Dad and daughter looking at new laptop that they just bought

Figuring out what to look for when buying a laptop isn’t as hard as it might seem. Whether you need a gaming laptop for the kids, a business laptop for the grown-ups or a shared, multi-use laptop for the whole family, this buying guide will give you the knowledge you need—from laptop types to screen sizes—to pick the best laptop for you.

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1What are the main types of laptops?

A bunch of different types of laptops

Laptops can be divvied into a pretty wide array of categories but, for most shoppers, it makes sense to break them into just a handful of groups.

  • Notebook or laptop: General terms for full-sized clamshell laptops (meaning they open and close on a hinge) that are portable.
  • Ultraportables: Designed first and foremost to be easy to take with you, ultraportables weigh no more than three pounds and can easily fit inside backpacks, messenger bags and totes. Ultrabooks (a term coined by Intel) fall in this category.
  • 2-in-1 laptops: These dual-use laptops have touchscreens and can function as both notebooks and tablets. They’re also called convertibles, hybrids, bend-backs (if the screen can fold under the keyboard) and detachables (if the screen can be detached).
  • Performance laptops: These laptops are exactly what you’d think: Notebooks designed with speed and power top of mind. They usually have larger screens, premium designs and tend to be heavier, which means they’re not great for toting around. Gaming laptops fall into this category. (You might like our roundup of the best gaming laptops of 2021).
  • Chromebooks: Chromebooks run on Google’s Chrome OS. They’re usually inexpensive and not very powerful but are great at simple tasks such as surfing the web, editing documents and streaming video meetings and calls.
  • MacBooks: A MacBook is any clamshell notebook made by Apple. They’re typically pricey, but also powerful, sleek, highly portable and versatile. Though Walmart doesn’t carry MacBooks, there are many iPads to choose from on

2What are your operating system (OS) options?

Choosing between Windows 10, Chrome OS and macOS is probably the biggest decision you’ll make when buying a laptop.[1] Once you make a choice, you’ll instantly narrow down the number of models available to you.

  • Choose Windows 10 if… you want access to the widest array of apps, games and accessories or you crave customization.
  • Choose Chrome OS if… you’re looking for a budget-friendly laptop for light work, schoolwork, online shopping or browsing.
  • Choose macOS if… you’re already a fan of other Apple products like iPhone and iPad or you’re an illustrator, graphic designer or video editor.

Here’s an even better look at the advantages and disadvantages of each operating system.

Operating System Pros Cons
Windows 10
  • Most popular applications are designed for Windows 10.
  • It supports a huge array of add-on hardware.
  • Microsoft is constantly adding updates to improve performance and security.
  • Windows 10 can run on an enormous range of notebooks.
  • Application speed and performance differs from notebook to notebook.
  • Windows 10 machines are more likely to be targeted by hackers than other platforms. (Microsoft addresses this with frequent security updates.)
  • It’s so robust and customizable that it can be a bit intimidating.
Chrome OS
  • Chrome OS is based on Google’s popular Chrome browser, so it should be familiar to most people.
  • You can download and use a wide range of apps and content from the Google Play store.
  • It runs well on relatively weak and inexpensive hardware.
  • Android, Gmail and G Suite users will feel right at home.
  • It’s not designed for power-hungry apps, such as games, content creation and video editing.
  • Its focus on web-based applications and content may require a shift in how you think about the way you use PC.
  • It offers little compatibility with or support for peripherals and apps outside of Google’s garden.
  • macOS is user-friendly, providing quick and easy access to applications from a dock at the bottom of the screen.
  • If you’ve already bought into Apple’s ecosystem—Apple TV, iPad, iPhone, Apple Watch—you’ll be in a great position to switch and share between devices.
  • macOS is less likely to be targeted by hackers and criminals.
  • It’s not as customizable as other operating systems.
  • Folks switching from other platforms may find certain elements unintuitive.
  • macOS receives fewer and less significant updates than Windows 10.
  • macOS supports fewer applications and peripherals than Windows 10, and those it does support tend to be pricey.

3What size laptop should you choose?

Woman choosing laptop size based on what fits in her bag

The best laptop size for you depends on what you want to do with it.

  • 15 to 18 inches: If you want to watch movies, play games or edit videos, then a big display becomes much more important. These activities also tend to benefit from more powerful—and usually heavier—hardware and batteries, which affects portability. You won’t want to lug a big performance laptop to and from work or school every day (some models weigh upwards of eight pounds), but many are only four or five pounds and portable enough to move about when needed.
  • 11 to 14 inches: Folks who use their notebooks primarily to surf the web, check email and work on documents and spreadsheets can safely stick with smaller notebooks in the 11- to 14-inch range.
  • Ultraportable: Weighing three pounds or less with screens 14 inches and under, ultraportable laptops are ideal for commuters and frequent flyers. Not only are they easy to tote around, but they usually have long battery life. Depending on the model, your bank account might feel a pinch, but it could be worth it if you plan to take your notebook everywhere you go.[2]
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How to Measure Laptop Size
Much like TVs, laptop screen sizes are measured diagonally, from the lower corner to the opposite upper corner. That means a 13-inch laptop probably isn’t 13-plus inches across, but somewhere closer to 12 to 12.5 inches (depending on bezel width). This info is handy to keep in mind when considering whether a laptop will fit in your favourite bag.

4What other specs should you consider when buying a laptop?

Laptop specs like ports

Looking at specs can get a bit overwhelming for non-geeks because of the acronyms and numbers that detail a laptop’s performance and features. Here’s a breakdown of the more technical elements[3] that you may want to keep an eye on.

  • Central Processing Unit (CPU): The CPU is your computer’s brain. There’s a lot of jargon around the CPU—nanometres, multicores, GHz—but all you really need to focus on is the chip’s generation. Generally, the higher the number, the newer and more powerful the CPU. An Intel Core i9, for example, is super speedy (and costly), while an Intel Core i5 is more mainstream.
  • Integrated or discrete graphics: Most people do just fine with integrated graphics, which means that the main CPU handles graphics processing. If you plan on doing lots of video editing or playing games, look for a notebook with a graphics card from AMD or Nvidia for a noticeable performance boost in demanding apps.
  • RAM: RAM is where data gets stored just before being used. The more you have, the faster your computer will run. You can find notebooks with as little as 4GB of RAM but try to aim for at least 8GB if you can. If you want to run games or media editing software, look for even more.
  • Storage: Cloud storage services have made local storage less vital than it used to be. Rather than looking for a laptop with terabytes of hard-disk space, consider spending a bit more on one with a smaller solid-state drive (SSD). It’ll grant a huge boost in speed when it comes to booting up, shutting down and opening applications.
  • Battery life: If you plan to use your laptop unplugged, look for one with a battery that lasts nine or more hours—and remember that this rating is based on specific use conditions. Games and other resource-intensive apps suck juice far more rapidly.
  • Touchpad/Pointer nub: Touchpads come in a variety of styles, some with discrete mouse buttons and some that let you tap the pad to click. It comes down to personal preference.
  • Ports: If you plan to connect multiple peripherals—think displays, mice, printers and external drives—make sure your laptop has the number and type of USB, Thunderbolt and HDMI ports you need.
  • Touchscreen: A touchscreen is a nice perk, but it tends to increase cost and reduce battery life. Unless you have a specific need for a touchscreen, it’s one feature you can safely skip. You might like our top tablets instead!

5How much is a new laptop going to cost you?

These days there’s a laptop for every budget, from carefully refurbished models that provide good performance at a reduced price to premium notebooks that do everything you need and more. Here are some general price ranges and what you can expect from each.

  • $200 to $400: Expect Chromebooks and some basic budget laptops running Windows 10 in this range. They aren’t ideal for gamers and budding filmmakers, but they’ll work well for students, as well as moms and dads who want to do a little web browsing and online shopping.

Shop Laptops Under $400

  • $400 to $800: These notebooks will let you do a bit more. Bigger and higher quality screens improve the viewing experience when watching TV shows and movies and noticeably more powerful specs let you do basic multimedia editing without pulling your hair out watching loading screens. They’re mostly free of frills but they’re reliable workhorses that let you have a bit of fun.

Shop Laptops $400 to $800

  • $800 to $1200: You’ll start to find 2-in-1 laptops in this range, as well as some well-equipped traditional clamshells that look sharp and are a good fit for more resource-intensive activities, like gaming, serious video editing and content creation.

Shop Laptops $800 to $1200

  • $1200 plus: Once you reach this range, you’ll find laptops with premium materials, excellent build quality and chic designs outfitted with the latest technologies, including 4K displays, solid-state drives, the latest chipsets and robust graphics. Think: MacBooks and premium Windows 10 machines.

Shop Laptops Over $1200