2020 Holiday Laptop Guide
Whether your intended recipient is loyal to Windows, a Mac fan, or willing to try something new, you should know what to look for in your next tech gift. Windows and Mac both have a wide selection of laptops for different needs, so you can find the model that’s the best for you. Chromebooks are worth considering too if it will mainly be used for online use.
There’s more to a laptop than its operating system, so keep reading to find out which laptop is right for you.
Your first decision while shopping for a laptop will be deciding which operating system fits best. While traditionally that debate was dominated by Apple’s MacOS and Microsoft’s Windows, today, it’s also worth considering Google’s Chrome OS.
While these are comparable, there are some stark differences between them which are important to consider.
PCs are an incredibly diverse category. Dozens of manufacturers make PCs, and the quality and pricing can vary greatly depending on which model and brand you opt for. The fastest PCs will surpass Macs in terms of performance and many companies tailor their PCs to a specific purpose, such as gaming or business.
PCs typically run Windows as an operating system, which is far more open-ended than MacOS, and updated more frequently. There’s also more software available for Windows. In particular, Windows is the standard for game development and many b
usiness-related programs. Touchscreen Windows laptops can be found even in the lower price brackets, and more elaborate designs include fold-back screens or even detachable tablet-keyboard combos, such as Microsoft’s Surface Book range. Windows laptops also commonly come with touchscreens, which is not something you’ll find on any Apple MacBook offerings — unless you count the Touch Bar. Whether you opt for a major manufacturer like Lenovo, or Dell, or one of Microsoft’s own devices, you have a ton of options with Windows laptops.
Any Apple product will follow its standards, whereas any manufacturer can make a PC with unique specs. As a result, Macs are very user-friendly. Apple will tell you exactly what you are getting regardless of which MacBook you purchase.
Quality design is one of the hallmarks of a Mac. They are built to look and feel elegant. This extends to Apple’s operating system, MacOS, which is straightforward and intuitive.
Macs utilize fast hardware, too, so those who want a solid computer but do not know a lot about hardware can rest easy knowing their Mac will perform well during everyday use. That said, they don’t tend to sport the most powerful graphics chips, and tend to have a much higher price tag than their Windows and Chrome OS competitors. In many ways, Apple’s strict design standards mean that its products are easy for anyone to pick up and use, regardless of a person’s skill level or familiarity with computers. On the other hand, the rigid design of the Mac means less freedom to customize the device. Apple only sells a few different models of MacBook at any given time and irregular hardware refreshes mean that they aren’t always the most up to date. For 2020, Apple updated its Macbooks with new butterfly keyboards that many fans had been longing for.
Google’s Chrome OS is a little different from the other two competitors. It powers “Chromebook” laptops and is based on Google’s Chrome browser. That means that it can’t run desktop applications as the other two platforms can. That’s great if you’re the kind of PC user who only needs a laptop to read emails, and watch Netflix.
That said, Chrome OS is quick and more versatile today than it’s ever been, with support for thousands of Chrome extensions and a plethora of Android apps — though they don’t always scale well with larger laptop displays. Hardware choices are also much more varied today than they’ve been in the past, with powerful offerings, like Google’s own Pixelbook, which perform and look very much like premium Windows and MacOS laptops.
Chrome OS is certainly a less capable platform than Windows and MacOS, but if it fits the bill for what you want to do on your laptop, you can save a lot of money by going with Google’s platform over the other two.
There are several laptop categories, manufactured with a certain use or audience in mind. When shopping for a laptop, decide what is primarily intended to use the laptop for and seek out a category that aligns with those interests. Here are some broad categories and a couple of our favorites for each.
Buyers who need a laptop for the most basic purposes (word processing, internet browsing, etc) could easily work wiith a budget laptop. Budget laptops are generally light on hardware such as graphics or RAM. This is a category where Chromebooks shine by ditching some of the fancier features of Windows and MacOS laptops. The best budget laptops will still be built to last, with competent construction and ergonomically sensible keyboards and touchpads. In general, entry-level laptops are great for people who may not know a lot about computers and simply want a device that can carry out standard tasks. Some great entry-level laptops worth considering include the fantastic Acer Chromebook 15 Spin or the Lenovo IdeaPad 330S. If portability is more important for you, we also love the Microsoft Surface Go 2-in-1 for its great design and exceedingly affordable price.
This section is virtually the best in terms of bang for your buck. You get much better internal hardware than the entry-level offerings, but you’re not paying a premium for some of the fancy materials used in the most expensive of laptops. The fact that this section is such a sweet spot for the industry means that you have plenty to choose from too. There are laptops with great displays, laptops with powerful processors, beautiful looking laptops, and ones that are light and portable with great battery life.
If you want a great gaming laptop in this price bracket, the Dell Gaming G3 is a powerful option, while the ZenBook 13 UX333 remains one of the best laptop in mainstream.
For a little extra money, you gain longer battery life, improved performance from more powerful internal hardware, larger and higher-resolution displays, and overall better build quality. This section contains some of the best laptops you can buy today, so if you're buying for a bit more of a power-user and can afford it, this is the class of laptop you should consider most. Despite the inflated cost of the premium laptop category, there is still plenty of choices. You can pick up stellar laptops in the 13-inch form with plenty of general computing power and connectivity options. If you’re interested in doing some gaming on the side or content creation, you’ll want to jump up to a 15-inch laptop with a six-core processor and a dedicated graphics card. This category even contains our favorite laptop of the past few years, the Dell XPS 13. If you want something a little heftier and more capable of content creation, the Dell XPS 15 is worth considering too. For gamers, the Razer Blade is the best laptop we’ve ever come across (and there’s a new 2020 version out), while the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme offers real power in a supremely rugged chassis.
If you’re an Apple fan, we’d recommend the MacBook Air. The MacBook Pro is an option too, but that’s more for power users and offers less bang for your buck.
The 2-in-1, or convertible laptop combines the convenience and ease of a tablet with the utility of a keyboard. There are two main ways of accomplishing this: either the two are attached but the keyboard can fold behind the touchscreen, or the tablet side can be fully detached from the keyboard.
Convertibles can provide a lot of versatility, however, they are not necessarily the best devices available. The uniqueness of their design can come with some notable drawbacks, such as weight (especially from the metal hinges on the keyboard) and price. Convertible laptops are often more expensive than other laptops with comparable hardware.
When it comes to buying a 2-in-1, some are better laptops than they are tablets, and vice versa. Think hard about which ‘mode’ you’re likely to use more before buying and do so accordingly. Our favorite 2-in-1 laptops for 2020 are the Microsoft Surface Pro 6 and the HP Spectre x360 13.
An Ultrabook is technically a specification that Intel used for extra-light, portable laptops designed to be as easy to carry as possible while still providing great battery life. They use SSDs, Intel Core processors designed to be efficient with power use, and carefully designed bodies. This became a very popular type of computer, and many people began applying the name “ultrabook” to any compact, lightweight laptop that was designed for easy transport.
Today, any lightweight laptop with an SSD and Intel processor may be called an ultrabook, although that isn’t quite accurate (some are now referred to as ultraportables instead).
Just because business laptops are designed with business users in mind, doesn’t mean they don’t have some intriguing features for the average buyer. Although they might not always offer the looks of more mainstream systems, they tend to pack exceptional battery life under the hood and have more rugged and tough shells to take a beating while out and about. They tend to have slightly larger displays too, often with great color accuracy if they’re aimed more at video editors and photographers. Due to a greater emphasis on security and privacy, these laptops are also much more likely to offer you better protective systems like biometric validation and professionally-oriented software packages. The biggest downside to a business laptop is that it’s usually on the expensive side. If that’s less of a concern for you and you’re not a gamer, there are few better laptops out there than those aimed at business users and commuters. One of the most iconic laptop lines in the business category is the Lenovo Thinkpad, and the recent X1 Carbon is a fantastic entry in that range. We also love the flagship X1 Extreme — it’s our favorite business laptop for 2020.
Graphics keep getting better, levels keep getting bigger and denser, and many games require the ability to hit any of a number of specific keys at the precise moment. Given all this, gaming laptops have to be built to keep up with the unceasing march of progress. The best gaming laptops tout high-end processors and graphics chips, as well as enough RAM to run modern games. Gaming laptops tend to be bulkier, typically to accommodate better hardware and larger screens. Their high-powered hardware means that battery life isn’t too strong either — especially on systems with 4K displays. But this isn’t always the case. Our favorite gaming laptops tend to offer a good middle ground or offer more stealth gaming ability. Alienware’s Area-51m is more of a traditional gaming laptop with super-powerful hardware and a bulky frame, but the Razer Blade is a much more modern take on a gaming laptop design.
What is important when it comes to hardware?
As with any computer, the hardware on a laptop determines what it is capable of doing. Better hardware will naturally be more expensive, so it is important to consider what you are going to use the laptop for and choose hardware suitable for that purpose. A laptop that is only being used for general purposes such as browsing the Internet or writing documents, for example, probably doesn’t need a high-end processor or video card.
CPU or Processing
As with any computer, the CPU carries out most of the processes for the laptop. Any time the computer needs to access or change data, the CPU executes that task. Better CPUs will be able to process more data at quicker speeds. Note that the pure clock speed of a CPU doesn’t necessarily give the whole picture — if you’re unsure about your options, copy the processor’s model number (such as “Core i5-9400H”) into a web search to compare your choices. The latest offerings from Intel are its Core i3, i5, and i7 series in 8th-generation models, though we are beginning to see the roll-out of 9th-generation chips in gaming laptops and content creation machines. Further down the road, we’re also starting to see the first 10th-generation Ice Lake CPUs coming in new laptop designs. AMD’s latest chips are its third-generation mobile Ryzen CPUs, though they are a bit more difficult to find in a laptop.
When it comes to picking a laptop based on its CPU, newer is almost always better. Try to avoid buying a laptop with a CPU that’s a few generations old. Unless you’re doing something intensive like video editing, don’t worry about buying a chip outside of the midrange. The four cores available in the Core i5-8565U, for example, is a good place to start for most people.
A graphics chip generates the images that a program needs to display on the screen. With most laptops, its graphics chip will come integrated into the motherboard. Unlike with a desktop, it’s very rare and difficult to upgrade a laptop’s graphics, so it’s important to buy what you need at the start. NVIDIA and AMD are the primary vendors for discrete mobile graphics. NVIDIA’s latest series is the RTX 20-series, including the RTX 2060, 2070, and 2080 — with some Max-Q versions which are cooler and quieter. These will be in the most expensive, most powerful gaming and business-class laptops, though some recent models may be using the slightly older 10-series or the GTX 1080, 1070, and 1060.
AMD’s offerings are a little different, in that the Vega chips tend to come bundled with a CPU in what AMD calls an accelerated processing unit, or APU. There’s also a growing number of options out there with an Intel CPU combined with AMD Vega graphics core on a single chip. They can be impressively powerful and are worth considering if you find a laptop sporting that hardware at the right price. There are also rumors of an upcoming RX 5500M mobile GPU which could be far more capable. One to watch ahead of the holiday season.
Although some laptops offer adequate sound right out of the box, such as the MacBook Pro, most laptops don’t have the room to fit decent speakers inside the casing. Most laptops provide ports to connect headphones or external speakers if you want a more immersive listening experience.
RAM, often referred to as memory, refers to the computer’s ability to store and access information for immediate use. Any task currently being done on a computer is using RAM. Essentially, the more RAM a computer has, the more information it can call up at any given time, and thus the more things it can do at any time.
How much RAM do you need? 8GB is the sweet spot for most. You’ll want to jump up to 16GB or more, though, if you’re running intensive applications or doing any kind of content creation.
The amount of storage space on a laptop’s internal drives is how much data it can hold in total. Programs, videos, music: All of these are stored on an internal drive, or in more budget laptops, “flash memory” — the same kind of long-term storage your smartphone has. In contrast to RAM, data in storage does not necessarily need to be in use. A program that is installed on the computer but not currently running would take up storage space but not memory. These days, many laptops use solid-state drives — aka SSDs — which are faster and sturdier than traditional hard drives at the expense of storage space.
An SSD offers a dramatic performance boost over a conventional hard drive and can provide the most dramatic improvement in laptop usage when buying a new system. Make sure your next purchase has one. If you need more space, grab a big external drive too.
Ports can quickly become confusing on a laptop due to a complex labyrinth of terminology. Make sure to focus on USB ports that you need. Older laptops tend to use USB-A ports for basic data transfer. Newer laptops typically have a USB-C port, a much more advanced version that can power up devices, transfer high definition video, and move lots of data at once. However, USB-A and USB-C ports — and their cables — are not compatible without using an adapter. A more advanced version of USB-C called Thunderbolt 3 may also be available on some laptops, which increases connection capabilities even more.