Finding the right laptop
The best laptop is the one that meets your computing needs. If, like most people, you use a computer primarily for light duty tasks -- reading and writing email, posting on Facebook, streaming movies and music, playing casual games, writing a document in Microsoft Word, etc. -- a mainstream laptop costing $900 or less will almost certainly be just fine. At the higher end of that range, you can find surprisingly powerful laptops, including, for the first time, some configurations of the Apple MacBook Air (Est. $900 and up). We also found some cheap laptops priced at $400 and below with enough power for everyday use, including some that sport a touchscreen display for better compatibility with Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 (more below on that).
This report also covers more powerful computers that are designed for serious work or serious play. Typical business users, especially those who are frequent travelers, might want to look first at ultraportable notebooks that weigh less than 4 pounds or so and typically have very good battery life. Those who spend their days crunching numbers or working with graphics will likely want something that's a little more powerful, with a faster processor and better graphics capabilities. High-end gamers will want more power still to fire their way through intense 3D games with the smoothest action and the highest possible detail.
Laptop computers come in all sorts of shapes and sizes -- and capabilities.
Traditional laptops are usually fairly thick at 1 inch and up and heavy at 5 pounds or more. These types of computers run the gamut from the super cheap, where design and aesthetics take a decided back seat to the bottom line, to super powerful desktop replacements that can handle even heavy-duty tasks such as 3D gaming with ease. Whether you need a laptop with maximum power or one with a rock-bottom price, the odds are good that you can find a traditional laptop that will fill the bill.
Ultraportable laptops are super thin and super light. They rely on swift processors and nimble solid-state drives (SSDs) to feel quick on their feet while web surfing, streaming video, or performing productivity tasks like composing documents or preparing PowerPoint presentations. Examples include Windows Ultrabooks and the Apple MacBook Air. Ultraportable laptops are especially favored by those who need an everyday workhorse that doesn't feel like a ton of bricks to lug around. Ultraportables with the latest processors run fast and cool, with enough battery power to last for a whole day of work.
Chromebooks run Google Chrome instead of Windows or Mac operating systems. For basic tasks such as web browsing and streaming video, a cheap Chromebook could be all you need. However, they are not the best choice for more intensive use, or if you need to run specific applications like Microsoft Office. They also work best if you have dependable, steady access to the Internet. These are among the least expensive laptops you can buy, and are typically as thin and light as an Ultrabook, but be sure you understand the trade-offs before deciding on one.
Convertible laptop computers look like traditional laptops, but have a keyboard that either flips over or detaches when you want to use your laptop as a slate tablet. Most run the full version of Windows 8 (or 8.1), rather than the tablet-specific operating systems used by Android or Apple tablets, or the more limited Windows RT operating system used in the Microsoft Windows Surface 2 slate tablet. They also tend to rate more highly for use as a laptop than as a tablet. If you are primarily interested in a slate tablet, such as the Apple iPad Air 2 or the Google Nexus 9, those and many more are covered in our report on tablets.
When it comes to laptops, the only constant is change
For most product categories -- including most technology products -- life cycles are measured in years. For laptops, especially Windows laptops, they are sometimes measured in months or even weeks as makers are constantly tweaking configurations to take advantage of even small changes in available technologies and components, either to keep a competitive edge or merely to hit a price point.
Most of these tweaks are small -- showing up as incremental changes in benchmark tests (and not always for the better) but rarely having very much of an impact on real-world performance. Other changes can be more significant; for example, a step up to a new generation microprocessor can render earlier comments obsolete. Complicating matters, laptops bearing the same -- or very similar -- model names can come in a host of sometimes substantially different versions ranging from preconfigured models sold only through a specific retailer (Best Buy's Blue Label program is one example of that) to user-customized configurations sold directly by the manufacturer.
The bottom line is that the recommendations in this report should be used primarily as a starting point. The specific configurations available when you are ready to purchase may vary. However, we provide the hardware details -- processor, graphics, memory and storage -- for each laptop we recommend. Match those up to the closest available models -- or custom configure your laptop yourself -- and performance should be as good or better as the reviewed configuration. Other aspects of the laptop -- ergonomics, aesthetics, build quality, support, etc. -- should be consistent regardless of how much a manufacturer has overhauled the innards.
Let's get this out of the way from the start: Windows 8 is a mess. The problem is that in trying to create a "unified" operating system designed to work on tablets and laptops, Windows 8 wound up being one that didn't work all that well on either. Windows 8.1 introduced some fixes and workarounds that helped a little, but not enough in the eyes of many. "Touch-loving tablet users are still saddled with a touch-hostile Windows desktop, while point-and-clickers who live and breathe the Windows desktop still can't make Metro go away," says Woody Leonhard at InfoWorld.
Microsoft is in such a hurry to put Windows 8 in the rear-view mirror that it is skipping Windows 9 and jumping to Windows 10, which is expected to be released in mid-2015, though that date remains speculative and could slip farther down the road. A few makers, such as Lenovo, HP and Dell, are still offering a handful of laptops that ship with Windows 7 either standard or as an option, and a few rate well enough to earn a spot in this report. However, if you think Windows 8/8.1 would be a good fit for you, we recommend getting a laptop equipped with a touch screen for the best user experience. While it is possible to use Windows 8 on a non-touch laptop, feedback tells us that the process is not intuitive and not a whole lot of fun.
How we picked the best laptops
To find the best laptops we scour feedback from expert reviewers, such as PCMag.com and CNET, and user feedback at sites such as BestBuy.com and Amazon.com. We consider not only performance 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. We name the best laptop overall, along with the top choices among cheap laptops and gaming rigs. While these laptops rise to the top, there are a bevy of laptops that don't fall very much behind, and some of those are able enough performers to make them worthy of serious consideration as well.
Elsewhere in this Report:
Best Laptops: These are the laptops that deliver the best combination of performance, ergonomics and value. Editors name top choices, including Windows and Apple products.
Best Cheap Laptops: Need a basic laptops for light-duty tasks or just for surfing the Internet? These rock-bottom-priced Windows laptops provide real value. Chromebooks are discussed, too.
Best Gaming Laptops: Serious gaming requires serious laptops with high-end processors and sophisticated graphics. These gaming laptops deliver terrific performance without completely draining your bank account.
Buying Guide: Not sure where to start to figure out what type of laptop you need? This guide walks you through some key considerations to help simplify the task of buying the best laptop.
Our Sources: These are the expert and user reviews we consulted in naming the best laptops. They are ranked in the order of their helpfulness.