How We Test Laptops
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While people are beginning to rely more and more on their smartphones and phablets for their day-to-day tech needs, laptops are still the preferred medium for larger projects and tasks like gaming, presentations, essays, videos, and image alteration/enhancement. While laptops tend to have a longer shelf life than smartphones, they still typically need to be replaced every 4-5 years.
By combining rigorous objective testing and experiential subjective information, we give our readers all the information they need to make their next laptop purchase, whether it’s needed for intense Overwatch sessions, or weekly essays on The Brothers Karamazov. For more information on how we test laptops, read on!
Because laptops are larger interfaces with more memory and battery power than smartphones, they are often used to juggle multiple intensive tasks simultaneously. With our performance testing, we quantify the laptop’s computational strength and flexibility; with our display testing, we assess the quality of the laptop’s screen. We also reward (or punish) a laptop for meeting (or failing to meet) certain spec-based criteria.
Before objective testing begins, all laptops are charged to 100%, and all updates to the operating system, as well as any necessary drivers, are installed and applied.
Our performance testing, through a combination of benchmark programs, targets four specific aspects of a laptop: the CPU, the GPU, gaming capabilities, and the battery.
The central processing unit (CPU) of a computer is the brains of the operation. This is where all of the internal logic, decoding instructions, and operations are housed. Whenever a button is pressed on the keyboard or on the screen, the CPU sends out the corresponding commands to the other components of the laptop, and then processes and assembles the disparate parts of that command into a final answer or completed task.
We use the Geekbench benchmark test from Primate Labs to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a laptop’s CPU. The Geekbench CPU benchmark program involves scripts that call for the CPU to perform integer, floating point, and memory operations. Integer operations require the interpretation of binary numbers, which are comprised of individual integers that have values of either 1 or 0. Floating-point operations ask the CPU to calculate many decimal places of certain numbers, such as those of pi. Memory operations involve the storing and retrieval of pieces of data from the computer’s internal memory (i.e. the RAM).
After the laptop completes these tasks, Geekbench compiles the results of these tests (i.e. the length of time it took for the computer to calculate 10,000 decimals of pi, etc.) into a final score. A higher Geekbench score means that the CPU can deal with many different commands at the same time without faltering; this results in a higher CPU performance score. Lower Geekbench scores means that the CPU is more easily bogged down, and cannot easily deal with the demands of the average laptop user; this results in a lower CPU performance score.
The graphics processing unit (GPU) is the chip that is mainly geared towards rapidly manipulating the computer’s RAM to buffer and render high quality images and videos so that they appear seamless on the laptop screen.
We use 3DMark, a benchmark program developed by Futuremark, to challenge the processing power of a laptop’s GPU. Within 3DMark, we use three separate benchmark files of increasing complexity: Ice Storm, Cloud Gate, and Fire Strike. These files are neither video files nor actual games, but represent the kind of animation and complexity that do exist in actual computer games. These non-interactive faux-games have to be rendered by the GPU in real time. The busier (both visually and motion-wise) a clip is, the more difficult it is for the GPU to create and display instantaneously. Ice Storm and Cloud Gate are pretty easily handled by most laptops, but Fire Strike, a battle between a streamlined cyborg and a gritty fire creature in a jagged future dystopia, has the fine detail and quick cuts necessary to separate out the average laptops from the high-performance laptops.
Higher scores in the 3DMark benchmarks means that the GPU will be able to render and maintain high quality, complex graphics without choking or losing resolution, and will result in a higher GPU score. Lower scores in the 3DMark benchmark means that the laptop may get stuck or fail to accurately reproduce images and motion, to the point where viewers may be distracted from their viewing experience; this will result in a lower GPU performance score.
As mentioned previously, the gaming capabilities depend heavily on the GPU for image rendering, but also on the CPU for relaying commands that depend on the way the game unfolds in real time.
What better way to test the gaming capabilities of a laptop than with an actual computer game? We use the benchmark program in the Metro 2033 computer game, as developed by 4A Games. This file basically amounts to a gaming walkthrough, where the player watches the action unfold, but can’t actually participate in it. The Metro 2033 walkthrough is from the point of view of a first person shooter unluckily located in post-apocalyptic Moscow. The scenes vary in action ("physics") and complexity, and are representative of the kind of experience a player would have if he or she were actually playing.
The benchmark program in Metro 2033 reports the maximum, minimum, and average frame rate recorded throughout the game walkthrough. Higher frame rates translate into better, more rapid rendering of busy scenes or complicated physics, and a more realistic gaming experience; this results in higher gaming scores. Lower frame rates translate into a choppy, more disjointed viewing experience, and lower gaming scores.
Having the freedom to still do work on a laptop while sitting far from a power outlet wouldn’t be possible without the laptop’s battery. Depending on the type and size of the battery, the laptop will survive for a variety of time durations without being recharged.
To test the lifespan of the laptop battery, we use the Home Test from the PCMark 8 package, as developed by Futuremark, with a fully-charged battery and a set screen brightness (something that can significantly affect the battery life) of 200 nits. We are able to set the brightness to 200 nits based on the measurements described below in the “Contrast Ratio” test. The Home test requires the laptop to complete a number of battery-intensive tasks that are typical for a person using their laptop in a home setting: video chatting, photo editing, internet surfing, and more. PCMark 8 cycles through this rota of tasks until the battery dies, and then reports the time the program ran in minutes.
Higher PCMark 8 scores mean a longer battery life that is more convenient for the owner of the laptop; this results in higher battery scores. Lower PCMark 8 scores mean a shorter battery life and more time trying to find an outlet when on the go. This results in lower battery scores.
A laptop could have the fastest GPU in the world, but without a matching high-quality laptop display, the result will be a solidly mediocre viewing experience. We look at two qualities that can make or break a laptop’s ability to function as a display: resolution and contrast ratio.
Resolution speaks to the number of pixels on the laptop’s screen. A pixel on a laptop screen is made up of three subpixels, each representing a single color: red, green, and blue. Most colors perceivable by the human eye can be represented by some mixture of red, green, and blue. Older CRT TVs had so few pixels that our eyes could actually distinguish the individual red, green, and blue subpixels; nowadays, our displays have so many pixels that the minute subpixels blend together to create a single color over a single pixel. A screen with more pixels, both in the horizontal and vertical direction is said to have a “high resolution”.
Once we measure the dimensions of the screen, we use the known resolution of the screen to calculate the number of pixels per inch (PPI) in both the horizontal and the vertical directions. High PPI values mean a high number of pixels, which allows the display to easily and crisply display fine detail; this results in a higher resolution score. Low PPI values mean that the pixel density is low, and that fine details may be rendered blocky or blurry; this results in lower resolution scores.
Each display, depending on the internal electronics and the external hardware, is capable of rendering a certain range of shades of gray, from white to black. “Contrast” refers to the extent of the difference between the darkest black shade and the brightest white shade. These shades are quantified by their luminance, which is measured in nits.
Using our CS-200 from Konica Minolta, we measure the luminance of the 13 shades of gray, which represent 13 degrees of illumination, from perfect black (0% illumination) to perfect white (100% illumination). We then divide the white luminance value by the black luminance value to arrive at the contrast ratio.
A high contrast ratio means some combination of very bright white shades and very dark black shades, which means that the picture will be a more accurate representation of the way humans see it real life; this will result in higher contrast ratio scores. A lower contrast means some combination of dimmer white shades and brighter black shades, which means that the picture will look washed out compared to the vividness and shadows of real life; this will result in lower contrast ratio scores.
The presence or absence of certain features can really make or break a laptop experience. Some of the features mentioned below are desirable for the convenience factor, and some really enhance the customizability of a given laptop.
Keyboard & Touchpad
The interface between the user and the laptop is really important. In order to quantify how great the keyboard is, we answer questions like: does the keyboard have a numeric keyboard? Are there separate media keys? Is the keyboard backlit? Does the key repeat activate if you hold down a key for a while?
As for the touchpad, some of the qualities we look at are the dimensions of the touchpad, the number of touches/gestures it is capable of recognizing or accepting, and if it is possible to change the sensitivity or click speed of the touchpad.
The more feature-packed a keyboard is, and the more users can change these keys to their specific needs, the higher the keyboard score. Bigger touchpads with a wider variety of gestures available result in higher touchpad scores.
Both the wireless connectivity and the input/output ports speak to the flexibility and convenience of the laptop; the more connected the laptop is, the easier it is to share and receive information from the outside world. For wireless connectivity, we look for ethernet ports and support for different wireless frequencies (2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, etc.). For ports, we look for USB 2 and 3 ports, an SD card slot, and the number/type of video outputs (HDMI, DVI, etc.).
Wi-Fi support for a wider range of frequencies and a large diversity of input/output ports makes it very easy to get information onto and off of the laptop, whether it’s to share music or explain figures in a presentation. This will result in higher connectivity scores. A laptop with minimal Wi-Fi support and only a few ports may mean that the laptop will require a number of extra adapters, and will result in lower connectivity scores.
The major selling point of laptops is that they represent the compromise between the computing power of a desktop computer and the portability of a smartphone. We measure the weight of the laptop, as well as the proportion of the laptop dimensions taken up by the screen.
A lower laptop weight, together with a proportionally larger screen size, means that it is easier to take that laptop places and to see what is on the screen without the stable illumination of a home office. This will result in higher portability scores. A heavier laptop with a proportionally smaller screen size will be more difficult to lug around and decreases the screen’s visibility when the user is on the road. This will result in a lower portability score.
While we spend a significant amount of time objectively testing the capabilities of the laptop, we also spend quality time just using the laptop. In most cases, the review for a given laptop is actually composed on the laptop in question. Our reviewers also put the laptop through its paces by listening to music, editing photos, playing games, and surfing around on the internet. This allows us to give our readers valuable information about the quirks and problems that a user might encounter on a day-to-day basis.
With our unique blend of rigorous scientific testing and experiential subjective assessment, we are able to make solid recommendations (or warnings) about the newest laptops available on the market today. To see reviews on the latest laptops, check out our expanding library of laptop reviews. To see real-time lists of our favorite laptops, check out our Best Right Now laptop articles, like the Best Laptops Under $200 and the Best 2-in-1 Laptops.