One of the things about this job is that everyone in your life — from friends to relatives to distant acquaintances and strangers on the internet — asks you questions about laptops all the time. A very common one I hear is also one of the harder ones to answer: “What makes a good laptop?”
Unfortunately, my dear question asker, that answer — as is the case with so many answers in life — is subjective. Sometimes I will hate a laptop that my fellow reviewers love, and vice versa. (I’m always the one who’s right, of course. Don’t listen to them.)
But this question has prompted me to step back and do a bit of introspection (as one does). What distinguishes a laptop that I like from a laptop that is good?
First off, it’s much easier to think of what makes a laptop not good. One hour of battery life? Not good. One USB-C port, and that’s it? Not good. Takes 12 minutes to boot up? Not good. Costs $8,000? Probably not good unless it comes with a free car or something. And that’s just from the top of my head — I could rattle these off all day.
But the question of what is good is much harder, I think, because so many devices cater to very different audiences and use cases. A seven-hour battery lifespan might be a requirement for a good ultraportable, but not for a good gaming rig. A discrete GPU is probably required for a good gaming laptop but certainly not for a business-oriented convertible.
There are many features (specific ports, screen resolutions and refresh rates, the keyboard feel, the bezel size) that people will reasonably disagree on the value of. But I do think there is a set of things that a general-purpose laptop (like anything that looks remotely like a MacBook Air) should have in order to be “good.” I will be hesitant to recommend an ultrabook that doesn’t meet these requirements, and other reviewers should be, too. If you’re shopping for a general-purpose laptop, you should be making sure you’re buying one that meets these criteria, regardless of other preferences you may have.
- A display of at least 1920 x 1080. There are still high-profile models with lower resolutions than this being sold, and in today’s market, those models are not good. (And I’m souring on 1080p on screens that are 16 inches or larger — you can really see the pixels on those.)
- At least two ports and a headphone jack. I wish I could put a way higher number here, but many of the best laptops on the market today are being sold with exactly two USB-C ports and a headphone jack. This has gone far enough. I am declaring it now: I don’t care how much you love your Thunderbolt dock, a laptop with fewer than two ports is not good.
- Fans that work and are also not too loud. It’s the year 2022, people. If my five Chrome tabs are turning your chassis into a toaster and your fans into a symphony orchestra, your laptop is not good.
- Keyboard backlighting. This is necessary for late-night work and especially helpful for visually impaired folks. Good laptops need it.
- Keys with at least 1mm of travel. I know there’s a contingency out there who (inexplicably, to be clear) loves flatter keyboards. However, even if you fancy yourself a flat-keyboard-er, I promise you that you do not want keys with less than 1mm of travel. That’s Butterfly Keyboard territory, and nobody wants that. We in the laptop community just don’t like to remember that period of our lives.
- Battery life of seven hours or more for general-purpose use. There is just no longer any excuse for five-hour battery lifespans in this category, even at low prices. If anyone tries to recommend a laptop to you that reviewers are getting less than seven, or maybe six and a half hours on, tell them they are wrong and send them this article. You’re welcome.
- A usable processor. Yes, I am coming for the Celeron: It’s time to stop putting those in laptops. Even for folks with a pretty light workload, they are too slow — and even if you are highly budget-constrained, I promise you will save money in the long run by buying a chip that will last longer. Sorry, Celeron. You had a good run.
Now, if you’re shopping for a specific purpose, not all of these items will apply, and there may be other elements to look for. Here are some other use cases.
- What makes a good laptop for college? Portability. A good student-focused laptop should be under three and a half pounds, give or take. Backpack space is prime real estate in school, and you’re going to be carrying this thing around a lot.
- What makes a good laptop for business? Build quality. This is something folks on a budget can compromise on for lower price points in the general-use space, but business laptops are, as a category, expensive, and they need to withstand the test of time to earn their value. A good business laptop should be made of aluminum, carbon fiber, or other non-plastic materials, and they shouldn’t be bending all over the place when you torque the screen or press down on the keyboard deck. Generous storage and excellent security features also make for a good business laptop (and laptops marketed to the business space, in general, do have these elements).
- What makes a good laptop for gaming? Frame rates. Things like keyboards, touchpads, and battery life are less fundamental and more subjective here — many people may want good ones, but there’s room for reasonable disagreement about how important they are. The one thing that objectively makes or breaks a gaming laptop is good frame rates for its price — and that’s what reviewers and buyers should focus on when evaluating these products.
At the end of the day, whether a laptop is “good” doesn’t matter nearly as much as whether a laptop works well for you. I, myself, have certainly enjoyed using a laptop here and there that doesn’t meet all these criteria. What we like is what we like, and gadgets are no exception.
Still, I believe there is value for us, reviewers, in keeping strict definitions like this in our heads when deciding what to recommend. Our friends, relatives, and random Twitter solicitors don’t have the context for these products that we do.
I’ve heard too many horror stories from friends who’ve been convinced to pay $600 for Celeron machines on the Best Buy floor, who bought their kids a 1366 x 768 machine that they had trouble reading on, or who ordered a flimsy plastic chassis that only lasted a year because it was the cheapest thing they saw on Amazon. It’s important that companies make affordable machines, but it’s also important that those machines be able to deliver on the promise that a 2022 laptop makes. Some parts of this business are subjective, but some aren’t — and keeping that in mind is a service to all.