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Laptop Buying Guide: What to Look for in 2021

Need a new laptop? Here’s what to look for when buying a laptop for school, business, gaming, programming, audio production and more in 2021.
February 23, 2021

In this Article:

General Considerations

There are several universally important things to consider when buying any laptop. 

Best Laptops for College Students

For college students, you should consider your budget, classes and what kind of performance you need out of your computer.

Best Laptops for Photo/Video Artists

For editing photos and videos, having a CPU and GPU that can handle the workload is essential.

Best Laptops for Music Producers

If you’re looking for a laptop for making music, you need a machine that can run your choice of digital audio workstation, or DAW.

Best Laptops for Gamers

Sure, gaming on a desktop at home is nice, but sometimes it’s nice to get out and game at your local coffee shop and pretend to be social. 

Best Laptops for Programming

For programming and coding, you don’t need to really focus on specs, so you can relax your bank account. 

Best Laptops for Business

Business laptops come down to your personal preferences.

Laptop Procurement and Configuration

Need to procure or configure multiple laptops for your university or business? Here's what you need to know...

There’s a lot of different laptops out there these days that can handle much of the same tasks such as word processing, web surfing and the like. If you’re buying a laptop, the important consideration is, what are you trying to do with the laptop? You probably have a specific intention in mind for what you’d like to get done with your laptop, or maybe a few things, like gaming, collaboration, or video and audio editing.

We’d like to get down to what you really need in a laptop and what you should consider in your laptop and laptop accessory buying decision, whether you’re looking for yourself or for your business or institution.

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General Considerations for Buying a Laptop

There are several universally important things to consider when buying any laptop:

1. Monitor Size: Unlike a desktop, you can’t buy a new monitor for a laptop. If you’re looking to game, watch movies, do graphic design, or any task that requires ample screen real estate on-the-go, you’d want to consider a 15”+ monitor. Keep in mind, however, a bigger screen means a more power-hungry laptop, thereby increasing weight and overall size and decreasing battery life.

2. Weight: If you know you’re going to be lugging your laptop bag with you all day, you may want to consider giving your shoulder or back a break. Many laptop manufacturers offer lightweight devices exactly for this reason, with laptops under 3 pounds, slimmer components and smaller screens. These laptops tend to be easier to carry and have excellent battery life, with the tradeoff being generally less horsepower due to smaller and lighter components.

3. Battery Life: Nothing’s worse than being in the middle of your work and the dreaded “battery low” alert flashes on your screen. Fortunately, it isn’t unheard of to find laptops with 15+ battery life and is increasingly commonplace. If you plan on being on-the-go with your device often and don’t like always having to be outlet hunting, you should consider a laptop with up to 6-8 hours battery life at a minimum.

4. SSD: These days, you want to buy a laptop with a solid-state drive (SSD), not a hard disk drive (HDD). SSDs are 4-5x faster and are much less likely to be damaged or corrupted. They are commonplace in modern laptops. Although slightly more expensive than HDDs, SDDs are well worth it, and they only keep getting better with developments like NVMe SSDs.

5. Operating System: Choice of OS is a can of worms in the computing world that deserves its own article, but we recommend selecting what you prefer and what you budget allows for. Also, you may want to consider your current device ecosystem such as your phone and streaming device/smart TV. The integration can be very nice if you choose compatible devices, such as the ability to cast your screen to your TV, transfer files between devices or app integration between devices.

Best Laptops for College Students

As a student, you’re probably a little more budget-minded after having dropped an untold amount of money on textbooks. For college students, you should consider your classes and what kind of performance you need out of your computer. If you’re a liberal arts major, you may not need as powerful a laptop as a web design major who uses GPU-intensive apps such as the Adobe Creative Cloud, a music major composing multilayered tracks in Apple Logic Pro X, or a video game developer running 3D modeling software.

Other college majors that require power-intensive laptops include anything data-analysis heavy, including business, sociology, data science and engineering. Adequate RAM is essential for these disciplines and you should aim for at least 16GB. Check if you can upgrade RAM before you buy, since you can do this later, too. SSD storage should be your second priority, followed by an adequate CPU. The more you can afford, the better. Particularly if you plan on running Spotify, YouTube, your messenger app and everything else at once, you need a laptop that can handle the workload.

After all that studying, you may want to do a little online gaming with friends too. Depending on how graphically-intensive the games you want to play should be a consideration. If you’re looking to play Minecraft you don’t need the same type of specs you’d need to run Call of Duty: Warzone. If gaming is a must for your future laptop for college, make sure to research the specs of the games you’re looking to play and purchase a laptop exceeding the minimum requirements as well as making sure the game can run on your chosen operating system. Read our gaming

Another consideration when buying a laptop for college should be a 2-in-1 laptop vs a standard laptop. 2-in-1s typically don’t stack up in terms of performance to your standard laptop, since there’s simply less case space to fit in big cooling fans and bulkier components that lend to better laptop performance. However, with 2-in-1s you do get the versatility, portability and touchable, intuitive interface of a tablet with the convenience of reverting to a laptop when the need strikes. Writing or drawing with a stylus or sharing information with others is much easier with a 2-in-1.

Art majors or people who really enjoy more traditional notetaking could stand to benefit from a 2-in-1 — writing things down can help you remember the material. It’s also great to save on overall backpack weight rather than carrying around a tablet and a laptop to every class if you’re someone who likes to use both.

Best Laptop Accessories for College Students

When buying a laptop for school, accessory selection is important. Logically, you’ll need a backpack, sleeve or carrying case for your laptop to keep it protected on-the-go. For newer Apple laptops, they lack USB-A ports so you’ll need to purchase a USB-C to USB-A adapter. If you need more than 1 USB-A port, a USB hub would be very helpful for you.

If you’re looking to hook up your laptop to external monitors, a docking station is a great call, which also gives you the added benefit of additional USB ports, and who doesn’t want that? Some stock charger cables are very short, so you should possibly consider getting an extension cable. If you want to draw on your 2-in-1, you’ll need a stylus. Extra chargers never hurt either, keep one in your dorm and one in your backpack and you’re always set!

Best Laptops for Photo/Video Artists

For editing photos and videos, having a CPU and GPU that can handle the workload is essential. CPUs for video editing are commonly referred to as H-Series for both AMD and Intel and provide additional performance benefits over standard U-Series CPUs. In terms of GPU, particularly for video, we recommend getting a laptop with as high a clock speed and as much VRAM as your budget can muster. Make sure to check any system requirements for the apps you want to run, and your CPU/GPU is above the minimum requirements!

Getting a laptop with a wide, high-resolution (WQHD, WQHD+, or 4K) monitor with fine color accuracy and helps you see the most minute details of your work and allows you to have multiple windows open at once. You’ll likely have to sacrifice long battery life for this kind of high-octane performance, especially at lower price points, and will likely also have a heavier laptop as well.

Adequate storage is more important than your average laptop shopper – particularly for videos, the file sizes can be quite large. You may not always have an external hard drive handy and having copies of your files in as many places as possible doesn’t hurt.

OS can be a particularly important consideration for video/photo laptops. You should consider the programs you want to run and base your decision of OS on that. For instance, the Adobe Creative Cloud apps run on macOS or Windows, but Apple’s Final Cut Pro video editing app can only be run on Mac laptops, and Windows Movie Maker (you guessed it!) only runs on Windows PCs. If you’re new to video/photo editing, you may want to do research on apps best for your goals first, and then determine what OS you should go for.

Best Laptop Accessories for Photo/Video Artists

Video and photo are particularly memory-hungry, so an external hard drive and a thumb drive which as much memory as you’re willing to spend will make your life easier. Also, cameras need micro SD cards, so the bigger card you can afford the better. We’re assuming you have a lot to carry around, so a laptop backpack is in order, too. Finally, since you’re likely often off to the next client or shoot location, you should get a protective case for your laptop to protect against damage but most importantly, all the work you do on it.

Best Laptops for Music Producers

If you’re looking for a laptop for making music, you need a machine that can run your choice of digital audio workstation, or DAW. For most DAWs, we recommend something that exceeds the minimum spec requirements. Generally, CPU, RAM and storage are the most important specs for audio production. DAWs are RAM-hungry programs, and this is in addition to any work your system is doing in the background, like surfing SoundCloud or collaborating with other artists via video. A bigger monitor screen is nice too, particularly if you’re looking to create songs with many tracks.

Most audio interfaces (the device you plug your mics and instruments into that hooks up to your computer) use a USB Type A connector, so it’s helpful to have USB inputs on your laptop if you don’t plan on getting a USB hub or docking station.

Your choice of DAW should play a significant part in your laptop OS selection. GarageBand, Logic Pro X, Peak or Soundtrack Pro are only supported on macOS, where Sonar, Sound Forge FL Studio and Adobe Audition are Windows-only DAWs. Both OS’s can run Ableton, Cubase, Reaper and Pro Tools.

It’s best to do your own research here and decide based on the programs your favorite musicians use or watch software demos to see what jives with you. The user interfaces very greatly and some DAWs are more beginner-friendly than others, or more suited for certain styles of music.

The more MIDI instruments, plugins and processing you add onto your tracks, the more strain you put on your machine. If you’re an acoustic singer-songwriter you probably won’t need as fancy of a laptop as someone who’s trying to be the next big EDM artist.

Best Laptop Accessories for Music Producers

One of the major pieces of equipment you’ll need for music production is an audio interface. This device allows you to plug in instruments with a ¼” jack or XLR cable. You can also purchase USB mics, but they are typically pricier and harder to use when you have more than one. Typically, USB mics are basically identical in build quality and save you the money of buying an interface. Also, some audio interfaces come with free DAW software, but not all. Most audio interfaces are compatible with any DAW software.

There’s a variety of MIDI controllers you can buy for music production, and most musicians at least get a MIDI keyboard. Typically, MIDI controllers need to be connected via USB-A, so you may need to purchase a USB hub to accommodate for this.

Also, if you don’t plan on buying studio monitors to listen back to your tracks, you should buy high-quality studio headphones. You shouldn’t select studio headphones the same way you would select standard headphones. Standard headphones tend to accentuate high and lows and have more dynamic sound. Studio headphones, however, are made to deliver even EQ so you hear your music accurately. Coziness and fit matters even more too, since you’ll be spending a lot of time wearing them while you mix your music.

Best Laptops for Gamers

Sure, gaming on a desktop at home is nice, but sometimes it’s nice to get out and game at your local coffee shop and pretend to be social. Whether you build your own gaming laptop or buy a preconfigured gaming laptop, you should definitely consider the following first:

  • What games do you want to play? If you’re looking to play Age of Empires 2 (made in 1999!) and don’t plan on playing anything else, you probably don’t need a top-of-the-line gaming laptop. First consider the kinds of games you want to play and the specs they require.
  • What laptop OS supports the games you want to play? Unfortunately, not every game is available on every OS. Make sure that the games you want to play are playable on your chosen OS.

Once you decide on those fundamental questions, specs come into play, namely; the GPU. At a minimum, if you’re looking to run games at 1080p you’ll need a GPU with 6GB of VRAM. To run at a 4K resolution, we advise 8GB or more of VRAM.

When it comes to RAM and storage, check to see if the laptop you want to buy allows you to upgrade your RAM. This could give the option to upgrade down the road and squeeze extra life out of your gaming laptop. The gold standard for RAM these days for laptop gaming is 16GB.

For storage, particularly for modern games, more is better. You should opt for a gaming laptop with 250GB or greater for an SSD since modern games are becoming increasingly large (some are 50GB+ for a single game)!  You can always keep more games on the cloud, but it can be annoying having to redownload games every time you want to play them.

Resolution vs. frame rate is the ultimate tradeoff for PC gamers. Resolution is the number of pixels your screen can show, and higher resolutions allow you to see more detail in your games. Frame rate, measured in frames per second (fps), is the frequency at which your display can render new images on your monitor.

Do you want your game to look pixel-perfect and pretty, or do you care more about playability and smoothness? This will depend on both personal preference and the type of games you’re looking to play. For competitive PvP (player vs. player) games like StarCraft, Overwatch or Call of Duty, a high FPS is essential (greater than 60FPS ideally).  Nothing’s worse than frame rate dips during the height of a match.

However, with the higher frame rate comes decreased resolution, so it won’t look quite as nice. If you’re more about flying solo with PvE (player vs. environment) games like Resident Evil 2 Remake, Red Dead Redemption 2 or The Witcher III, you may want to opt for a laptop with 4K resolution to showcase these graphically stunning games. If you’re more on the casual side, 30-45fps should be just fine for your gaming laptop.

Best Laptop Accessories for Gamers

To be competitive at first person shooter games, you need a decent mouse. It’ll be near impossible to get to the top of the leaderboards without an adequate mouse.  Gaming-specific mice offer pinpoint response, accuracy, macro keys, and customization you don’t get with standard mice.

Getting a comfortable gaming headset is important when buying a laptop for gaming, too. Besides the obviously important sound quality, you should look for a gaming headset with good sound isolation/noise cancelling, material quality, mic quality/adjustability, and surround sound capability.

USB hubs are a great addition as well so you have extra inputs to charge your mouse and headset, and to plug in Bluetooth USB dongles if you have wireless laptop accessories. You never know when you’ll need more USB inputs!

Best Laptops for Programming

For programming and coding, you don’t need to really focus on specs, so you can relax your bank account. Getting a laptop with at least 1080p resolution monitor helps make your code more legible. For several types of programming, being able to run Linux OS is important. MacOS is Unix-based OS like Linux and runs Linux out-of-the-box but you can run Linux on a virtual machine (VM) or install Linux on your Windows-based laptop.

When purchasing a laptop for coding, you can really choose what is best for you. If you’re only doing work on it, you can go lightweight, slim and high battery life so you give your shoulders a break and sip lattes at the cafe and code without wondering where your charger is. Also, you can really focus on creature-comforts like a keyboard that feels right for you.

A faster CPU/more RAM is nice since you’ll probably be using web browsers a lot of research and work a lot in the browser if you’re a web or front-end developer, and browsers tend to be CPU-/RAM-hungry. You’ll also likely be multitasking often, with messaging apps, Spotify, YouTube tutorials, or a billion other apps you’re likely running along with your programming tools. If you’re a seasoned professional programmer CPU/RAM is even more important, as you’re likely running more taxing workloads and compiling a lot of code at once.

Best Laptop Accessories for Programmers

A good consideration as well is perhaps pairing your laptop purchase with a docking station. That way, you can hook up your laptop to external monitors when you get home and enjoy your ample screen space for your code editor and all the windows you open while squashing bugs. Also, if your laptop of choice lacks ports, the docking station allows you to connect all your favorite computer accessories and peripherals.

Many coders also enjoy having two or even 3 monitors. For instance, a front-end web developer could code on one screen, see the browser on another and do research on the third screen. Having additional monitors speeds up your workflow and makes it a lot easier to get some serious coding done. If more monitors are a must, you can also save desk space by getting a dual monitor mount or adjustment arm. Mounting your monitors allows you to adjust them exactly how you like and easily move the monitor closer to you.

Best Laptops for Business

Like selecting a laptop for programming, business laptops come down to your personal preferences. You can focus on the niceties that suit you such as light weight, durability and long battery life. Additionally, you should make sure your laptop has good security features, such as a fingerprint reader or facial recognition to keep sensitive work data secure.

Depending on your line of work, a special ruggedized laptop may be the best call for you. These laptops are specifically built to endure drops, dings and unfavorable environmental conditions and meet MIL-SPEC standards for their chassis and keyboards.

If you’re a designer, engineer or crunching some serious numbers, you should consider a business laptop with the newest CPUs to keep your workflows running. Mobile workstations, intended for 3D animation, computer-assisted design (CAD) and hardcore data analysis, are a specific class of business laptop when you need extreme power, multitasking ability and portability. They’ll cost you more and gobble up battery power much faster, but they get most any job done seamlessly.

Best Laptop Accessories for Business

Keep your investment protected! Since you’ll often be toting your laptop to and from meetings and the office, you’ll need a laptop bag at a minimum. A case for your laptop itself is advised too to guard against the occasional desk spill or unexplained scratch. For on-the-go productivity, a wireless mouse is much better than your laptop’s track pad. You’ll also need a USB flash drive to share files and transfer important data.

To make sure you always have your important files backed up, we advise buying an external hard drive. That way, you can back up all your files not only on the cloud but also within your drive. Data redundancy is very important no matter your profession!

When you’re in a meeting, it’s important to be heard and seen, so a high-quality wireless headset and webcam is a must for the businessperson on the move. Oftentimes, the webcam built into laptops is insufficient, and won’t often include features such as 4K video or high-quality audio. Plus, with an external webcam, you have greater ability to adjust the angle so people see the best side of you! CDW supplies and configures VoIP headsets and webcams from the top brands in the business.

Don’t forget a backup laptop charger or a laptop power bank. Chargers can make the difference between 2 hours of work and 2 hours of wasted time.

Last but certainly not least, securing your laptop is important. There are several laptop security accessories you can consider, including laptop security locks, fingerprint readers and webcam covers. Some laptops come with some of these features built-in, but others do not.

Laptop Procurement and Configuration

Are you a purchaser for a university looking to provide students with discounted laptops? Or a buyer looking to procure laptops for your business? The CDW Discount Purchasing Program gives your students your volume discount for their personal purchases. On top of that, you get the assurance of purchasing from a legitimate vendor at a good price, and free tech support from CDW in case anything goes awry.

CDW Client Device Provisioning Services can help preconfigure student devices with the specific hardware and software your institution requires. As we discussed, not all majors need the same specs so you could purchase devices preconfigured with additional RAM, powerful video cards and SSD space for instance, plus have all the software they need for their studies right out of the box.

Our Provisioning Services also include the following:

Common additional services include:

  • Project management
  • BIOS updates/customizations
  • Domain join
  • Hard drive encryption
  • Asset tagging/reporting
  • Inserts and kitting

CDW will ensure your devices are secure and personal information is safe, no matter if the devices are personal or shared. Plus, we can set it up to make remote deployment of updates simple, taking the burden off your institution’s IT team.

We get data protection is paramount, so we make sure not only that your laptops are safe against threats, but also all your endpoint IP devices such as IP phones, audio and video conferencing tools. We can sell you all these devices, preconfigured, which saves your IT teams time and effort in getting new employees onboarded. You can also take advantage of our virtual private network (VPN) services so your employees can connect to your company’s network safely no matter where they work from.

If your employees work remote, you would also want to consider configuring your employees’ laptops with application delivery via virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). This allows employees to utilize resources in your data center or cloud remotely, rather than being confined to their local laptop. CDW can help you select the VDI best for your organization depending on the needs of your organization.

Summary

We hope this guide helps you make an informed buying decision, no matter what your laptop needs are. CDW sells top-of-the-line laptops perfectly suited for all these objectives and more, from all the top brands including Acer, Apple, Dell, HP, Microsoft and many more. We get that you need a laptop perfect for you.

Find the perfect laptop for your needs.