I’m asked about the best laptops for freelancers a LOT.
To be completely honest, the “which laptop should I buy?” question isn’t one I enjoy answering. After over 20 years of doing IT consultancy work, I must have been asked it thousands of times.
The thing it, it’s a WAY more complicated question than most people seem to realise. It’s like asking “what car should I buy?” without telling me anything about how much you have to spend, how many miles you plan to drive, or even how many seats you need!
Despite this, I’ve decided to try to suggest some of the best laptops for freelancers in this article. I’ve also included some general guidance to help you understand all the specifications, facts and figures. Choosing something based on your OWN requirements is much more sensible than having somebody just pick something out for you.
I’ve updated this article for 2021, because there have been some game-changing developments in processor tech recently – more on that below.
Let’s start with a TL;DR for those who don’t want to read the entire article:
Generally speaking, based on my own experiences, these are my main recommendations:
- The best Windows laptop for freelancers is the Dell XPS13.
- The best Apple laptop for freelancers is the MacBook Air M1 (2020).
- My top laptop recommendation for freelancers is the MacBook Air M1 (2020).
If you read the rest of the article, you can find out exactly why I’ve chosen these particular laptops, and find some other specific recommendations and alternatives. For example, I’ve provided some ideas if you have a low budget, or need something with super-fast performance.
People get very passionate about which laptops are the best, especially when it comes to the choice between Windows and Mac. Let’s start off with a discussion about that:
Windows vs. Mac: Which is Best for Freelancers?
The choice between Apple and Microsoft is one that fiercely divides opinion. I’m going to put it straight out there that I am a Mac user nowadays, but for many years I was firmly committed to Windows.
I’d also like to make clear that I think I can be properly subjective about this. I have technical qualifications from both Microsoft and Apple, and although a MacBook Pro is my “daily driver,” I also have a Windows machine for gaming. I’m certainly not blindly devoted to Apple.
My first point, and it’s an important one, is that it’s pretty unlikely that any freelance work will require you to choose one platform over the other. File compatibility is rarely a problem nowadays, a lot of software is in the cloud anyway, and even Microsoft’s own Office 365 is fully compatible with both platforms.
As such, it really does come down to personal preference, and a lot of this will be around which operating system you are most used to: Windows or MacOS. They both do various things in different ways, and switching between the two involves a learning curve. If you already feel you are a “power user” of either operating system, switching to the other WILL slow you down until you adapt.
There is, however, something to add here – and it’s something new:
Last year’s release of the new M1 chip has taken Macs (even the cheapest ones) to a whole new level in terms of performance. I won’t bore you with all the technical details (you can read more about the chip here). The short version is that even a basic MacBook Air now blows almost all other laptops out of the water in terms of speed and battery life.
This is the reason I highlight the MacBook Air as the best laptop for freelancers. If you’re happy using the Apple operating system, and don’t have any specialist requirements, you will almost certainly be happy with this laptop. If I was buying a new machine now, it’s what I would buy. Ironically, I am using a two-year-old MacBook Pro which is in many ways inferior now – but that’s the way it goes in tech!
One thing Windows fans frequently cite as a reason to criticise Apple is pricing. Apple’s products are not cheap. Although prices have come down a bit recently, it’s definitely possible to buy new Windows computers for less money. That said, the laptops at the “budget” end of the scale typically have a distinctly “budget” feel about them.
Graduate to the more desirable Windows laptops and you’ll soon see prices that are a lot closer to Apple’s for equivalent specifications. This is more and more the case these days.
Another thing to take note of is that Apple laptops typically hold their value very well. It’s quite feasible to expect to get a considerable amount of money back if you resell and upgrade after three or four years. Windows machines simply don’t hold their value in the same way.
Other Key Points
As this article is about the best laptops for freelancers, I don’t want to turn this into an endless Microsoft vs. Apple debate. Instead, I’m just going to finish up this section with my general thoughts on the pros and cons of each platform.
- Far more choice – both in models and manufacturers.
- More economical options.
- The Windows operating system is more familiar to many.
- Some Windows laptops are user-upgradable (although many no longer are nowadays).
- Lots of scope for custom configuration – Windows tends to let you do things how YOU want.
- The operating system is less stable and refined – things DO crash more often.
- More issues with security / privacy / viruses. (Macs are not immune, but Windows machines are more of a target).
- Integration with mobile devices is much less refined.
Apple Mac Laptops
- The new M1 chips have changed the game – you can now better performance from a $1000 Mac than you would have from a $4000 Mac just a year ago.
- Generally excellent build quality. Although Apple had some serious issues with keyboards, these have been rectified in newer models.
- Second-hand MacBooks hold their value.
- Macs tend to “just work” – so long as you’re willing to do things “the Apple way.”
- An overall feeling of quality: Apple products FEEL premium, and their screens, touchpads and other components are often best in class.
- Great integration with iPhones, iPads etc. making it seamless to work across multiple devices.
- Pretty good customer care and support, especially if you’re near an Apple store.
- Add-ons are expensive too – everything from extra memory to AppleCare extended warranties.
- Sometimes prone to hardware issues – although this is improving.
As you can see from the list above, choosing between Windows and Mac is very much an individual thing, and far from black and white.
For what it’s worth, when my main job was fixing computers and doing heavily techie stuff, Windows suited me more. Since I’ve been using computers for more creative pursuits, Apple is a better fit for me. Your milage may vary.
The Best Laptops for Freelancers: What to Consider
Generally speaking, it’s easy to get FAR too hung up On GBs and Ghzs. Unless you’re digging right down into the very cheapest laptops out there, you’ll struggle to find a mid-range machine that won’t do everything you need to as a general freelancer.
But what do I mean by “general freelancer?” Really I mean anything other than a programmer, professional photographer, or video editor.
Essentially, if you’re in an industry where you need more of a “performance” laptop, the chances are you will already know what kind of specification you need to be aiming for. That said, if these are areas you plan to move into as part of your future career, it can make good sense to go for something more “high end” in order to future-proof your setup.
What to Look For in a Laptop
Generally speaking, these are the key things I would aim for:
PROCESSOR: This is the trickiest thing to learn about but – for those with standard requirements – probably the thing least worth worrying about.
There are lots of confusing model numbers out there, but the main Intel ranges are the i3, i5, i7 and i9. They get more powerful (and expensive) as you step up the range. AMD’s Ryzen processors are similar, with the same 3, 5, 7 and 9 distinction.
AMD Ryzen processors are being seen more and more these days, and they tend to offer more bang for the buck than the Intel equivalents. Alongside Apple’s own M1, these chips are giving Intel some serious work to do to catch up.
We’ve already talked about Apple’s M1. If I were to provide a recommendation here, I’d say an Intel i5 or Ryzen 5 series chip is a good mid-range option in a laptop for freelancers.
MEMORY (RAM): Go for 8GB as an absolute minimum, and 16GB if you plan to do anything much with video editing (or fancy doing some gaming in the evenings). 32GB is a luxury if you’re just doing “general” work, but it will potentially make the laptop feel more fast and “snappy.”
STORAGE: Although most manufacturers sell base-level laptops with 128GB of storage, I would personally not suggest less than 256GB. (You can always total up the data on your existing machine – I have over 100GB in music alone).
Keep in mind that certain activities generate big files – think photography, music, and video production. I’ve recently been doing a lot more with music and video and – as a result – will ensure my next laptop has more storage.
SSD: Most laptops come with solid state disks (SSDs) these days, but some budget models still come with cheaper hard drives. These have moving parts, and are considerably cheaper, however they are MUCH slower. If you’re used to using a laptop with a conventional hard drive, moving to something with an SSD feels like a huge upgrade.
A Word on False Economies
As a freelancer, it’s quite likely that a laptop is the main tool of your trade. As such, I firmly believe it’s not something to skimp on.
Yes, I know there are lots of tempting-looking laptops out there for just a few hundred Dollars / Pounds, but I’ll tell you what’s usually wrong with them:
- Poor quality keyboards, touchpads, screens.
- Nasty plastic build quality.
- A lack of durability.
- Usually the worst possible warranty provision (that can leave you without a machine if anything goes wrong).
- “Home” versions of Windows, which lack professional features like full disk encryption. (Read our article on keeping data safe for more on that).
- Lots of unnecessary pre-installed software that slows them down.
Cut back on premium coffee, get a 0% finance deal, or simply save some money – and buy a DECENT laptop. The best laptops for freelancers do cost a little more, but it’s a huge false economy to try to run a business using something cheap and nasty.
The Best Apple Laptop for Freelancers:
The best laptop for freelancers who wish to use the Apple MacOS platform is the Apple MacBook Air M1. In fact, given the tremendous power of the new M1 chip, I’d urge Windows fans to give it some serious consideration too.
Apple made some bold statements when this laptop was released. The big shock was that it lived up to them. It’s insanely fast, silent in operation, and has mind-blowing battery life.
Some people did criticise the design – simply because it hadn’t evolved from the previous model. However, it does feature a new keyboard, eliminating the hardware issues that plagued the previous version.
The new MacBook Air is an extremely powerful laptop for the money. I keep trying to justify getting one for myself, but I spent an enormous amount on my previous Apple laptop. I’m managing to hold off for now!
The Best Windows Laptop for Freelancers:
It’s much harder to choose the best laptop for freelancers when it comes to Windows. There are tons of different manufacturers making them, including the giants like Dell and HP.
Last year I recommended a model from Microsoft themselves, but I’m not currently quite as inspired by their range. This year, I’m recommending a Dell – the XPS 13.
Since becoming an Apple fan, it’s taken a lot to “turn my head” when it comes to Windows laptops. But several years ago (in my guise as an IT consultant) I visited a client site to set up a new XPS13, and I was rather impressed. Both that laptop, and the product range itself, has stood the test of time. The same client recently upgraded to this latest one.
The XPS range is increasingly sought-after, and this model with a 13.4 inch screen is a great all-rounder. It’s speedy, the screen is great, and it all comes in a very light and rather attractive package.
One criticism I do have is that it doesn’t seem to take much for the fan to kick in, which could be off-putting to those bothered by the noise. It’s also a bit of a shame the price seems to edge up with every new revision. But this is a great laptop that freelancers should be very happy with. It deserves its many “best laptop” accolades.
The Best Budget Laptop for Freelancers
Microsoft makes some beautiful looking laptops nowadays, and this one is no exception. It’s also keenly priced – although it’s fair to say that I’m perhaps pushing the definition of “budget” a little here.
Still, my recommendation for the best budget laptop for freelancers is the Microsoft Surface Laptop Go.
The great thing about this laptop is that it doesn’t feel “budget,” despite it’s relatively low price. It has a great (touch) screen and a premium design in some attractive colours. The keyboards on Surface laptops are fantastic – in fact, I’d be inclined to say they are better than those on Apple machines.
There are some lower points. The battery live isn’t amazing, and the lowest spec (i.e. cheapest) model really is underpowered for anything but the most basic use. As such, you may find yourself creeping out of “budget” and into “mid range” to get what you need.
Still, this is a lovely machine that will be a pleasure to own.
High Performance Laptops
As discussed above, if you need a high-performance (i.e. more expensive) laptop, you will probably have some specialist knowledge of the kind of thing you want.
All the laptops above will handle email, web browsing, social media and basic entertainment without breaking a sweat. And the M1 processor from Apple (that I keep mentioning) will do a lot more besides.
In fact, the launch of the M1 has rather shaken up the performance end of the market. Using myself as an example, I suspect my next laptop will cost me half as much as my last one – and things are set to change even more with future iterations of this tech. At the time of writing (April 2021), there’s a lot to be said for holding out for a bit to see what changes – if you’re in a position to do so.
However – we’re living in the here and now – here are the best laptops for freelancers who need a bit of extra performance.
Amusingly, the biggest victims of Apple’s M1 launch are probably the company’s own most high-end laptops. Many of the true power users will now find that a cheaper Apple laptop does everything they need. Add on the fact that Apple will, later this year, move their own chips into these more high-end models, and it’s reasonable to assume the market for the 16 inch MacBook Pro has got much smaller.
This machine still uses Intel chips (for now) but remains hugely powerful. There are also things you can do with this that you can’t (currently) do with the M1 machines. For some users these are fundamental things, such as the ability to specify more than 16GB of memory, and to spread your work onto a larger laptop screen and multiple external monitors.
This is definitely a machine you will know that you need. Unless you have money to burn, it’s definitely overkill for browsing the web, email and word processing. But if you want the best of everything – from a class-defining screen to speakers that sound unbelievably good – accept no substitute!
The 13 inch model has always been the star of Dell’s XPS range, but recent updates have seen the larger 15 inch model gain some big accolades too. If you’re after top performance and prefer Windows to Mac, I recommend the new Dell XPS 15.
Like the 16 inch MacBook Pro, the XPS sets out to get all the details right, and succeeds – on everything from keyboard to speakers to trackpad quality.
While Dell’s prices do seem to edge up year-on-year, you can still get mindblowing specs for slightly less mindblowing prices than Apple charge. However, we’re talking about a premium performance laptop here, so you’re certainly not looking at cheap! There ARE lots of models and configurations to choose from, which will definitely tick a box for the power users.
The XPS 15 is stunning to look at and a delight to use.
I have provided links to the best laptops for freelancers that I recommend, and these will take you through to Amazon. Please remember, however, that laptop models frequently change and that the links could become invalid or redirect to alternative products, especially if you’re not in the USA. If you choose to purchase, make sure you carefully check specifications and prices.
Warranties and “Plan Bs”
Choosing a laptop isn’t only about selecting hardware and specifications. It’s also important to look at what kind of warranty you get.
Usually, an initial warranty will last for a year, and will often be a “return to base” guarantee. This means sending the laptop in or taking it to a store if something goes wrong. This can be hugely inconvenient if it happens when you have a deadline to meet.
As such there are several things you should to consider:
- Upgrading your warranty to something longer (usually three years), using AppleCare or similar.
- Upgrading to an “on-site” warranty, so somebody can come to you (if available).
- Having a second machine that you can easily switch to if your main one is out of action. This could be an older computer. The key thing is that it works, and that you have a means to start working on it quickly if necessary.
These things are really important – so please don’t forget them in the excitement of buying a shiny new laptop!
Did you enjoy this best laptops for freelancers feature? If so, have a look at our computer tips for freelancers article while you’re here.
Founder of HomeWorkingClub.com – Ben has worked freelance for nearly 20 years. As well as being a freelance writer and blogger, he is also a technical consultant with Microsoft and Apple certifications. He loves supporting new home workers but is prone to outbursts of bluntness and realism.