In this comprehensive laptop buying guide, we’ll review the most important aspects of notebook buying, from screen quality to port placement and warranty considerations.
We’ll give you the basics in each section of this article, and then link you a more comprehensive article we’ve written for in-depth reading.
The physical appearance of a notebook is subjective, but what’s arguably more important than looks in the long term is how well a notebook is built and designed. There are two major types of notebooks on the market: those designed for consumers, and those designed for business users. It’s hard to beat a business-class notebook when it comes to productivity and overall strength. Here are the major points of what to look for when it comes to notebook quality.
- Build materials. You’ll need to spend around the four-figure mark to get a notebook built out of something other than plastic. That’s not to say plastic is bad, but metal, especially used on the inside of the notebook to strengthen the chassis, is preferable.
- Construction/chassis strength. Business-class notebooks tend to be slightly thicker than their consumer counterparts due to the need for a stronger chassis support structure. Before you buy a very thin notebook, see how much its chassis flexes. Flexing is bad for the reliability of the notebook.
- Fit and finish. There shouldn’t be uneven gaps or rough edges on the notebook. Everything should fit together neatly and smoothly. If not, there’s no telling where other corners may have been cut.
For in-depth reading on the above points, take a look at our feature: What makes a true business notebook?
- A lid with a hinge that allows you to open it one-handed
- A touch pad with center-click functionality
- Keyboard backlighting/illumination
- Dedicated media control keys, such as volume up and down
- A good-quality Webcam and microphone
- A USB Type-C port (see the next section for more details)
- Storage drive and status indicator lights
The list above is an excerpt from our feature, 10 Top Features to Look for in Your Next Notebook.
Behind physical design, the screen on a notebook is a close second in terms of making or breaking a buying decision. Here are key areas to keep in mind when choosing the right notebook screen for your usage:
- Screen size. Most of the notebooks sold today have screen sizes ranging from 10.6 inches to 17.3 inches, with a few outlier models above and below those marks. The goal is to find the screen size that is most comfortable for your eyes for extended usage. Don’t buy something you feel is too small for the sake of portability, but at the same time, don’t buy something too big to transport. A 14-inch screen is a good starting point; it’s right in the middle of the available notebook screen sizes. If that’s too small, look larger, and vice versa.
- Screen resolution. When used in conjunction with a monitor, terms such as “720p” and “1080p” refer to its resolution, or level of detail offered by the display. 1080p, also known as Full HD (FHD), is the go-to in the notebook world, as it offers a balance of text size and detail, not to mention that it supports playback of 1080p video. The resolution of a display doesn’t necessarily correlate with its image quality, but it’s not a bad bet to say that a given 1080p display will have better picture quality than a 720p display. 720p panels are best avoided.
- Panel type. Terms such as “IPS”, “TN”, and “OLED” all refer to the technology used in the display panel itself. TN is generally going to offer the lowest image quality, while IPS will offer better colors. IPS panels also offer wide viewing angles, an important consideration if you (or others) plan to look at the display from anywhere but head-on.
- Surface coating. Glossy displays might look attractive on a display shelf, but are prone to showing distracting reflections, especially outdoors. An anti-glare surface all but eliminates reflections.
For more on the above, take a look at our feature: Laptop Screens Explained: IPS, LED, & AMOLED.
The built-in speakers on your notebook will matter at some point; you never know if you’re going to have to show someone that latest YouTube video, or go on a Skype session with a few people. There are also those times where you just don’t feel like wearing headphones.
It’s difficult or impossible to tell how good (or bad) a notebook’s speakers are from pictures alone, so you’ll have to rely on notebook reviews and in-person observations. These are our recommendations on picking a notebook with good speakers:
- Quality vs. quantity. For the best audio quality, you’ll want to look for a notebook with at least two speakers. Larger notebooks may have more, but at least two are required for stereo sound.
- Speaker placement. The best-case scenario is that the speakers are visibly located on top of the notebook’s chassis, somewhere around the keyboard. This means the sound is being projected towards you without anything in between.
- Dedicated subwoofer. Some notebooks will include a small dedicated subwoofer on the underside of the chassis. It’s helpful to have one for full sound quality, in our experience; consider it a selling point.
- Name branding. It’s common for notebook designers to hire audio companies to come in and tune their speakers for added marketing flare, such as JBL and Beats. We’ve had mixed experience with this; sometimes the branded speaker solutions sound better, and other times, we felt they were no better than those without branding. We play it by ear – pun intended.
The points above come from our feature: What to Look for in Notebook Speakers.
Ports & Port Placement
If you plan to plug things into your notebook, it’s worthwhile to imagine a “test drive” and see how well the port placement on a given notebook works for you. Observe where the ports are located on the notebook, and imagine plugging your devices into them. If you’re right-handed, for example, and all the ports on a notebook are located towards the front of the right side of the chassis, that could be inconvenient if you use an external mouse. Our guide to notebook port placement has the full details.
USB Type-C, or simply USB-C, is a newer style of USB connector, with a smaller and reversible connector. More and more mobile devices are starting to adopt this new standard, and some notebooks and tablets even use it as a primary source of power. (Say goodbye to proprietary power adapters? Maybe.) You’re better off having it than not having it, though our full article on USB Type-C is good reading for an in-depth look at the technology.
One final consideration when it comes to notebook port placement is getting a docking station. Ultra-slim notebooks may not offer much variety in the way of ports, especially with the advent of USB Type-C. We’ve seen a renewed interest in docking station in the last two years or so, notably on tablets. A docking station can give you the flexibility of leaving your devices plugged into it as opposed to your notebook, making it simple to undock your notebook and take it with you. Docking stations are most popular with business notebooks.
Keyboards & Touch Pads
The built-in keyboard on a notebook is an important feature, mainly because you can’t replace it with anything different; you’re stuck with the keyboard that’s on there. Per our guide, How To Pick a Laptop With a Good Keyboard, these are the major tells of a good keyboard.
- Layout. A proper notebook keyboard will have six rows of keys, including the function row (F1 through F12). Watch out for undersized keys that are difficult to press; this is more of a concern with smaller notebooks.
- Feel and quality. The keyboard deck where the keys are seated shouldn’t visibly flex when keys are pressed. The up-and-down motion (key travel) of each key should be enough that you can get a sense of feedback from the key. If you can’t tell what you’re pressing, it doesn’t bode well for touch typing. The keys should in general feel good to press down.
- Rattles. Hunt and peck at the keys on the keyboard to ensure it’s securely seated, and that there are no rattles. Anything but a solid feel indicates less-than stellar quality control and/or design.
- Keyboard style. Most notebooks in today’s market tend to use “island” style keyboards, with extra spacing between the keys. You’ll find more info on whether this is a good thing in our technical feature: Laptop Keyboards Explained: Best & Worst Keyboard Tech.
The touch pad is almost as important as the keyboard, in the sense that you can’t change the one on the notebook to a different model. We provide more info on touchpads in our technical feature: What You Need to Know About Touchpads and Trackpads. Here is a short list of what we look for when evaluating notebook touch pads:
- Surface texture. This generally should be smooth; your fingers should be able to glide over the surface without resistance. An anti-glare surface is ideal, as it is more resistive to moisture on your fingers.
- Defined edges. Your fingers should be able to tell where the edge of the touch pad is.
- Overall size. The touch pad should have an appropriate amount of space relative to the screen. If the touch pad looks too small, it likely is.
- Click noise. It’s common for notebooks to have a buttonless touch pad, where the entire surface is press-able. In either event, the amount of noise created when pressing the clicking mechanism on the touch pad should be minimal.
- Click pressure. Making a click shouldn’t require too little or too much effort.
If you plan to keep your notebook for more than three years, it’s a good idea to buy one that has some measure of aftermarket upgrade capability. These days, the upgradeable components in a notebook will mostly be limited to the storage drive(s) and memory. Be sure to read onto the next section for warranty-related concerns when upgrading your notebook’s hardware.
Memory, or RAM, is important for multitasking and overall system performance. The more you have, the better. Memory is not upgradeable in some notebooks, especially the ultra-thin models, so just be sure you get one with the right amount if that’s the case. Otherwise, you can upgrade it later on. Take a look at our guide on How to Replace or Upgrade Laptop Memory.
Notebook computers will generally have one or two types of storage. Thinner notebooks tend to make exclusive use of solid-state-drives, or SSDs, as they can be made thinner than traditional 2.5-inch drives. The most common modern format is called M.2, and it comes in several sizes. Our M.2 SSD Notebook Upgrade Guide explains the upgrade process from top to bottom.
Depending on the notebook, it may be possible to upgrade your graphics with an external graphics card. This option almost always requires a dedicated external enclosure that houses a desktop graphics card and connects to your notebook.
When you finally get to the point where you’re buying a new notebook, you’ll likely be blasted with offers for extended warranties. Are these worthwhile, and if so, how much should you spend? Here are the essential points from our comprehensive feature, What You Need To Know About Extended Warranties.
- Standard vs. accidental damage coverage. Most extended warranties are simply extensions of the original warranty, e.g. one that covers defects. Accidental damage warranties make the warranty less limited by covering more situations, such as spills and drops. No warranty will cover theft!
- Manufacturer vs. third-party warranty. It’s generally best to buy an extended warranty direct from the manufacturer, though reputable third parties, such as SquareTrade, offer competitive pricing, and can be easier to deal with.
- Don’t spend too much. If you’re adding more than 20 percent on top of the notebook’s price for an extended warranty, take a moment and think about that. Is it really worthwhile to spend $1,200 (or more) for a notebook that originally cost $1,000? The article linked above provides good insight on why consumers are willing to spend so much on extended warranties. In brief, don’t be oversold.
If you plan to upgrade your notebook after purchase, as described in the last section, take a look at the concerns we outlined in our feature: How To Know If You Should Upgrade Your Notebook.
It’s safe to say that notebook buying is a complicated experience, one that requires more than just a few minutes of research. Our goal with this article was to provide you with a one-stop shop for the major areas of notebook buying, covering everything from notebook design, keyboards, touch pads, and speakers, to extended warranty considerations.
In terms of budgeting for your next notebook, our recommendation is to first identify what you’ll need to spend for a notebook with a particular feature set. You can use the points we illustrated in this article to determine what features you need or want. Once you find a suitable notebook, research pricing and save up accordingly. If you start out with a set budget without knowing what you need to spend, chances are you’ll end up compromising in some way, unless your budget was sky-high to begin with. That’s a recipe for a bad ownership experience.
Our extensive community forum is a great place to ask questions and discuss notebooks. Membership is free. One of the most popular activities is to fill out our What Should I Buy form and get personal help from our forum experts. Good luck!