The best places from which to buy a laptop, including high street stores and supermarkets, direct from vendors, via online shops and auction sites.

Even as prices drop, buying a laptop is a significant purchase. Before you shell out several hundred pounds on a device that will hopefully be your constant companion for the next several years, you should be sure to work out exactly which product, or what specification of laptop, you require. We'd recommend reading as much laptops buying advice and as many laptop reviews as possible before you make a decision on how much you can get for your budget, and whether that matches your requirements.

Once you have worked out what you want from your laptop, it's time to make a purchase. Here we assess the pros and cons of the various channels through which you may buy your laptop. Also be sure to read our piece: How to get the best price on tech.

Best place to buy a laptop: buy direct

Laptops are a commodity. Beyond some differences in build quality and design, a laptop is a laptop is a laptop - at the lower end of the market at least. So if you know the specification you require, a good start is to look at what the large manufacturers such as Lenovo, HP and Dell are offering direct at that specification. These manufacturers have the scale to be able to churn out your required specification to order, cutting down on the costs of storing and marketing pre-built machines. Done correctly this is your passport to a bargain. See also: Group test: what's the best high-end laptop?

If you are on the look out for a budget laptop for web surfing, office work and some light photo editing, for instance, you may decide that you require a 15in laptop with a Core i3 chip, 4GB RAM and at least 500GB of storage. Hit the Dell website and you'll find that an Dell Inspiron 15 with exactly that spec will set you back £378 inc VAT and delivery. You'd have to work hard to find the same spec cheaper elsewhere, and Dell (like the other major manufacturers) has the means of providing support - typically a full-featured one-year warrenty. See also: Group test: what's the best budget laptop?

Of course, if you are looking to spend a lot of money on a high-end laptop there are immediate downsides to this approach. For one thing, as with all online sales you won't have the option of trying before you buy. And a commodity laptop is unlikely to set hearts racing. If you want a stylish, high-end statement of a computer you probably need to see what you are buying. And although you can expect a decent baseline of build quality from a factory produced laptop, you do get the occasional Friday afternoon build from all commodity manufacturers.

Dell Inspiron 15 Indeed, the principal and best reason for this approach to buying a laptop is to keep down costs, and even that can slip away if you don't keep your wits about you. Because the margin is minimal on laptops of this kind PC makers will try their utmost to persuade you to upgrade components, buy extended warranties and pay for faster delivery. They'll also attempt to push you in the direction of a better but more expensive laptop.

In order to find the Dell Inspiron 15 mentioned above, for instance, we had to click past a lot of Ultrabooks and better-specified 15in laptops. There's nothing wrong with them, or the add-ons and upgrades we were offered during the purchasing process. But if the name of the game is to keep down the price, you need to stand firm.

  • Pros: No better way to grab a bargain; decent support from makers with the scale to cope
  • Cons: No way of trying before you buy; not a great option for stylish, high-end laptops; beware of the upsell

Best place to buy a laptop: the high street

You can solve the problem of not being able to try before you buy by heading to a high-street computer store. In the UK these days that generally means Dixons and PC World. You may be lucky enough to have a Maplin in your area, but it doesn't sell laptops, so in the absence of a DSG superstore you will be forced to rely on an independent computer store - which could be a good thing.

Either way, you have to weigh up the benefits of a physical store, with the inevitable down side. On the one hand if you visit a store you can try various products, take advice from an instore salesperson, and walk away with your chosen laptop with no waiting time.

But there is a reason online shopping became so popular, and it relates to price. Renting premises costs a lot of money, and maintaining stock in such a building even more. So generally speaking purchasing in store will cost more than buying direct from a manufacturer.

Case in point: PC World offers a good deal online on an HP Pavilion laptop with Core i3 chip, 4GB RAM and a 750GB hard drive. Buy from the web and it will cost only £399 - a little more than the Dell, but still a good deal. Pick it up in store, however, and it will set you back £449. Not by any means a bad deal, but do you want to spend £80 for the privilege of buying the same spec of HP in store rather than a Dell online?

We're not criticising PC World here: it offers perfectly reasonable deals on decent products. But you will almost always pay a premium for shopping in store - although there is usually a bargain to be had if you know where to look.

It's also worth noting that sales people are exactly that: there to facilitate sales. Often they are incentivised to sell certain products, and they will definitely try to get you to spend more than you intended. In much the same way as buying direct, it's important not to purchase antivirus or an extended warranty unless you really want to.

Of course, you don't need to shop at a dedicated computer store in order to buy on the high street. Other options include department stores, of which John Lewis is the best example. Pop into John Lewis and you could pick up a 15in Core i3 Toshiba laptop with 4GB RAM and a 640GB hard drive for just £399 inc VAT. Better yet, John Lewis always offers a free two-year warranty with electrical goods.

The caveats here are similar to those when shopping in PC World: with the odd exception (and the Tosh is one) you'll pay a small premium for the privilege of shopping in store. More importantly, you will be limited to selecting from the stock John Lewis has in store, which may mean you purchase a more expensive product than you intended. However, the service in John Lewis is famously good, so it is definitely an option worth pursuing.

The other major high-street retailer of laptops is Argos. Argos lists around 150 laptops, reasonably priced, albeit marginally more expensive than buying direct from a commodity manufacturer. It's always worth checking before you travel, however, as few stores will stock all 150 laptops - and the deals vary in value. In the store near my house in Surrey, for instance, you can pick up a 15in Sony E Series with a Core i3 chip, 4GB RAM and a 500GB hard drive. But that model isn't available in any of the central London stores. The best deal we could find in store in the Big Smoke was a Toshiba with similar specs that costs £469 inc VAT. And for that price we'd be better off wondering into PC World where we could have a play with our purchase before committing.

  • Pros: Try before you buy; assistance there if required
  • Cons: Not all specs, models available; you'll pay a small premium to cover the vendor's storage and rent

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