Speed matters. Processors with multiple cores can process more data simultaneously, with four cores now increasingly common on laptops. Our ratings say how many cores a laptop’s processor has.
Clock speed, measured in gigahertz (GHz), along with the number of cores and other factors, determines how quickly a processor can process information. Many processors can up the speed a bit for a brief time to yield maximum performance. Generally, within a processor family, the higher the clock speed, the faster the processor. Clock speeds typically start at around 1 GHz for a mobile processor. Speeds can exceed 5 GHz for a desktop processor.
Another important factor when choosing a processor, especially for laptops: Lower power consumption equals longer battery life.
If you’re looking for a very basic or budget computer to browse the web, email, and work on Office documents, basically every processor on the market should be sufficient.
If you plan to watch high-resolution videos or play mainstream games, the Intel Core i5 and AMD Ryzen 5 line of processors should be your starting point.
How Much Memory?
The more memory a computer has, the faster it is, up to a point. Memory is measured in gigabytes (GB). On both desktops and laptops 8GB has become common, with 16GB or more found on higher-end devices. Unless you regularly have multiple large apps open at the same time, 8GB should be your target.
Windows 10 should be easy to use for anyone who has used a previous version of Windows. A huge amount of software is available for the platform that can be downloaded from Microsoft’s app store or from developers’ websites. Games tend to debut on Windows before making their way to macOS, if they’re available there at all. Microsoft releases several Windows 10 updates free throughout the year, adding additional features, fixing bugs, etc.
Macs can be a little more expensive than comparable PCs, but they’re less prone to most viruses and spyware (in part because there are more Windows PCs out there than Macs, making them a bigger target for hackers), and Apple’s support has been tops in our surveys. The company’s phone support is free for only 90 days, but you can get unlimited technical support through the Genius Bar at any Apple Store, though you should check ahead to make sure your local store is open and offering support. The latest version of macOS is called Big Sur and was released in the fall of 2020. Apple also releases several macOS updates free throughout the year.
Graphics Adapter and Graphics Memory
Also known as the video card, graphics processing unit (GPU), or graphics card, this hardware is responsible for drawing what you see on your screen. Graphics processing comes in two basic flavors: It can either be integrated into the same chip that’s running the rest of the computer or it can run on a discrete piece of equipment.
Most computers have integrated graphics. This has usually been the less expensive and lower-performing option—fine for most tasks but not for serious gaming. If you play mainstream and extreme games with all the visual effects turned on or if you edit video, especially HD and Ultra High Definition (4K), you’ll want discrete graphics. Light video editing and gaming and all other typical computer tasks will do fine with integrated graphics.