Choosing a counter top can be difficult because there are so many different options, and very little in terms of pros and cons and overall performance that separates one surface from another. But there are differences and knowing them can make it easier to decide which counter top is right for you.
The most common counter top is laminate--wood or particle board covered by a durable plastic laminate top. For generations, it was seemingly the only counter top available. Laminate counters have improved significantly over the years, both in terms of aesthetics and durability, but they will never achieve the wow factor of other surfaces. The main appeal of laminate is price--it is generally half the price of other counter tops. It is also the easiest counter top to replace, but, because it doesn't age as well as other surfaces, is also the only counter top likely to need replacing after 10 to 15 years.
The popularity of natural stone counter tops, such as granite and marble, has soared in recent years. These surfaces are extremely durable and attractive. When sealed, they are also very stain-resistant, though not stain-proof (despite the claims of some manufacturers). On the down side, these surfaces are quite literally rock-hard, and they can be unforgiving to wine glasses or coffee cups that are set down too hard. They also tend to have visible seams where two pieces are joined, a minor issue but one that turns some people off.
There are also a number of man-made products, known as solid surface counter tops, that offer different benefits. The main advantage of solid surface is that they are composed of a single composite all the way through. If the top gets burned, scratched, or stained, you can simply sand the trouble spot out, leaving the surface looking new. These counter tops are also softer and more forgiving than granite. Solid surface tops are available in a wide variety of colors and designs, though none as arresting as natural stone surfaces.
In the last few years, custom concrete counter tops have been making a splash in the market. They are incredibly hard and durable, can be dyed any color, and when well-made achieve a unique and understated beauty. Less well-known are natural stone composites, a kind of hybrid of solid surface and natural stone counter tops. These approach--but don't achieve--the beauty of natural stone. They are also the most stain resistant and durable of any counter surface.
No counter top is perfect--all have advantages and disadvantages. In the final analysis, you need to weigh the differences to determine which counter top is best for you.