All the different laptop types explained
Chromebooks, 2-in-1s, ultrabooks—we break it down.
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If you haven't noticed, there are a ton of different laptop types these days. Most of them look the same and can do many of the same things, like launch a web browser, stream videos, and play games. But what makes a Chromebook different from a 2-in-1, or a gaming laptop different from a workstation? Buyer's remorse is no joke, and it can be hard to decide what kind of laptop is right for you. But no matter who you are, there's a laptop with the key features you need.
Some laptops don’t fit neatly into one category. Detachable laptops can be ultraportable and have enough high-end components to attract creative professionals. Even powerful gaming laptops that were once big, bulky machines are getting slimmer and quieter, offering longer-lasting batteries without sacrificing performance. Below, we'll guide you through the ins and outs of each laptop category so you can shop with more confidence.
General-purpose laptops, or productivity laptops, are often the first type of laptop many people turn to thanks to their balance of performance, convenience, and cost. Most productivity laptops don’t come with top-of-the-line hardware and may struggle with power-hungry programs gamers and creative professionals often use. But that's not really a problem since they’re mostly designed for watching videos, creating spreadsheets, and sending emails. A long-lasting battery, usually between 8-14 hours, is one of the most important features on these laptops—who wants to lug around a charging cable just to browse the internet?
Productivity laptops have a wide price range, costing anywhere from $400 to $1,300. Cheaper laptops usually have a plastic chassis and tend to be bulkier than their more expensive counterparts, but if you can live with a little weight, you can find budget-priced laptops with the performance of a midrange or even a high-end laptop. The Acer Aspire 5 is a great example of a budget laptop done well. It’s not as flashy as a MacBook Pro, but it gets the job done for a fraction of the cost.
Pricier productivity laptops have sharper and brighter screens, higher build quality, and other improvements. For example the midrange HP Envy 15 offers about the same performance as the Acer 5, but it has better battery life, a much nicer screen, and a slimmer body made of aluminum and stiff plastic.
The even more expensive HP Spectre 14t has an all-aluminum body, Windows Hello (Microsoft's facial recognition, fingerprint, and PIN login system), and some newer port standards like Thunderbolt 3 for faster data transfer speeds and forward compatibility. The Spectre 14t also comes with more RAM and better display options, including a 4K OLED screen—a feature that’s awesome to have, but won’t define the average user’s experience.
While the term “ultrabook” is a marketing term coined by Intel, it's become synonymous with thin and light productivity laptops of any brand. If you want a quick and easy way to tell ultrabooks apart from the rest, look for laptops that are Evo Certified, which is Intel’s latest badge for laptops that have higher performance options. These laptops include features like quick boot times, Wi-Fi 6, Thunderbolt 4, razor-thin bezels, and 9+ hours of battery life in Intel’s benchmarks. However, AMD-powered laptops can also provide all of these benefits, so don’t discount them. The same goes for MacBooks.
Whether an ultrabook is Evo-certified, an AMD machine, or one of Apple's latest, you should expect it to be lightweight, have a long battery life, pack a great screen, and offer a pleasant user experience. Their broad appeal makes ultrabooks excellent companions for college students and anyone in the workforce. There are many affordable ultrabooks, from the uber-cheap HP Stream 14 to the midrange 2-in-1 HP Envy x360.
The best ultrabooks, like the MacBook Pro 13, have excellent performance to keep up with multitasking. They may also offer features like cellular connectivity or second displays to improve productivity, and durable aluminum bodies that can take on rough train rides or an occasional coffee spill—although you should try to avoid spilling liquids on any laptop.
There is an increasing number of laptops specifically designed for playing games. Every gaming laptop has a powerful discrete graphics card, which is useful for 3D modeling, physics simulations, and other non-gaming applications. Most other types of laptops, especially productivity laptops, have integrated GPUs, or graphics processors that are on the same board as the central processor. Integrated GPUs are smaller and usually more power-efficient than their discrete counterparts. On the flip side, discrete graphics cards have the space to do beefier computations.
Gaming laptops tend to provide more performance per dollar than productivity laptops, but their batteries don’t last nearly as long because of the power demands. In general, the best gaming laptops have incredible performance, fairly portable form factors, decently cooled components, and excellent keyboards. But the price differences largely come down to how the laptops are configured, and if they have any special features like a high refresh-rate display or RGB lighting.
Budget gaming laptops, like the Acer Nitro 5, are best suited for games that are optimized for high frame rates instead of high fidelity graphics. Popular esports games like Fortnite and League of Legends run particularly well on these machines, as well as many first-person shooters and hack-and-slash games. If you want to play the latest cinematic gaming masterpieces, like Cyberpunk 2077 or Resident Evil Village, you will have to play them on lower graphics settings to get playable frame rates (at least 60 frames a second). Generally, these laptops start at $600 and can go up to $1,000.
Midrange gaming laptops have better hardware and more sophisticated bodies, pushing the price up from budget gaming laptops. They hit the sweet spot between performance and practicality, with models that are incredibly powerful or very portable. The Asus ROG Zephyrus G14 is a perfect example, with hardware that can handle graphically demanding games while still offering decent battery life and an elegant aesthetic. They usually cost between $1,000 and $1,500.
But a common compromise on midrange gaming laptops is the display quality. While the 144Hz and 240Hz displays that often come with midrange models like the Asus TUF A15 are a step above the 60Hz screens of budget models, they are still prone to muddy, inaccurate colors compared to screens on similarly priced productivity laptops. However, there are many mid-range gaming laptops with solid color vibrancy and brightness, like the base Razer Blade 15 models. Generally, you will also have to spend extra if you’d prefer a 60Hz, 4K screen (like the one on the Razer Blade 15 Advanced).
High-end or enthusiast gaming laptops have some serious hardware. Their performance often comes close to that of a gaming desktop PC, and they can run the most demanding games in existence. We tested the Acer Predator Helios 300 with a 10th gen Intel Core i7 CPU and an Nvidia RTX 3070 GPU—some of the beefiest hardware you can get today—and it outperformed the HP Omen 25L desktop (equipped with a Ryzen 5 3600 CPU and an Nvidia RTX 3070 GPU), in Shadow of the Tomb Raider by five frames per second when set to the highest graphics settings, 103 fps to 97 fps. That kind of performance is incredible for a laptop.
Top gaming laptops also have their chassis made from more expensive materials. For instance, while the Acer Nitro 5 and Predator Helios 300 both have a plastic chassis, the Acer Predator Triton 500 has an aluminum chassis that’s more durable and classy.
Component temperatures are the most important factor to consider at this performance range, as higher temperatures will reduce the lifespan of your laptop. And if you’re paying $2,000 or more for one of these laptops, you’ll definitely want the components to last as long as possible.
Workstation and Creator laptops
While gaming laptops are aimed at the average consumer, workstations are meant to help professionals complete demanding tasks as smoothly as possible. Both kinds of laptops are extremely powerful, but workstations are tuned for stability, software compatibility, repairability, and security. This extra tuning adds up to a hefty price tag most of the time, with most workstation lines starting at $1,000 and climbing up to $3,000 or more.
Because workstations are often aimed at creative professionals, they temd tp have some of the best displays and sound systems available on the market. The HP ZBook Create G7 is a prime example of a laptop with high-end features and performance that cater to the most demanding users. The laptop boasts features like HDR certification, a plethora of ports, and Dolby audio certification, which are all common in this category. As more professionals like freelancers have taken to buying their own machines, companies have tried expanding their workstation models with “budget” prosumer laptops, like MSI’s Creator 15, which cost under $2,000.
2-in-1s and Convertibles
2-in-1s, also known as convertibles or detachables, are laptops that double as tablets. Most 2-in-1s have a screen that folds back 180 degrees to create the tablet form, but some 2-in-1s have a detachable touch screen. Generally these machines do alright functioning as either a laptop or a tablet, but they don’t perform as well as their single-use counterparts, such as a productivity laptop or an iPad. The keyboards are often shallower to reduce the width of the laptop, like on this Dell XPS 13 2-in-1, but the device will still be thicker than most tablets when in tablet mode.
Otherwise, 2-in-1s can belong to any of the categories we’ve explained, but can be more expensive than their traditional laptop equivalents. In other words, you'll pay up for the added versatility.
Chromebooks are a good option for users that don’t need a full-fledged operating system like Windows or MacOS. They run on Chrome OS, which is a stripped-down operating system that revolves around the Google Chrome web browser and cloud computing. It relies on web-based applications instead of downloaded applications, and it expects users to be connected to Wi-Fi most of the time and make use of the cloud to save large amounts of data.
Overall, Chromebooks have better battery life and a thinner profile than traditional laptops. Contrary to popular belief, their performance is actually on par with similarly-priced standard laptops as well. ChromeOS’s limited features make Chromebooks easier to navigate than Windows or MacOS-based laptops. This makes them a popular choice for those who need a simple laptop that’s reliable and easy to work with—especially among K-12 students.
Chromebooks used to be synonymous with budget laptops, but that’s no longer the case. While they're still a great option for those tight on cash, spending a little more can get you a lot of welcome features. Midrange Chromebooks such as the Asus Flip Chromebook C434T (priced around $500) start to trade tough plastic exteriors for sleeker aluminum cases. Full HD screens, midrange processors, and larger storage drives are also more common. Some premium Chromebooks even have OLED displays and fingerprint sign-in, like the Lenovo ThinkPad C13 Yoga or the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook.
Which laptop is right for you?
While we’ve tested hundreds of laptops to find the best overall, everyone has specific needs. If you want more help shopping, we wrote a guide to walk you through all the factors you should consider. Once you figure out what kind of performance and features you want, come back here and see which category most closely matches your needs. Whether you’re deciding between a Chromebook and a cheap Windows laptop or you would like an ultrabook for travel, this will greatly narrow down your search and help you get a laptop you’ll absolutely love.
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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.