How to Choose a Laptop
The top performers in our review of laptops are the Asus ZenBook Pro UX501, the Gold Award winner; the Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch with Retina display, the Silver Award winner; and the Dell XPS 15, 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.
For whatever you want your PC to do, the standard 15-inch laptop can probably do it. With plenty of processing power, lots of storage and a large 15-inch display, the traditional laptop computer is still an important part of the PC landscape.
Buying a laptop computer doesn’t have to be complicated. To make the process simpler, check out our in-depth comparisons, read our product reviews, and learn more in our articles about laptop computers.
What Type of Laptop Should You Buy?
The first question to answer when shopping for any computer is “What do you want to do with it?” The best laptops offer both performance and portability, but when you're talking about larger desktop-replacement systems, portability isn’t a major focus.
If you’re looking for portability that lets you use your laptop all day, try an ultrabook. These thin and light laptops are built with extremely portable 12- and 13-inch designs, and they offer long battery life, often longer than 8 hours. In order to reduce system weight and maximize battery life, they rely on high-efficiency low-voltage processors, which can offer comparable performance to standard processors, but they cost more. If portability is a big concern, ultrabooks are the lightweight laptops you want to be looking at.
If you want something for professional work, you might want to look at our business laptop reviews. While they may look much like their consumer-focused siblings, business-oriented laptops have a number of valuable features that professional users need, but that the average consumer won’t, such as fleet image support, an array of security features, and service plans that include on-site support and data recovery. Combine this with durable designs, high-performance components, and options for business-class accessories, and they’re just the thing to have in the office.
If you’re looking to play the latest games, most mainstream laptops won’t cut it. You want a gaming laptop, outfitted with a potent discrete graphics card, hardware optimized for gaming performance, and features like programmable macro keys and performance optimization tools for the best gaming experience you can get. When you compare laptops and gaming systems side by side, most people don’t need the extra graphics horsepower.
If you just want the cheapest laptop you can get for checking Facebook and watching Netflix, you might want to consider something like a netbook. These are small, budget-friendly laptops that offer just enough capability to let you browse your favorite websites and low-cost designs that offer affordability, but without the polish you might expect from your primary PC. Look out, though; the best budget laptops offer pretty good performance for an affordable price, but some simply cut corners without offering the same sort of value.
Chromebooks are a subset of budget laptops similar to netbooks, distinguished by the fact that they use Google’s Chrome OS, an operating system built around web browsing and internet-connected storage and apps. Popular in classrooms and well-suited to things like checking Facebook and watching Netflix, Chromebooks don’t have the same productive capability of standard laptops, and none of the software selection you’ll find available for PCs. If you think you can get by with web-based services like Google Docs instead of traditional software like Microsoft Word, Chromebooks offer an affordable alternative to Windows-based systems.
Laptop Computers: What We Evaluated, What We Found
To narrow down a list of the top ten laptop computers, we first had to settle on a definition of what constitutes a standard laptop computer. For our purposes, that starts with size. As laptops under 14-inches tend to focus on the thin and light designs of ultrabooks, or the extremely low-priced compact netbooks, we focused on 15-inch systems, which offer enough productive capability to replace the home desktop of years past, and which offer portability without it being the primary focus of the device.
We also chose to focus on systems with Intel’s mainstream Core processors. While other options, like the Intel Pentium and Celeron lines can be found in the 15-inch form-factor, they do so at the expense of overall capability, and tend to be budget-focused systems built to offer the cheapest laptop rather than to offer a well-rounded system. Competing chip-maker AMD also has a few processors available for laptops, but they are the minority, and top laptop brands generally use Intel processors by default.
We evaluated the top ten laptops in terms of performance capability, display options, and overall design based on information available from each manufacturer and industry third-party tests. The manufacturers had influence over our evaluation, nor was the evaluation method provided to any in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. The results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
The most important aspect of any computer is performance, since performance limitations will have an impact on what you can and can’t do with the laptop, and what sort of user experience it delivers. Performance can be influenced by everything from how much memory (RAM) is installed in the system to how the design handles airflow and cooling, but the most important factor in performance is the central processing unit (CPU). Intel has long dominated the CPU landscape, and every system in our lineup features current Intel processors.
For evaluation data on processor performance, we turned to PassMark Software, an independent testing body that offers reliable, industry-approved data on processor performance. We gathered scores from PassMark’s own benchmarking suite of tests that collects performance data from both user-submitted results and independent testing. As a general rule, the higher the score, the better the processor performance. Of the results for the laptops we reviewed here, scores over 7,000 points indicate notably fast performance; scores between 5,000 and 7,000 are still quite good, but you may notice some lagging performance in processor-intensive tasks like photo editing. Anything under 5,000 points will offer acceptable performance for most tasks, but if compared side-by-side with higher scoring systems, there would be a noticeable difference.
We also looked at the display options offered on each system. While all of the laptops we've reviewed here feature similarly sized 15-inch displays, some have higher resolution panels, which offer sharper images and clearer text. While the 1920 x 1080 resolution has become the new baseline for consumer PCs, many offer higher resolutions, with some boasting 3840 x 2160 (also called 4K). While ultra-HD resolution makes for a sharp-looking display, it’s worth realizing that some programs may not handle the high resolution well, with tiny text and menus that look great at 1080p but can’t be resized, and may be nearly unusable at high-resolution. This should only be an issue with older software, as newer versions should all account for higher resolutions, and generally speaking, higher resolution is better.
Touchscreens are also popular, as Microsoft Windows 10 offers native support for touch interfaces and has several unique features built around the technology. Touch capability isn’t ubiquitous, however; Apple’s own MacBook Pro laptops have no touch support, and several of the more affordable laptops on the market forgo touch support to keep prices low.
Battery life and weight are two major factors, since they dictate the limits of portability. Lighter weights make it easier to carry the laptop around, whether it’s simply moving from room to room or slipping the laptop into a bag to carry throughout your day. With even the heaviest laptop weighing in at just over 5 pounds, none of these are too heavy to pick up and go, but you'll definitely feel that weight more than some of the systems that weigh closer to 3. Longer battery life lets you use the laptop without the tether of a power adapter plugged into the wall, and the longest lasting options offer enough usable life that you may not need to pack the adapter along at all. Battery life will vary based on everything from screen brightness to how processor-intensive a task is, but as a general rule, higher watt-hour ratings translate into longer overall battery life.
What Else Is Important in Choosing a Laptop Computer?
Beyond those three core factors, you’ll also want to look at the specifics of each system to make sure it’s equipped to meet your needs.
Storage is a key feature, but it’s difficult to definitively say what’s best. The amount of storage space will limit how much you can store on your laptop. Whether you have a traditional hard drive or a solid-state drive, a smaller drive will eventually limit what programs you can install and what files you can store locally. While any drive listed will do just fine when storing documents and photos, larger files can take up a lot of space. Uncompressed HD video can range in the 1GB to 8GB range for a single TV episode or two-hour movie, while a full Blu-ray Disc holds 25GB and ultra HD movies can hit 100GB for a single film. Individual programs are also an issue, since common programs like Microsoft Office 2016 uses 3GB of storage, and Adobe Photoshop Elements 14.0 uses 5GB of disk space. Obviously, your own storage needs will be unique, but larger is usually better.
While many laptops included in our line up offer a full terabyte of storage space on a hard disk drive, others offer substantially smaller 512GB or 256GB solid-state drives – and you'll really feel the crunch at 256GB. But even though the overall capacity is smaller, solid-state drives offer significantly faster performance, improving the overall experience of using the laptop. Whether you place more importance on storage space or speed is up to you, but it’s always worth looking over the specifications for any model you’re thinking of buying to see what options are available.
Port selection and connectivity are also worth consideration. While every model we reviewed offers USB ports, some offer more USB 3.0 ports, which are faster than the older USB 2.0 standard. A few go a step further, offering USB-C and Thunderbolt ports, which offer dramatically higher data transfer speeds, and can be used for everything from connecting an external drive to running a pair of external monitors. Other common ports and connections include HDMI output for video and SD memory card slots. The exact mix of featured ports will vary by model, but you should always check to be sure that the ports you need are actually found on the system you are considering for purchase.
Best Laptop Computers: Our Verdict and Recommendations
While every model included in our laptop comparison is a well-made system worthy of consideration, three stood out as the overall best. The Gold Award winner is the Asus ZenBook Pro UX501, which features a potent mix of capability and advanced features. With an Intel i7-6700HQ quad-core processor, 16GB of memory and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 960M graphics card, it’s one of the most powerful systems on the list. It’s impressive across the board, with a stunning design and advanced features, like a 4K display and the inclusion of USB-C with Thunderbolt 3. The fact that it’s significantly more affordable than top competitors is just an added bonus.
The Silver Award winner is the Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch with Retina display. A longtime leader in the laptop market, Apple’s top-of-the-line MacBook is getting a little long in the tooth – Apple hasn’t updated the laptop in over a year – but it still ranks highly thanks to solid performance, Intel Iris Pro 5200 graphics, and an all-day battery. It also comes with Mac OS X Yosemite, one of the best operating systems around, and it includes a broad selection of productivity tools at no extra cost.
The Dell XPS 15 is our Bronze Award winner. It has a sleek design that weds aluminum and carbon fiber, and it fits a 15-inch display into a 14-inch chassis thanks to vanishingly slim display bezels. Hybrid storage combines a high-capacity hard drive with speedy flash memory for faster boot times and improved overall performance without sacrificing storage space. Top it all off with advanced features like Thunderbolt 3 and an array of configuration choices, and the Dell XPS 15 is a natural choice for one of the best laptop computers available.
Our top pick for budget-friendly systems is the Acer Aspire V5, which offers decent performance with an Intel Core i5-6300HQ processor, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 950M graphics card, a 1TB hard drive and a price that comes in at less than half that of other top systems. While you will need to accept a few compromises, like a low-resolution 1366 x 768 display and plastic construction that may not be as durable and luxurious as more premium designs, it’s still a very capable laptop.
If you want a design that offers a bit more versatility, you can’t ignore the HP Spectre x360 15, a laptop and tablet hybrid with an elegant convertible design. It’s a good laptop in its own right, but the convertible design lets you use it as a tablet or in other usage modes, delivering a level of flexibility that standard laptops can’t match.