There are two ways to buy a new laptop. The first is to decide how much you want to spend and then see what’s available; the second is to decide what you want to use a laptop for and then see how much a suitable model will cost.
The second option is usually the simplest. It will narrow your choice considerably and prevent you spending too much on a laptop that’s hopelessly overpowered for your needs.
So to help with the buying process, we’ve split typical laptop tasks into four broad categories and made some recommendations for each.
Web browsing and email: up to £180
If all you want a laptop for is to get online, look at web pages and send email, your requirements are very low indeed - which is good news if you’re on a tight budget.
In fact you don’t even need a laptop at all. If you own a smartphone, then that probably has everything you need.
Most people prefer a bigger screen, of course, but you can get that with a tablet. The Tesco Hudl 2 has an 8.3-inch high-resolution screen and, since it runs Android, has access to a wide range of apps and games - all for £129.
Alternatively, the HP Stream 7 has a seven-inch screen and runs Windows 8.1, which effectively makes it a laptop without a keyboard and it costs just £89.
However, if you use email a lot or like to write comments on web pages rather than just reading them, then you really need a keyboard - and that means a proper laptop. You still don’t need a powerful one, though, and nor do you need one that runs Windows.
Chromebooks are worth considering here. These low-cost laptops run the Google Chrome OS and while that means they can only run apps that are web-based, that still makes them more than capable. The pick of the bunch is the £150 Acer C270 Chromebook with an 11.6-inch screen, but there are several similar models available for less than £200.
Windows compatibility shouldn’t be an issue for web browsing and email alone, but if you need access to Internet Explorer or just need to run a few specific Windows applications, you still don’t need to spend that much. £179 buys the new HP Stream 11 with an 11.6-inch screen and Windows 8.1. This also comes with a free one-year subscription to Microsoft Office 365 and you can upgrade to Windows 10 when it’s available.
Office productivity: up to £250
You can do some serious word processor, spreadsheet or presentation work using Google Docs on a Chromebook or Microsoft Office on a low-cost laptop like the HP Stream 11, but a bigger, higher resolution, screen and better specification will make it a more enjoyable experience.
Don’t discount a Chromebook here, however, since the comparatively low hardware requirements for Chrome OS means bigger-screen models are still inexpensive. For example, the 14-inch HP Chromebook 14 and 13.3-inch Toshiba CB30-102 Chromebook cost about the same (£229 and £224, respectively) and are ideal for using Google Docs. Don’t let the 16GB solid-state drive put you off, either — Chrome OS stores all your work online, so the SSD is only needed for temporary storage.
If you want Microsoft Office, on the other hand, then you will need Microsoft Windows. It’s not on sale just yet, but the new HP Stream 14-z050sa looks like a solid option here.
Its 14-inch screen 1366x768 is well matched to Windows 8.1 and the quad-core AMD processor should prove capable. The 32GB solid-state drive is rather meagre, but the laptop does come with 100GB of Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage free for two years - though you will need to add an £80/year Office 365 subscription to the £230 price tag.
If you want a more traditional take on a laptop, then Dell usually has some good deals. At the time of writing, its Inspiron 14 3000 series with a 14-inch screen, Windows 8.1 and a 500GB hard drive starts at £199 - or you can pay another £40 for a 15-inch model.
Photo editing: up to £500
Photo editing doesn’t place any particular demands on a laptop, but a more powerful model will be more responsive when working with high-resolution images.
A large, high-resolution screen will be more comfortable to work on and you’ll need a large hard drive for a large collection of photos - although you can always use an external drive for that. You might also want to consider a laptop with built-in DVD burner for backing up your images, or for creating photo discs to share with friends.
Dell has some good options here, too. Its Inspiron 15 5000-Series starts at £479 for a 15-inch screen with an Intel dual-core processor, 8GB of memory and a 1,000GB hard drive. Or, if you want a DVD drive, you can downgrade the graphics, upgrade the screen and get the otherwise identical 17-inch Inspiron 17 5000-Series for the same price.
If you’re a keen amateur photographer who relies on applications like Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, then either of those Dell models will suit. Both are also ideal for video editing with free software like Microsoft Movie Maker or Lightworks, but if you’d like to do the same on a Mac, then you’ll need a considerably bigger budget. The cheapest 15-inch MacBook is the MacBook Pro with Retina Display at £1,599, overshooting this price category by some distance.
Desktop replacements and gaming: up to £800
These days, a ‘desktop replacement laptop’ is simply one with a 17-inch screen or larger to match the experience of using a desktop monitor, whether it’s for work or watching films. Remember that you can always connect a smaller laptop to an external display for greater flexibility, though, and that may also work out cheaper. The rest of the specification is really up to you and largely depends upon how much you want to spend.
If you want desktop PC-level performance to play 3D games, however, then you’ll need a heavyweight specification to match — and that’ll cost you.
The two key considerations here are the processor and graphics, although you’ll also need an optical drive for installing games and a large hard drive to hold them all. Neither of the first two come cheap and, since they can’t be easily upgraded in a laptop, here’s where the ‘buy the best you can afford’ advice applies — at least if you want to continue playing the latest games at high detail settings for more than a couple of years.
The PC Specialist Optimus V stands out here. It’s a 17.3-inch laptop with a highly customisable specification, so it’s easy to buy exactly what you want. A dual-core Intel processor, 8GB of memory, powerful Nvidia graphics and a 1,000GB hard drive can be had for £783, but you can spend much more than that if you want even more performance.
There’s obviously a lot of overlap with these loose categories and a MacBook Pro with Retina Display can cope with just about anything you can throw at it, for example - as you’d expect, at that price.
If you’ve spotted any great laptop deals lately, or have any tips for making the most of an old one, let us know in the Comments.