December 03, 2013, 1:28 PM — Just a few years back, buying a laptop was as easy as walking into a Wal-Mart or Best Buy, strolling past the netbooks, plunking down a few hundred bucks on a Windows machine with a trackpad that didn't completely suck, and coming home, if not happy, at least with a notebook that could get the job done.
Things aren't quite so easy anymore.
The laptop world has burst into a cornucopia of niches. Specialized Chromebooks, Ultrabooks, and laptop-tablet hybrids have muscled into the territory of traditional notebooks in a bid to more closely target your needs and stand out from the traditional portable-PC crowd. Which type of laptop is right for you? Read on, and you'll know by the time we're done.
Let's start on the affordable side of things. Chromebooks run Google's ChromeOS rather than Windows, and ChromeOS sprang forth from, you guessed it, Google's Chrome browser.
While Chromebooks (and the Web apps available in the Chrome Web Store) are designed to be Web-centric machines, they have some compelling features. Aside from Google's own aluminum-clad, jaw-droppingly beautiful Pixel, Chromebooks are dirt-cheap, with prices ranging from $200 for the 11.6-inch Acer C720 to $300 for the larger HP Chromebook 14 or the touchscreen Acer C720P. All Chromebooks are pretty thin and light, too.
Don't let the low prices and ho-hum specs fool you, though. The browser-based nature of Chromebooks lets them hum along smoothly--as long as you don't overdo the tabs--and it also means you won't really have to worry about Windows-based malware or even updating your PC. Basically, Chromebooks are about as simple and straightforward as computing can be, and they boot lickety-split.
But they're also pretty limited. While it's possible to compose email, edit documents, and fiddle with a (growing) handful of applications while offline, Chromebooks lose a lot of their potency away from the Web, especially since they're unable to run traditional Windows programs. Sayonara Photoshop, Steam games, business software, and more.
You can't just plug-and-play a printer, either. If you need to output the occasional dead tree, you'll need either a printer enabled with Google Cloud Print or access to another Web-connected PC that has a printer attached. Port options also tend to be minimal, and optical disc drives are a no-show on Chromebooks.
Even still, the portability, low price, and headache-free upkeep of Chromebooks make them an intriguing option for a secondary PC, or even a solid primary PC if all you do on your computer is check email, shop online, and hit up Facebook and YouTube every now and again. Just be aware of their limitations before you buy--most notably ChromeOS's online requirements.
PCWorld's chart of the best Chromebooks you can buy right now can point you to the most compelling Chromebooks.
Now let's take a walk on the high end! Ultrabooks are Intel's Windows-based answer to the MacBook Air, and the company controls the requirements for these pricey portables with an iron fist to ensure high-end consistency (and, if you want to get cynical, to promote CPU-intensive technologies that showcase the power of Intel's Core-series processors, which must be used in order for a device to be called an Ultrabook).
Basically, Ultrabooks are meant to be powerful, yet portable. Newer Haswell-based Ultrabooks have to measure less than 0.9 inch thick, wake from sleep quickly, provide at least six hours of HD video playback, and pack a touchscreen, Intel's Wireless Display technology, and support for voice commands. (Those last requirements promote Intel's "perceptual computing" push.) Haswell Ultrabooks also include antimalware software by default.
Ultrabooks frequently--but not always--sport fancy touches, such as a metal chassis, 1080p or better displays, and backlit keyboards. These models are the Cadillacs of computers, folks--though their slim designs mean most Ultrabooks offer skimpy port selections, and most lack discrete GPUs (no gaming for you!) and optical disc drives.
Older Ultrabooks may be slightly bulkier and weren't required to carry the same perceptual computing capabilities as Haswell-based models. As such, you may be able to find last year's Ultrabooks at a discount, which is a good thing: The portability of Ultrabooks tends to come at a steep price. You can also find AMD-based Ultrabook look-alikes for lower prices, often sporting a "ultrathin" or "ultraslim" tag.
Check out PCWorld's Ultrabook buying guide if Intel's Apple-esque vision of computing sounds right for you.
Hybrids, convertibles, and two-in-ones
If you're on the fence about just how mobile you want to go, a hybrid, convertible, or two-in-one might be right up your alley. These are all terms for the same type of device. Hybrids straddle the fence between PC and slate, offering laptop functionality when you need to get things done, and tablet-style form factors when you want to kick back and relax with a touchscreen.
You'll find two types of hybrids. "Laptop-first" convertibles (like the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11s or Dell XPS 12) are basically full-blown laptops but with screens that fold, flip, or rotate to convert to a flat laptop form factor. Thinner, lighter "tablet-first" hybrids have slide-out keyboards or are basically tablets with optional keyboard accessories. (Think Microsoft's Surface slate.)
The chameleon-like capabilities of hybrids require some compromises, however.
Laptop-first hybrids carry a price premium over standard laptops, while tablet-first hybrids trade performance for mobility and often offer a subpar typing experience. The touchscreens found on all hybrids can also impact battery life, especially if you aren't buying a newer model with an energy-efficient "Haswell" Core processor or "Bay Trail" Atom CPU. And all hybrids are relatively big and thick compared to straightforward tablets, especially laptop-first variants. Your arms will quiver and shake if you try lying down and holding a convertible over your face for an extended period of time. As such, hybrids are better suited for laps, even while in tablet mode.
If you don't really need to have two devices in one--or if you already have a tablet--you're better off buying one of the dedicated laptop types discussed here. But if a hybrid sounds capable of scratching your multi-use itch, our Windows 8 buying guide has all the juicy details about tablets that want to be laptops and laptops that want to be tablets.
So you don't want a two-in-one, you couldn't care less about the high-end frills of Ultrabooks, and you find Chromebooks too limited for your needs. Sounds like you're in the market for a laptop without a catchy marketing buzzword attached.
The lack of an easy tagline makes shopping for a straight-up notebook trickier than you'd think, but there's a vast universe of them out there. Whether you're looking for a desktop replacement, a pixel-pushing gaming notebook, or a basic (yet capable) laptop to drag around everyday, PCWorld's laptop buying guide can help you identify the features you need and then find the best fit.