Our 2021 Laptop Buying Guide: How to Choose the Best for You
From Chromebooks to Windows PCs to MacBooks, buying a laptop is still a confusing mess.
From Chromebooks to Windows PCs to MacBooks, buying a laptop is still a confusing mess.
So there you are, in the Best Buy laptop section, staring down the biggest decision of your life: Which one should I make mine?
Do you head for the low-cost Chromebooks? Pull out Google Translate to decipher the placards next to the Windows machines? Or go to the “Honey, I Shrunk the Apple Store” area to check out the MacBooks?
No pressure, but one wrong move and BAM! You’re typing away on a mistake for the next three to five years.
Don’t worry, we’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen. Plus, I’ve got good news: It’s a great time to buy a laptop! The surge in sales and increased usage fueled by our everything-from-home lives got laptop makers finally improving what has been a fairly stagnant selection.
Look at the Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360 introduced in April. It has a beautiful OLED display and a quiet keyboard, so you don’t disrupt your dog’s nap. It also has a very timely video-calling upgrade: “We responded in real-time with changes to the product,” said Hassan Anjum, Samsung Electronics America’s head of product for computing, explaining that engineers worked to improve the laptop’s microphones, camera and speakers.
But there are at least four different configurations of it—and then there are, you know, hundreds of other laptops that might tempt you.
That’s where my fresh list of laptop buying rules comes in. They are devised to help you get to the right laptop, buy it right and then use it right, whether it’s for a return to the classroom or the conference room. You can do this.
Too many perfectly good laptops end up in the landfill. So before you start the buying process, have you tried to fix up your current laptop? Is this something a tuneup, part replacement or software update could fix? If not, just make sure you properly wipe your data and recycle the machine. Here’s a search tool to find a recycling location.
Chances are you probably know which OS you want based on past experience, your other gadgets or what your school or company requires. Here’s an overview of your three main choices:
Microsoft Windows: Still the most widely used laptop OS, it’s your best bet if you need Microsoft apps like Word, Excel, Outlook, etc., plus other job-specific types of software. It also syncs well with Android phones.
All systems now on shelves come with Windows 10, but Windows 11 is due out before the end of the year as a free update. Before you buy, make sure the laptop is eligible for a Windows 11 upgrade by checking the manufacturer’s website. Windows laptops generally range from $400 to $4000.
Google Chrome OS: Hugely popular with students, a Chrome laptop (aka a Chromebook) is a good choice if you primarily need the web. They can run Android apps, too. These systems tend to be the most affordable of the bunch, usually under $880
Apple MacOS: If you’re already in Apple’s walled garden—and own an iPhone and/or iPad—Apple’s $1499-and-up MacBook Air and Pro are worth considering for their integration with iMessage, Safari, AirPods and more. All MacBooks currently ship with MacOS Big Sur, but the next version, Monterey, will be a free upgrade this fall to all currently on-sale systems.
Ultrabooks, 2-in-1s (aka tablet laptops), gaming laptops, business laptops—there are more arbitrary laptop categories than seasonal Starbucks coffee flavours.
Instead, when considering a laptop, remember my three Ps: power, portability and price. More power and more portability typically means higher price. (If you have a lot of peripherals or work with digital media, you should also consider a fourth P: ports.) I have long evaluated laptops with these in mind. And while I haven’t tested every laptop in existence—one day, one day!—here are a few that I quite enjoy:
Windows: Check out Microsoft’s own Surface Laptop 4. Starting at $1599, it’s thin and light, and has a comfortable keyboard and responsive trackpad. I also like Samsung’s $1300-and-up Galaxy Book Pro 360. Unlike the Surface Laptop, its screen flips 360 degrees and comes with an S Pen, so you can use it as a full-on tablet. Both of these laptops come with 13- and 15-inch screen options. I’ve long preferred 13-inch laptops for their portability, but others prefer more screen real estate.
Chromebook: I’ve been a fan of Google’s own 13.3-inch Pixelbook Go. The keyboard is quieter than anything else I’ve tried. It has a 1080p webcam and a touch screen, and it’s very compact. At approx. $850 it’s on the pricey end; if you want to spend less, check out these recommendations.
MacBook: The new MacBook Pro with the M1 chip has been my main computer for the past few months, and I’m still blown away by how quiet and cool it runs, even with dozens and dozens of browser tabs open. If you’re in the market for a Pro, maybe hold off, since there are reports of a redesigned version due this fall. But even the M1-powered MacBook Air, which starts at $1400, has great battery life and everyday performance—and no fan.
Oh, you thought I was done? LOL. If you’re buying directly from a manufacturer’s website, you’ll likely have a choice of the following:
Processor: On the Windows side, you’re going to see Intel and AMD options. The Surface Laptop 4, for instance, offers both. (I’ve long gone with Intel for its longer battery life but here’s more info if you’re debating the two.) The Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360 has Intel’s brand new 11th-generation processors, which promise better performance and battery life, and faster wake times. How can you tell? It says Intel Core i7-1165G7 on its website. The first numbers—11—refer to the generation. (For more deciphering, check out Intel’s explainer.)
Chromebooks are available with a selection of processors, too. For better performance, go with an Intel Core chip. With MacBooks, avoid getting one with an Intel processor. Apple has said it would move to fully using its own chips in the next year or two.
RAM: For everyday tasks, 8 gigabytes of RAM should be plenty for a Windows PC or MacBook. But if you run lots of applications and you’re a website tab hoarder, it won’t hurt to go up to 16GB—or even higher where possible.
Storage: On lower-end systems such as Chromebooks, storage often starts at 32GB. If you’re planning to download photos, videos and documents, 64GB or 128GB will be safer. On higher-end Windows or Mac models, 256GB is standard. If you need more storage, before ponying up hundreds for an upgraded laptop, consider a cheaper and portable SanDisk or Samsung external solid state drive (aka SSD).
Typically I’d recommend buying directly through the laptop maker’s website, but there are too many good deals through retailers such as Best Buy and Newegg right now. Shop around for the best deal, but make sure you’re matching up specs to ensure all is equal. Also, beware: The global chip shortage is already causing prices from some manufacturers to rise.
Many sellers will push an extended warranty, often around $250. It will cover things like accidental damage, etc. My colleagues and I have never found these to be worthwhile, but only you can be the judge of how likely you are to spill coffee all over your new keyboard.
One thing you should buy? A USB-C dongle. Most new laptops have USB-C ports (bye-bye, big old USB port!). That means you’ll need an adapter for plugging in any older cords or peripherals. Apple will try to sell you a $19 one at checkout. Don’t do it. This one from Anker costs the same but has three USB ports. (Update: The recommended adapter sold out after the column was published; we also recommend this $30 5-in-1 hub from Anker, which is in stock.)
If you follow all of these rules and still come up with a bad laptop, don’t blame me. Blame the insane number of choices.
Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: Updated Aug 08, 2021
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Passwords aren’t enough to fend off hackers; these dongles are the best defense
Strong passwords are very important, but they’re not enough to protect you from cybercriminals.
Passwords can be leaked or guessed. The key to online security is protecting your account with a strong secondary measure, typically a single-use code. This is referred to as “two-factor authentication,” or 2FA, as the nerds know it.
I’ve written about all the different types of 2FA, such as getting those codes sent via text message or generated in an authenticator app. Having any kind of second factor is better than none at all, but physical security keys—little dongles that you plug into a USB port or tap on your phone during account logins—offer the highest level of protection.
Security keys have been around for over a decade, but now they’re in the spotlight: Apple recently introduced support for them as an optional, added protection for Apple ID accounts. Last month, Twitter removed text-message-based authentication as an option for nonpaying users, recommending instead an authenticator app or security key.
Some people are hesitant to use security keys because carrying around a physical object seems burdensome and they come with a $30-and-up added cost. Plus, what happens if they get lost?
I’ve used security keys since 2016 and think they are actually easier to manage than codes—especially with accounts that don’t require frequent logins. They’re not only convenient, but they can’t be copied or faked by hackers, so they’re safer, too.
Here’s how to weigh the benefits and common concerns of adding one or two of these to your keychain.
Many internet services support the use of security keys, and you can use the same security key to unlock accounts on many different services. I recommend two from industry leader Yubico:
Other options include Google’s Titan security keys ($30 and up). In addition to working with laptops and tablets with USB ports, these keys are compatible with smartphones that have NFC wireless. Most smartphones these days have that, since it’s the technology behind wireless payments such as Apple Pay.
Adam Marrè, chief information security officer at cybersecurity firm Arctic Wolf, recommends that your chosen key is certified by the FIDO Alliance, which governs the standards of these devices.
To add a key, look in the security settings of your major accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc.). During setup, it will prompt you to insert the key into your laptop or tablet’s port or hold the key close to your phone for wireless contact.
Apple requires you to add two security keys to your Apple ID account, in case you lose one.
Typically, when you log in, you just go to the app or website where you’ve set up a key, enter your username and password as usual, then once again insert the key into the device or hold it close. (Some keys have a metal tab you have to press to activate.) At that point, the service should let you right in.
Getting those two-factor login codes via text message is convenient, but if you are someone criminals are targeting, you could be the victim of SIM swapping. That’s where thieves convince carriers to port your number to a new phone in their possession, and they use it along with your stolen password to hack your accounts.
Even if they don’t go to all that trouble, criminals might try to trick you to hand them your codes, by calling you or spoofing a website you typically visit. At that point they can use the code for about 60 seconds to try to break in, said Ryan Noon, chief executive at security firm Material Security.
Security keys protect you in two ways: First, there’s no code to steal, and second, they use a security protocol to verify the website’s domain during login, so they won’t work on fake sites.
You can also add an authenticator app such as Authy to your most important accounts, to use only as a backup. But once you add these secure methods, you should consider removing the text-message code option.
In the rare case that someone snoops your passcode then steals your iPhone, beware: The perpetrator could still make Apple ID account changes using only the passcode, and even remove security keys from your account.
The most important rule of security keys is to buy an extra one (or two).
“Think of your security key as you would a house or car key,” said Derek Hanson, Yubico’s vice president of solutions architecture. “It’s always recommended that you have a spare.”
If you lose a security key, remove it from your accounts immediately. You should have already registered your spare or an authenticator app as a backup to use in the meantime.
Start with your most valuable accounts: Google, Apple, Microsoft, your password manager, your social–media accounts and your government accounts.
When it comes to financial institutions, many banks don’t offer security-key protection as an option, though most leading crypto exchanges do.
Security professionals and tech companies widely agree that passkeys are the future. They’re a new type of software option that combines the high security of a physical key with the convenience of biometrics such as your face or fingerprints. Passkeys are supported across the Android, iOS, Mac and Windows platforms, and some of your favourite sites already let you use them.
You can create a passkey on Facebook in security settings by following the app’s instructions under the security-key option. Dropbox has a similar passkey setup. Once you’re done, you’ll use your face or fingerprint as a second factor, instead of a code or key.
Eventually, physical security keys could be what we keep safe in strong boxes, as backups for our biometric-enabled passkeys. Even then, you’re probably going to want to have spares.
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