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The Which? guide to buying the best laptop

What is a laptop?

A laptop is a portable personal computer which runs the same applications as traditional desktop computers. Laptops are great if you don’t have the space at home for a desktop computer, if you want to use the computer while on the move, or if you’re looking for a second computing device. With a full-sized screen and a dedicated keyboard, laptops are better than tablets for most everyday tasks, like writing documents or emails.

You can pick up a basic laptop from between £350 to £500 but it won’t have all the bells and whistles of the premium laptops, which are usually priced at £800 and above.

If you watch the video above, you'll find out what makes a Which? Best Buy laptop, and in this guide we look at how laptops shape up against PCs and tablets to help you find the right one.

Why would I need a laptop?

Many people buy a laptop to use as their main computer at home. Many are as powerful as a full PC but they save on space and can be easily moved from room to room.  

Laptops are far more powerful than tablets so, if you plan on serious productivity, a laptop is your best choice. Faster graphics and more memory, coupled with a larger screen and more storage space, means that projects such as editing home videos and photos, or running the latest games, are better on a laptop.

Laptops also have lots of ports to allow connections for digital cameras, music players and printers – which isn’t so easy with a tablet.

What can I do on a laptop?

Today’s premium laptops are extremely powerful and capable. Advanced graphics processors, and lots of storage space and memory, mean laptops are able to handle the most demanding of computing tasks.

What can't I do on a laptop?

Laptops do have some disadvantages – they’re heavier than tablets, have less battery life between charges, and take longer to start up. You’ll also need to keep their security up-to-date as they’re more prone to viruses and malware than tablets.

Many people who use their device primarily for watching video or catch up TV prefer the fast start up time and handheld portability of a tablet. 

Which laptop is best for me?

Before considering price or specifications, think first about the operating system. There are two main ones to choose from – Apple Mac OS and Microsoft Windows. Mac OS is used exclusively on Apple-branded products, whereas Windows is used by numerous manufacturers.

Mac OS laptops

Known for its great design and easy-to-use software, Apple set the benchmark for other manufacturers to follow – and it’s not hard to see why Apple laptops are so popular. Mac OS laptops are straightforward, intuitive and easy to use.

Mac OS laptops – pros

  • Sleek and robust design
  • Easy-to-use operating system and applications
  • Less vulnerable to viruses and require less maintenance

Mac OS laptops – cons

  • Tend to be more expensive than Windows laptops
  • Narrow choice of models

Windows laptops

Windows 8 is now fitted to most new Windows-based laptops and is slightly different to previous generations of Windows.

The greatest advantage of Windows is that it is adaptable and the operating system will work with just about any program or game out there. For most people it will also be familiar and easy to use.

Windows laptops – pros

  • Great flexibility and customisation (both hardware and software)
  • Windows 8 can also be used on Windows tablets
  • Huge range of applications available

Windows laptops – cons

  • May take time to adjust to the new interface when using the Windows 8 start screen

What should I look for in a laptop?

Hundreds of different laptops are available, from the cheap and cheerful to the sleek and expensive, so how do you start narrowing down the options? Here are two questions you need to ask yourself before deciding what type of laptop you need:

  • What do you want to use your laptop for?
    Are you looking for a laptop to complete day-to-day tasks, such as emailing and web browsing? Or are you on the lookout for a more powerful model that’s good for editing video and photos, and playing advanced games?
  • Where do you want to use your laptop?
    Are you going to be on the move, where portability is a key factor in your buying decision, or are you planning to stay at home close to a power source?

 We’ve split laptops into four categories and identified some key considerations which should help you choose the right laptop for you rather than pay more than you need to. 

Budget - There are many good laptops for under £500, although you clearly won’t get a complete workhorse for this price. Aim for an Intel Core i3 processor and a minimum of 4GB of RAM. Storage space should be a minimum of 500GB and make sure there’s a DVD-RW drive if you’re looking to play your DVD library.

Family/All-rounder - Screen size ranges from 15-inch up to 17-inch – and if portability isn’t essential, choose the largest screen possible. 4GB of memory is fine for general web browsing, email and word processing but boost this to at least 6GB if you’ll be doing more intensive tasks. Processor-wise, aim for at least an Intel Core i5 which will provide enough performance without any slowdown when running multiple programs. You’ll need plenty of storage, too – most laptops come with around 500GB to 750GB of space, which is the minimum you should be looking for.

Ultraportable - Thin and light is optimal – look for a laptop that weighs less than 2kg, not including the charger. Battery life should be a minimum of five hours, perfect for working away from the office or home. Lighter and thinner laptops may have less storage space because they have solid state drives (SSDs). A 128GB SSD is fine for storing your digital photos and music but this smaller capacity can be quickly used up over time – look for a 256GB SSD if possible.

Performance and gaming laptops combine the fastest processor, a powerful graphics cards and oodles of RAM. At a bare minimum, 6-8GB of memory and a Core i7 processor are ideal for smooth transitions between applications. A dedicated graphics card from nVidia or AMD with an additional 2-4GB of memory is imperative for playing the latest games.  Screen sizes can range from 14-inch up to 18-inch and offer a high resolution display. Solid state drives (SSDs) are best for accessing files or applications quickly, but large capacity SSDs can drive up the price of the laptop. Some laptops even offer multi-drive storage, an SSD and a conventional hard drive. Aim for a 750GB or 1TB (equal to 1000GB) hard drive if you’re looking to keep costs down. Battery life of only 2-4 hours is common, but these styles of laptop aren’t designed to be away from a power source too long.