how to buy a laptop 2020 | Trusted Buying Guide

Kenny Trinh Updated on June 24, 2020
howtobuylaptopfi

Mobile computing isn’t a luxury anymore — these days, having ready access to a laptop is a flat out necessity.

Whether you need to edit video on the go, email your boss, play games, or just keep in touch with family, performance and portability come together when you pick the right notebook.

Although prices have come down, laptops are still a big investment. That’s why you should be confident that you’ve found the perfect laptop to fit your needs and budget before checking out!

That’s where we come in!

A typical laptop will last between 3 – 5 years. When it’s time to replace a new laptop, from start to finish we’ve got a full guide to walk you through every aspect of the buying process.

How To Buy A Laptop 2020 [Short Answer]

  1. Look for any device rated in the 8 – 10-hour range for battery life.
  2. Pick a model with a screen in the 12 – 14-inch range for the most portability and lightest carrying weigh. Unless you are a designer or gamer, then 15- 17 inch is the way to go/
  3. Go with a hybrid 2-in-1 model or anything with a detachable keyboard if you need a touch screen and want more portability. To save more money, pick a clamshell instead.
  4. A minimum of 3 USB ports and an HDMI is standard, but if you don’t mind using an adapter a single USB-C port can work as well.
  5. Go for Windows 10 device for a broader suite of programs or want to game. Go for chromebook if you want a cheap machine mostly for web browsing and using some light appsMac OS for high build quality and don’t care about playing games or run Windows app.
  6. To spend in the $200 – $500 range, expect a budget machine for web browsing and word processing only, and don’t accept anything with less than 4GB of RAM. Make sure to get at least 500GB of hard drive space, unless you are picking a Chromebook with a smaller SSD.
  7. To buy a mid-range device in the $600+ tier for other uses, don’t accept anything with less than 8GB of RAM  and make sure to buy a faster SSD instead of a standard HDD. Stick with an Intel Core i5 or better processor and look for a full HD screen with 1920 x 1080 resolution.
  8. To buy an $800 – $1500 high-end laptop for gaming or video editing, make sure the device has a built-in graphics card that’s at least a GTX 1050 Ti or better. On the RAM front, 16GB of RAM should be your minimum and an Intel Core i7 processor is ideal.
  9. Finally, make sure you either get a large SSD or a 128GB SSD with a 1TB HDD for extra storage.

what to look for in a laptop 2020

How Much Should I Spend When Buying A New Laptop?

There are main price tiers to look at when picking a laptop. For the adventurous who aren’t averse to potentially sending a machine back for repair, don’t forget you can often find refurbished units for sale online.

Unless you’ve found a killer Black Friday style deal, anything under $300 is probably going to be a Chromebook or a refurbished Windows machine.

When going for laptop under $500, this is still the in the “budget” range, but here you start to find some better features. In most cases, 4 – 6GB of RAM is the maximum you can expect here when buying a new machine instead of going refurbished. That means your top priorities should be in getting the best CPU, most hard drive space, and finding extra bells and whistles.

Be on the lookout for trade offs here to find specifically what you need. For instance, if you prefer speed over storage space, you an often find $400 – $500 laptops with 128GB SSDs instead of the typical 1TB HDD.

Laptops Over $1000: At this price point, don’t accept any trade offs in features and make sure you get everything you want.

The only exception to that rule is if you are picking an ultrabook, which offers thin, ultra lightweight designs by culling out a few features.

You should always get something extra at this range above and beyond what the budget options offer. For instance, make sure you find a backlit keyboard, touch screen, or special hybrid design.

Choosing the right OS

Aside from niche systems like Linux, there are usually three main options when buying a new laptop:

Windows will often be your main pick, simply because it has the most options in terms of apps and programs.

There are downsides of course, as Windows is a resource-hungry OS that frequently slows down while installing large update files.

There’s no question that gamers or anyone using a laptop for business applications will want to go with Windows in the vast majority of cases, however.

If you mostly spend your time online watching YouTube videos and browsing social media, you may be better served with the Chrome OS. Chrome also now has access to the full Google Play app store, which radically increases your options.

..the Mac OS is a solid alternative to Windows if you don’t mind learning a different system…

Finally, the Mac OS is a solid alternative to Windows if you don’t mind learning a different system. If you use music or video editing software, Mac is an excellent option, and they are also much less prone to viruses and spyware.

For the tech enthusiasts, MacBooks have a few features that Windows machines don’t normally offer, such as high resolution retina displays and the nifty Touch Bar.

Important features To consider when buying a laptop

While the overall performance offered by the RAM and CPU will typically be the most touted factors, there are several other components you need to carefully consider.

3.1. Laptop Screen Size & Resolution Options

The old axiom that “bigger is better” doesn’t usually apply when buying a laptop. In most cases, you want to go smaller for enhanced portability. These will be your typical size options:

  • 11 inch
  • 12.5 inch
  • 13 inch
  • 14 inch
  • 15 inch
  • 17 inch
standard laptop screen size.001

It’s important to keep in mind that as you go up in size, you also increase in weight and decrease in battery life.

17 inch screens are typically meant for gamers who don’t mind being plugged into a wall outlet at all times. For the best crossroads between battery life, keyboard size, and display area, we recommend 12.5 inch – 14 inch laptops.

You also need to look at resolution options, particularly if you plan on watching full movies or frequently playing games. The two most common resolutions available are:

  • 1366 x 768
  • 1920 x 1080

For true HD, we recommend going with the 1920 x 1080 option, but that may not always be available in budget models.

If you have more money to spend, you can find even higher resolutions that are referred to as “retina,” 3k, or 4k.

3.2. Form Factor

While laptops used to only come in one variety — the standard clamshell — you’ve now got several major options to choose from, including:

  • Normal clamshell
  • Clamshell that can lay 180 degrees flat
  • Hybrid 2-in-1 360 degree hinge
  • Hybrid with detachable keyboard

popular laptop formFor those who frequently use touch screen apps, a hybrid 2-in-1 model can be a life saver.

It’s super easy to flip around in tent mode to play a video for your friends. If you prefer to write with a stylus, you can’t beat the functionality of a full laptop that works as a tablet.

Hybrids usually come in smaller sizes, but if you don’t mind spending more you can find 2-in-1 models with full 15 inch displays.

When you use your laptop as a tablet more often than actually typing on the keyboard, we recommend getting a detachable model instead.

No matter what style you go with, for the most durability be on the lookout for a laptop with a fully aluminum chassis rather than plastic, as they tend to last longer.

3.3. Keyboard Style

Whether you pick a standard clamshell design or get a hybrid model, you also have several choices to consider in the keyboard style, including:

  • Compact
  • Full
  • Backlit

Compact or “travel” style keyboards typically remove the Num Lock and 10 key segment on the right side entirely to save space.

If you want maximum portability, that’s the way to go. Some users prefer a standard keyboard layout that’s more like a desktop experience, however.

In that case, look for laptops with a full 10 key layout. These become increasingly rare as you go down in size, so you may have to go with a 14 or 15 inch screen to get the full keyboard.

Higher end models also typically feature a backlit keyboard, which means each key is lit up. If you work late at night, this feature shouldn’t be overlooked, as it ensures keystroke accuracy.

Finally, keep in mind the placement of the power button, which can vary between models.

This is an issue of personal preference, but some users don’t like having the power button on the keyboard itself.

3.4. Touchpad

Yep, even the touchpad can vary between laptop models! In general, you have four different styles to look out for:

  • Centered
  • Offset
  • Dual button
  • Streamlined

The main thing to look out for here is whether the touchpad is centered, or offset to the left. This really only matters with full size keyboards where the 10 key segment is present.

Take a look to see if the laptop touchpad features individual right or left click buttons. Some newer models ditch that design and instead use a streamlined touchpad with no buttons at all.

These pads work the exact same way, but some users prefer the tactile sensation of the buttons and find it awkward to right click a streamlined touchpad.

3.5. How Much RAM Do I Need In A Laptop?

Simply put, the more RAM your laptop has, the better performance you can expect when running multiple programs. The most common RAM configurations available will usually be as follows:

4GB | 8GB | 16GB | 32GB | 64GB

Ram

The lower end of 4GB is quickly becoming obsolete, and is really only meant for budget machines that just browse the web.

If you use nearly any type of software beyond just word processing or web browsing, we highly recommend bumping up to the 8GB threshold. If you want to future proof your machine against new software with higher requirements, 16GB is a solid investment.

You generally don’t need 32GB or higher unless you are using CAD software or playing brand new games on ultra settings.

3.7. What Is A Good Processor Speed For Laptop?

After you’ve decided on a memory size, it’s time to pick a CPU. These will be your most typical options when browsing modern laptops:

Intel Core i3 | Intel Core i5 | Intel Core i7 | Intel Core i9

As you move up the scale, you can expect significantly faster speeds when installing programs or Windows updates. The price goes up correspondingly, however.

For most users, we recommend a Core i5 of at least 7th gen to get the best combination of high speed and low power consumption.

When it comes to CPU, higher is not always mean better. While i3 is usually more power efficient compare to i5, i7 is not always faster than i5 and i9 is not always the best option for you.

3.8. What About Graphic Cards?

Finally, the type of video card will have a direct impact on how well the laptop can render graphics-intensive programs.

While this mostly matters for gamers, a higher end graphics card may also be a requirement for CAD software or heavy duty video editing tools.

If you intend to play games on high settings, you will want to look for a dedicated graphics card in this range:

GTX 1050 Ti | GTX 1060 | GTX 1070 | Radeon 560 | Radeon 580

In most cases, the 1050 Ti model will run the vast majority of games at decent frame rates. The main reason to bump up above that tier at this point is to buy a VR ready laptop.

3.9. Battery Life

Battery life is a crucial component to consider when buying a new laptop. If you’re going to stick in one spot all the time, why not just buy a desktop instead?

In general, gaming laptops will feature significantly reduced battery life over home or office models.

..to get the best battery life in the 8 – 14 hour range, be on the lookout for smaller, more compact models with less screen size..

To get the best battery life in the 8 – 14 hour range, be on the lookout for smaller, more compact models with less screen size.

The less power that has to be used to keep a bright display running, the higher your battery life.

Be careful when reading estimated battery life specs provided by manufacturers. They list high numbers based on simple web browsing with the screen brightness turned down.

Make sure to read through the reviews from other buyers to find out what the real battery life will actually be!

3.10. Storage

With so many online backup solutions available, and with USB storage so cheap, it isn’t as important to have a huge hard drive anymore.

In fact, you may notice that laptops with smaller storage capacities tend to cost more. Why exactly is that?

Because newer laptops use solid state drives (SSD) instead of the older hard disk drive (HDD) tech.

SSDs offer significantly increased data retrieval speeds. You can get the best of both worlds by booting to Windows on a 128GB or 256GB SSD, while using a secondary 1TB HDD for saving your larger files.

3.11. Connectivity

Of course every laptop in this day and age should come with a WiFi card for connecting to any given wireless network. That isn’t your only option, however.

Some laptops feature built-in Bluetooth adapters for connecting to external devices without using a cord.

This can be extremely handy for streaming audio to external speakers for instance, or using a wireless Bluetooth mouse.

Don’t worry if this option isn’t included however, as USB Bluetooth adapters are available very cheaply via Amazon.

3.12. Other features

It may be hard to believe, but there are still other features to take into account for the best overall laptop experience!

Notably, optical CD/DVD drives are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. You have to look hard to find newer models that include this option.

Security features are instead becoming more prevalent. If you don’t want to remember another password look for models that have a fingerprint scanner and a lock slot.

Finally, don’t forget to take note of the kinds of ports available! Some laptops won’t include Ethernet ports for wired connections, HDMI or VGA ports for connecting to external displays, or extra USB ports for other peripherals.

Frequently Asked Questions

Aside from the features and specs of a laptop, there are other things that you need to focus on.

Battery Life: Advertise vs. Real Life

Fact is many manufacturers lie about the real battery life of their products. Some even have the audacity to advertise a battery life that is twice the real battery capacity. There are tools that you can use to check if they’re telling the truth, or you can go ahead and spend hours inside a computer store and wait for the laptop to lose battery.

Laptop quality

You must understand that manufacturers know how to catch your attention. They may advertise that their laptop has all the glowing specs you need, but underneath they eliminate some important aspects. You may feel like you’re in luck because of the affordability of the laptop, but the truth is you are fooled into buying a low quality item.

Refurbished laptop

And if you can’t afford a new high-end laptop, you probably think that it’s better to buy a refurbished product with the same manufacturer and style. However, you need to think twice about that decision. Refurbished laptops are not all “refurbished”. Some of these products actually have minor factory defects. 

And since manufacturers cannot sell them as brand new nor can they throw them away, they brand them as refurbished and blame the “previous” owner for its low performance.

Let’s delve into the ways for you to identify a refurbished laptop:

  • Refurbished laptops show signs of wear and tear, especially in the keyboard.
  • There are scratches on the surface, particularly on the screen.
  • The screws on the laptop are obviously taken apart.
  • New laptops have an industrial cleaning smell, or a new product smell.
  • Look for the serial number of the laptop and compare it with the chassis serial number. Unmatched serial number means the laptop is refurbished.
  • Refurbished laptops have reduced warranties, like three months only.
  • Check for a sticker at the back that indicates the laptop is refurbished.
  • Check the product number of the laptop. New laptops don’t have an R letter, while refurbished ones have an R added to the number. Example: New: NB123UA#ABA. Refurbished: NB123UAR#ABA.

How to Chose A perfect laptop in 2020

If you’ve made it to the end of our buying guide, you should finally be able to answer the question “what laptop is best for me?” with a clear and definitive answer.

No matter your budget or how you intend to use your device, the steps above should clearly break down every option you need to pick at each stage of the buying process.

Still, need more help or aren’t sure which specific model to pick? Leave us a comment below with a general idea of your needs and we can respond with a couple of the best models for you!

Kenny Trinh
Article by:
Building his first desktop at the age of 10, start coding at 14 years old, Kenny knows a thing or two when it comes to finding a good laptop and he aims to share everything he knows. Current go-to laptop: Apple Macbook Air 2019.

4 thoughts on “how to buy a laptop 2020 | Trusted Buying Guide”

  1. Hi,
    I’m in the process of looking for a new computer. But I don’t really know what to get, because while I’m really attached to mac’s UI, the prices are a bit much. So if I do get one of them I need to be able to justify it. I’m in year 12 at the moment and would like one that will last my years at uni (3-5 max depending on the Uni) so a $1500 price is expected if it can last that long while having everything I need. I’m intending to go into law and/or film so being able to work adobe CC, Blender, element 3d and other such programs would be needed. Battery life will be essential though not entirely opposed to carrying around a charger (I’d probably do it anyway) I’m not knowledgable about computers so I don’t know what basic specs are needed for running these programs. Thank you : )

    Reply
  2. I need a Windows 10 laptop and am considering refurbished bc of the cost of new ones. I’d like to spend no more than $300 if possible but will consider higher. We will use it for general home use, internet, pictures, videos, recording and music; no gaming. Here’s my list of preferences: 14-15″ screen; 3 USB ports; 8+ hr battery; precision touchpad drivers; either i5 chip 7th generation or AMD A8 or 10 processor; screen resolution of 1920×1080; 8 BG RAM; 500 GB HDD or SSD; full keyboard; 1 yr warranty. I need a DVD player/recorder but may have to purchase that separately. I don’t want to a new system like Chromebook. I hope you have a couple recommendations. I may also go to several computer repair shops to look for refurbished. I am not confident looking for one on Amazon.

    Reply
  3. Hu! I am in need if a new laptop. My current laptop is a Macbook Air that I acquired in 2011. I am an educational administrator and need something that is light weight with a strong operating system with excellent graphics. I am not interested in using an Apple product and am interested in the hybrid 2-in-1 versions. Would like to spend no more than $1200. Please advise.

    Reply

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