Which computer should I buy? How to find the iPad, Chromebook, Mac or Windows PC that's right for you

Think before you buy: What are you really using it for? How much do you plan spend? We outline key factors to consider when making your decision. No tech experience required.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

A long-time family friend recently sent me a text message:

Do you have a recommendation for a laptop for a not-too-tech-savvy person (me) who aspires to be? I am straight up overwhelmed... Any thoughts would be appreciated. I am looking to get something to get my lagging career search up and running so right now it's resume posting and such... 

Do you, my tech-savvy ZDNet readers, often find yourself fielding this sort of question from less-experienced acquaintances? Well, it's way too broad a question to answer via a text.  And it's not a question any of use relish answering over and over again. And that's one of the purposes of my How To Decide Guides: To give you a link  to share with the folks who ask you the same questions we're asked.   

Here, for my friend and for yours, is how to decide.

Disclosure: ZDNet may earn an affiliate commission from some of the products featured on this page. ZDNet and the author were not compensated for this independent review. 

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let's define our terms. What is a laptop? It used to be that a laptop was a Windows machine or Mac in notebook form, portable, with a keyboard attached and probably a trackpad. In today's world, computing tasks can be tackled through web-based software and services using a variety of devices. An iPad is a computer. So is a Chromebook.  (There are also Android tablets, but they're not quite as appealing as a laptop-substitute option.)

I know that if I don't mention Linux, a bunch of you will cry. Here's the thing with Linux:. Not many laptops come with Linux installed. If you want Linux, it's a great idea to take an old laptop and update it, especially with a well-respected distro like Linux Mint. But if you're not a geek, you might find yourself in over your head. So for this guide, we're leaving Linux out of the picture.

That leaves you with a number of decisions. First, what platform? Do you want the iPad, Chromebook, Mac, or Windows? Then, how much do you want to spend? Only then can you begin to look at brands and specific models.

Actually, we need to touch on the matter of specific model recommendations before we go much further. Here's the thing: Laptop models (particularly for Windows machines) change constantly. What I might recommend today is likely to have a different price point, different configuration, or just not be available for purchase next week. That's why I'm taking the time to give you a guide that not only describes the choices but helps you think about how to decide, whether you buy a laptop today or in a year.

Many of these guidelines apply if you're buying a larger desktop-based computer, but keep in mind that all of the solutions described below can be used at a desk, with an external monitor, mouse, and keyboard.

Also: Best college laptops for 2020 CNET

Let's talk use case

How you plan on using your laptop will take a major role in helping you decide what machine to buy. If you're planning on using a laptop to work on a resume, send an email, and pal around on Facebook, you can use almost any option. But if you're planning on editing 4K video or program using a series of containers or virtual machines, you'll need a machine of considerable capacity.

As you might imagine, there are a ton of use cases, but we'll focus on the five below to help you walk your way through the choices. The right choice for almost any other use can be extrapolated from how we decide on these use cases.

The basic internet user: My friend is a basic user, and wants to create some text documents, post them, browse the web, interact with job boards, and communicate with services like Facebook.

The student: Student use varies all across the map. If you're studying filmmaking or programming or scientific applications, you'll align more with the filmmaker or programmer use cases because you'll need more power. Many student-level applications are now Web based, but there are also excellent applications on iOS, and still some legacy apps that will only run on Windows. You should definitely scope out your school's expectations before choosing a machine.

The gamer: This is someone who wants to do most of the basic internet activities of a laptop, but who likes to play games. Gaming can require a machine of considerable capacity, depending on the type of games to be played.

The filmmaker: This is someone who has to sift through and edit lots of video, and it includes YouTube creators as well as traditional filmmakers. This requires a machine of considerable capacity. Photographers, while not necessarily requiring quite as much power, could also fall into this group.

The programmer: While hardy programmers can code using simply a command line, pizza, and a keyboard, many professional developers use IDEs (Interactive Development Environments), local server environments, and virtual machines or containers.

I want to mention two categories you'll often find in marketing, but are actually too limited for our purposes: family use and small business. While most family use would fit into the basic Internet user category, some family members could be students and need anything from a machine capable of running legacy Windows apps to powerful scientific processing. Other family members might be YouTubers. Still other family members might be professionals bringing work home. "Family" as a category is often good for software because it usually means multiple licenses. But for laptop purchases, it's better to get more detailed.

Likewise, small business use can fall into many categories. Sure, there's the Quickbooks user who checks email, but there are also small businesses running CNC machines who need CAD, small businesses developing code, and so on. Surprisingly enough, most of the folks who make elements of the movies we love are actually small business owners who come together to make a larger team. It's much better to think of computer use based on your application, than your category.

We'll look at how each of these users might choose a laptop in the next few minutes.

The money issue

Let's get this out of the way first: You could buy a used laptop, but unless you know the seller well or are very confident in your ability to repair or fix whatever you buy, a used laptop is a gamble. My general recommendation is that if you're at the point where you're not sure how to decide on what laptop to buy, you're definitely not ready to absorb the risk that comes from buying a used machine.

I'm going to talk in great generality about price points. This should give you an idea of what to expect for your budget.

Under $200: There are Windows laptops available for under $200. You could buy one. But I wouldn't recommend it. Here's what you get when you buy an under-$200 Windows laptop: You get one that likely has a lot of adware and bloatware. That's a problem because you're also going to get a machine running on a very slow hard drive without enough RAM to get any job done well.

Also: How to get rid of bloatware and clean your Windows 10 Start menu

You might be able to spend another $300 to upgrade that under-$200 laptop to something that won't make you cry, but by then, why not just get something at the higher price point? As you might imagine, I just don't recommend buying an overly inexpensive Windows laptop.

From $200 to $500: There are three classes of product in this price range. If a Chromebook works for you, you can get some relatively nice Chromebooks in this range. You can also get an iPad with a keyboard and some folks would be very happy with this combination. I still wouldn't recommend getting a Windows laptop in this range because it will still be cursed by either too little or too slow storage and too little RAM.

Also: Meet the iPad, your work computer: These 10 apps make real productivity possible 

If you had to buy a Windows laptop and you had to stay in this range, I'd look at our list of the best cheap laptops guide. In particular, I'd take a look at the HP 15Z, which starts at $279. It comes with 8GB of RAM (which is the minimum I'd recommend for a Windows laptop), and a very tiny 128GB SSD for storage. It's not much storage, but it's fast enough to get some small jobs done.

From $500 to $1,000: This is a sweet spot for laptops. If you want a machine that will perform well (at least for general-purpose use), you can find one in this range. Our best laptops for college and students guide lists a number of great options, including the $589 Dell Inspiron and the $899 Asus ZenBook. What makes these two more appealing than some of the others is the inclusion of 8-16GB RAM, a moderate-sized SSD, and a good enough graphics card.

If you decide to go the Chromebook path, you can get some absolutely top-of-the-line Chromebooks for under $1,000. You can also configure up an extremely capable 11-inch iPad Pro with a keyboard for under $1,000.

$1,000 and up: Here's where things get expensive. You're not even touching a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro until you break the $1,000 mark, and it's unlikely you'll get out the door without spending $2,000 to $3,000 for a well-equipped machine. It's also at this price that we start looking at a category called "gaming laptops."

These are often heftier units that include very powerful video cards, but that runs up the price. This is also the price range where you start to get the sleek and powerful Windows laptops like the Surface Pro X and Surface Laptop 3.

Now that we've looked at what you can get at each price point, let's look at each computing platform in more depth.

Also: Best Budget Laptops for 2020 CNET

The easy answer: Chromebooks

Chromebooks are very simple machines. They run Chrome. That's it. That's all they do. If you can live your entire laptop life inside a web browser, you might want to consider a Chromebook.

The primary benefit of a Chromebook is that setup pretty much consists of connecting to the internet and logging into your Google account. You can reset a Chromebook to factory settings, upgrade it to the most current version, and reinstall all your stuff by clicking a few links in Chrome settings.

Chromebooks come in a variety of models which essentially range from really inexpensive but slow to expensive, beautiful, and fast. Lower-end Chromebooks have less RAM, less local storage, lower-quality screens, and lower build quality. High-end Chromebooks have fast processors, a good amount of RAM, and gorgeous screens. Any Chromebook across the range will work, but the pricier ones will be nicer.

Chromebooks also seem to be reaching end-of-life sooner. If you buy a Chromebook, expect to have to replace it in five years, whether you want to or not. Google has a long practice of end-of-lifing its offerings and Chromebooks are no different.

As for our use cases, the basic internet user should be able to do fine with a Chromebook. You get the ability to run all the full Chrome extensions and the desktop Chrome browser. The only gotcha is you can't run any applications that aren't available online. The good news is that there are web equivalents of nearly all the applications most folks need, including full office apps, slide making software, and even photo editing and management.

If you're a gamer, the Chromebook will only be a win if you like browser games. Filmmakers will be hamstrung by the limitations of a Chromebook. As for programmers, if you're currently developing only in a browser, you'll be fine. But if you're like me and code with a local IDE and test environment, you won't be able to get the job done with just a Chromebook.

I have many Chromebooks I've picked up over the years. I don't use them for filmmaking or programming, but if I want to write at a local coffee house or take a laptop into a somewhat destructive environment, I'll bring my cheap Chromebook and leave my pricier MacBook Pro at home.

  • For the basic internet user: Pretty much a perfect option as long as you never need a non-browser app
  • For the student: Seems like a great choice, but if your school requires you to load some old Windows programs or do anything super-powerful, you might find this limiting.
  • For the gamer: Browser games. That's it. Probably not a good choice.
  • For the filmmaker: Only as a second machine. You're not editing many videos on this.
  • For the programmer: If you can live only in the cloud, this is an option. Not a win otherwise.

The unexpected answer: iPad

Apple offers several iPad models. Their most inexpensive is the base 10.2-inch $329 iPad with 32GB storage. For the price, this is a fabulous machine. Apple also offers the iPad Air (which, to be honest, I can't see why anyone would buy given the other options).

Then there are Apple's 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro models. These are more expensive, but they're incredibly powerful -- comparable in power to most well-equipped laptops. Finally, there's the tiny iPad mini. Honestly, I can't recommend that either because it's just too close to a large iPhone in size and not big enough for comfortable laptop use.

The first configuration I recommend is the $329 base 32GB iPad with the $159 Smart Keyboard. At $488, this gives you a quite nice machine. If you're an artist, you could also spring an extra $99 and add the Apple Pencil. You can go up in price from here, adding more storage to the iPad, or jumping up to a more powerful iPad Pro. No matter what your configuration, your basic usage will be the same, so let's talk about that now.

A big benefit of the iPad is that if you know how to manage your iPhone, you can manage your iPad. You don't have to worry about any other configuration, management, or backup systems other than what you're currently using with your iPhone and iCloud. Not only that, the iPhone and the iPad (mostly) seamlessly sync with each other. With the latest version of iPadOS, you can even use a mouse and an external monitor with your iPad. You're also not limited to Apple's admittedly nice (but expensive) keyboard. There is a huge selections of keyboards available for this tablet.

The iPad comes with some great media applications, including LumaFusion, which is a full NLE (non-linear editor) for video editing and production. There are versions of Photoshop and other media editing apps on the iPad as well. While you don't get traditional PC games on an iPad, you do have access to the insanely enormous game library for iOS. While not all games have been scaled up from the iPhone to the iPad, there's a lot to love.

As for programming, that depends on what you code with. There are some great native coding environments for the iPad, but not everything is a fit. Once again, you're not going to run local VMs or containers on the iPad.

There are two key limitations beyond the slightly smaller screen. The first is that you'll be running a mobile browser rather than a desktop browser. For most activities, that's not an issue. But if you're a big user of browser extensions, you might not be happy.

The other thing is I'd wait until April before buying. Apple often does a big iPad event in March, so they may be announcing upgraded models in about a month.

  • For the basic internet user: Pretty much a perfect option as long as you don't need browser extensions. Great if you're already an iPhone user.
  • For the student: iOS has a huge library of student-related apps, and some great tools for those studying programming. That said, if you're doing serious report or thesis writing, you should probably stick to a Windows 10 or Mac simply because many open windows will be your friend at crunch time and citation software still tends to be PC/Mac specific.
  • For the gamer: Lots of iOS games, and you can even play Fortnite.
  • For the filmmaker: Not a bad choice, but you'll probably prefer a bigger machine.
  • For the programmer: It depends entirely on your development environment. Swift Playgrounds is wonderful on the iPad.

Also: Best Windows and Mac laptops and desktops for 2020 CNET

The traditional answer: Windows 10

Nobody ever got fired for using Windows 10. But a lot of folks did get headaches. Windows 10 is the most universal of general-purpose computing environments. You can find a machine with pretty much any configuration you can dream up at whatever price point you want. Windows supports touch, pencil, and 2-in-1 screens that separate into a tablet and a keyboard.

But Windows is Windows, which means there's a lot to know. Sure, you can usually use a laptop straight from the store, but it will likely have a ton of bloatware. Networking might or might not work out of the box. Drivers might or might not be compatible. Mandatory Windows updates could break your machine, necessitating a lot of cleanup and reinstall. Not all applications are compatible with each other, or even look similar. Windows machines are the main target of malware, so you need to be very careful what you download and run.

Also: Buying a Windows laptop? Five must-have features for my next notebook

On the other hand, there's almost always someone you can find who knows and can fix a Windows install. There are applications for almost everything, including a wide range of applications that only run on Windows. Although there are some implementations that run on the ARM processor, most Windows machines are based on Intel Core processors. If you buy a Windows machine today, get Intel, not ARM.

As for which Windows machine to buy, you can't go terribly wrong if you stick with Microsoft Surface, Dell, HP, Asus, or Lenovo. Buy as much RAM as you can afford and as much storage -- but choose SSD (solid state drive) rather than hard drive-based storage, which is incredibly slow and so 2010s. You can choose from a wide range of screen sizes, but the bigger the screen, the more power is used and generally, the heavier the machine. 

Make sure you subscribe to a backup service and perform regular backups and an external hard drive will do fine here. You will need to do some kind of Windows reinstall at some point in the lifecycle of your machine.

  • For the basic internet user: Sure, but you might find the techie management stuff a pain.
  • For the student: Windows 10 machines are great cost-effective choices as long as you're careful what you load on it.
  • For the gamer: Oh, heck yeah! Best choice as long as you get the CPU/RAM/video card configuration right, and make sure there's good heat dissipation.
  • For the filmmaker: You can easily run Adobe Creative Cloud or DaVinci Resolve. Just make sure you get a good amount of SSD and RAM.
  • For the programmer: A solid choice.

The other Apple answer: MacBook Pro

I saved the MacBook Pro to last because the entry-point purchase price is above $1,000 and if you're buying one, you'll probably spend $2,000 to $3,000 by the time you're done.

Let's get the bad out of the way. MacBooks and MacBook Pros have been decidedly annoying and problematic for the past few years because of their unreasonably crappy keyboards. They are also port limited, with just four Thunderbolt 3 ports. If you want to connect anything else, including an SD card, you're traveling to Dongle City.

On the other hand, the new 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro is a powerhouse, with a redesigned keyboard. Sure, fully-equipped, you can spend upwards of $6,000 (not counting AppleCare+), but you can get 8TB of SSD storage and 64GB of RAM in a laptop. If you need power, this is where to look.

There are a number of reasons people choose Macs and MacOS. Some are intangible like they prefer the user interface or the ease of use. Most of the time, Mac management is less hassle than Windows, but on the relatively rare occasion something breaks, it's often harder to find and fix than on Windows because Apple tries to hide most of the works out of sight of users.

I've opted to use Macs as my main machines (I also use PC and Linux boxes, but I get around). My primary reason for choosing Macs are twofold: I find the Mac-exclusive Final Cut Pro X editing environment considerably more time-efficient than Adobe Premiere Pro. Also, with virtualization, I can run Mac, Linux, and Windows apps on my Macs. On my Windows machines, I can't run Mac apps. Since there are quite a few Mac apps I prefer over Windows, that's a compelling reason to use Macs.

Macs also tend to last. Of the Macs my wife and I have in our home office, one is from 2011, three are from 2012, one is from 2013, one from 2015. Only the most recent purchase, my new Mac mini, is from 2018. I'm writing this on a seven-year-old machine that's been updated at no cost to the very latest version of MacOS and it's been rock solid for years.

If you're interested in choosing a Mac, I wrote a similar how-to-decide article just on Macs

  • For the basic internet user: Sure, you'll love it, but there are less expensive viable choices.
  • For the student: Macs are a more expensive choice, but if you're in film school, you almost definitely should get a MacBook Pro. For other student uses, there are less expensive choices and lugging a $3,000 computer around on campus could have some theft risk. Definitely get AppleCare.
  • For the gamer: Uh, not so much. There are some games for the Mac, but if you're a gamer, you want Windows.
  • For the filmmaker: Oh, heck yeah. Macs are the machines of choice for filmmakers of all levels. Plus Final Cut Pro X works only on the Mac.
  • For the programmer: Many programmers, including me, prefer the Mac because of the solid software development applications available for MacOS.

Also: Best 13-inch Laptops for 2020 CNET

What laptop to buy decision tree

So there you are. I've given you a lot of background. Let's summarize it with a simple decision tree.

If you must spend less than $200: Save up another one to two hundred dollars. You're only going to buy pain if you buy a laptop that's under $200.

If you need to keep it under $300: Your best bet is a Chromebook.

If you've got $500 and you like the iPhone: Consider using the iPad with a keyboard as your laptop. It's a compelling offering.

If you've got $500 and you are deeply entrenched in Chrome: A Chromebook might be the way to go as long as you don't need real applications.

If you don't want to spend more than $1,000 and you need to produce video: Consider an iPad Pro. It's the best power-for-the-buck for video production under a grand.

If you don't want to spend more than $1,000 and you're just doing internet or basic computing: You have lots of options, from nicely powered Chromebooks to Windows machines to iPads. MacBook Pros are still out of your range.

If you don't want to spend more than $1,000 and you're not prepared to maintain or configure a computer: Go with a Chromebook or an iPad.

If you need long battery life: MacBook Pros and iPads often have excellent battery life for their size. Chromebooks and Windows laptops can as well, but it depends on the model. Definitely read reviews. Machines with a replaceable battery (pretty much only available for Windows machines) are nice, too.

If you want Windows: You have a broad range of choices. Mix and match the price with performance, but keep above 8GB RAM, above 256GB storage and choose SSD rather than hard drives.

If you like Macs: Get a 16-inch MacBook Pro or wait until Apple upgrades its 13-inch models with the new keyboard. Apple smartly insists this machine has at least 16GB RAM and 1TB SSD storage. That's a good build.

So what do you think? What were your choices? What did you decide? Let us know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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