How to Choose Laptop in 2021
There are so many to choose from, so let CNET help you choose the right laptop.
Since you'll likely use a new laptop every day for important tasks like work, school, paying bills, ordering necessities and basically planning your life, finding the best laptop can get stressful. To make it even harder, most laptops look the same, spec and feature lists can be confusing and prices can run from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.
Luckily, you're not in this alone. Our CNET computer experts have spent a combined 60 years (seriously) testing and reviewing laptops, covering everything from price to performance to battery life, all to help you pick the perfect laptop.
This hand-curated list represents our top picks across various laptop sizes, styles and budgets and running on Windows, MacOS and Chrome. One word of caution, though: Microsoft has released the full version of its Windows 11 operating system on Oct. 5. However, if you need to buy something right now, all of the laptops on this list should fully support the new OS.
If you want more options for a particular category, we also have specialized lists you can check out while you're shopping, including the best gaming laptops, best 15-inch laptops, best two-in-ones and best Chromebooks, as well as the best laptops for college students, the best laptop for creatives and the best MacBook Pro alternatives for the Windows set. And if you need to stay as low as possible on the price of a new laptop computer, check out our picks for best budget laptops and best budget gaming laptops.
This list is periodically updated with new models we've tested and reviewed. It's a great place to start to get an idea of what's available. But if you're asking if a particular laptop or two-in-one is right for you, here's some general advice to help with that.
How much does a good laptop cost?
Setting a budget is a good place to start when shopping for the best laptop for yourself. The good news is you can get a nice-looking, lightweight laptop with excellent battery life at prices under $500. If you're shopping for a laptop around $500 or less, check out our top picks here, as well as more specific buying advice for that price range.
Higher-end components like Intel Core i-series and AMD Ryzen processors and premium design touches like thin-display bezels and aluminum or magnesium bodies have made their way to laptops priced between $500 and $1,000. You can also find touchscreens and two-in-one designs that can be used as a tablet or a laptop -- and a couple other positions in between. In this price range, you'll also find faster memory and ssd storage -- and more of it -- to improve performance.
Above $1,000 is where you'll find premium laptops and two-in-ones. If you're looking for the fastest performance, the best battery life, the slimmest, lightest designs and top-notch display quality with an adequate screen size, expect to spend at least $1,000.
Which is better, MacOS or Windows?
Deciding between MacOS and Windows for many people will come down to personal preference and budget. Apple's base model laptop, the M1 MacBook Air, starts at $999. You can sometimes find it discounted or you can get educational pricing from Apple and other retailers. But, in general, it'll be at least $1,000 for a new MacBook, and the prices just go up from there.
For the money, though, you're getting great hardware top to bottom, inside and out. Apple recently moved to using its own processors, which resulted in across-the-board performance improvements compared to older Intel-based models. But, the company's most powerful laptop, the 16-inch MacBook Pro, still hasn't been updated to Apple silicon.
But, again, that great hardware comes at a price. Also, you're limited to just Apple laptops. With Windows and Chromebooks (more on these below), you get an amazing variety of devices at a wide range of prices.
Software between the two is plentiful, so unless you need to run something that's only available on one platform or the other, you should be fine to go with either. Gaming is definitely an advantage for Windows, though.
MacOS is also considered to be easier and safer to use than Windows, especially for people who want their computers to get out of the way so they can get things done. Over the years, though, Microsoft has done its best to follow suit and, with Windows 11 here, it's trying to remove any barriers. Also, while Macs might have a reputation for being safer, with the popularity of the iPhone and iPad helping to drive Mac sales, they've become bigger targets for malware.
Are Chromebooks worth it?
Yes, they are, but they're not for everyone. Google's Chrome OS has come a long way in the past 10 years and Chromebooks -- laptops that run on Chrome OS -- are great for people who do most of their work in a web browser or using mobile apps. They are secure, simple and, more often than not, a bargain. What they can't do is natively run Windows or Mac software.
What's the best laptop for home, travel or both?
The pandemic changed how and where a lot of people work. The small, ultraportable laptops valued by people who regularly traveled may have suddenly become woefully inadequate for working from home. Or maybe instead of needing long battery life, you'd rather have a bigger display with more graphics power for gaming.
If you're going to be working on a laptop and don't need more mobility than moving it from room to room, consider a 15.6-inch laptop or larger. In general, a bigger screen makes life easier for work and is more enjoyable for entertainment, and also is better if you're using it as an extended display with an external monitor. It typically means you're getting more ports, too, so connecting an external display or storage or a keyboard and mouse are easier without requiring a hub or dock.
For travel, stay with 13- or 14-inch laptops or two-in-ones. They'll be the lightest and smallest while still delivering excellent battery life. What's nice is that PC makers are moving away from 16:9 widescreens toward 16:10- or 3:2-ratio displays, which gives you more vertical screen space for work without significantly increasing the footprint. These models usually don't have discrete graphics or powerful processors, though that's not always the case.
Which laptop is best for gaming or creating?
You can play games and create content on any laptop. That said, what games you play and what content you create -- and the speed at which you do them -- is going vary greatly depending on the components inside the laptop.
For casual browser-based games or using streaming-game services like Google Stadia, Nvidia GeForce Now and Xbox Cloud Gaming, you don't need a powerful gaming laptop. And similarly, if you're just trimming video clips, cropping photos or live-streaming video from your webcam, you can get by with a modestly priced laptop or Chromebook with integrated graphics.
For anything more demanding, you'll need to invest more money for discrete graphics like Nvidia's RTX 30-series GPUs. Increased system memory of 16GB or more, having a speedy SSD for storage and a faster processor such as an Intel Core i7 or AMD Ryzen 7 will all help you get things moving faster, too.
The other piece you'll want to consider is the display. For gaming, look for screens with a high refresh rate of 120Hz or faster so games look smoother while playing. For content creation, look for displays that cover 100% sRGB color space.