Because I work in the tech industry, family and friends will sometimes ask me to recommend a laptop for them to buy. In the past I've done the research myself, but recently I've been empowering people by sending them instructions to follow - it also saves me time ;) I decided to publish the instructions because they might be useful to others.
- Figure out your budget, that's the biggest constraint.
- Figure out what you need your laptop for. Browsing the web? Email? Playing games? This will determine the specs you should be looking for.
- Consider buying an Apple laptop: they're great quality and low maintenance. Will you be able to do everything you need on an Apple? Probably, unless you need some specialised software.
- Consider buying a Chromebook, they are zero maintenance and Just Work. If you spend all your time in a web browser then a Chromebook should work for you, but you need to be very sure there aren't other programs that you'll need. You will still need to read the reviews and check the specs carefully.
- Search on Amazon for laptops within your budget - and maybe slightly higher, in case you see a great bargain that you're willing to stretch to. Even if you don't intend buying from Amazon they have lots of laptops to look at, lots of reviews to read, and their filtering options for laptops are really good.
- Things to keep in mind when searching:
- You need at least 8GB RAM to keep it usable for a few years, but 12GB or even 16GB RAM would be better.
- Go for an SSD rather than a HDD, it'll be much faster - your laptop will feel and be much more responsive, and will stay usable for longer. Don't worry about an SSD being smaller than a HDD: 128GB will generally be fine, 256GB would be better if you have lots of movies or photos or games. You can buy a 2TB external drive for around €75 to store the bigger stuff if you're running out of space.
- IMHO a 13 inch screen is a good balance between big enough to be useful but small enough to be portable, e.g. bringing it to college or even just bringing it around the house.
- Unless you're doing something really unusual you don't need Microsoft Office: Google Docs is free and it'll do every common thing you can think of. All your docs will be stored online so if your laptop dies your docs don't die with it. Not buying Microsoft Office would have saved you around €70-€100 last time I was looking at laptops. I'm biased because I work for Google, but I also have extensive experience using Google Docs in work.
- Look for laptops with good reductions; sometimes you can find really good bargains, e.g. a few years ago I bought a €750 laptop reduced to €520. In that case the person's budget was €500, but they were willing to stretch when I explained the bargain.
- I don't worry about brands, I read reviews. Make a shortlist of the laptops you're interested in by adding them to your basket, read the reviews on Amazon and remove any bad ones from your shortlist, then search the web for each laptop and read 5-10 reviews for each of them. Pay attention to what the reviewer is judging the laptop on: sometimes a reviewer will criticise a €400 laptop for not being high end but what do they expect for that price? Remove anything that gets bad reviews from your shortlist, then look at the specs, reviews, price, and so on to make a decision. WARNING: be wary when reading reviews that the correct laptop is being reviewed, because model numbers are confusing and sometimes Google search will “helpfully” show you search results for similar model numbers. Reviews can also be from a couple of years ago, or for different hardware specs than you're looking at.
- Keep eliminating laptops from your shortlist until everything that's left is a good option, and then pick one. It's easy to dither for hours at this stage, but remember that if you can't find any problems with the remaining laptops and it's hard to find any distinguishing factors between them you're in a good place: any of them should work well for you and you can't really make a bad choice.
Hopefully this will help you find a laptop that meets your needs.