Whether you're buying your kid's first laptop or upgrading one on its last legs, you'll find there are a ton of great options out there. There are quality lightweight computers you can pop in a laptop backpack or laptop bag to make work-from-anywhere or hybrid learning a reality. There are also options perfect for anyone serious about video games and laptops with the versatility to morph into a great tablet.
The experts in the Good Housekeeping Institute Media & Tech Lab have reviewed dozens of laptops over the years, ranging from entry laptops for kids to pro-level options from Mac, Windows and Chromebook. Our recent tests have focused on portable and convenient laptops for back to school, with a weight of less than three pounds, screen size from 10 to 13 inches, WiFi connectivity and built-in webcams.
When our experts assess machines, they test the CPU and GPU capabilities, file transfer speeds and running temperature, as well as start-up, program start and turn off times. We assess audio quality and volume-to-screen and weight-to-screen ratios, plus viewing angles. Our analysts also evaluate battery life (most of our picks provide at least 10 hours of battery life based on our tests) and consider customer support options. Our picks are a combination of top-performing models and road tests of their updated versions as well as new-to-market products.
How to find the best laptop to buy
✔️Operating system (OS): To gauge what operating system is right for you, consider which applications and software you'll need as well as what OS your existing devices are on:
- Apple's iOS is great for those invested in the Apple ecosystem (iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, etc.)
- Windows is useful for professionals who frequently need the Microsoft Office suite (Outlook, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.)
- Chromebooks can be a smart choice if you’re predominantly doing web-based tasks (streaming, using Google Docs, etc.). They generally can't run advanced apps, but they tend to be affordable.
✔️Speed: This refers to processor speed. Intel and AMD are the two most common brands for CPUs (central processing unit). We recommend at least two core processors for your machine to run efficiently and quickly; four or more is even better if you can afford it. As a handy guide: The speedier and more powerful processors have higher numbers and are generally more expensive. For example, the Intel Core i3 is the least powerful in the lineup, followed by Core i5 and Core i7 and then the more robust Core i9. A Core i3 will likely only be found in budget-minded devices for kids or families; a Core i5 or i7 will be adequate for most users.
✔️Storage space: Aim for a minimum of 64 GB SSD. SSD is the acronym for solid state drive. (Previous hard drives used spinning plates, which were prone to damage over time or from dropping or jostling the computer: Solid state drives are, as expected, solid, so they're more secure.) They're also smaller, which helps with weight, and faster, so you can access your data more quickly.
✔️Webcam: This feature might have been an afterthought in the past, but a quality built-in webcam has gained importance with Zoom meetings and online classes. Look for a camera that features at least 720p video capture, though 1080p is preferable — and a 4k webcam offers even better resolution. Beyond better quality in general, the higher the resolution, the more you'll be able to crop into a frame and still keep it sharp.
✔️Screen resolution: Today's laptop screens are very impressive. If your budget will allow it, opt for full HD (1920 x 1080), which is helpful for streaming media, gaming and business collaboration tools. Unless you're getting a super small screen (like for a young child), you will really appreciate full HD.
✔️Battery life: Manufacturers can measure battery life differently, so the comparison is not always apples to apples when shopping. You can use the company's claims as a guide, but check to see what conditions it states the battery life was tested under. And don't be shocked if you don't get quite as much longevity, particularly if you use a lot of powerful programs or run a lot of programs at once. Ideally you want a battery that can handle more than 10 hours of multitasking use before needing to be plugged in.
✔️Screen size: Screen size generally ranges from 11 inches to 17 inches. Younger kids are probably better off with the smaller 11- to 12-inch displays. Laptops under 14 inches are considered more portable (and are often lighter and more compact in general). But if the laptop will mostly live on your desk or you're doing, say, video editing, 15 inches or larger is recommended.
✔️Connectivity: Make sure the computer can connect over WiFi and has at least one USB-C port and a 3.5 mm jack for headphones.
✔️Customer support: Consider what options you'll have when you need help with your computer. Does the manufacturer offer a hotline or chat? Are you near an Apple store? Do the repair shops in your area have expertise with your model?
These are the best laptops to buy in 2021: