Laptops have gone from chunky, unyielding pieces of technology you’d find improbably used in a 90s spy movie to sleek, lightweight devices that let us fully utilize the advents of Cloud storage, online streaming of movies and music, and the ability to work or play on the go. Rather than being tied down to an office desk or the family PC in the basement, these increasingly affordable gadgets are all but essential to students in an increasingly digital learning environment, employees who work off-site or need to travel often for work, and for those who need a portable but heavy-duty piece of tech to keep abreast of their social media and Netflix.
With the choices available though, in brands and specs and the confusing technical jargon crowding product descriptions, it becomes a little tricky to pinpoint which laptop is the best unit for us. The job becomes easier, however, if you already know which features you’re looking out for, to put together the criteria you can use to shortlist the right unit for you.
Platform and Processing
The big question – Windows or Mac? While they do have their similarities, consider the following distinct differences setting the two miles apart to help guide your decision. Budget is a consideration, the starting price of the cheapest Macbook higher than several mid-range Windows-enabled laptops – however, a good Macbook can also last you over a decade with steady and seamless performance, so in the long-run, you do get value for money.
Both platforms have their advantages – Windows-enabled computers, for instance, are hands-down better for gaming. The customizability and relative ease of upgrading things like storage, resolution and graphics cards makes it far more video-game friendly than difficult-to-upgrade Mac products. Windows systems also offer a bigger array of brands for you to consider, so there’s more room to mix and match laptop features you want in your machine, and with the roll-out of Windows 10, look for touch-screen enabled devices too.
Meanwhile, Apple’s macOS Sierra, its latest desktop operating system, lets you sync up all your Apple devices, including your Apple Watch and iPhone, for better cross-functional connectivity – you can receive and reply to texts from your desktop, and quickly transfer files back and forth. Macs have also traditionally been more secure to malware and virus attacks (though this is not iron-cast, since Macs have been susceptible viruses in the past).
Once you’ve settled the Mac versus Windows debate (there is also the third, secure but somewhat limited option of Chrome OS, better if you’re working mostly with online apps), the next thing to consider is the Central Processing Unit (CPU), the main control hub of your computer that executes and runs operations. Intel’s Core i3, i5 and i7 are all popular. Intel Core i3 leans more toward the cheaper end, and compromises on performance a little as a result, while most high-performing, heavy-duty mid-range laptops will sport an Intel Core i5, combining affordability with heavyweight performance.
For demanding and extensive use, be it as a workstation PC or a gaming setup, we recommend picking an option with Intel’s Core i7. Though pricier, they pack higher wattage, the quad-core system enabling quick, powerful and decisive performance.
Random Access Memory is the part of your computer that enables you to run multiple programs and tasks at once – the operating system and all your software stores data here to be retrieved quickly and within fractions of seconds to enable the smooth and swift running of your laptop. Cheaper laptops can come with as little as 2GB of RAM, but we recommend going for 4GB for smooth, lag-free performance. 8GB is more than enough, if you have the budget for it, plenty useful if you’re operating demanding software for sound engineering, video editing and animating, or are using your laptop for gaming.
Storage space is critical to how fast your CPU can run, and while traditional hard-drives are still around, they’re less favored for ultra-lightweight, compact laptops. If you can afford it, we recommend opting for a solid state drive (SSD) – these run swift and silent, though don’t afford much storage capacity. This won’t be much of a problem, though, if you’re used to saving your work on Cloud storage options like Google Drive or Dropbox, and prefer to stream movies and music via Netflix or Spotify rather than downloading them on to your device.
If you’re looking for something portable and lightweight, easy to slip into your bag or briefcase when on the go, there are laptops as small as 11-12 inches, measured in screen size, perfect for carrying with you on your commutes or travels. These will often come with in-built batteries and forgo DVD drives to keep them sleek and slim. A little bigger than this, about 13-14 inches, and you get somewhat better payoff in both portability and heavy-duty usage.
Bigger options, with wider screens clocking in anywhere between 15 to 18 inches, are naturally less lightweight but better for use if you’re going to be streaming movies and series, playing video games, or working on visually-intensive projects involving Photoshop or Illustrator, video-editing, animating or 3-D modelling. Weighing up to 4.5 pounds and above, these units may be less portable, and better suited if you don’t need to carry your laptop around much.
The higher the pixels the more capacity your screen has to show images sharply and realistically, so if your laptop is going to double as a TV-screen, a gaming PC or your workspace for professionally editing photos or videos, we recommend going for HD (High Definition), at 1920 x 1080-pixel resolution, for crisp and true-to-color visuals if you have the budget for it. Many budget-range laptops, typically used in office spaces where high-definition visuals aren’t required or as student laptops to complete assignments and do research, have resolutions of 1366 x 768 pixels. These laptops do still let you watch videos, with acceptable resolution and image quality.
If a lot of what you’re going to be using your laptop for involves typing – writing out assignments, blog posts, work emails, project proposals, and so on – you’re going to need a good ergonomic keyboard. Cramped keyboards with uncomfortable layouts – think ones with a number-pad squeezed in, or arrow keys you can’t easily locate for quickly navigating around the screen – aren’t going to cut it. Keyboards with spaced out keys big enough to comfortably tap with accuracy, featuring swift response for the vertical travel distance per downstroke (simply put, how far a key can be pushed down when pressed and how quickly the resultant function commences) are top picks. Backlit keyboards are also handy if you find yourself working in dim environments, so you don’t end up straining your eyes.
If your device is going to be used mostly at a desk, with an accessible power-socket you can plug into, battery-life is less of a concern. But if you’re planning on using it on-the-go, at the airport, in a hotel lobby, at a McDonald’s table as you catch a quick lunch break, your laptop should run at least 6 hours on battery. Of course, battery power would drain the more intensively you use it – you can’t run Photoshop and Premiere Pro and have twenty internet tabs open and expect the battery to last longer – but despite brand promises it’s always wise to look into product reviews and customer testimonials to see how well your laptop can hold up on battery power alone.