Looking to buy a new computer? You’ve picked an excellent time.
Microsoft’s latest and much-improved version of Windows has been released, Macs have gotten better with the latest version of OS X El Capitan, Google Chromebooks have gotten more refined; plus Intel has just released the latest version of its processors, which are faster and offer better battery life.
If you’re looking to upgrade your computer this holiday season, here’s a guide to help you get the best machine for you.
What are you using it for?
This is arguably the biggest and most important step of the buying a new computer process. You can find solid PCs for as low as $149.99 for the Lenovo Ideapad 100S, $159.00 Acer CB3 Chromebook or $199.99 for the HP Stream 11 or more powerful machines like the Microsoft Surface Book or Apple MacBook Pro for well over $1,000, with plenty of good choices in between.
To make the best purchase, you first need to decide what you are using it for. All these machines run Office or can access Google Docs, are fine for browsing the web and can play Spotify and Netflix, but there is a reason there is such a price gap.
The small and low cost options
With improvements to Windows and growth of the iPad and Chromebook, the last few years has seen a rise in low-cost PCs. In fact, many of the major PC manufacturers now dabble in more affordable Windows and Chromebook computers.
Like tablets, these machines have 10- to 12-inch screens, and while they are thin and portable, they also feature the traditional mouse and keyboard.
These machines are excellent options for a starter computer or a second machine, and their small sizes make them ideal for young kids and travelers.
On the Windows side, many run Intel processors, which means all your Windows apps will work, like iTunes and Spotify. Microsoft even bundles a 1-year subscription to their Office 365 service (which includes Office plus 1TB of OneDrive storage) with the purchase of many of these low-cost PCs.
And while it is best used with an Internet connection, many of the Chromebooks also feature Intel processors and are great options if you have everything stored online and in the cloud. Like Microsoft, Google bundles in goodies including 100GB of Google Drive storage for two years and 3 free movies from Google Play.
But they have drawbacks. For one, many lack the amenities found on more powerful laptops including higher-resolution displays, HD webcams, large amounts of storage space or 10+ hours of battery life. HP’s Stream 11 and Lenovo’s Ideapad 100S for example, work fine for doing a few tasks, but their slower Intel Atom processors and 2GB of RAM quickly lead to slowdowns and lags as you do more at once. Those weaker specs also make them poor gaming choices or viable alternatives for those who do heavy multitasking with multiple tabs or apps open at once.
Chromebooks in this price range, like the 11.6-inch Acer CB3 available for around $160 at Best Buy, have faced similar issues in the past when juggling multiple things at once, but they have gotten better. If you need more speed, look at something like Toshiba’s Chromebook 2 for around $270 from Best Buy which has a much more usable 4GB of RAM and faster processor. And while Chromebooks can’t install traditional apps like Office or iTunes — think of them as laptops with just the Chrome browser installed — many of the more popular apps have web versions that are readily available (including Microsoft with Office Online).
It’s important to note that these devices are more one- to two-year solutions and aren’t likely to last you as long as some of the more traditional, pricier computers on this list.
The midrange: $399- $799
At this level is where we see many of the more traditional, fuller-featured computers. Devices in this range have several hundred GBs of storage space, HD displays, faster Intel Core i processors and several GB of RAM.
The options here are pretty vast and its more complicated to label a “best one” as there are so many out there and the best computer for you really depends on what you plan to do with it.
For that, here’s a handy little specs checklist to help guide your shopping:
The web-streamer: You don’t need to store a lot of photos or videos locally on a hard drive, but want something that will be quick and powerful enough to let you multitask and get things done online.
Specs: You’ll want a 5th or 6th generation Intel i3 or more powerful i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, 13-inch HD display, and 128GB of storage.
There are a few good options here, particularly on the Chromebook front though if you’re willing to spend you’ll be most pleased with the Dell XPS 13 for $799.99 from Dell.com.
For the casual user: You like to store lots of photos, videos and documents on your hard drive, want a large screen for watching videos, you multitask with plenty of apps or programs running at once and like the flexibility of a laptop but don’t plan to use it much outside the house.
Specs: In this case you’re best off with something with at least 4GB of RAM, a 5th or 6th generation Intel Core i3 or AMD A6 processor, 500GB hard drive and a 14- or 15-inch HD screen. Battery life of 5-7 hours is nice for the times you do go out. There are plenty of options from Best Buy, Amazon and others that meet this level on the Windows side.
The student or on-the-go traveler: You want something sleek and light with excellent battery life. You also need something with good speed and performance. Basically, you’re looking for a hybrid between a tablet’s thinness and a laptop’s power.
Specs: You want something with an 11-14-inch HD touchscreen display, Intel 5th or 6th generation i5 or i7 (or an AMD A8 or A10) processor with 4GB-8GB of RAM and at least a 256GB solid state drive for storage.
There are plenty of ultra-thin laptops out there but you may also want to look for one of the “2-1” machines out there like Lenovo’s Yoga line, HP’s x360, Dell’s Inspiron line, Acer’s Aspire line or even Microsoft’s Surface 3 or Surface Pro 3 tablets (though if you go Surface remember to buy the $149 keyboard attachment). These devices are super thin while still packing real processing power.
The top of the line, $800+
At this level you want something that is the best of what’s out there today. Whether you do a lot of multitasking, travelling, gaming or spreadsheet editing, you want something that is powerful and designed to last you the next few years.
With Intel’s latest processors recently hitting the market many of the manufacturers have updated their lines to incorporate it.
Lenovo’s new Yoga 900, HP’s Spectre x360, Dell’s XPS 13 and 15, Samsung’s ATIV Book 9 Spin and Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book are all very good options. All are incredibly sleek, have beautiful displays, are fairly powerful and are generally some of the best multi-purpose Windows machines out there today.
They have quirks—the XPS 13’s webcam is at the bottom of its display, the Surface Book has a unique folding style, the Yoga 900, ATIV Book Spin 9 and HP Spectre aren’t the most comfortable to use as tablets with their keyboards exposed in the back—but all are very good options.
At this price range you also can find Apple’s MacBook Air, which starts at around $900 for the 128GB version, and MacBook Pro, which starts at $1299 for the 13-inch version with 256GB of storage. (The new 12-inch MacBook is nice to look at, but it’s one USB-C port, high price and slower performance make it skippable this year).
Whether you are going with Mac or Windows, splurge on a 6th generation Intel i5 or i7 processor, and a minimum of 8GB of RAM and 256GB of solid state drive space. When plunking down this much for a new machine the last thing you want is to underpower it.
The best piece of advice for laptop shopping is to stop into your local electronics store and check out a device in person if you can. Everyone has their own tastes for how they like their machine to feel and every manufacturer equally has their own quirks.
This guide and other reviews on the Internet can help give you guidance, but to make the best choice it’s best to spend five minutes test driving it for yourself to see which is best for you.
Follow Eli Blumenthal on Twitter @eliblumenthal
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