What to Look for When Buying a Laptop: A Complete Guide

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If you’ve been looking for a new laptop, you have probably come across a lot of confusing terms like CPU, GPU, RAM, and more. In order to make an informed purchase, it is important to understand what these basic terms mean. Here’s our guide on everything you need to know when buying a new laptop, so you can find one that works for you.

Choose an Operating System

The first thing you have to decide when buying a laptop is which operating system (OS) you want to use. These days, the three major operating systems to choose from are Windows, macOS, and Chrome OS.

Windows

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(Image Source: Microsoft)

The majority of laptops you can buy these days run on Windows. Since they are so popular, Windows laptops generally support more apps and features, making them the standard for gamers, businesses, and more.

There are dozens of companies that manufacture Windows laptops. While they range in price, Windows laptops usually offer more bang for your buck than Macs, and they are generally cheaper to repair and easier to upgrade.

However, it is important to note that Microsoft is going to end support for Windows 10 in 2025. So, if you are going to buy a new laptop this year, it is a good idea to make sure that it’s compatible with Windows 11.

Read: The best new Windows 11 features

macOS

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(Image Source: Apple)

All MacBook laptops run on macOS, which was designed to be cleaner and easier than Windows. So, MacBooks are usually better for designers and non-tech-savvy users that only want to use their laptop for simple tasks.

Since MacBooks are not nearly as popular as Windows laptops, there are fewer viruses created for macOS. Plus, Apple has total control over the hardware and software of MacBooks, so it can provide better customer service than Microsoft.

Chrome OS

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(Image Source: Google)

Unlike traditional operating systems, Chrome OS was originally designed around web-based applications. But now you can now download and install apps like Microsoft Word, Netflix, and even Android apps from the Google Play Store.

Chromebooks also have very limited internal storage, so you will have to save most of your files to the cloud or Google Drive. So, these cheap laptops are best for young students and employees who need something fast and secure.

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Choose a CPU

Choose a CPU

(Image Source: Intel)

A CPU (central processing unit) is like the brains of a laptop. This small chip has a hand in processing all kinds of different information from your applications, operating system, and more. So, the CPU is one of the most important things to look for when buying a laptop.

AMD vs Intel

The two main CPU manufacturers are Intel and AMD. While Intel usually releases the fastest CPUs, AMD offers cheaper models. However, AMD has been catching up over the years, and now the two are very competitive.

Intel

Intel’s latest line of CPUs is called the Core family. To determine how powerful a Core processor is, just look at the model name. Newer, more powerful processors have higher brand modifier numbers. For example, a Core i7 will outperform a Core i5, which will outperform a Core i3.

intel vs amd laptop buying guide
(Image Source: Intel)

You might also find certain budget laptops that use Intel Celeron or Pentium processors. However, these CPUs are much slower than Core i3 or i5 processors, and it might be worth the extra money to upgrade if you can afford it.

AMD

AMD’s most popular line of CPUs is called Ryzen. These processors are direct competitors to Intel’s Core line. For example, a Ryzen 5 is similar to a Core i5, and a Ryzen 7 is comparable to a Core i7.

amd vs intel laptop buying guide
(Image Source: WikiChip)

If you find a laptop with AMD’s A-series or Athlon CPUs, you might want to look for a newer model to buy. Since Ryzen CPUs greatly overpower the older processors, you can get a much better laptop for the money.

Apple M1

Until recently, all Mac computers came with Intel CPUs. Now, Apple has started creating its own processors for the first time. You can find the new M1 chips in the latest MacBooks.

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(Image Source: Apple)

The M1 is different than other processors because it is a system on a chip, which means it also contains the laptop’s memory, graphics card, and more. According to Apple, the M1 is 3.5 times faster than the previous generation, while only using half the power.

What Are CPU Cores and How Many Do You Need?

One of the most important things to look for when buying a laptop is how many cores the CPU has. Cores are like processors inside your CPU. They can each act alone or work together to complete tasks.

In general, the more cores a CPU has, the faster it will be, especially for multitasking.

laptop buying guide how many cores do your need cpu
Internal die photograph of an Intel Core i7 CPU (Image Source: Intel)
  • 2 Cores: For Basic Tasks

Dual-core CPUs are only sufficient for basic tasks like checking your email, browsing the web, and writing word documents. If you like to have multiple browser tabs and applications open at once, you might overload this CPU.  

  • 4 Cores: For Everyday Multi-Tasking

Quad-core CPUs are good enough for the majority of users, including gamers. They also allow you to multitask without slowing your laptop down, and you can play some entry-level games at lower resolutions.

  • 6 Cores: For Gamers and Content Creators

Hexa-core processors are designed for more demanding users that need to run intensive programs, like game streamers and graphic designers. They allow you to play games while streaming at the same time.

  • 8 Cores: For Professionals

Octa-core CPUs are designed for professional gamers, editors, and engineers. These mobile workstations are powerful enough to edit 4K videos or play games while streaming and recording all at the same time. However, since they do not compromise on performance, these laptops often have a significantly shorter battery life.

Read: What is a CPU, and how many cores does your CPU have?

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CPU Clock Speed

Clock speed refers to how fast a processor can complete a task. In general, higher clock speeds mean applications will load faster, but it only measures the performance of a single core at a time.

Basically, a CPU with a high clock speed and only 1 or 2 cores will only be able to run a few applications, but they will all be snappy. On the other hand, a CPU with a low clock speed and lots of cores will be able to run multiple applications, but they will all be a little sluggish.

CPU speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz), and you only need 2-3 GHz for basic tasks. However, if you are looking for a gaming laptop, you might want to buy one with a processor that can reach speeds of 3.5-4 GHz.

Choose a GPU

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(Image Source: AMD)

A graphics processing unit (GPU) is similar to a CPU, but it mostly processes images, videos, and games. Most laptops these days have integrated GPUs, but gamers and content creators might want to look for a laptop with a discrete GPU to buy instead.

Integrated vs Discrete GPUs

IntegratedGPUs are embedded inside the CPU, so they are usually only powerful enough to watch movies and play low-resolution games. Discrete GPUs are separate from the CPU, and they are usually bigger and faster.

If you are a gamer, video editor, or professional content creator, you might want a laptop with a discrete graphics card. However, integrated graphics cards should be sufficient for most users to perform basic tasks. 

Nvidia vs Radeon

The two main discrete GPU manufacturers are Nvidia and AMD. Most Intel laptops come with Nvidia graphics cards, while AMD laptops usually come with Radeon GPUs. Nvidia is generally faster, especially for gaming, while Radeon is usually cheaper.

Nvidia vs Radeon laptop buying guide

It is important to note that laptop GPUs are much smaller than their desktop counterparts, so they are usually 5-20% slower.

Low-End Graphics Cards

The slowest GPUs only allow you to play non-demanding games at low resolutions. These include Nvidia graphics cards that end in MX and AMD R-series GPUs. These follow the same naming scheme as AMD processors, so a Radeon R9 will be more powerful than a Radeon R7.

Mid-Range Graphics Cards

With a mid-range GPU, you can play most games at medium settings in high-definition. These include many models from the Nvidia RTX 20 and GTX 10 series (like the RTX 2080 or the GTX 1080), as well as the Radeon line of Vega GPUs.

In addition, the 8-core GPU on Apple’s first M1 chip sits in the mid-range. According to early tests, the integrated graphics card cannot handle several modern games at high or even medium settings. 

High-End Graphics Cards

The fastest laptop GPUs will let you play the latest games at the highest settings, even with ray tracing and anti-aliasing. These include the newest Nvidia RTX 30 series and AMD’s Radeon RX line. Currently, the fastest GPU for laptops is the Nvidia RTX 3080, while the fastest AMD GPU is the Radeon RX 6800M.

Integrated vs Discrete GPUs
(Image Source: Nvidia)

It’s important to note that not all GPUs from the same line will have the same or even similar specs. In order to find out how fast a specific graphics card is and how it ranks compared to other GPUs, you can search for it by model number on notebookcheck.net.

Choose How Much RAM You Need

Choose How Much RAM You Need
(Image Source: Asus)

Random Access Memory (RAM) is like a laptop’s short-term memory. It is where your laptop stores temporary data for the programs you are running. Generally, the more RAM your laptop has, the faster it will be.

  • 2 GB of RAM

With 2 GB of RAM, you will have enough memory to have a few browser tabs open, write a word document, or play very low-end games. However, you can only run one or two programs at a time before your device starts slowing down.

  • 4 GB of RAM

With 4 GB of RAM, you have enough memory to run a few lightweight programs at a time. You can open a handful of browser tabs, do basic image or video editing, play low-resolution games, and stream music or videos online.

  • 8 GB of RAM

With 8 GB of RAM, you will have enough memory to run several programs at once. You can open lots of browser tabs at once, use photo or video editing programs, stream content, and play mid-to-high-end games.

  • 16 GB of RAM

With 16 GB of RAM, you have enough memory to run as many programs as you want without slowing your computer down. This amount of memory is enough for hardcore gamers, video editors, gaming streamers, and anyone using AutoCAD or other demanding software.

  • 32 GB of RAM:

With 32 GB of RAM, you have enough memory to edit high-resolution video (4K), model 3-D environments, or work with extremely large files. It’s also worth it if your computer needs to be dual-booted or you have several virtual machines installed.

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DDR3 vs DDR4

When you’re looking to buy a laptop, you might notice that there are DDR3 and DDR4 RAM sticks. The main difference between DDR3 vs DDR4 is that the newer DDR4 sticks are faster, more energy-efficient, and have a higher capacity.

Choose a Hard Drive

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A hard drive is like your laptop’s long-term memory. It’s where you store all your files, folders, applications, and more. There are two types of hard drives that you can choose from: a hard disk drive (HDD) or a solid-state drive (SDD). 

HDD

hdd vs ssd

A hard disk drive (HDD) stores data on magnetic spinning disks. Then an arm sits over these plates to read and write data. The performance of an HDD depends on how fast it is, with most desktop HDDs spinning at around 5,400 RPM (revolutions per minute).

Since these hard drives have small moving parts, they fail easier than SSDs.  

SDD

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Unlike traditional hard drives, asolid-state drive (SDD) doesn’t have any moving parts. Instead, these kinds of hard drives use flash memory, which allows them to load applications and transfer files much faster.

Read More: What’s the difference between SSD and HDD

NVMe

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If you want the fastest SSD, you might want to buy a laptop with an NVMe (non-volatile memory express) card. These hard drives connect directly to your laptop’s motherboard to avoid bottlenecks that normal SATA SSDs run into.

Choose Your Screen Type

Choose Your Screen Type laptop buying guide
(Image Source: MSI)

When you buy a laptop, there are 2 basic screen types to choose from: TN (Twisted Nematic) and IPS (In-Plane Switching). TN panels are the fastest, so they are best for gamers. On the other hand, IPS laptops have better colors that look accurate from any angle.

Some laptops also have OLED displays, which have been used in phones and high-end TVs. These expensive displays have self-lighting pixels, which gives the screen nearly perfect contrast and vibrant colors for watching movies. Plus, OLED displays have very fast response times, so they are also great for gamers. 

Screen Resolution

Screen resolution refers to how many pixels your screen has. The higher a resolution is, the more details you will be able to see. Most laptops these days have Full HD (1080×1920), Quad-HD (1440×2560), or 4K (2160×3840) displays.

screen resolution

However, you might look into buying a laptop larger than 13 inches (preferably 16 inches and up) to really see the difference with a 4K display.  

Refresh Rate

If you’re a gamer, you should also look for a laptop with a high refresh rate. This refers to how many times the image on a display will update itself (or refresh) every second. Laptops with higher refresh rates are better at handling motion, especially when playing video games.

Refresh rate is measured in hertz (Hz), and it is directly related to how many frames per second your GPU can display. So, if you want to play games at 144 fps, you will need a display with a refresh rate of 144Hz or more.

Now that you know what to look for when buying a laptop, check out our step-by-step guides on how to check your computer’s specs on a Windows 10 PC or Mac computer.

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