I wanted to make it a back-to-school laptop guide. But if I say the HP ENVY 14 is sweet, it’ll go from sweet to sold out in about 30 minutes. So instead, you guys are getting something even better, a start-to-finish laptop buyer’s guide so you can make your own decision. Also, it will include some honorable mentions, like the aforementioned ENVY 14. It really is pretty sweet.
The first and most important thing you need to decide is how much performance you actually need, as well as your budget. Because these two factors will determine what type of laptop you’re looking at. Be honest with yourself. If you don’t really need that top-of-the-line RTX 3080 GPU, sacrificing some FPS could either save you a ton of money or get you a better built machine that’s more comfortable to daily drive.
With that said, if performance is your top priority, you’re probably going to want a gaming laptop.
Generally speaking, they have the best cooling, they feature the fastest processors, and they’re cheaper than equally powerful laptops that are marketed at professional creators. If you primarily want a laptop for school or work that has enough grunt to game on your brakes, you’ll be perfectly fine with either a GTX 1650 or an RTX 3050. Here are a couple of budget-friendly options. Any of these should serve you very well. So I would personally go with whatever’s on sale and then return it and try again if I end up hating it.
If you’re looking for something powerful enough to really crank the details in AAA games at 1080p, or if you wanna drive a high refresh rate panel for smoother animations, the RTX 3060 Mobile delivers nearly a 40% bump in FPS over the 3050 Ti and comes highly recommended, especially an ASUS Zephyrus G14.
And we’ve also seen some really nice fire sales on last-gen 2000 series RTX models. Above that, however, things start to get a little complicated, a lot complicated. In many cases, the model of GPU that you choose, and that you pay for, can have less of an impact on real-world performance than the cooling and the power delivery of the overall laptop. (exhales strongly) There is honestly way too much to cover here.
So instead we made a playlist that you can watch called “Buying a Gaming Laptop in 2021 is Way More Complicated Than it Should Be.” Also get subscribed because I’m sure that the shenanigans are far from over. Moving on then, if gaming for you means playing TextTwist in your browser or the occasional round of Rocket League, great news! Integrated, or IGP use, have gotten shockingly good. So you wanna avoid a laptop that has low-end dedicated graphics, like these ones.
In my opinion, they just aren’t enough of an upgrade over modern integrated GPUs to be worth the extra power draw and heat output.
Your emulated PlayStation 2 Classics are gonna run fine without them. As for CPUs, AMD keeps things pretty simple. The bigger the number, the more faster it goes. And I can easily recommend both the Ryzen 4000 and 5000 series processors on mobile.
They have exceptional efficiency, which means great performance in compact or lower-priced machines that typically end up with smaller batteries. I would hesitate however to go for a Ryzen 3000. The name seems to suggest that these are based on AMD Zen 2 cores, but they’re actually based on an older design that is significantly slower and less power efficient. As for Intel, whoa, if it’s got five numbers followed by an H, like this, that means it’s a faster model with more cores. And if it ends in HK, like this one, it’s a super fast boy and is generally capable of overclocking.
If instead it’s got four numbers followed by G4 or G7, like this, that means it’ll have at most four cores, and is intended to be snappy and power efficient, rather than capable of handling heavy workloads. Now, for most people only four CPU cores isn’t gonna be a problem. But if you plan on running fluid simulations or editing 4K video, an H-series processor, or ideally an 8 Core from AMD would be the better choice. Something to note, though, is that for Intel, their latest 11th Gen processors were a significant upgrade. They finally switched from 14 nanometer to 10 nanometer.
So if the latest and greatest isn’t within your budget, you can’t assume that last year’s model will be same, same, but slightly worse. The good news, however, is that in the few years prior to that, Intel was basically rehashing the same designs. So you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between an 8th Gen processor and a 10th Gen one. I’d only go 7th Gen and older though if the price was very compelling on a used device. Fortunately, RAM is simple.
Get 16 gigs if you can. Windows and Chrome are gonna make quick work of 8 gigs.
And if 8 gigs of RAM is all that meets your budget, make sure you choose a machine that can be upgraded down the line with slots that look like these ones. Even if you’re not tech savvy, iFixit has excellent teardowns that can both help you choose an appropriate model and perform the surgery. Framework, by the way, gets an honorable mention here for their outstanding attention to the upgradability of their machines.
They even go as far as making the integrated ports swappable. Storage is a similar story to RAM. You’re probably gonna want at least 500 gigs for your SSD, but if a 256 gig one is all that you can fit in your budget, just make sure that the laptop you’re considering can be upgraded down the road. Something you might have realized by now, though, is that since Intel didn’t do a whole lot to improve their laptops between 8th and 10th generations, it is entirely possible that someone might think that their old laptop is slow, but it actually just needs a little bit more storage or RAM. Neither of them is super expensive these days.
So chucking 16 gigs of Ram into a three-year-old laptop, maybe with a battery refresh that can usually be found with a quick part number search on eBay, could give it a whole new lease on life. While you’re in there, by the way, make sure to blow out the cooling system because overheating is the biggest cause of premature laptop failure. Now to address the elephant in the room. AMD and Intel aren’t the only options for CPUs anymore. Bringing us to the Apple M1.
The MacBook Air and Pro M1s are in almost every way the best thin-and-lights on the market. They’re extremely snappy, feel great to use, have excellent screens, and the battery life is unmatched by anything that shows this logo on boot up.
But they aren’t perfect. The M1 chip has only been out for a year. So there are some growing pains.
For instance, our Mac guy, Jonathan, has to use Teams in a Chrome window since there’s no native app yet. And there’s no way to install full x86 Windows. As for us, the inability to run professional programs like SOLIDWORKS and Altium, not to mention games, makes the M1 Mac a complete no go. So a beautiful machine, much better keyboard than the old ones. Just make sure that everything you’re gonna need will run on it.
And Chromebooks are a similar story. If you’re on a budget or you already have access to a powerful desktop, 95% of the time a Chromebook is going to do everything you need it to do.
But if a Chromebook is your only computer, your professor or your boss could easily provide you with some mandatory piece of software that you either can’t run or are going to have to install in a hacky, time-consuming way. And at that point, you’ll probably wish that you’d saved up another 100 bucks and got a Windows device, or spent the same amount and gotten a used ThinkPad, like this one. – Having the fastest laptop around though means nothing if the screen sucks.
How will you appreciate all the new T-shirt designs on theltgstore.com? But seriously, the screen is the thing you will interact with most on your laptop. So it really makes sense to skimp on it. There are three main panel types: your TN, IPS type, and OLED, and only one that you should choose.
TN looks terrible by today’s standards and should basically be avoided at all times.
OLED panels look amazing, with crisp blacks and vibrant colors and incredible saturation, but they’re normally not super bright, which kind of matters if you’re taking this thing into bright areas like outside. They struggle with reflections and they’re terrible for battery life, which leaves us with IPS. And IPS-type panels. LG trademarked IPS.
So other brands have to use different names for the same tech.
Once you know the panel type is okay, the color space is the next key thing. This describes how many different colors your monitor can produce. It can get a bit confusing since there are a bunch of different standards. But unless you know you need something else, aim for near 100% coverage of sRGB, pretty basic.
The vast majority of applications, webpages, and games are tuned for sRGB. So unless you’re doing professional color work, going beyond that to Adobe RGB or a DCI-P3 is not a requirement. More expensive machines may come factory calibrated to account for the slight differences from one panel to the next. But there are quick and dirty ways to calibrate it yourself using test patterns that are good enough if you’re not doing color-critical work. Something you cannot change after the fact is your panel’s brightness.
It’s tough to recommend a single brightness number since 250 nits might be fine on a matte display while 400 nits might not feel like enough on a glossy one. But what I can say is that if you’re gonna be in a bright environment, lower is generally better.
Finally, if you plan on gaming, throw out most of what I just said, because the single most important thing for you is the refresh rate of your panel. A high refresh rate display, paired with a good CPU and GPU, will allow you to see much smoother animations on the screen and make your gaming experience feel more responsive and immersive. We proved outright that going from 60 hertz to 144 hertz results in a real-world competitive advantage and while 240 hertz and above definitely starts to succumb to the law of diminishing returns, it’s safe to say that more is more better, at least for competitive gamers.
If sightseeing games are more your thing, though, look at you with your three players, a 1440p, 120 or 144 hertz IPS-type is the perfect sweet spot, chef’s kiss. Speaking of which, you might have noticed that I’ve hardly touched on resolution.
That’s because despite it being one of the big highlights on a typical manufacturer’s webpage, for the most part it doesn’t really matter. Unless the laptop is extremely cheap or small, it will have at least 1080p resolution. And since laptops are pretty small in general, 1080p is enough for the image to look pretty darn good.
In our opinion, pushing to a 4K display is basically just a waste of battery life, unless the 1080p option is a really bad panel. A far more important aspect of the display is the ratio of horizontal to vertical pixels. For professionals in particular, a 16:10 or 3:2 display gives you more vertical space to work with for scrolling long documents or editing complex video timelines. Some laptops with great screens are the Surface Laptop, HP ENVY 14, Dell XPS, ASUS Zephyrus M16 and G15, and the Lenovo Legion Pro, they’re good.
Oh yeah, we like touchscreens.
You might not. So hey, it’s up to you, unless you buy a Mac, then it’s up to Apple. – A really important part of a laptop that you can’t evaluate from the spec sheet alone is the keyboard and track pad. Given these are the bits that you’ll physically be touching every time you use it, you’ll want them to be really good.
The easiest way to figure out if a keyboard and trackpad are good is to watch some reviews.
Find a host who has some overlapping experience with yours. See if you like the same kind of things. Then find out their most recent opinion on whatever machine you’re considering. We’ve got heaps of unboxings around ShortCircuit, like this one right here and I think this one too. So if you’re lucky, we’ve already taken a look at what you want.
And if you’re not so lucky, well, I guess it’s time to head over to a local big box store, like Best Buy or somewhere and just try some out. First thing to do is make sure your hands physically fit. If they’re falling off of the edge, kinda like this, you need a bigger laptop. To type fast, consistency is the key. The more confidence your fingers have, the better.
So kinda just press around the keyboard. If the whole thing flexes a bit, that can be fine, but uneven squishiness can throw off your typing. Feel around the J and K keys specifically. This tends to be a soft spot on some laptops.
If the deck flex is good, then you can evaluate the keys themselves.
Press around the corners to check the stability. If the corner kinda dips below the chassis before it actuates, don’t buy it. And finally, give the keys a press to see how consistent the force required to push them is. If some of them take more effort than others, keep looking unless you’re a hunt and peck typist. For you, you probably wouldn’t notice the difference, but if you wanna improve your typing in the future, maybe, you know, invest in something that’s good.
Our keyboard standouts are the ASUS Zephyrus lineup, basically any Alienware laptop, but especially this one with the Cherry switches, any Surface device, Dell’s XPS 15, and pretty much anything from HP’s ENVY or Spectre lineups. While you’re tooling around with the keyboard, it’s a good time to evaluate the palm rejection of the trackpad.
If the mouse accidentally clicks or moves around while you’re typing, real bad. If none of those things happened, try to use the keyboard and then slowly move to touching the trackpad. What you’re looking for is to see if the trackpad doesn’t immediately start working,.
OEMs will do this to make sure that your palms don’t actually trigger it, but if it’s too aggressive it can make the trackpad feel unresponsive. After that, check if the trackpad uses Windows Precision drivers. If it doesn’t, just don’t get the laptop. In 2021, no one needs snapdicks drunken drivers. From there, I personally don’t like trackpads with high latency, but depending on what panel you have and your personal sensitivity to it, you might not notice the difference.
So it kind of just comes down to trying as many as possible in-person and hopefully you can figure out what you like. Our standout trackpad champs are, of course, the MacBooks, XPS 15 once again, and the Zephyrus G15 and M16. The last big ones that we haven’t mentioned are weight and battery.
Weight is pretty simple since it’s just a function of performance and how much you want to spend. This one’s real light, made of magnesium.
Not cheap. (laughs) But the battery’s a lot more complex. I wish I could just say something like, “Get an 85 watt-hour battery and you’ll be good.” But like, these two both have 55 watt-hour batteries. This one’s four hours, this one’s 16.
It (laughs) doesn’t really work like that. Because depending on the CPU, GPU, display, and even the tuning of all of those things, the battery life is just willy-nilly and will vary wildly. Your only real choice is to find a reviewer who has tested the config you like or something close to it in an industry standard test, like the PCMark battery life test.
Anything over about 6.5 hours will be serviceable, with anything over 11 being pretty darn solid for all day use.
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So why wait? Turn your battle station into a battlefield and order your Infinity Work Keycaps today at the link in the video description. – If you still want to know more, check out our playlist “Buying Game Laptops in 2021 is Way More Complicated Than it Should Be.” It’s so stupid. All the things that you need to know to make an informed decision to buy like a gaming laptop, ridiculous.