Best laptop 2015 - 12 top picks and laptop buying guide
There are loads of great laptops on the market, but finding one that's right for you is becoming increasingly difficult due to the vast gulf in quality between laptops that are the same price. On this page we'll take you through what to look for when buying a laptop, and then we'll give you our rundown of what we reckon are the best laptops you can get for your cash in 2015.
Laptop buying guide
Design and build
If you want a device that can fulfil all your work and leisure needs, a laptop is really the only way to go because there's still no virtual keyboard on the market that's quite as effective as a proper, physical keyboard. They vary wildly in quality, although it's a fairly safe bet to assume that the cheaper the laptop, the less tactile and comfortable the keyboard will be. In our reviews, we describe each keyboard in detail to ensure you get the feel you're looking for. We'll also look at the laptops' touchpads, which again differ greatly in how easy they are to use.
Lightness is all well and good, but if your laptop doesn't have good battery life, the portability benefits you gain from lightness are lost by you having to carry the charger around as you desperately search for a plug on the train or in the coffee shop. Our battery benchmark represents light to moderate usage, scrolling through web pages and watching a few videos with the screen on 50 per cent brightness. Your results will vary from our testing, but they at least provide a useful guide as to how laptops compare to one another.
When choosing a laptop, check how many cores its processor has. Generally, the more cores, the better when it comes to processors with similar clock speeds (measured in GHz). The more cores you have, the better performance you'll get with complex tasks, such as photo and video editing, and you'll also see a small boost in games, too.
There's a confusing array of laptop processors on the market, but what you should always keep in mind is that laptop processors require a lot of cooling and use less power than their desktop equivalents. For that reason, you'll have to spend a lot more on a laptop than a desktop to get like-for-like processor performance.
Further reading: What's the difference between Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 processors?
Some of the processors in the laptops we test also have Hyper-Threading, which creates two threads for each processor core, meaning applications can more efficiently use the cores available to them, increasing performance further.
Dedicated (discrete) graphics cards
Cheaper and smaller laptops typically forgo a dedicated graphics card, instead opting to use the on-chip graphics hardware provided by the processor. This is fine for simple tasks, but as soon as gaming, media consumption and 3D work come into play, these integrated graphics chips become overwhelmed and performance slows to a crawl. Even cheap, low power dedicated graphics cards make a big difference to performance, although they won't be able to handle the latest games.Our favourite, best-value gaming laptops typically use Nvidia's GeForce 860M graphics card. It's a mid-range chip but it can handle the latest games, although actual performance, of course, varies from game to game, so you'll need to make careful graphics adjustments to each game you play to make sure you get the best performance possible.
Another area where you may find yourself short-changed is storage. While most manufacturers include a high-capacity mechanical hard disk - normally 1TB - they will often only include high-performance SSDs in awkward sizes, such as 120GB. This means you will have to juggle your most used applications around on and off the SSD. If you have lots of programs or games and you want to store them all on faster solid-state storage, you'll likely need to upgrade to a 240GB disk. Some laptops don't come with an SSD at all, instead using hybrid hard disks that include a small amount of SSD storage. Which files are stored in this SSD cache is decided by the disk itself; the most often used files will be stored there.
If you have a lot of documents, music and movies that you want constant access to, you'll need a hard disk to store them all on. Most Windows laptops come with at least 500GB of storage, with some also including a bonus 8GB of SSD cache storage for better file loading speeds and operating system boot times. Chromebooks have considerably less because all your files are stored offsite, in the Cloud.
Tweaking your specs
If you're buying a laptop from a system builder, don't be afraid to tweak the specifications of your machine to suit your own needs. To keep the headline price low, most companies will have put what we consider to be the minimum amount of RAM in their machines. For example, most laptop makers will provide units with 8GB of RAM.
^ Don't be afraid to tweak your laptop's specifications if you want more power, memory or storage
While this is enough for most uses, if you're going to be working with large photo or video files you will probably need at least 16GB of RAM to ensure you have enough memory to handle several of these files at a time. Buying more RAM can be costly, though, so if you don't want to buy the RAM up front you can always buy some more later on and install it yourself. See our guide in Shopper issue 325 on how to do this.
Screen size is an important factor to consider when choosing a laptop. If you're a multitasker who likes to run two windows side-by-side, you need a 1,920x1,080 Full HD screen at the very least. Anything less than that, such as the 1,368x768 panels we see on many cheaper limits you to using one window at a time if you don't want to squash your programs.
^ Manufacturers of cheaper laptops call 1,366x768 pixel screens “HD”, but they don’t give you enough space to work or play. 1,920x1,080 is "Full HD"
We also look at colour coverage and accuracy: the higher both of these are, the more vibrant images and videos will appear on the screen. We'd expect a minimum of 60% coverage, but the best panels manage in excess of 90%. Also look out for contrast ratios and black levels - higher contrast ratios mean you'll be able to pick out more details and subtle shades in your images, while lower black levels give images and text an inkier, richer look.
Guarantees and warranties
Finally, make sure you take a look at the warranty of your device because they vary wildly. If you want peace of mind, opt for a laptop that comes with multiple years "collect and return" cover, where the company will cover the costs of shipping and repair of your laptop. Return to base (RTB) warranties are less generous: they make you pay for the shipping costs. Also check how long the parts cover on your laptop is; some companies will cover the repair but not the cost of replacing components.
General-purpose and multimedia laptops
You don't have to break the bank to get a laptop that does the basics well. These are the laptops we think present great value for money for students and families who want to be able to browse the web, send emails, write documents, watch movies and perhaps play a few games.
1. Asus N551JK
If portability isn't a top priority, you can do much worse than buy the Asus N551JK. It has a Full HD screen, an excellent dedicated graphics card in the form of an Nvidia GeForce GTX 850M and a decent Intel Core i5-4200H processor. At 2.6kg it's not exactly bag-friendly but considering the specifications - that also include 8GB of RAM and a 1TB hard disk - it's hard to complain. It's even elegantly styled. For under £600, you can't go wrong with the Asus N551JK.
Price when reviewed: £582. For the latest prices, see our full Asus N551JK review
Processor: Dual-core 2.8GHz Intel Core i5-4200H, RAM: 8GB, Size: 383x255x31.5mm, Weight: 2.7kg, Screen size: 15.6in, Screen resolution: 1,920x1,080, Graphics adaptor: Nvidia GeForce GTX 850M, Total storage: 1TB hard disk
2. Dell Inspiron 15 5000
The Inspiron 15 5000 is a great jack of all trades laptop. With decent build quality and a reasonable screen, it also has a surprisingly powerful processor and even squeezes in a dedicated graphics chip. Not only that, it survived more than six hours in our battery burn test, which is important for working on the move. Priced at less than £600, this is a terrific buy for anyone looking for a laptop for a bit of web browsing, video watching and essay writing. This laptop is often found on "special offer" at £499, so if you see it on sale for more than that, you should wait until Dell drops the price again.
Price when reviewed: £549. For the latest prices, see our full Dell Inspiron 15 5000 review.
Processor: Dual-core 2GHz Intel Core i7-4510U, RAM: 8GB, Size: 380x259x21.8mm, Weight: 2.38kg, Screen size: 15.6in, Screen resolution: 1,366x768, Graphics adaptor: AMD Radeon HD R7 M265, Total storage: 1TB hard disk
3. Asus EeeBook X205TA
The X205TA is Asus' super cheap answer to the Chromebook. Costing just £180 and coming pre-loaded with a year of Microsoft Office 365 personal and 1TB of OneDrive storage (worth £60) it looks to be amazing value. Performance is perfectly reasonable, too, as long as you don't push it too hard. It's happy to browse the web, edit documents and play videos, which is about as much as you should expect from it.
Price when reviewed: £180. For the latest prices see our full Asus EeeBook X205TA review.
Processor: Quad-core 1.33GHz Intel Atom Z3735F, RAM: 2GB, Size: 286x193.3x17.5mm, Weight: 980g, Screen size: 11.6in, Screen resolution: 1,366x768, Graphics adaptor: Intel HD Graphics , Total storage: 32GB eMMC
4. Apple 13-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display
The new 13in MacBook Pro is very expensive, but when this year’s best model costs just £50 more than last year’s, you’re getting much more for your money. With a large SSD, powerful hardware and improved graphics performance, the 13in MacBook Pro stands head and shoulders above every other ultraportable available today.
Price when reviewed: £1,499. For the latest prices, read our full Apple 13-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display review.
Processor: Dual-core 2.6GHz Intel Core i5-4288U, RAM: 8GB, Size: 18x314x219mm, Weight: 1.6kg, Screen size: 13.3in, Screen resolution: 2,560x1,600 Graphics adaptor: Intel Iris Graphics 5100, Total storage: 512GB SSD
You pay a premium for the portability of gaming laptops, but they offer freedom to gamers that a 15kg desktop PC simply can't match. You can play Splinter Cell on your sofa, Fallout at your friend's house and LoL at a LAN party without being constrained by the size of your rig. If you're looking to play games on decent settings, you'll probably want to spend at least £800, although you can spend well in excess of £3,000 if you want desktop levels of performance.
1. Acer Aspire V15 Nitro (VN7-591G)
Acer hasn't released a proper gaming laptop in years, so we were curious as to how it would turn out. It was a pleasant surprise, with a wonderfully-built 15.6in chassis with a textured lid and matt black wrist rest. The Full HD screen is one of the better panels we've seen on a laptop and its Intel Core i7 processor and Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M graphics card make it a capable multimedia and gaming machine.
Price when reviewed: £849. For the latest prices, see our full Acer V15 Nitro review.
Processor: Quad-core 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-4710HQ, RAM: 8GB,Size: 23.9x389x257mm, Weight: 2.4kg, Screen size: 15.6in,Screen resolution: 1,920x1,080,Graphics adaptor: Nvdia GeForce GTX 860M, Total storage: 1TB hard disk (with 8GB SSD cache)
2. Chillblast Defiant 2 Mini
Chillblast's laptop is a superb 13-inch gaming system with a powerful quad-core Core i7 i7-4710MQ processor and a mid-range 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M GPU. It not only manages to combine all the speed and power of larger gaming systems into its smart 13in chassis, but it does so at a competitive price without any compromises in performance.
Processor: Quad-core 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-4710MQ, RAM: 8GB,Dimensions(HxWxD): 31.9x330x227mm, Weight: 2.1kg, Screen size: 13in, Screen resolution: 1,920x1,080, Total storage: 1TB hard disk,Operating system: Windows 8.1
3. Scan 3XS Graphite LG156
The Scan 3XS Graphite LG156 typifies gaming laptops with a boxy and fairly plain chassis. While it's not pretty, it's certainly not offensive and is evidence that your money has been spent mostly on its smouldering performance rather than superfluous visuals. It has the latest Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M mobile graphics chip on board, along with a quad-core 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-4710MQ and 8GB of RAM, so it should handle the latest games with relative ease.
Price when reviewed: £899. For the latest prices, read our full Scan 3XS Graphite LG156 review.
Processor: Quad-core 2.5GHz Intel Core i7 4710MQ, RAM: 8GB,Dimensions(HxWxD): 42.7x374x250mm, Weight: 2.7kg, Screen size: 15.6 inches,Screen resolution: 1,920x1,080,Total storage: 1TB hybrid hard disk
4. Aorus X3 Plus
Aorus gaming laptops are the definition of premium performance, but we were so blown away with the performance of this super-light and ultra-thin gaming laptop, we can't help but recommend it. With a top-end Intel Core i7 processor, Nvidia GeForce GTX 870M GPU and high performance SSD storage, you'll be able to play any current game in Full HD at high settings. It's expensive, but hugely desirable.
Price when reviewed: £1548. For the latest prices, read our full Aorus X3 Plus review.
Processor: Quad core 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-4860HQ, RAM: 16GB, Size: 330x263.5x22.9mm,Weight: 1.8kg, Screen size: 14in, Screen resolution: 3,200x1,800, Graphics adaptor: Nvidia GeForce GTX 870M, Total storage: 512GB (2x 256GB SSD)
Ultra-portables and hybrid devices
Super slim laptops are great for chucking into a bag without much thought, and many of them offer reasonable performance and great battery life, too. Meanwhile, laptops that split or fold into tablets at a moment's notice are a versatile and cost effective way of getting the best of both worlds. Here are our favourites.
1. Asus Transformer Book T100
The Asus Transformer T100TA has redefined what we can expect from a sub-£300 laptop. It's far from the most powerful device on the market with its Intel Atom processor, but if you're after the ultimate in flexibility combined with great built quality and reasonably long battery life, you should absolutely pick the T100TA.
Price when reviewed: £349. For the latest prices, see our full Asus Transformer Book T100TA review.
Processor: Quad core 1.3GHz Intel Atom Z3740, RAM: 2GB, Size: 24x263x171mm,Weight: 1.1kg, Screen size: 10.1in, Screen resolution: 1,366x768, Graphics adaptor: Intel HD Graphics, Total storage: 32GB eMMC
2. Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Microsoft has had two bites of the tablet/laptop hybrid cherry and has seen moderate success with both its devices. However, with 2014's Surface Pro 3 we finally saw the firm master the art, with its devices division putting into action the lessons it learned from the first two Surface iterations. What we have here is a refined, sleek tablet combined with a great keyboard (at extra cost) and stylus. This, combined with a wide range of specifications means it has real mass-market appeal. It's expensive, but it's the benchmark-setter for Windows-8 based devices and we highly recommend it.
Price when reviewed: £849. For the latest prices, see our full Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review
Processor: Dual-core 1.9GHz Intel Core i5-4300U, Screen size: 12in, Screen resolution: 2,160x1,440, Rear camera: 5-megapixel, Storage: 128GB,Wireless data: N/A, Size: 292x201x9.1mm, Weight: 800g,Operating system: Windows 8.1 Pro
3. Apple 13-inch Macbook Air
The Macbook Air has always been one of the slimmest and lightest laptops around, but this year's model now has an even lower price and 18 and a half hours of battery life. Our only real complaint is that its screen isn't quite as good as we'd expect for a laptop in this price range, and we're particularly disappointed with the lack of a full-HD panel. Its other specifications are great, however, and it'll speed through any task you throw at it with relative ease, while maintaining excellent battery life that'll see you being able to work for a whole day while unplugged.
Price when reviewed: £949. For the latest prices, read our full Apple 13-inch Macbook Air review.
Processor: Dual core 1.4GHz Intel Core i5-4260U, RAM: 4GB, Size: 17x325x227mm,Weight: 1.4kg, Screen size: 13.3in, Screen resolution: 1,440x900, Graphics adaptor: Intel HD Graphics 5000, Total storage: 128GB SSD
4. Asus Zenbook UX303LA
If you're committed to the Windows operating system, the Asus Zenbook UX303LA is a superb alternative. With a powerful dual-core Intel Core i7 processor and weighing just 1.45kg, it's the definition of a portable powerhouse. The 13.3in machine tore through our benchmarking tests with aplomb and we also loved its keyboard and touchpad, too. The only disappointment we found was the 1,600x,900 pixel screen, which left colours slightly muted. For £700, you can't get much better than the Zenbook UX303LA.
Price when reviewed: £700. For the latest prices, see our full Asus Zenbook UX303LA
Processor: Dual-core 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-4500U, RAM: 6GB,Size: 323x223x20mm, Weight: 1.45kg, Screen size: 13.3in,Screen resolution: 1,600x900,Graphics adaptor: Intel HD Graphics 4400, Total storage: 128GB SSD