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 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 almost 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, such as laptops that can be used liked tablets and all-in-one desktops that don't need a separate monitor. For more, check our full computer ratings (available to Consumer Reports members).

Desktop Computers

Many people have moved away from desktops in the past decade. However, they still may be useful for many consumers.

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, generally come with better speakers, and allow you to view your work on a larger screen. Click here for our computer ratings.

Photo of full-sized desktop computer.

Full-Size 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.

Full-Sized Desktop Ratings
Photo of 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.

Computer Desktop Ratings
Photo of an all-in-one computer.

All-in-One Desktop

All-in-one desktop computers, also known as "all-in-ones," 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 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 RAM and other improvements. These tend to be quite expensive.

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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. A laptop can also be more difficult and expensive to repair than a desktop.

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. See our computer ratings (available to CR members) for more.

Photo of 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.

Why? For one, these laptops are typically light enough to be brought, say, to and from your office without needing the strength of a powerlifter. They may not have the absolute fastest processors around, but laptops in this size range are nowadays more than capable of handling everyday productivity tasks with ease. Battery life varies but should get you through a typical workday with no questions asked.

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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. Midsized models are a good choice if you take your machine along less frequently or if you 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.

Laptop Ratings
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 semipermanently 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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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 use Chrome OS, an operating system developed by Google. 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. Since Chrome OS is very similar to the popular Chrome web browser some users may have an easier time using a Chromebook than other computers.

On the downside, there’s not a lot of storage space on a Chromebook, 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 these aren’t workhorse computers, though they are fine for office productivity work like email and spreadsheets, and browsing the web.

Chromebook Ratings
Photo of a detachable computer.

Convertibles & Detachables

The tabletlike features in Windows 10 make convertible laptops an appealing category for 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 that 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 less than 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.

Tablet Ratings

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.

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


Person using their finger to navigate through a touchscreen menu.

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, you should consider the Intel Core i5 and AMD's Ryzen line of processors.

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 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 brings a more uniform interface across a variety of devices: computers, tablets, Xbox consoles, 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 (in part because there's 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. The latest version of macOS (previously known as OS X) is called Mojave and was released in the fall of 2018.

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 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.

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, access to data should be quicker.

Although they once cost several times as much as traditional hard drives and had smaller capacities, prices are coming down and capacities are inching upward. 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.

Bigger is better. 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.

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.

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—usually 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.

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 die.

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 brands, and an all-in-one PC known as the All-In-One. Samsung also produces Chromebooks.
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