Options vary depending on what you'll use the laptop for most
The best laptop is one that meets your computing needs. If you use a computer primarily for surfing the Internet or composing documents, a mainstream laptop costing $850 or less will probably be just fine. These units are covered separately in our report on cheap laptops. If you're interested in a Mac or can't decide between an Apple and Windows laptop, see our report on Apple laptops and desktops. Finally, tablet computers including the Apple iPad are covered in our report on tablet computers.
This report covers full-featured laptops suitable for serious work or serious play. Business users and frequent travelers might want to look first at ultraportable laptops, notebooks that weigh less than 4.5 pounds and typically have very good battery life. Intel's Ultrabooks, for example, require at least five hours of battery life but aren't the most powerful laptops. Experts say they're great for everyday computing, but most don't recommend them for gaming or intensive number crunching, graphics rendering or multimedia tasks.
Convertible laptops are equally thin and light, with clever folding touch screens that let you use them as a laptop or a tablet. It's not just a gimmick, either, reviews say. Testers like the flexibility of standing their laptop up like a tent to watch movies, or folding it up small when they're squeezed into a tight airplane seat. Convertibles pack Ultrabook-like specs, so they're fine for everyday tasks but not for heavy-duty gaming and the like.
At the other end of the spectrum are powerful desktop-replacement and gaming laptops. The former are a good choice for mainstream users who don't care about portability. Although they often weigh much more than 5 pounds, desktop replacements have enough firepower to serve as your primary computer. Most such units are geared toward either gaming or multimedia uses, with a high-powered central processing unit (CPU), discrete graphics processors and dedicated graphics memory, so you can fire your way through the most intense first-person shooters.
Multimedia-focused laptops sport movie-friendly features like 3D displays, wireless streaming technology and Blu-ray Disc drives, but they might disappoint gamers. High-tech 3D displays require decreasing the resolution or settings on popular games to maintain acceptable frame rates, and the number of 3D-ready game titles remains relatively small.
To find the best laptops, experts run all kinds of benchmark and real-life stress tests such as 3D gaming, video streaming and graphics crunching. Beautiful displays, rich-sounding speakers, dreamy keyboards and silky-smooth touchpads and touch screens earn bonus points. Owners are polled to find out which laptop brands prove durable. One professional source puts each brand's customer service to the test by having staffers go undercover with tech-support questions.
We scour hundreds of reviews from more than two dozen sources to find the best laptops on the market. We consider performance, of course, but also factors such as ergonomics, design and value, as well as which laptop makers do the best job of standing by you if trouble crops up.