How we test laptops at ZDNET in 2024

ZDNET receives dozens of laptops to review each year. This is how we go about testing them.
Written by Kyle Kucharski, Editor
HP Omnibook
Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

We test dozens of laptops every year here at ZDNET, and our testing process employs a dual approach. On one hand, we run a series of benchmarking programs to gather important system data and metrics. On the other hand, we approach laptops the way any normal consumer would, considering ease of use, form factor, durability, and battery life. 

Also: The best laptops of 2024: Tested and reviewed

Our core testing philosophy is simple: while it's imperative to gather data, numbers aren't the whole story. Laptops can be very personal, and as such, there's an intuitive, human element that can't be ignored, and we take that into account while writing our reviews.

How we test laptops in 2024

Cross section of an Asus Vivbook laptop.
Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

You only get one first impression, and when we get a new laptop to review, we always take note of initial perceptions before diving into the data. Upon setting up the laptop's operating system, connecting to Wi-Fi, and logging in with any relevant credentials, we take note of how smooth the startup process was. Was it quick and painless? Or was there a lot of clicking to get through all the product offers and bloatware? (Windows 11, I'm looking at you.) 

We give all the devices we test equal footing by starting with the most recent updates to the device's operating system, as well as all relevant drivers for the GPU, BIOS, and hardware. It can be easy to skip over these updates, but you don't need me to tell you that not updating your computer can result in some bizarre behavior. 

The core components of a laptop

These are the most important core system metrics we look at during the testing process:

  • The processor (CPU): This is the "brain" of the laptop, and one of the most important factors that determines performance. The four biggest manufacturers that make most of the CPUs found in laptops today are Intel, AMD, Qualcomm, and Apple (in their own machines only).

  • RAM: Random access memory acts as your computer's short-term memory and is involved in multitasking as you edit documents, run multiple apps, and most importantly -- browse the web. The amount of RAM your computer has is measured in gigabytes (GB) and starts at 8GB, and goes up to 32GB and beyond.

  • Storage: Also measured in gigabytes (GB) or terabytes (TB), where one terabyte equals around 1,000 gigabytes. This is the storage bank where your computer's files, documents, photos, and videos are saved. Most laptops these days have at least 128GB of storage, where some go up to 1, 2, or more terabytes.

  • The graphics processor (GPU): Whether it's integrated into the CPU or a dedicated graphics card, how well the machine handles graphics is a key factor when it comes to demanding visual tasks like video editing, rendering, and of course, gaming.

  • The display: The size of the display (measured diagonally from corner to corner) is also what dictates the laptop's overall size, and almost always included in the model's name. Displays run the gamut, as they often play a big role in the laptop's cost. On lower-end machines, you'll find lower brightness (measured in "nits") and lower resolutions. Higher-end laptops often feature OLED displays, which are often the most visually pleasing, along with high refresh rates (120Hz and above).

  • Port selection: Different folks will have different needs when it comes to ports. We always identify what's available and how the port selection aligns with the device's targeted use case.

  • Physical form factor: Finally, the laptop's overall appearance and physical form factor encompasses its weight, thickness, how the keyboard and trackpad feel, and whether or not it has a display that can be folded back to form a tablet or touchscreen. 

What makes a laptop ZDNET Recommended?

Obviously, more factors go into a laptop's final review other than being simply "good" or "high-performing." Yes, feature sets are ultimately subjective, but we recommend a laptop when it fulfills the following requirements: 

  • Expectation: First and foremost, does the laptop perform how it's meant to? If a laptop is marketed to be a gaming machine, how well does it run high-end games? If it's a laptop designed for creators, does it handle video and photo editing efficiently? Understanding what a laptop is designed for -- and how well it executes on that niche -- goes a long way to being recommended.  
  • Value: A laptop's value is more than just how good its price looks. A more accurate way to gauge its value is by considering how well it performs within its price point. A $500 laptop should look and feel like a $500 laptop. Much like how a $1,000 laptop should feel like it's twice as fast. We give extra attention to laptops that perform above their price point. 
  • Performance: There's no need to beat around the bush. When it comes down to it, highly recommended laptops perform. They're fast, efficient, and easy to use. Whether that means browsing the web with ease on a $300 Chromebook or rendering 4K video projects in a top-of-the-line MacBook Pro, the scale is different, but the core idea is the same: high performance is key.
  • Excellence: A highly recommended laptop should punch above its weight in multiple areas. We want to highlight laptops that don't just meet the bar but exceed it, either in design, battery life, display, performance, or value. 

Benchmarking and system data

snapdragon benchmark composite
Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

In order to gather detailed information about the laptop, we run a few different diagnostics programs that provide at-a-glance summaries for its hardware and software. There are quite a few programs out there that can do this: SiSoftware Sandra is one such reliable program, as well as GPU-Z, which provides all the detailed information you could ever want about your computer's graphics processor. 

We then run a series of benchmarking tests to put the computer's hardware through the wringer in order to see what they're capable of. Cinebench is one of the most commonly used hardware testing suites, which tests the laptop's rendering performance on single and multiple CPU cores, and then compares these numbers against other machines. PCMark 10 is another powerful benchmarking suite that covers a wide variety of tasks performed in the modern workplace.

Also: I changed these 10 iPhone settings and improved battery life dramatically

Geekbench is another industry standard testing program that provides a numerical score for your laptop's processor's performance in a variety of different use case categories. For example, how well the CPU handles common everyday tasks such as file compression, navigation, and browsing in its productivity workload, as well its developer and machine learning workloads. 

Other benchmarking software applications we regularly use include 3DMark, which tests the laptop's graphics performance, (particularly important with gaming laptops), and JetStream2, a browser-based benchmarking tool we run on Chromebooks.

Also: The best laptops for graphic designers: Expert tested and reviewed

After completing a variety of metric-oriented testing, we then compare the results of the tests up against the manufacturers' claims. In most cases, the data is close to the advertised numbers, but every once in a while we'll see some outliers that prompt additional investigation or testing, noting this in the device's final review. 

Finally, depending on any niche use cases, we can test the laptop's performance further in specific areas. For example, if a machine is geared toward creators, we will run photo and video editing software, while testing a gaming laptop wouldn't be complete without firing up a handful of games. 

In these scenarios, we pay close attention to the performance of the laptop's GPU, how the display handles rendering tasks, and performance while multitasking while running select performance testing software. 

How we test laptop batteries

HP Envy x360 2-in-1
Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

Battery life is one of those things that all consumers care about. Regardless of what kind of device you're using, and whether it's $300 or $3,000, if your laptop is dead, it's useless. 

We approach testing a unit's battery in largely the same way. Basically, the idea is to let the laptop run for as long as it can under a medium load. First, we ensure screensavers and hibernation mode are turned off, as well as any battery-saving performance mode (although running tests in that mode is also valuable; it's just a separate test). 

Also: This $749 Acer laptop is secretly one of the most innovative gadgets I've tested this year

We then set the display's brightness and audio at 50%, turn off any RGB or keyboard backlighting, load up a livestream on YouTube in Chrome, set a timer, and wait 'til the end. In my experience, battery life is one of those metrics that has changed a lot within the past few years, and it keeps getting better. With new advancements with AI-powered chips, battery life has exploded into heights that just a few years ago would have been considered nigh impossible. 

With this in mind, putting every laptop we review to the test is more important than ever, to get to the bottom of manufacturers' sometimes "ambitious" claims. 

The human element

Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

As we mentioned earlier, metrics and system data is important, but numbers alone don't give you the full picture. This is where we weave in our personal experience with the device and tap into the practical use cases that consumers actually care about. 

Laptop manufacturers always have a specific demographic in mind when they design a new model, so this is where knowledge of that marketing aspect comes into play. If a computer is designed specifically for video and photo editors, how well do industry-standard programs like Adobe Photoshop, Premiere Pro, and OBS actually run? 

Also: The best lightweight laptop for work that I've tested is not made by Apple or Lenovo

For productivity-focused laptops, how long do their batteries last? Can they multitask on three monitors as well as they advertise?

Ultimately, our goal here is to break down the capabilities of each and every laptop we test into digestible terms that real people can find useful. There is a lot of noise and confusion when it comes to navigating the laptop and computer consumer market, so we hope to bring an intuitive element to the whole process by leveraging our team's decades of experience. 

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