What laptop should I buy?

All you need to know about choosing the perfect Windows 8 laptop or hybrid device

Screen quality

The size of a screen and its resolution are just two of the considerations when buying a laptop or hybrid device. In general, the screen size will be dictated by the weight and overall size you want from your laptop or hybrid 2-in-1 device. Ultrabooks are commonly found with a 13.3in screen, while 2-in-1 hybrid devices vary: some are 10in, others are 14in (such as Lenovo’s IdeaPad Yoga 2 Pro). It depends on the type of hybrid you choose, and whether it’s one with a detachable screen (these offer the smallest screen sizes) or one with a screen that flips, rotates or tilts all the way around.

Look for a screen resolution that is Full HD (or 1920x1080). This resolution is best not only for watching video; it also offers plenty of pixels for comfortable multitasking, and it’s a good compromise between a high resolution and an easy-to-view screen. Lots of mainstream laptops come with a resolution of 1366x768, which we think is a little too low, especially for multitasking and comfortable Web browsing. In particular, the extra vertical lines in a Full HD resolution come in handy while Web browsing.

Some laptops offer a 1440p resolution (2560x1440), which provides more pixels on the screen than Full HD, and some of the latest laptops also offer a 4K or UHD (ultra high-definition) resolution (3840x2160, also sometimes stated as 2160p). These resolutions are great for viewing photos (a 4K screen can display an 8-megapixel image in full) and should be at least considered by photographers. However, regular text can look very small so they are not ideal for typists. Furthermore, Windows 8 and many applications don’t scale their fonts perfectly, which means that even if you increase the font size in Windows, some applications will either continue to show very small text, or bigger, blurry text.

The technology behind a screen also needs to be considered. All panels these days have LED backlighting, but brightness levels can vary. Furthermore, uniformity in brightness and contrast can vary depending on the type of panel. A panel of the in-plane switching (IPS) variety should be sought if you want a nice, uniform screen and the ability to see the screen from wide angles. Panels that use twisted nematic (TN) technology often have poor viewing angles and the screen needs tilting in order for the picture to be viewed properly. Laptops with IPS panels are generally more expensive, but some manufacturers, such as LG, are making a point of including them in all of their products due to their superior display.

Likewise, if you are considering a hybrid laptop that can be used as a tablet, then an IPS screen is a must. This will allow you to easily view content regardless of the orientation of the screen and the angle at which you are holding the device.

Many of the screens on consumer laptops have a glossy finish and are of the touchscreen variety. They are hard to avoid, especially in Ultrabooks (13.3in, fourth-generation Intel Core laptops all have a touchscreen). If you do go for a touchscreen model, be sure to clean it regularly, as fingerprints can often be visible on the screen, especially during movie playback.

If you find reflections irritating, or if you need a laptop for the office, then consider one with an anti-glare screen, or a non-touchscreen model. Be aware that some non-glossy screens tend to look a little dull.

Where possible, go to a store to check out some screens, paying close attention to brightness, colour saturation, and viewing angles.

Keyboard and touchpad

The keyboard and touchpad are the other two components you should try before you buy. In general, look for a keyboard that has large enough keys to suit your fingers, and a layout that is standard (some keyboards have an extra column on the right side for the home keys, for example, and very small arrow keys). Keys should feel soft and responsive when they are hit, and they should not rattle or feel ‘squishy’. Furthermore, if you plan on typing in a quiet space, look for a laptop with a quiet keyboard.

We don’t recommend small hybrid 2-in-1 devices if you plan on using your device for long typing sessions, mainly because the keyboards on devices smaller than 12in can feel cramped. In addition, some hybrids that are top-heavy (such as those with a detachable keyboard base), can make the typing process feel awkward, especially if you type while resting the device in your lap.

Try to get a backlit keyboard if you can, because this will make it easy to type in dark environments without you having to rely on an external light source.

As for the touchpad, look for something large (at least 90mm wide in a 13.3in laptop) and smooth to the touch (some touchpads have textures, some can feel a little sticky). Some vendors skimp on this component, which can lead to poor accuracy when moving the pointer across the screen, and also lack of features in its driver. In general, Synaptics touchpads are the best we have used, and have drivers that support a variety of multi-finger gestures. We’re used to three-finger flicks (to go back and forth in a Web browser), two-finger scrolling (with reversible direction), and two-finger double taps (so you don’t have to actually click to bring up a right-click menu).

The most common type of touchpad is the ClickPad, which is one that has the left- and right-click buttons located underneath the actual pad. Laptops with dedicated left and right buttons are becoming rare. Another type of touchpad we have seen recently is the ForcePad, which instead of pressing to click, you press to put pressure on the pad, which simulates a click. We prefer ClickPads.

Battery life

Batteries are built-in to most Ultrabook laptops and all 2-in-1 devices, which means you can't carry a spare or replace them easily. Notebooks that are aimed at business users, or mainstream notebooks that are 15.6in, for example, mostly still have removable batteries. Some business products can also make use of a secondary battery, and some 2-in-1 hybrid products have a battery both in the screen and in the keyboard base.

The Watt-hour (Wh) rating of a battery gives an example of the power that it can supply. For example, a 48Wh battery will last longer than a 40Wh battery given the other specifications of the laptop are the same. The biggest consumer of power is the screen, with high brightness and high resolutions screens draining the battery quicker than lower resolution screens. Keep the brightness low in order to get more out of the battery.

See some of our product reviews to get an indication of how long a battery can last while playing a movie in a situation where the screen brightness is maximum. Many 13.3in Ultrabooks that we've tested can last over 5 hours in this scenario.

The perfect laptop?

From all the information we’ve gone through, here’s what we think would make the perfect Windows laptop:

Size: 13.3in
Material: magnesium alloy, carbon fibre
Weight: up to 1.3kg
CPU: Intel Core i7
Storage: 512GB
Screen: IPS, Full HD (we don’t need touch in a laptop, or a 4K resolution)
Battery life: 7hr movie playback
Keyboard: full-sized keys, soft and quiet travel, responsive feedback, backlit
Touchpad: smooth and accurate, supportive of three-finger flick, two-finger scrolling, two-finger double-tap
Ports and slots: full-sized HDMI, full-sized SD card slot, three USB 3.0 ports
Wireless: dual-band, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0

Let that serve as a checklist of sorts for your next purchase and you should end up with a laptop that’s a joy to use for the next few years at least.

Read more: Toshiba mid-2015 laptop buying guide: optimised for Windows 10

Our comments are open so you can let us know what your version of the perfect laptop is and the features that you find most important.

Laptop reviews

Visit our reviews page for all of our latest laptop and hybrid laptop reviews. This is an up-to-date resource, which in addition to offering full reviews, also has a compare function that allows you to easily see the differences between multiple notebooks.

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