Best laptops 2014: which notebook should you buy?

The best laptops for your every need

Like any other major purchase, in buying a laptop you're battling for your bottom dollar. This is a decision that you're making for the next few years, at least. So, if buying a laptop is like going to battle, arm yourself with our guide to the grittier details of picking out a shiny new notebook.

Go big or go, well, small

Across all categories, laptops generally range in size between 11 and 17 inches, with a few outliers in both directions. Your decision on what size laptop to purchase should consider these two factors: screen real estate and weight.

Firstly, your laptop's screen size directly dictates how much content it can display and the size of it, of course. However, also keep in mind that, as you increase screen size, its resolution should also rise. You should accept nothing lower than 1366 x 768 for laptops between 10 and 13 inches, and nothing lower than 1920 x 1080 for those 17 to 18 inches.

Second: be prepared for each 2-inch bump up in screen size from 11 inches, expect an increase in weight of about a pound, more or less. Of course, there are exceptions, like recent thin-and-light designs that tend to buck this trend. You might want the biggest, sharpest laptop screen around, but are you willing to cart that around in your backpack?

What features should you look for?

Like most consumer technology, laptops often come chock-full of features that you may or may not need. The features listed below are ones that you shouldn't do without in your next laptop.

USB 3.0: The latest standard in USB data transfer technology. Be sure that the notebook you buy has at the very least one of these for speedier file transfers between your laptop and, say, a USB 3.0 flash drive.

802.11ac Wi-Fi: For what seems like the longest time, 802.11n was the fastest wireless Internet available. But in the past year, even quicker 802.11ac routers have cropped up, with laptop makers just now catching up. If you plan on streaming or downloading a lot of files and content to your laptop, you should strongly consider this as a selling point.

SD card reader: With the inevitable smartphone camera takeover of the point-and-shoot industry, many notebook vendors are quick to send these media slots to the chopping block. But whether you're a photography enthusiast or just still fond of your compact shooter, the lack of an SD card reader might be a deal breaker.

Touchscreen: While the merits of a touchscreen on an otherwise normal laptop are questionable, no one knows whether that will be the case in a few year's time. Though, it could also be an expensive. In short, sort your personal priorities before plunging on a touch panel.

Questions to ask before buying

Before you run off and buy the coolest-looking laptop, ask yourself these basic questions. They should help point you toward the notebook that's right for you.

What will you primarily use the laptop for?

If it's just the standard web browsing, occasional video streaming, and video calling mom back home, then you might want to consider going the mainstream or budget route. Big into gaming? Then there's your answer. If you travel quite a bit and need something as thin and light as possible, then consider an Ultrabook. Your primary function with the laptop will almost always send you in the right direction.

How much do looks matter to you?

Laptops come in all shapes, makes, models and sizes – not to mention coats of paint … or plastic … or metal. If you're the type that scoffs at fellow coffee shop-goers for their ugly computing devices of choice, then you'll probably want one encased in aluminum, or at least a quality soft-touch plastic. But beware, being pretty comes with a price.

How much are you willing or able to spend?

This is the ultimate barometer for the laptop you're about to buy, and never should you spend outside of your means. Your disposable income will dictate which laptop category you should spend your shopping time within, and ultimately save you time.

*Bonus tip: Be sure to check both online and brick-and-mortar retailers for the best possible deal on a given laptop. Good luck!

Originally contributed by Dan Grabham