.
Chromebooks are among the smallest and lightest laptops on the market, but they lack the computing power and storage of traditional laptops. Instead of a Windows or Macintosh operating system, these come with Google's Chrome OS, which is designed for browsing the internet and not much else. The hard drive is typically very small – around 16GB. The screens are around 11 inches, and you generally only get one USB port. However, you can save photos, videos and other documents to Google Drive instead of a hard drive. The screen resolutions are generally 1366 x 768, which is good enough for browsing the internet and watching an occasional movie. And you can always connect a USB bank to increase the connectivity.
Netbooks are similar to Chromebooks in that they are very small, inexpensive, and optimized for web browsing and little else. These laptops don't have an optical drive to play DVDs and CDs. However, unlike a Chromebook, netbooks typically run a Windows operating system, which most people are more familiar with. In addition, many netbooks blur the line between laptop computer and tablet with touchscreens and detachable keyboards. A netbook is a great laptop for people who like the tablet experience for gaming apps but prefer the laptop experience for typing.
In order for an Ultrabook laptop to be marketed as such, the laptop must meet rigid specifications set by Intel. It must be thin, being no taller (when closed) than 20 mm for 13.3-inch displays and smaller or 23 mm for 14-inch displays and larger. It must have a battery life that lets you play HD video for at least six hours and lasts nine hours when idle. The Ultrabook must also resume from hibernation after no more than three seconds. These laptops generally come with solid-state hard drives and features like voice commands and touchscreens. Ultrabooks are built for portability and performance, but they also come at a higher price, starting at over $1,000.
Gaming laptops are exactly what you'd think – laptops for serious gamers. These aren't for playing games like Candy Crush and Angry Birds. These are for data-intensive PC games that require a high-end processor, 8GB to 16GB of RAM, at least 1TB of storage, and a dedicated graphics card, which is the most important feature. Gaming laptops are generally boxier and more robust in their build than most laptops and come with high-resolution screens.
Gaming laptops don't need to be thin and light, because gamers generally use them as a desktop replacement. A gaming laptop allows you to play games that you'd normally play on a desktop, but with the advantage of being portable enough that you can move from room to room or take your games to a friend's house.
Business laptops are similar to the traditional consumer laptops we reviewed, except that they're built with higher-quality, more durable components and generally come with longer, more comprehensive warranties. You shouldn't have to replace your business laptop every year or two because it's become outdated. Business laptops are designed for performance, with quad-core processors that can handle significant multitasking. You need to be able to run all of your necessary software without it freezing or slowing down. These laptops don't generally come with dedicated graphics cards, though you can add one if you're working with graphics and video.
Some laptop computers have decent speakers, but if you're streaming Netflix or Spotify, you'll find that most laptop speakers lack bass and distort too easily when the volume is above 50 percent. To remedy the poor audio quality, you should consider supplementing your laptop with a pair of Bluetooth speakers. The audio quality that external speakers provide is exponentially better. Not only can you adjust the direction of the audio so that it's optimized to your position, but the speakers are larger and more capable of filling a room with sound.
The wireless connection of Bluetooth speakers is another advantage to consider. Most laptops come with Bluetooth capabilities, which allow you to stream audio directly to the speaker without wires.
The shape and design of Bluetooth speakers varies greatly. For some, the design of the speaker augments the design of the room, while others wish to keep the speaker out of sight. Smaller speakers are good for this purpose. In addition, smaller speakers are placement flexible, and situating them on your desk is convenient. You can even take some Bluetooth speakers outside with waterproof casings that allow you to stream music by the pool.
External Hard Drives
Many laptops don't come with enough storage. For this, you should consider an external hard drive, which can extend the storage capacity of your laptop computer by several terabytes. External hard drives also allow you easily transfer files from one computer to another.
The storage capacity of an external hard drive is important and indicates the amount of files you can transfer. Generally, the storage capacity of a computer hard drive ranges from 500GB to 1TB. The size, weight and overall design may be important, particularly when transporting the drive. Usually, external hard drives connect by way of a USB plug. Plug-and-play models are a convenient format.
Since external hard drives are so small, they are easier to steal than a laptop. As such, security is an issue for external laptop computer hard drives, especially if you have sensitive files. A secure password system is essential. Some external hard drives provide encryption of data stored on the hard drive and strong password protection. If a thief nabs it, this keeps your data safe. Some external hard drives have hardware encryption of data. This type of encryption is more secure than others. Some laptops have a software encryption system, which is not as secure.
Portable Hot Spot
One of the main reasons for buying a laptop rather than a desktop PC is portability. But for many, portability without access to the internet isn't a good thing. If you spend a lot of time traveling, for either work or pleasure, you may want to consider investing in a mobile broadband device, which turns your laptop into a mobile hot spot. Mobile hot spots are pocket-sized devices that offer fast, reliable internet service from almost anywhere.
Of course, if you stay in a hotel that offers internet access, you could spend your time stuck in your room, or you could visit the local coffee shop or library. But with your own personal hot spot, you can work or play on your laptop wherever you want, whether that's at the local park while the kids play or on the beach while you enjoy a good eBook.
Mobile hot spots are available from many internet service providers and also from most cell phone providers. For a relatively low fee, you can pick up a stand-alone hot spot device, or in some cases, you can even turn your smartphone into a Wi-Fi hot spot. Whenever you do use a hot spot, it's important to remember that many have low data caps. So even if the speeds are good, you won't want to spend a lot of time downloading unless you want to pay overage fees. If you do find that you are constantly going over your data cap, you may want to consider finding a larger carrier that gives you more data for a reasonable price.
Many laptops we reviewed provide much of the functionality of a desktop but lack the screen size and ideal positioning of the standard monitor position. Also, many people prefer to work on multiple screens, whether at the office or at home. Multiple screens allow you to multitask more efficiently. You can have the internet open on one screen and a report that you're working on open on the other. Instead of using a desktop computer with multiple monitors, you can simply connect the monitors to your laptop, eliminating the need for a desktop computer.
If you choose to supplement your laptop with external monitors, you'll have to consider the monitor size and resolution. The adjustability of the monitor is also an important part of the experience. Whether you enjoy watching movies lying in bed or sitting at your desk, this feature makes it possible to adjust the monitor to a comfortable level. Tilting the monitor and adjusting it up and down ensures you can see it without straining your neck or eyes. Other considerations are whether or not the monitor has built-in speakers, its height and weight, and whether it is wall mountable.
The color brightness and contrast ratio determines how lifelike the display is. The resolution is an important feature and ranges from 1366 x 768 to 3840 x 2160. The higher the resolution, the clearer the picture. Conversely, a lower response time is preferable, since the quick recovery time makes blur from onscreen movement less noticeable. A wide viewing angle makes it easier to watch the monitor from different areas of the room.
Most laptops come with a small touch-sensitive pad that allows you to move the cursor around. However, the function is very limited. It's difficult to work on cursor-heavy tasks like photo editing without the aid of a mouse. For this, you should consider a Bluetooth mouse. These computer mice are wireless, connect automatically to your laptop and can easily fit into a laptop bag.
Once you have your laptop in your hands, how are you going to carry it around? A good laptop case protects your investment and helps you keep all of the peripherals and cables you may need in one spot. The laptop case you buy should reflect the way you want to use it and your own style. Some cases, made from a copolymer resin, are tough and withstand abuse. Others are made of soft, lightweight material. The right case for you depends on your usage. When you travel, a hard case that can withstand pressure might be preferable. But laptop owners who bike to work might want a lighter version.
When evaluating laptops, it is important to look at them as a sum of many different features. For instance, the performance may be better in one than in another, but the display may be smaller or less detailed than you expected. Often, you can upgrade individual features, but this drives the price up. Knowing the features you absolutely need and the ones you might be able to upgrade is a way of getting what you need while staying within budget. Finding the correct laptop is a reflection of this balancing process.
Since laptops are designed to be portable, size matters. The overall trend for laptops is lighter and smaller. Larger display screens mean increased weight. The lightest laptops sport a 12- or 13-inch screen and weigh under 3 pounds, but they also tend to have small keyboards that may be unusable for some individuals.
A device with a 13- or 14-inch screen can easily reach up to 4.5 pounds, but it can still be comfortable to use on the go and provide a comfortable screen and keyboard. Some of the most popular and cheapest laptops have 15-inch screens, but using one on the go may be more of a challenge, since the weight increases. Larger displays add weight, and once the screen size reaches 17 inches, the laptop is usually used as a desktop alternative and often as a gaming laptop.
Another consideration is battery life. The best laptops have a battery life that extends well past the typical eight-hour workday. You don't want to find yourself constantly tethered to an outlet, so a good battery life is a critical aspect of portability.
Since everything you do with your computer, whether it's typing out a short story or streaming HD movies, is rooted in the display, the quality of your screen is one of the most critical features of a laptop. The sharpness of the content and the amount of content depends on the number of pixels. Most commonly, laptops have a resolution of 1366 x 768. High-end models have up to 1920 x 1080. Top-of-the-line models have up to 3840 x 2160. Generally, the higher the number of pixels, the higher the cost.
The size of the screen also affects the overall quality of the experience. The bigger the screen, the easier it is to view it at an angle or see it from a distance. Also, some viewers are unable to appreciate a movie or video on a small screen. The colors you see and how vivid they are is important to your viewing experience. The ratio of colors differs from one laptop to another. Review the specifications to make sure you get the type of display you want.
The CPU (central processing unit) is vital to the laptop's overall performance. If you need to run multiple programs at once, you'll want a multi-core processor. The best laptops have an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor, which each feature quad-core capabilities. Cheaper laptops often have only single-core or dual-core processors, which aren't good for multitasking even if the processor speed is good.
It's important to note that display resolution is often inversely related to laptop performance. That is, in order to achieve good performance on a high-resolution screen, the laptop needs a fast processor and good graphics.
Storage is the amount of space you have on your hard drive. The amount of space differs widely, and choosing the amount you need may be tempered by the price. The bigger the hard drive, the higher the price. You can add hard disk space as an upgrade, but this too will increase the cost.
Laptops such as the Lenovo ThinkPad X250 start at 500GB of storage, but 1TB hard drives are available. A large hard drive is preferable, as it prevents the system from slowing down. High-end models offer greater disk space, but sometimes this is offered as an upgrade.
Many laptops come with solid-state drives (SSDs) already installed, and all of the products on our lineup at least have SSD upgrade options. An SSD makes your laptop feel more responsive than just about any other upgrade can. SSDs can transfer data much more quickly than regular hard drives.
Memory, or RAM, has a direct impact on how well your computer performs. Most laptops come with at least 4GB of memory installed, which is more than enough for basic tasks like browsing the web and streaming video. You can almost always upgrade to 8GB or 16GB of memory, which would be useful if you need to edit photos or videos.
The number and type of USB slots available on a laptop is a matter of convenience in hooking up peripherals. It is also important when choosing peripherals, since they differ according to connection. Convenient placement of USB ports is important also.
Some laptops come with multiple types of USB ports. Some have ports in the back as well as on the side. Staggering placement makes access more convenient. Having several varieties of USB ports makes it possible to use more peripherals. Generally, USB 3.0 is better for everything than USB 2.0.
If watching videos or playing games is a big part of your computing, you need a graphics card capable of handling this. Most laptops rely on integrated graphics, which are built into the processor. Sometimes, you can upgrade to a dedicated graphics card. Depending on your budget, upgrading it might be worthwhile. Especially for laptops with high-resolution displays, you want a good graphics card, because it helps the laptop perform better.
The speakers that come with laptops may be adequate for your purposes. If not, finding good external speakers at a good price is not difficult. A wide range of speakers is available. The choice largely depends on the type of music you enjoy and the range of features and adjustability. Speaker design also differs and, in some cases, aesthetic factors are important.
In the end, it's all about the sound. Choosing a speaker system with clarity is what's most important. Finding speakers that work with your laptop is also important. The connection matters, as some speakers do not connect to all laptops, so checking this out is necessary when choosing speakers. Headphones are another way of listening to music. Some headphones connect directly to the laptop, while others use a Bluetooth connection.
There are three basic operating systems: Microsoft Windows, Chrome OS and Mac OS X. The differences between them set the stage for many laptop owners. It also drives their choice. Microsoft Windows offers low cost and a touchscreen interface. Mac OS X offers convenient navigation and greater security. Chrome OS is an operating system used with Chromebooks. It has greater security with limited functionality, and it is mainly used as an online browser. Apps are limited and not always usable. Any laptop that ships with Windows 7 or Windows 8 is eligible for a free upgrade to Windows 10 when it launches.
The cost of a laptop varies according to brand, processor, hard drive space, RAM and the graphics card. It's possible to upgrade features on different models, but this increases the cost. Chromebooks are a less costly alternative. However, there are nuances that may merit inspection.
For instance, Chromebooks operate on the Chrome OS, and this enhances such things as speed and security and costs much less than laptops running on Windows or Mac operating systems. However, many common programs are not usable with this system, and storage is in the cloud, something you will pay for after the first year in most cases. These differences may dissuade some potential buyers and make the lower cost less of an attraction.
In short, the cost of a laptop depends on what you need and your financial ability to get it. Deciding what features you can and cannot live without and balancing that against your budget is a sound approach. Upgrading some features while keeping others may allow you to keep the final cost where you need it to be while getting a laptop that works for you, such as the Asus ZenBook UX305.
The warranty that comes with your laptop generally covers defects due to parts and workmanship and is good for a discrete amount of time. Since warranties differ in terms of language, it is important to read them carefully. It is also possible to purchase an extended warranty at an additional cost, giving you longer coverage. An extended warranty is often a good idea when the price of the laptop is high and you're going to use it frequently. However, an extended warranty comes at an added cost and should be weighed with this in mind. Also, as with the warranty, you should check what it covers.
To arrive at our ranking decisions, we relied on benchmark testing performed by our sister site, Laptop Mag. The tests they have performed on laptops lead the industry with real-life scenario-based methodology. We compiled the data from their tests to determine quality scores for the battery life, display quality, heat output and overall CPU performance.
The battery is one of the most important keys to a laptop's portability, because it allows you to move about untethered by cords. To test the battery life of each laptop in our review, the laptop replicates continuous web surfing until the battery is completely drained. Starting with a fully charged battery, the laptop runs a specific script that loops the web browser through 60 popular websites, pausing for 30 seconds on each site. At the end of each loop, the web browser is closed and reopened. Using a colorimeter, we ensured that the displays were at the same brightness. In addition, each laptop had its hibernation settings turned off.
The best laptops proved to have an exemplary battery life that extends past 14 hours, which means that you only have to tether them to an outlet while you sleep. The average battery life in our tests was a little over nine hours. This is plenty of battery life to take you through the average workday.
Your laptop's display is only as good as its ability to produce accurate colors brightly. If you're streaming an HD movie or editing photos, the display should reproduce images how they were intended.
To test the color accuracy, a colorimeter measured the Delta E (dE) with the real color. Delta E (dE) measures how accurately the screen displays different colors, with 0 being a perfect match and higher numbers reflecting lower accuracy. A difference of 1 dE is considered enough for the human eye to notice. The tests took an average dE measure of 70 colors and also measured the screen's RGB color gamut. RGB color gamut is measured on a scale of 1 to 100 percent and expresses the display's ability to produce colors within the RGB palette. The best displays are capable of exceeding the RGB color space, but a good display should be able to score 100 percent.
The tests also used the colorimeter to measure the screens' brightness. The display was set to a high-contrast white background, and the colorimeter measured the output in five points – each corner and the center. The five readings are then averaged out to determine the display's overall brightness in nits, which is the measurement for visible-light intensity. For comparison, one nit is equivalent to a square meter of light produced by a candle. A typical display can output between 200 and 400 nits.
Combing the data from the color accuracy and brightness tests, we are able to give display quality scores. The higher the score, the better the display is at reproducing colors brightly.
Laptop computers can get notoriously hot, especially when placed on your lap for extended periods. Nobody likes feeling as though his or her lap is on fire. To test the device's temperature output, a Hulu video was streamed at full screen for 15 minutes. Then a laser temperature gauge was used to measure the underside of the laptop. After that measurement was taken, a game was played, such as "BioShock Infinite," on the laptop for an additional 15 minutes. The underside temperature was taken again.
Any temperature above 95 degrees is deemed uncomfortable, and temperatures above 100 degrees are simply too hot for your lap. The average temperature was 96.65 degrees with four laptops over 100 degrees. You should definitely consider a laptop cooler for one of those.
To determine the general overall performance of each laptop, you have to look at the processor's ability to process data. To gauge this, our scores were derived from several tests – Geekbench 3, Laptop Spreadsheet Macro Test and WebGL Cubes. The Geekbench 3 test, developed by Primate Labs, gauges the performance and speed of single-core and multi-core processors by simulating real-world scenarios. The Laptop Spreadsheet Macro test stresses the CPU by matching 20,000 names to their corresponding addresses in OpenOffice and timing the results. The WebGL Cubes test asks the laptop's processor to render 150,000 cubes illuminated by three light sources, which tests the processor's ability to handle graphics.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
Our evaluations led us to choose three overall winners from the top 10 laptops. The Gold Award winner is the HP Spectre x360, which has a strong Intel Core i5 processor that you can upgrade to an i7 and a decently sized SSD of 256GB (upgradeable to 512GB), and it operates on Windows 8.1. It has a battery life of 9 hours and 28 minutes and weighs 3.3 pounds. The display is excellent, starting at 1920 x 1080 and moving up to 2560 x 1440. At 13.3 inches, it doesn't have the largest display ever, but it's a good compromise between portability and screen size. It has three USB 3.0 ports, which give you fast access to any USB peripherals. This laptop supports SD cards and HDMI. The manufacturer offers phone, chat and online support as well as social media communication. In heat testing, this bottom of the x360 measured 100 degrees Fahrenheit, which is somewhat uncomfortable in your lap.
The Dell Inspiron 7000 Series is our Silver Award winner. The processor speed for this laptop is good at 2.2GHz. The base processor is an Intel Core i5 that gives it a quick response. What's very attractive about it is the ability to upgrade to an AMD video card that can handle HD graphics well. The hard drive storage of 1,000GB is ample, giving you plenty of room for your multimedia files. The operating system, Windows 8.1, works well. It has a long battery life of 5 hours and 45 minutes, which is not particularly good. The Inspiron 7000 weighs in at 4.5 pounds, due in part to its 15-inch screen. In heat testing, the bottom of this laptop reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit, which is somewhat uncomfortable. The base display resolution is 1920 x 1080, but you can upgrade to a much larger resolution of 3840 x 2160 – in other words, a 4K display. It has two USB 3.0 ports and one USB 2.0 port.
The Bronze Award winner is the Acer Aspire R13. It has a processor speed of 2.2GHz, which is great for laptops in this category. With its overall grade of A-, our performance data shows that the processor certainly isn't holding this laptop back. The base model comes with a 256GB SSD, and its operating system is Windows 8.1. The R13's battery life is 7 hours and 36 minutes, which is below the average for the laptops on our lineup. This laptop didn't do well in the heat test, reaching 104 degrees Fahrenheit, which means it gets far too hot when you use it on your lap. The display starts at 1920 x 1080 and can be upgraded to 2560 x 1440. You get two USB 3.0 ports and one USB 2.0 port on this laptop.