Choosing a laptop isn’t easy. Their price tags vary enormously, and while some of the smallest laptops are really cheap, others are eye-wateringly expensive.
Unless you need your laptop to be adept at a specific task that requires a lot of processing power, such as constantly redrawing graphics in a really detailed game or editing a video you’ve shot in high-definition, a mid-range laptop will be a good, safe option.
This doesn’t really narrow down the choice much, though, so let’s take a closer look at which sorts of laptop suit best uses and why.
Types of laptop
Price range: £700 to £2,000
Ultraportable laptops are all about lack of weight, so they tend to have screen sizes of 11 or 13 inches and, because space is at a premium, no DVD drive.
It’s unusual to find a dedicated graphics chip on an ultraportable too, so they aren’t the best choice for playing demanding games. Even so, thanks to their thin chassis, ultraportables are generally considered the most desirable of all types of laptop.
Smaller laptop components are much trickier and more expensive to produce, so while it might sound as though you’re getting less for your money if you buy an ultraportable model than one with a large screen, it can cost a lot more.
The higher price of ultraportable laptops is partly accounted for by the inclusion of an SSD (solid state disk) to store everything. This is preferable to a hard disk, which most computers use, because it has no moving parts and therefore isn’t susceptible to damage if the laptop gets knocked.
You’re also paying for the convenience of a laptop that’s lightweight and easier to transport.
Although ultraportable laptops are very thin and light, they shouldn’t be underpowered. Battery life of eight hours ensures you can use them and at the very least a dual-core Core i3 processor is a must.
Perhaps the ultimate ultraportable laptop is Apple’s MacBook Air – the thinnest and lightest laptop on the market, but it has several competitors in the shape of Windows-based Ultrabooks (a term coined by component manufacturer Intel that really just means lightweight but powerful) as well as the XPS Z range by Dell.
Finally consider the number of USB and other input/output connectors - because ultraportable notebooks are slimmer, there is less space for ports. The MacBook Air for example, doesn't have an Ethernet port, so you will need to invest in an adaptor.
Price: £500 to £1,200
Most laptops will play DVDs and music, while some also include a Blu-ray player so you can watch HD movies.
Even if you don’t have Blu-ray, as long as you have a broadband connection you’ll be able to watch BBC iPlayer programmes and YouTube videos online and download films, including high-definition ones, via a rental service.
Unless you’re going to be taking the laptop out and about with you (in which case you’ll want a smaller, lighter model), a large screen with wide viewing angles should be high on your list of desirable features.
Some 15.6-inch laptops have a resolution of 1366x768, but for multimedia use you should look for 1920x1080, and a 15.6- or 17-inch screen with a resolution of 1920x1080 will be ideal.
A disadvantage of larger-screen laptops is that they’re much heavier – weighing 3kg to 5kg on average – and their batteries won’t last as long before needing a recharge. Unless it’s going to be plugged in to the mains while you’re using it, you may want to opt for a smaller screen model such as the 15.6-inch Toshiba Satellite P855.
A Core i5 processor, which is Intel’s mid-range chip, will be powerful enough to handle lots of tasks at once and will easily cope with the most powerful games.
Get at least 4GB and, preferably, 8GB of RAM, as this will make most difference to how smoothly programs, games and videos run.
At the pricier end of the market, extremely powerful multimedia laptops such as the £1,119 Toshiba P70-A19 use Intel Core i7 processors. The £679 Toshiba P855 with 1TB of RAM and an Intel Core i5-3230M processor is a good value alternative.
For serious gaming opt for a laptop with a separate graphics card, if not, an integrated graphics card will be fine. HDMI out, multiple USB ports and a memory card slot will be important too.
Few laptops these days have less than 500GB of storage and most will come with a 1TB (that’s a 1,000GB) hard disk. It’s easy and cheap to add storage though, as you can always plug in a USB hard drive and copy things to and from it.
If possible, try out the laptop in store so you can check how reflective it is, how good the viewing angles are if two or three people are watching something on screen at once, and how clear and loud the speakers are. You can usually turn down the bass, but if the built-in speakers are tinny, you’ll want to plug in external speakers, which will add the cost.
Price: £200 to £400
If you want a basic, inexpensive laptop that you use primarily for email and web surfing, a netbook is a great choice.
You’ll be able to create and open documents and play basic video and photo slideshows, but you won’t get a DVD drive, so you’ll be limited to anything you watch online or download or to items you copy to the laptop from a USB memory stick.
Netbooks typically don’t have high-resolution screens and their speakers won’t pack much punch, but if it’s basic computing power, great battery life, portability and web access you need, they’re well worth considering.
For the ultimate in portability look for a laptop with a 10- or 11-inch screen, weighing 1.6kg.Processing power will be limited but, if you can, get a netbook with 4GB of RAM and 500GB of storage.
Some of the newest good value lightweight laptops are called Chromebooks. These models are ready to use within a couple of seconds of being switched on and start at just £199 for the 11.6-inch Acer A7 Chromebook.. They use Chrome as an operating system, rather than Microsoft Windows. Everything you do on them is managed by logging on to your Google Chrome user account, and all your documents and photos are stored in the Cloud instead of on your hard drive. This means you can access them from different devices.
Windows 8 RT laptops, meanwhile, are another type of low-cost portable PC. They run a cut-down version of Windows 8 and are more like tablets than laptops as they have touchscreens rather than keyboards. However, many people connect them with a Bluetooth wireless keyboard for typing longer documents.
Microsoft sells its own Windows RT laptop, known as the Surface, for £299.
Price: £600 to £3,000
For gaming, the most important considerations will be a powerful quad-core processor, a high-resolution 1920x1080 screen and a dedicated graphics card. These will need to be paired with 8GB of RAM if you want to be able to play the most demanding games such as Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty: Ghosts.
A non-reflective display is important if you’re going to game in a room with artificial lighting. Choose an IPS (in-plane switching) screen rather than a TFT one as this gives better colour depth and makes everything look more realistic.
Gaming laptops are the giants of the laptop family, with screen sizes starting at 15.6 inches and going up to 17-, 19- and even 20-inch screens. Their weights are correspondingly hefty, with 4kg to 7kg laptops not uncommon. Given this, it's extremely unlikely you'll be lugging a gaming laptop around.
You’ll want either an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processor, but you’ll also need a good sound subsystem with a separate woofer to maximise the audio punch.
Some gaming laptops such as the Alienware range contain two 2GB or 4GB GGDR5 graphics cards, though you’ll pay several hundred pounds more than the £1,900 basic specification price for this specification.
Alienware (owned by Dell) isn’t the only dedicated gaming brand around – Asus’ Republic of Gamers laptops such as the G750JX – also have Intel Core i7 quad-core processor power and 3GB of dedicated graphics, but have a more manageable £1,300 price tag.
Price: £350 to £600
Most people don’t need anything like the processing power found in a gaming laptop, and many games will run smoothly on an above-average family laptop with a 15.6-inch screen with 4GB RAM and Core i5 processor.
We’ll assume your family laptop is mainly going to be used in the home, rather than taken from place to place, so weight and screen size aren’t that important.
A 1TB hard drive, coupled with separate user accounts for each family member, should provide ample storage for multiple users.
We recommend buying a laptop with a DVD drive, as this makes it easier to install your own programs if you’re upgrading from an older computer.
DVD drives are also very useful for backing up – and if several people are going to use the same laptop it’s likely its hard drive will get filled up faster. Young children can also watch DVDs on the laptop.
As with the multimedia laptop choice, though, you should check the viewing angles of your family computer. If you’re trying to teach your child how to do something on the computer or are watching a program while sitting beside them, you’ll need to be sure that you also have a good view of what’s on screen.
Opt for a laptop with multiple USB ports - you may end up connecting or charging more than one device at once. An SD card slot would be useful for transferring photographs.
There are plenty of laptops that will fit the bill, so it’s a matter of choosing your budget and making sure the rest of the family are happy with your choice. A model such as the £479 Asus Vivobook could be a good choice because it has a touchscreen but also works with a conventional keyboard.
Some people will get on better with touchscreens, while other family members will prefer the familiarity of a Windows desktop, but a Windows 8 laptop lets you switch between the two and to switch off the touchscreen if you find it unhelpful.