Computer Buying Guide

Finding your next computer doesn’t have to be a chore.

If you’re looking for something you can easily carry to and from work, or bring with you on vacation, then a lightweight laptop could be in order. These weigh just a couple of pounds, have batteries that can last a full workday of more than 8 hours, and have more than enough power to tackle common productivity tasks like browsing the web and editing Microsoft Office documents. Some models, known as 2-in-1s, can be used as a tablet of sorts by bending the keyboard backward and behind the screen using a 360-degree hinge.

A desktop may be a smarter and more ergonomic pick, however, if you’re setting up a home office and aren’t worried as much about mobility. Staring out into a display puts less strain on your neck than staring down into one as you would with a laptop. You also generally get more power per dollar spent with a desktop than you do with a laptop. Some models come with a built-in display, while with others you’ll have to supply your own. Luckily, computer monitors aren’t expensive.

And though the great Mac vs. PC debate isn’t likely to end, a Mac can do about as much as a PC (though you’ll want a PC if you’re into gaming). Both have access to top-tier software, include robust anti-malware protection, and are easy to use: For instance, Google Chrome and Microsoft Word are basically the same on Macs and PCs.

That said, being able to pair a Mac with an iPhone or an Android phone with a PC could be too good to pass up. Doing so would let you answer a text message with your keyboard and share copy-paste data between a computer and a smartphone. And those are just a few examples.

For more, check our full computer ratings based on our latest tests results, available to Consumer Reports members.

Laptops

Laptops let you use your computer away from your desk, but you pay for that mobility with keyboards that some consumers may find a little small, especially when it comes to laptops less than 13 inches wide. Laptops are also generally more difficult and expensive to repair than a desktop, in part because of their small size and specialized parts.

When it comes to laptops, screen size will be an essential factor in deciding which model is right for you. Nowadays, laptops generally come in a range of sizes.

See our laptop ratings, available to CR members, for more information.

A smaller laptop (10" to 13") computer.

Smaller (10" to 13" screen size)

A 10- to 13-inch laptop is best for people frequently on the move.

That’s because these laptops are typically light enough to be easily carried yet powerful enough to handle everyday productivity tasks with ease. Battery life varies, but you should be able to get through at least a full workday nowadays. The best models now deliver more than 15 hours of battery life, so you shouldn’t have to worry too much about being tethered to a power outlet.

Laptops Ratings
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.

Midsized models are a good choice if you don’t take your machine along with you frequently or if you'd use it extensively for work or school. Such a laptop can easily be 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 editing video and gaming.

Laptops Ratings
A large laptop (17" to 18") computer.

Larger (17" to 18" screen size)

For folks who want to replace their desktop with a laptop that would sit semipermanently in one place but be portable enough to take from room to room, these laptops will deliver. They tend to have higher-end components, too, offering lots of storage and performance to spare.

Beyond performance, a larger screen can make it more comfortable to work on multiple windows or large spreadsheets or kill some time watching Netflix.

Laptops Ratings

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.

A chromebook computer.

Chromebooks

Chromebooks use Chrome OS, an operating system developed by Google and whose user interface largely resembles the Chrome web browser. They're generally inexpensive, with some starting at just under $200, and are designed for users willing to work on and store most of their files online. See the best Chromebooks in our ratings here.

Chromebooks typically have smaller amounts of storage than other laptops, so consumers should be prepared to stream, instead of download, content like music and movies. You need access to the internet to get the best work out of one of these machines, and store files in the cloud with services like Google Drive, Dropbox, or Microsoft OneDrive. And though these aren't workhorse computers, they’re fine for office productivity work like email, spreadsheets, and browsing the web.

Chromebooks Ratings
A detachable laptop computer.

Convertibles & Detachables

Laptops known as 2-in-1s either have a keyboard that can be bent around the back of the display or a keyboard that can be detached entirely. These are called convertibles and detachables, respectively. They may be useful if you want to use your laptop in bed while holding it like a tablet (to stream video, say) or if you want to prop up the laptop like a "tent" to more easily show off the display to other people nearby. You may even find scrolling through photos or merely swiping around the web to be easier than using a mouse and keyboard.

Apple doesn’t make a 2-in-1 laptop, but you could pair an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard to have a similar experience.

Laptops Ratings
A tablet computer.

Tablets

For some, a tablet can take the place of a laptop. See our tablet buying guide for detailed information about shopping for one. These machines are lightweight and highly portable. They’re multifunctional, serving as web browser, e-book reader, movie viewer, and music player.

Their weight can vary between just less than a pound to about 1.5 pounds, and they have touch screens that are 7-plus inches. In our tests, their batteries can last more than 10 hours per charge. For office productivity tasks, you can add a keyboard to many of them.

Tablets Ratings

Desktop Computers

Desktops typically offer a better bang for your buck compared with laptops, delivering more power and performance per dollar spent. You may not need a ton of power if, say, you spend most of the day inside office productivity software, but they often cost less. Depending on the model you choose, you may have to supply your own mouse, keyboard, and monitor to go along with your desktop, but prices for these accessories can be rather inexpensive, ranging from $20 to much pricier models designed for serious gamers. You might want to consider ergonomic mice and keyboards if you’ll be spending a lot of time in front of your computer.

See our desktop ratings, available to CR members, for more information.

A full-size desktop computer.

Full-Sized Desktop

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.

Desktop computers Ratings
A compact desktop computer.

Compact Desktop

At less than half the size of full-sized desktops, compact or slim desktops are ideal if you lack space under your desk or if you plan to put the computer on your desk.

Desktop computers Ratings
An all-in-one computer.

All-in-One Desktop

All-in-one desktop computers, also known as "all-in-ones," combine the computer and monitor. 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.

Desktop computers Ratings
A desktop computer that is good for gaming.

Gaming Desktop

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 components like extra memory or dedicated sound cards. These tend to be quite expensive.

Desktop computers Ratings

Laptop Video Buying Guide

For more, watch our video below.

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


A computer processor.

Choosing a Processor, an OS, and More

Speed matters. Processors with multiple cores can process more data simultaneously, with four cores now increasingly common on laptops. Our ratings say how many cores a laptop's processor has.

Clock speed, measured in gigahertz (GHz), along with the number of cores and other factors, determines how quickly a processor 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 1 GHz for a mobile processor. Speeds can exceed 5 GHz for a desktop processor.

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

If you're looking for a very basic or budget computer to browse the web, email, and work on Office documents, basically every processor on the market should be sufficient.

If you plan to watch high-resolution videos or play mainstream games, the Intel Core i5 and AMD Ryzen 5 line of processors should be your starting point.

How Much Memory?
The more memory a computer has, the faster it is, up to a point. Memory is measured in gigabytes (GB). On both desktops and laptops 8GB has become common, with 16GB or more found on higher-end devices. Unless you regularly have multiple large apps open at the same time, 8GB should be your target.

Operating System
Windows 10 should be easy to use for anyone who has used a previous version of Windows. A huge amount of software is available for the platform that can be downloaded from Microsoft’s app store or from developers’ websites. Games tend to debut on Windows before making their way to macOS, if they’re available there at all. Microsoft releases several Windows 10 updates free throughout the year, adding additional features, fixing bugs, etc.

Macs can be a little more expensive than comparable PCs, but they're less prone to most viruses and spyware (in part because there are more Windows PCs out there than Macs, making them a bigger target for hackers), 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, though you should check ahead to make sure your local store is open and offering support. The latest version of macOS is called Big Sur and was released in the fall of 2020. Apple also releases several macOS updates free throughout the year.

Graphics Adapter and Graphics Memory
Also known as the video card, graphics processing unit (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 if you edit video, especially HD and Ultra High Definition (4K), you’ll want discrete graphics. Light video editing and gaming and all other typical computer tasks will do fine with integrated graphics.

Desktop computers Ratings
A computer drive.

All About Drives and the Battery

Solid-State Drives: SSDs are a relatively new type of storage technology that’s faster than traditional hard drives in part because they don’t have any moving parts. They are also the single largest performance boost you can give a computer over an identical computer with a hard drive.

In general, Consumer Reports recommends solid-state drives over hard drives.

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

Hard-drive sizes are measured in gigabytes and terabytes, and commonly range from 250GB to more than 1TB.

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 7,200-rpm hard drive or a laptop with a 5,400-rpm hard drive.

Optical Drives
A few laptops today ship with an optical drive, which saves weight and cost. If you need one, say, to install an old app or watch a movie that’s not available on a streaming service, you can find external optical drives that plug into a USB port for around $20 to $30.

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.

An increasing number of laptops have batteries that cannot easily be removed by users, which means they'll need to be taken to service centers when they can no longer effectively hold a charge, which shouldn’t happen for several years of use.

Laptops Ratings

Computer Features

Although most computers come with a basic, predefined 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 CR members).

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 thin-and-light laptops, and detachables. Acer also produces Chromebooks. Its gaming line is known as Predator.
Apple computers usually cost more than similarly configured Windows-based systems. Apple computers use macOS (formerly known as OS X). Macs can also run Windows using specialized software. The company offers several consumer lines: MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air laptops; 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 a full lineup of both desktop and laptop computers, including thin-and-light and 2-in-1 laptop models under its ZenBook line. The company also produces Chromebooks, as well as higher-end PCs aimed at gamers that are sold under ROG (Republic of Gamers) branding.
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 gamers, Dell offers Alienware systems. All-in-ones include the Inspiron 3000, 5000, and 7000 series, as well as the higher-end XPS series. Dell also offers a small line of Chromebooks.
Google currently makes only one Chromebook of its own, the PixelBook. It also has a handful of tablets, including the new (as of late 2018) Pixel Slate and older Pixel C.
HP is the top seller of desktops and laptops in the U.S. For laptop users it offers the budget HP line, the mainstream Pavilion line, the higher-performance Envy line, and the premium Spectre line, some of which are convertible and detachable. Desktops and all-in-ones include the Pavilion and Envy 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, and thin-and-light models; detachable convertibles; and Chromebooks. Lenovo ThinkPads are its business notebooks; ThinkCentre models are business desktops. Consumer desktops and all-in-ones include Yoga Home, 300, 500, 700, and 900 series. It has a gaming line called Legion.
Microsoft offers the Surface and Surface Pro detachable laptops/tablets. The Surface Book is a larger detachable laptop. The company also produces an all-in-one PC known as the Surface Studio that’s primarily intended for artists, designers, and other creative users.
Samsung offers a variety of laptops in different sizes under the Notebook 5, 7, and 9 lines, and an all-in-one PC known as the All-In-One. Samsung also produces Chromebooks.
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