1. Select an Operating System

First, decide which operating system you’d like on your new laptop. The operating system, or OS for short, is the underlying software that the entire machine runs on. This is in contrast to the applications you use—like your web browser, photo editing tool, or favorite game—all of which run on top of the OS itself.

Toshiba Satellite C855-S5343 PSCBLU-025003 15.6-Inch Laptop

While an entire laptop buying guide could be written just to compare OS features, we’ll give you the consolidated version here.

• Windows 8 – Windows laptops are some of the most popular laptops, giving you the most compatibility with the most programs. You’re likely familiar with Windows from a previous computer at work or school. New laptops come with Windows 8, which has a new, tablet-like interface. But don’t worry, the Windows you know and love is still in there–after all, this is a laptop buying guide, not a tablet guide.

• Mac OS X – The Mac OS is available on high-quality but relatively expensive Apple MacBooks. While they start at around £800, you can end up spending around £2,000 on the latest, greatest MacBook. The most recent Mac OS, Mountain Lion, takes many cues from Apple’s popular iPhones and iPads. A service called iCloud will sync much of your data between your iPhone, iPad, and your MacBook, including apps like iMessage, allowing you to respond to chat messages on both your iDevice and your MacBook.

• Chrome OS – Google’s Chromebooks are light in both size and functionality and primarily built for the cloud. That means instead of storing most of your files and other data locally on your machine, you’ll be primarily accessing it over the internet. If you already like the Chrome web browser, you’ll feel right at home on a Chromebook. They’re great if you travel frequently and want to check email and browse the web; however, you won’t be able to do much else. Their biggest benefit is how inexpensive they are – they can start at around £200. Picking a Chromebook makes the rest of this laptop buyer’s guide easy, as there are few to choose from.

2. A Guide to Laptop Sizes

As you’ll find in this laptop buying guide, laptops come in many different sizes. This makes it a little easier to find one that’s just right for you. In general, size and power tend to go together. The most powerful laptops are very large, and the smallest, lightest laptops are not as powerful.

• 11- to 13-inch laptops – These laptops are ultra-portable, ideal for people like students who move around a lot and prefer to keep their computers with them at all times.

• 14- to 16-inch laptops – These laptops represent the general use range. They’re small enough to pick up and take along, but have enough power to do pretty much everything you want to do.

• 17-inch laptops and larger – The biggest laptops are considered desktop computer replacements. They are as powerful as they come, suited for video games and other heavy lifting tasks such as video editing. They tend to be too heavy and their battery life too short for convenient portability.

3. What is RAM?

RAM stands for Random Access Memory, but it is also known as ‘on-board’ memory. RAM is a form of computer data storage that is used for processing and storing the data that the computer is currently working with. Insufficient RAM will result in your computer running slowly. In order to run most applications or tasks efficiently you will require at least 2GB of RAM.

4. A Guide to Processors

Your computer’s processor performs most of the actual work of computing. The processor determines how many things your computer can do at one time, and how fast it will do those things.

• Cores – The more cores your processor boasts, the more computing functions it can handle simultaneously. Since the number of cores is the largest factor in your processor’s performance, a dual-core processor should really be your starting point.

• Speed – In the early days of computers, processor speed was all that mattered. These days, clock speed shares its importance with the number of cores. Measured in gigahertz (GHz), your processor’s clock speed determines how quickly the processor can move tasks through its cores. For the purposes of processor comparison, you’re first better off with more cores. Then, between two processors with the same number of cores, the higher clock speed is superior.In general, 2.5 GHz will provide ample speed. If you have a craving for even more power, though, look around the 3.5 GHz or greater spectrum.

• Integrated Graphics – Processors with integrated graphics provide stronger video processing without the need for a discrete video card.When you compare processors, you’ll find not everyone benefits from integrated graphics. If you only use your computer for email, web browsing, and even watching movies, integrated graphics get the job done excellently. Video games and graphic editing, however, require separate video cards that are more powerful and specially designed to process intensive graphics.

• Brands – The two most popular processor manufacturers are AMD and Intel. Chances are that you’ve already owned a PC with a processor by one of these two companies. While you could spend days researching the differences between AMD and Intel processors, the real decision comes down to price. Both processors will perform perfectly well with most everyday tasks, with the equivalent AMD chip being cheaper, which normally helps lower the overall cost of the laptop. However, if you’re serious about audio and video editing, it’s worth investing in a model with the quieter Intel chip.

5. Which Extras You Need and Which You Don’t

Next up on the laptop buying guide, we show you which additional features you need on your laptop and which you don’t.

ASUS VivoBook 11-inch Laptop

• Touchscreen – Many Windows 8 laptops come with touchscreens, and some even transform into tablets. The new Windows 8 start screen and many Windows 8 gestures are more comfortable to use on a touchscreen, but if those features aren’t interesting to you, you can save money by looking for models without a touchscreen.

• Solid state drive – Most new computers come with traditional hard disk drives that offer enormous amounts of storage. If you’re looking for the speediest storage, get a solid state drive. These drives are smaller but much faster, allowing your computer to turn on in mere seconds. This laptop buying guide recommends solid state drives if you can afford them—they are generally more expensive than their hard drive counterparts.

• DVD or Blu-Ray drive – Do you want a DVD or Blu-ray drive? Newer laptops shed optical disk drives in order to become smaller and lighter. While you can get your software via download from a large number of app stores, including Amazon, this laptop guide recommends getting a disk drive if you plan to watch DVDs on your laptop.

• Graphics card – If you plan on playing video games on your laptop, make sure it has a dedicated video card. While Facebook games will run fine without one, anything more serious (be it World of Warcraft or The Sims) will need more power to run smoothly. Avoid anything that says “integrated graphics.” Instead, look for graphics by ATI or Nvidia , the top two graphics card makers. An important note from this laptop buying guide: unlike a desktop computer, you cannot upgrade a laptop’s graphics card later. Be sure your laptop has a dedicated graphics card if you think you’ll want it later.

• USB and other ports – Be sure to count how many USB and other ports are on the laptop. You’ll need USB ports to connect a separate mouse, memory sticks, smartphones, and many other computer accessories, such as printers and scanners. You may also want an SD card slot to more easily transfer your camera photos, or an HDMI port to connect your laptop to an HDTV.

• Battery life – If you plan on using your laptop while you’re out and about, be sure to look at how long the battery is rated to last. Many big, powerful laptops only last for a couple of hours on a single battery charge, while some smaller laptops can last over seven hours on a full charge.

Once you’ve looked at all of these considerations, you should be well on your way to finding a laptop that’s a great fit for you. Do you want a small, light laptop so you can work from a coffee shop? Or maybe you want a powerful gaming laptop that you can also watch DVDs on. While shopping, be sure to check back with this laptop buying guide and our other computer buying guides if you have any questions during the process.