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 $1,000 or less will almost certainly be just fine. At the higher end of that range, you can find surprisingly powerful laptops, including some configurations of the Apple MacBook Air. 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, including Windows 10, which launched in July 2015 (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. These kinds of systems are often custom built by boutique firms with cutting edge graphics and other enhancements, and often carry prices that soar into the stratosphere. However, those gamers that can settle for a system that's simply lightning fast, we found a few gaming rigs that can satisfy your hunger for action without dinging your wallet too badly.
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. Some makers have begun offering ultra-cheap Windows-based Chromebook alternatives, such as the Windows 10 equipped Acer Cloudbook. The Cloudbook was yet to officially go on sale at the time this report was prepared (it is scheduled for an August 2015 launch), but is expected to sell at prices starting around $170.
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. Slate tablets with keyboards that connect via Bluetooth are also available. Also called hybrid laptops, these run the full version of Windows, rather than the tablet-specific operating systems used by Android or Apple tablets. Most convertible laptops work better either as a slate or a laptop, and are only adequate in the other role. Which type of device is most important to you can play a major role in your buying decision. If you are interested in a slate tablet that runs either Android or Apple iOS (for example, the Apple iPad Air 2), those 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 they rarely have 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 reviews obsolete -- and many makers (such as Apple) are now re-using model names without noting hardware changes, be they big or small. Complicating matters even more, 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.
Saying that Windows 8 was an unmitigated disaster for Microsoft might be stretching things -- but only a little. The company's first attempt to create a "unified" operating system designed to work on tablets and laptops 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.
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 was released at the end of July 2015 (right around the time this report is published). "Pre-reviews" and hands-on looks at some of the earlier builds reveal that while Windows 10 is not yet perfect, it goes a long way toward righting many of the wrongs inflicted by Windows 8, especially for those who like to work and navigate with a keyboard and mouse. Dan Grabham, in his Hands-on review for TechRadar.com says that "Feature-wise, Windows 10 is the new Windows 7. It's robust, pleasant to use and free..." Mark Hachman, senior editor at PC World shares some concerns that Windows 10 might still be trying to do too much, but adds, "As I craft my review, there's no denying that Windows 10 feels like a tribute to the best of Windows 7 and Windows 8, and it moves the ecosystem forward."
Because Windows 10 is brand new, and because it's expected to take some time before Windows 10 equipped laptops are fully available at retail, none of the systems covered here have been tested with that operating system (OS). That's not a huge concern, however. Hardware configurations are not expected to change much, if at all, to accommodate the new OS, and performance impacts (for better or worse) should be negligible. Usability, on the other hand, should increase markedly, once the learning curve to master the changes Win 10 brings about (such as the return of a real, but really revamped, Start button) is mastered.
In addition, if you buy a current laptop with Windows 7, Windows 8 or Windows 8.1, Windows 10 is being offered as a free upgrade -- though with some caveats, such as needing to do the upgrade within one year. So that means that you can go ahead and buy a current laptop right now and be assured that you can also get all the goodies that Windows 10 will (hopefully) deliver.
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. While these Best Reviewed 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 Apple Laptops | Best Windows Laptops | Best Cheap Laptops | Buying Guide | Our Sources