What the best laptops have

  • A comfortable keyboard and touchpad. Virtually every interaction you have with a laptop uses the keyboard and touchpad, so you'll want to make sure those are comfortable enough to withstand hours of use.
  • At least a third-generation Intel Core processor. All laptops in the $850-plus price range should run on Intel's third-generation Intel Core (Ivy Bridge) processors, at least. At the time of this update, Intel's fourth-gen Haswell processors had just hit the market, and not all laptops had them yet. Their main advantage is much better battery life.
  • At least 4 GB of RAM. Most $850-plus laptops offer 4 to 8 GB of RAM, the more the better for running multiple or intensive programs. At least 2 GB is the bare minimum needed to run the 64-bit version of Windows 8.
  • A good display. A resolution of 1,366 by 768 pixels is the desired minimum, but many laptops in this price range come with higher-resolution displays.
  • Integrated Wi-Fi. Just about all laptops have this, so you can access the Internet wirelessly. Most also have Bluetooth connectivity.
  • At least a one-year warranty. This is the industry standard, but some laptops include a three-year warranty. You can often buy an extended warranty, as well.

Know before you go

Are you Mac or PC? Reviewers and pundits hotly debate the relative value of a Macintosh versus a PC. Keep in mind that all Macs can run Windows because they use Intel chips, although you'll need to buy a copy of the Windows OS (Est. $90 and up, depending on version) since it doesn't ship with any Mac. Review tests show that Windows can run just as fast on a Mac as on a comparable PC.

Two programs, Apple's free Boot Camp and Parallels Desktop for Mac (Est. $80), allow Mac users to run Mac OS X and Windows on the same Apple computer. Boot Camp comes with the Mac OS, but users must reboot to use Windows. As the name implies, Parallels allows the use of both operating systems at the same time. Reviewers say it's faster, too.

The Mac OS will run only on a Macintosh computer, which makes the product line unique. Mac computers have been shown to be less vulnerable to virus attacks, although hackers have paid more attention to Apple's systems over the last couple of years.

Apple also has the industry's best tech support and reliability record. The downside of just 90 days of free telephone support is offset by access to Apple's free in-store Genius Bars, assuming the nearest Apple Retail Store isn't too far away.

Mac laptops used to cost more than Windows models, but that price difference largely vanishes when comparing systems that are identically configured. However, upgrades can be easier on some Windows laptops. For example, Apple laptops' batteries aren't removable, and the MacBook Air has its memory soldered directly to the motherboard. Apple upgrades can also be very expensive compared to similar upgrades on PC laptops, but Mac computers tend to hold their resale value well.

Touch screen or no touch screen? Many laptops now have touch-screen displays to make the most of Windows 8's interface, but they cost more than non-touch models. You can certainly use Windows 8 without a touch screen, and some very good laptops omit the touch screen to lower the price. For those who want to forgo learning a new interface, some laptops -- especially business-centric choices -- are still available with Windows 7 either standard or as an option.

Glossy or matte display? Many new laptops have a glossy display, which makes graphics and movies look saturated but can give off glare, especially outside or in an office environment. Most business laptops offer an anti-glare or matte display, but that option isn't as common as it used to be.

How big of a hard drive should you get? The short answer is to get the biggest hard drive you can afford; photo, music and video files take up a lot of space. Adding a larger hard drive when you configure a system is a worthwhile upgrade if you collect media files. You can't put an additional internal hard drive into most laptops, so allowing room for growth can be a good investment.

Some ultraportable laptops have only a very small solid-state drive (SSD). SSDs open applications and boot up Windows much faster than mechanical hard drives, but they cost much more than traditional drives and often provide less storage capacity. Some laptops offer an SSD for fast boot-up and access to most-used files and programs, plus a high-capacity mechanical hard drive for holding larger files and deep storage. Big SSDs are available on some laptops, but on those with only a small SSD, options to store files "to the cloud" can be valuable.

What about wireless connectivity? Just about all laptops come with integrated Wi-Fi. Some also provide built-in or optional access to cell phone carrier wireless networks, but a separate data plan is required. Some laptops include technology such as WirelessHD, Miracast or Intel's WiDi to stream content in HD to a compatible TV, or one equipped with a third-party adapter or receiver. Bluetooth is another common feature.

What should you expect in terms of service, support and warranty policies? Laptop warranties range from one to three years. All manufacturers offer warranty upgrades, and prices can vary by model. Tech support is generally free during the warranty period, but not thereafter. Some manufacturers such as Dell and HP add extras like theft insurance to warranty upgrades to make them more attractive. However, some brands are easier to deal with than others if problems arise. Look to the reviews of the individual laptops covered in this report for guidance.

What is bloatware, and how can you deal with it? Consumer laptops are bundled with software that's often not what you want or need. For example, you won't get Microsoft Office -- including Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint -- without paying extra for it. Instead, you'll get limited-time trial versions of programs, adware and crippled software, unless you pay to unlock full functionality. Many find this so-called bloatware to be a minor nuisance, but sometimes it slows down boot-up times and performance until the offending programs are uninstalled.

If you end up with a laptop that has a lot of bloatware, PC Decrapifier can help you clean it up quickly and with minimum hassle. Just don't accidentally delete any critical programs! The tool is free for personal users.

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