Laptop buying guide: what to know before you buy in 2024

Choosing the best laptop or notebook can be confusing. Find out more about the different features, specs, and jargon to find the best one for you in your budget

When it comes to buying a new laptop you'll find that there's a huge range of features, specs, brands, and prices available. That's great for consumer choice but it can seem complicated if you don't know where to start. Are you asking yourself, what laptop is best for my needs? Then we're here to help you decide.

Whether you're looking for a cheap notebook that can handle everyday tasks like emails and web browsing, a good-looking Apple MacBook to crunch through creative tasks, or a high-performing laptop that can handle gaming or video editing, we'll help you to find the best laptop for you. Below, we've listed all the important considerations to make when it comes to choosing the best buy in laptops for 2024.

Features: what type of laptop do I need?

There are several different types of laptops available, and often the terms notebook, Chromebook, or ultrabook can be used interchangeably to mean almost the same thing. A laptop is essentially just a foldable, portable computer that comes with its own built-in screen, mouse and keyboard. But it's also possible to convert a tablet into a laptop setup by adding a keyboard, and you can do this with several models of Apple iPad and Microsoft Surface.

These are the main types of laptop:

Platform: which operating system is best?

As your operating system determines which brands you can buy and therefore laptop features, it's the best place to start your decision-making. There are four major operating systems. Most consumer laptops come loaded with either Chrome, Windows, or Mac operating systems, and a smaller number have Linux preinstalled. These systems all look and behave slightly differently, and the right one for you depends on your personality, what other smart devices you have (like a phone, tablet, or watch), and the hardware and software you want to use regularly.

Depending on how long you plan to keep your new laptop, you might be interested in the release cycle of Microsoft and Apple operating systems. Regular OS updates are generally a good thing: they can fix security issues and bugs, or revamp the interface design.

The latest Windows operating system is Windows 11 and it came out in October 2021. The newest version of MacOS is macOS 14 Sonoma, which was announced in June 2023 and released in September that year. While Apple generally makes new OS upgrades free, Windows will sometimes charge.

Dimensions: What are the most popular laptop sizes?

You might want to choose the right laptop size before you start looking at features or comparing prices. First, ask yourself how you'll be using your laptop. If you mainly work at home and portability isn't important, or if you do lots of graphics-heavy work, a larger screen is the way to go. A small, compact device is better if you do a lot of traveling. Laptop sizes tend to be categorized by their display:

Screen resolution: What is a good resolution for a laptop?

We've covered laptop screen sizes above, but what about the screen quality? The display resolution describes how many pixels a screen has, and how detailed it is. If you're just going to be checking emails and typing up Word documents, having a high resolution isn't all that important. Of course, if you want to edit photos, watch or edit high-definition video content, or you're really into gaming, higher resolution becomes much more important.

A 1920 x 1080 (Full HD) laptop screen is a good place to start for general use, whereas the latest and most expensive retina screens offer something around 3024 x 1964 pixels. These are stunning to look at, and ideal if you need pixel precision from your applications.

Budget: how much should you spend?

Although a usable laptop can be bought from retailers like Walmart and Best Buy for a few hundred dollars, it pays to spend a bit more (pun intended). Most people won't need or use the power of the most expensive laptops, but if your budget can stretch to a mid-range laptop, you'll get a system with a better design, faster performance for crunching through tasks and better longevity on your purchase. Look out for seasonal laptop deals that also give you an opportunity to get more for your money.

Components: What to look for in a laptop before you buy

What is a CPU? The processor of a laptop - also called the CPU or chip - is probably the most important component to look at first. Intel and AMD are the two commonly found in laptops, although Apple now makes its own chips for Mac products.

The more powerful a CPU is, the snappier your laptop will be when running demanding programs and multitasking. The power of a CPU is determined by its clock speed, which is displayed in gigahertz (GHz). A processor that operates at 3.00GHz is technically faster than one that operates at 2.3GHz, but the number of cores is also a factor. Modern processors have anywhere between 2-64 cores, and a CPU with more cores but lower clock speed could be more efficient and powerful.

This is a lot to think about, so let's break it down into the main manufacturers.

So is Intel or AMD better? Or is Apple now offering the best CPUs? That depends. While Intel still offers the best price-to-performance ratio, AMD is becoming increasingly competitive with its Ryzen processors.

GPU: What are good laptop graphics?

Having a dedicated graphics card is important if you are into gaming or want to use your laptop for video or photo editing. Otherwise, you can probably rely on the Intel or AMD graphics that are integrated into the laptop when you buy it.

Specialist graphics cards are measured in terms of memory, but this is different from RAM or hard drive storage. Most decent graphics cards between 6GB and 8GB will keep you going for several years, especially if you're currently using a 1080p monitor. When it comes to brands, NVIDIA is a trusted graphics card manufacturer, but AMD also makes some decent options. It's best to make a decision depending on your budget.

RAM: How much RAM is needed in a laptop?

The random access memory on a laptop computer is different from the storage you use for files and programs. It refers to the amount of short-term memory available for the processor to use, and the most common denominations are 4GB, 8GB and 16GB. Anything over 16GB for a general-use laptop is overkill but will be more important for intense graphics programs and running the latest games.

File storage: Is SSD or HDD better?

You'll probably want to store app files, photos and videos and music on your laptop. Although many people now rely on some sort of Cloud storage services, it's a good idea to choose a hard drive size that not only accommodates what you have now but all the files you might have hoarded in several years. On MacBooks in particular, it's almost impossible to upgrade your storage after purchase. Do it at the time of purchase and you'll be somewhat guaranteeing the longevity of your new laptop.

Most laptops now come with a solid-state drive (SSD) instead of a hard disk drive (HDD), but you might still find HDDs on low-end, budget models. Given the falling price of SSD storage, we'd recommend starting with at least 256GB of storage for most users, but for media professionals like photographers or gamers, 512GB should be the minimum. As we mentioned, you can bolster your storage with the best storage in the cloud or external hard drives.

Ports and connectivity

Every laptop will offer Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity as standard, but the amount, speed and type of ports vary greatly between models. Ports allow you to plug in devices and memory cards or recharge your phone using your laptop battery. We've even seen the latest M2 MacBook Pro laptops bringing back an SD card slot, which is a necessary thing for photographers and videographers looking to get media onto a laptop quickly.

Whatever your specific needs, we'd recommend you look for several USB-C ports and a microphone jack. Many laptops also charge via USB-C, which is helpful as the chargers are easy to replace (or borrow if you're at a friend's house). A USB-A port will open your laptop up to more devices again, although it is possible to get a cheap USB-A to USB-C cable.

Most laptops don't come with an ethernet port as it bumps up the thickness of the chassis. If you want to connect your laptop to the internet via Ethernet, you can use a USB to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter.

Popular brands: What laptop brand is best?

There are so many laptop brands out there to choose from, each with its own style, ethos and focus. While Apple is the go-to brand for MacBooks, other popular names include Alienware, Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Microsoft and Samsung.

The best brand for you might be the one that offers you the perfect combination of features for your budget, or you might feel an affinity for one in particular. Brand reputation might carry more weight with you, and let’s not forget that customer service, technical support and aftercare also play a role in deciding which laptop brand to choose. Of course, some brands also go hand in hand with certain pursuits; Alienware and Corsair are synonymous with gaming, while some are more generic.