Computers

Computer Buying Guide
Computer Buying Guide
Choosing The Perfect Computer

These days, it's not unusual for individuals or families to have more than one type of computer. If you’re looking to carry your computer to work or on vacation, you obviously need a laptop. And some have slimmed down to weigh as little as a couple of pounds.

If mobility isn't a concern get a desktop, because it’s very likely that you’ll get more performance for the same money—plus more flexibility in customizing the machine once you buy it. (That’s one reason that lots of serious gamers have desktops.)

Those are two major categories of computer, but there are several variations to consider—and we haven’t even mentioned the choice of operating system yet.

Choices among computers are becoming more confusing as the boundaries between categories blur. For instance, some new desktops are nearly as small and inconspicuous as a laptop. Conversely, you can easily find a laptop that’s just as powerful as a typical desktop. And then there are some slightly unconventional categories, like laptops that convert into tablets and tablets that convert into laptops and all-in-one desktops that don’t need a separate monitor. For more you can check our full computer ratings (available to subscribers).

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Desktop Computers

Many people have moved away from desktops in the past decade. However, there's still a lot to recommend desktops for many users.

Desktops typically offer more performance for the money than laptops and are less expensive to repair. They may allow for a more ergonomically correct work environment, let you work on a larger screen, and generally come with better speakers. Click here for our computer ratings.

Photo of full-sized desktop computer.

Full-Sized Computer

Though they require a lot of room under or on top of your desk, full-sized desktops are the least expensive and the easiest to upgrade and repair. They also offer the most features and options.

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Photo of a compact desktop computer.

Compact Computer

At less than half the size of full-size desktops, compacts or slim desktops are ideal if you lack space under your desk or you plan to put the computer on the desk itself. Like their larger brethren, compact desktops tend to be inexpensive. But they may be more difficult to upgrade and repair.

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Photo of an all-in-one computer.

All-In-One Computer

These computers incorporate the computer and monitor in one case. The components are tightly packed behind and underneath the display, making them difficult to upgrade or repair. Meant to be space-savers, they're also designed to look less stodgy than traditional computers. You'll pay a premium for these models.

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Photo of a computer that is good for gaming.

Gaming Computer

The sky's the limit for gaming systems. You get the fastest processors, the most sophisticated graphics cards, multiple large hard drives, and lots of RAM. Cases are usually large and offer room for additional RAM and other improvements.

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Laptops

Laptops let you use your computer away from your desk, but you pay for that mobility with a keyboard that's a little more cramped, a higher price, and (sometimes) reduced performance. They're also more expensive to repair than desktops.

Whether your main consideration is portability or power, screen size will be an essential factor in deciding which type of laptop is right for you. Visit our computer ratings (available to subscribers) for more.

Photo of a smaller laptop (10" to 13") computer.

Smaller (10" to 13" screen size)

If you're planning to carry the laptop around with you frequently, an 11- to 13-inch model may be the right choice.

While 10- or 11-inch laptops may require you to sacrifice some performance, laptops in this range tend to have fast processors and, more importantly, fast solid-state drives, for very good or excellent performance. But you'll also lighten your load.

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Photo of a medium laptop (15" to 16") computer.

Medium (14" to 16" screen size)

This size range offers the ideal balance of performance, portability, and price for many users. They are a good choice if you take your machine along less frequently, or need to use it extensively for work or school. Such a laptop can easily be configured as a desktop replacement.

Until a few years ago, only 17-inch-and-larger models had graphics processors with dedicated video memory, but now some 14- to 16-inch models have them, making them suitable for gaming.

For photo editing, our tests of the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display ($1,800) reveal its screen to be among the best we’ve seen for color accuracy and crispness.

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Photo of a large laptop (17" to 18") computer.

Larger (17" to 18" screen size)

For folks wanting a desktop replacement, big enough to sit semi-permanently in one place but portable enough to take from room to room, these laptops will deliver. They tend to use top performing processors with standard hard drives that give you tons of storage, though not top performance.

You might find some with better speakers than smaller laptops can offer. However, they still won’t sound as good as external speakers. And, of course, the larger screen can make it more comfortable to work on multiple windows or large spreadsheets.

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3

Other Types

Lighter and less expensive than most laptops, these highly mobile devices offer an extra dose of portability and many–but certainly not all–of the features. Click here to check our computer ratings.

Photo of a chromebook computer.

Chromebooks

Chromebooks are based on Google's Chrome operating system. They're generally inexpensive, with some starting as low as $170. They're designed for users willing to work on and store most of their files online. Chromebooks are quick to start up, partly because the operating system doesn't place the demands on the computer that a heavy-duty OS like Windows does, and partly because they use solid-state drives instead of hard drives.

On the downside, there's not a lot of storage space on a Chromebook. You need access to the internet to get the best work out of one of these machines. And these aren't workhorse computers, though they are fine for creating and sharing documents, web surfing, email, streaming videos and light gaming.

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Photo of a detachable computer.

Convertibles & Detachables

The tablet-like features in Windows 10 make convertible laptops an appealing category for both serious work and casual play.

These look like a regular laptop, but the display either pulls out of the keyboard or twists around and lays flat so it can be used like a tablet. What distinguishes detachables from tablets are the keyboard docks that come with them.

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Photo of a tablet computer with a keyboard.

Tablets

See our Tablet Buying Guide for detailed information about shopping for a tablet. But, in brief, for some users a tablet can take the place of a laptop. These machines are lightweight and highly portable. They're multifunctional, serving as Web browser, e-book reader, movie viewer, and music player.

They weigh from just under a pound to about 1.5 pounds and have 7- to 10-inch touch screens. And, in our tests, battery life ranged from 4 hours to nearly 13 hours. Tablets are not ideal for office productivity tasks, but you can add a keyboard to many of them.

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4

Interactive Video Buying Guide

For more, watch our interactive video below. You can skip to different chapters depending on your interests. For example, battery life, specs, portability, and brands.

5

No Guts, No Glory: A Computer’s Inner Workings


Person using their finger to navigate through a touchscreen menu.

Choosing a Processor, OS, and More

Speed Matters
Processors with multiple cores can process more data simultaneously. You can check Intel's or AMD's website to see how many cores a processor model has.

Clock speed, measured in gigahertz (GHz), along with the number of cores and other factors, determines how quickly a CPU can process information. Many processors can up the speed a bit for a brief time to yield maximum performance. Generally, within a processor family, the higher the clock speed, the faster the processor. Clock speeds typically start at around 1GHz for a mobile processor. Speeds can exceed 3GHz for a desktop processor.

Power Consumption
Another important factor when choosing a processor, especially for laptops: Lower power consumption = longer battery life.

If you’re looking for a very basic or budget computer to web surf, email, work on Office documents, then the Intel Celeron, Pentium, AMD A4, or A6 will suffice. If you plan to do some simple gaming as well, the Intel Core i3, AMD A6, or A8 should do the job.

If you plan to watch videos or play mainstream games, the Intel Core i5, AMD A8, A9, or A10 are good choices. And if you're a gamer or plan to edit HD video, go for a high-end processor such as the Intel Core i7 or AMD A10 or A12 Series.

How Much Memory?
The more memory a computer has, the faster it is, up to a point. Memory is measured in gigabytes (GB). On desktops, 8GB is common and many laptops include 8GB of RAM. For anything other than heavy multitasking or video editing, 4GB is plenty.

Operating System
Windows 10 continues the work of Windows 8.1, bringing a more uniform interface across a variety of devices: computers, tablets, Xbox, and smartphones. In addition, "universal apps" developed for Windows 10 will look and work the same on a variety of devices. And far more games are available for Windows computers than for Macs.

Macs can be more expensive, but they're less prone to most viruses and spyware, and Apple's support has been tops in our surveys. The company's phone support is free for only 90 days, but you can get unlimited technical support through the Genius Bar at any Apple Store. Apple's OS X El Capitan will be the company's OS until late 2016, when the company replaces it with Mac OS Sierra.

Graphics Adapter and Graphics Memory
Also known as the video card, GPU, or graphics card, this hardware is responsible for drawing what you see on your screen. Graphics processing comes in two basic flavors: It can either be integrated into the same chip that's running the rest of the computer, or it can run on a discrete piece of equipment.

Most computers have integrated graphics. This has usually been the less expensive and lower-performing option—fine for most tasks, but not for serious gaming. If you play mainstream and extreme  games with all the visual effects turned on or edit video, especially HD and 4K, then you need discrete graphics. Light video editing and gaming and all other typical computer tasks will do fine with integrated graphics.

Some new CPUs integrate discrete-class graphics, offering excellent graphics abilities without adding a separate chip.

Integrated graphics use up part of your system's memory, so make sure you have at least 4GB. If you choose a system with discrete graphics, look for at least 1GB of graphics memory. Gamers should get 2GB or more.

Photo of a computer drive.

All About Drives and the Battery

Solid-State Drives
SSDs are a different type of storage technology, letting your computer access data without the moving parts required by a traditional hard drive. They are also the single largest performance boost you can give a computer over an identical computer with a hard drive.

SSDs don't have the spinning disk of a conventional hard drive, so they use less power, work more quietly, and should be more resistant to damage–and less likely to fail mechanically.  And because there are no moving parts, they promise quicker access to data.

Although they once cost several times as much as traditional hard drives and had smaller capacities, prices are coming down and capacities are inching upwards. In general, Consumer Reports recommends solid state drives over hard drives.

Hard Drives

Also known as a hard disk, or HD, this type of drive uses a spinning hard disk and uses more power than a solid-state drive. It is also slower overall.

Bigger is better. Hard drive sizes are measured in gigabytes and terabytes, and commonly range from 250GB to more than 1TB (terabyte).

Speed is equally important, and is measured in rpm (revolutions per minute). A slow hard drive will take longer to start up the OS and programs, and complete tasks (such as installing programs or scanning your hard drive for viruses).

For best performance, get a desktop with at least a 7,200rpm hard drive and a laptop with a 5,400rpm hard drive.

Hybrid Drives
Lower-priced hybrid drives, which combine a hard drive with solid-state memory, represent a good compromise.

Optical Drives
Blu-ray Disc (BD) drives are the newest standard. They're capable of playing Blu-ray movies and can store 25GB (single layer) or 50GB (dual layer) of data, respectively.

Many of today's laptops come without an optical drive, saving weight and cost. With high-capacity flash drives available, extra storage isn't a problem on these models. But installing older software—typically distributed on a CD or DVD—could be a problem. Most of today's software is distributed via download, so there's little need for an optical drive.

The Battery
When not plugged into a wall outlet, laptops use a rechargeable lithium-ion battery for power. Laptops go into sleep mode when used intermittently, extending the time between charges.

You can lengthen battery life if you dim the display, turn off WiFi connectivity when it's not needed, and use only basic applications.

Some laptops, most notably Apples, Ultrabooks, and other thin-and-light models have non-removable batteries, which may be costly to replace when run-time starts decreasing.

6

Computer Features

Although most computers come with a basic, pre-defined set of features, that doesn’t mean you don’t have choices. Use this guide to help wade through your options. For more check our computer ratings (available to subscribers).

7

Computer Brands

This list comprises the major computer brands. In choosing a brand, consider the manufacturer's technical support and reliability as shown in our surveys. 

Acer Aspire laptops and desktops run the gamut of computers from budget to high end, including a full line of ultrabooks and detachables. Acer also produces Chromebooks. Their gaming line is known as Predator. Gateway is also owned by Acer. The company does not sell its products direct to consumers, unlike most other computer makers.
Apple computers usually cost more than similarly configured Windows-based systems. Apple computers use Mac OS X as their operating system, but will soon be moving to macOS. Macs can also run Windows in a virtual setting. The company offers several consumer lines, the MacBook, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air (laptops), the iMac (all- in-one desktops), and the Mac mini (a small, budget desktop). The Mac Pro desktop is its professional line. Apple's free telephone tech support is limited to three months, but you can get unlimited free support at the Genius Bar in Apple stores.
Asus offers computers geared toward entertainment, gaming, and everyday computing. ZenBooks are the thin and light/convertibles. E,F, and K Series are it's mainstream laptops. Desktops are the Vivo PC line, all-in-ones include the Zen and Vivo line, and gaming is the ROG line. Asus also offers Chromebooks. Asus does not sell its products directly to consumers, unlike many other computer makers.
Inspiron is Dell's mass-market line of laptops, desktops, and all-in- ones. For higher performance and gaming systems, Dell offers the XPS line, which includes convertibles. For hard-core gamers, Dell offers Alienware systems. All-in-one's include the Inspiron 3000, 5000, and 7000 series, as well as the higher-end XPS series. They also offer a small line of Chromebook's.
Google, the designer of the Chrome Operating System, offers just one Chromebook, the Pixel.
HP is the No. 1 seller of desktops and laptops in the United States. For laptop users, it HP is the No. 1 seller of desktops and laptops in the United States. For laptop users, it -- offers the budget HP line, the mainstream Pavilion line, the higher performance Envy line and the premium Spectre lines - some of which are convertible and detachable. Desktops and all-in-ones include the Pavilion and Envy models lines. Gaming models are the OMEN line. HP also offers a line of Chromebooks.
IdeaPad, Yoga and ThinkPad Yoga are Lenovo's consumer laptop line that encompasses mainstream and premium models. Lenovo also offers gaming, budget, thin and light, detachable convertibles and Chromebooks. Lenovo ThinkPads are its business notebooks; ThinkCentre are business desktops. Consumer desktops and all-in-ones include Yoga Home, 300, 500, 700 and 900 series. IdeaCentre Y series is its gaming line.
Microsoft offers the Surface and Surface Pro detachable laptops/tablets. The Surface Book is a larger detachable laptop.
Samsung offers a variety of laptops ranging from slim and light to detachable to desktop replacements. The lines are known as the Notebook 5, 7, and 9 lines. Its all-in- ones are the ATIV One series. New to the line-up is one Galaxy-branded detachable. Samsung also produces Chromebooks. It does not sell its products directly to consumers, unlike many other computer makers.
Toshiba's consumer PC division has been sold and they have discontinued sales of consumer devices. Toshiba says it will honor all warranties and ensure repair services are available for qualifiying devices. Expect to see laptops at retail outlets until inventory sells through.
In 2014, Sony sold it's laptop division, and in 2015, the new group, dubbed Vaio Corporation, introduced high-end laptops under the Vaio brand name. The line is relatively small, with somewhat limited distribution.