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Flickr / Alejandro Pinto
The laptop isn’t dead. For as much as smartphones and tablets have evolved and expanded, time and again people come back to the tried-and-true notebook setup. There’s something about a big display attached to a sturdy hinge and dedicated keyboard that just works, regardless of where you are or what you’re trying to do. We’ve got a good thing going.
That’s not to say the laptop market is stale, however. New devices with new ideas are rolling out all the time, so keeping track of the ones that’ll work for you can be a challenge. The sheer number of options at your disposal only complicates things, and the fact that you have to lay down a sizable investment either way doesn’t help either. You’re committing to something here, and that’s risky.
So we did the legwork for you. We’ve already put together a guide to the best budget laptops, but here we took a more general approach. As always, we tested out a bunch of devices for ourselves, and read more reviews and forum posts than any reasonable person should. After finalizing our picks, we then assigned each notebook our usual BI Rating.
A few things to note before we jump in: First, the headline says laptops, so that’s what we’re highlighting. The Surface Pro 4 is a great device, but it’s a tablet that’s sometimes a notebook, not the other way around. Any hybrids we did mention are clamshells first and foremost. We’ll compare productivity-oriented slates like the Surface Pro, iPad Pro, and Pixel C in a future guide.
Second, the laptop market is eternally marching forward. Updated devices are released every few months, bringing refreshed processors, trackpads, batteries, and what have you on the regular. We’ve done our best to link to the latest version of each of our picks here, but some of our testing was done on technically last-gen models that are only marginally different from their successors. We’ll update this guide as we get more things to test.
Third, all of these picks come in various configurations, which offer more or less power for higher or lower prices. We’re highlighting what we think are the most attractive purchases for the most people. However, if you want something bigger, stronger, or cheaper, go ahead and tinker with your chosen laptop’s setup.
Finally, it’s worth noting that, as of this writing, the holiday season is just around the corner. All of these devices are very good right now, but we’d recommend bookmarking this page and checking back in once the deals start rolling in.
With all of that out of the way, here are our favorite laptops on the market today.
BI Rating: 8/10
Flickr / Alejandro PintoThe Microsoft Surface Book is a reference point. It’s Microsoft’s way of distilling everything a Windows 10 machine can be into one stunning, powerful package. It looks great, it feels great, and it runs great. Best of all, it’s exciting. With its big, detachable display and utterly unique fulcrum hinge, it’s what a Surface Pro would be if it could actually stay on your lap, which is pretty nice.
Nearly everything about the Surface Book screams high quality. Its silver magnesium finish is clean and professional. Its 13.5-inch, 3000×2000 touchscreen is sharp, vibrant, and responsive, with excellent viewing angles. It also uses a 3:2 aspect ratio instead of the usual 16:9, which is disorienting at first but gives webpages more room to breathe. (Though it does the opposite for full-screen video.) Both its keyboard and trackpad feel like the results of careful study and deliberation.
Battery life is similarly tremendous, averaging around 12 or so hours per charge when used solely as a notebook. (But a meager 4 hours as a tablet.) There’s an included Surface Pen stylus that works wonderfully and snaps magnetically to the side of the display. And because this is a Microsoft laptop, you get a totally clean version of Windows 10 from the get-go.
The Surface Book’s 2-in-1 abilities are less automatic. The screen runs fine on its own, but using a 13-inch tablet is always awkward. Actually getting it off is a little more involved a process than we’d like, and the screen can get a little wobbly when it is connected. More concerning is the gap that hinge creates between the display and the keyboard — you can never totally close the Surface Book flat, which makes us a little paranoid about tossing it in a backpack.
Microsoft’s insistence on making hybrids a thing is admirable, but it continues to be the root of most Surface devices’ problems. While it’s nice to have the option there, it’s hard not to think of how much more refined the Surface Book would be if it didn’t try so hard to be everything at once. Still, for what it’s going for, it’s the best there is.
We’ve linked to the base Surface Book here, which includes the latest (sixth-gen, or “Skylake”) Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of solid state drive storage. It’s swift and smooth either way, but naturally it gets more capable the higher you go up the price bracket.
The top options even include a discrete GPU — a separate graphics processor (here from Nvidia) that’s built right into the keyboard, which applications can tap into instead draining the one that’s integrated with Intel’s chipset. In layman’s terms, that lets the laptop do more, and it makes things go faster.
But it’ll cost you. And here we get to the Surface Book’s biggest drawback: It ain’t cheap. It starts at $1,500, and while much of the device is sufficiently “premium,” the abundance of cheaper-yet-still-capable Windows machines will probably keep the Surface Book a niche machine for the time being. (On the other hand, Apple’s next MacBook Pro will probably be priced the same way.)
Nevertheless, if you have the cash, Microsoft’s first laptop is an impressive one. Just be wary of the usual bugs in these early days.
- Excellent screen
- Good keyboard and trackpad
- Great battery life
- Gap between screen and keyboard when closed
- Detachable display isn’t for everyone
BI Rating: 9/10
Flickr / Alejandro PintoThe MacBook Pro is the best laptop Apple makes. Saying it’s good is the closest a laptop-related opinion comes to an objective truth. It’s been a wonderful mix of performance, portability, and build quality for several years now, everyone’s said as much, and it still is today. Even if it’s due for a refresh, it continues to be a great mainstream notebook.
We’re recommending the entry-level 13-inch model here, which is a class below its 15-inch sibling in terms of power, but is also $500 cheaper.
For now, its 2560×1600 IPS display is still vivid, clear, and bright, even if its not as eye-popping as it was in 2012. Its fifth-gen, 2.7GHz Core i5 processor is technically a year old, but along with 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD it’s more than enough for super fast and efficient performance.
That’s in large part due to Apple’s Mac OS, which is still clean and easy to pick up. Per usual, its battery life is also tremendous, usually getting 10 or 11 hours per charge. There’s little here that you can’t do comfortably, and for a long time.
Using the MacBook Pro’s blend of glass and aluminum is still a treat, too, but you’d have a hard time telling it apart from the model that was released three years ago. It’s getting stale, and Windows devices with similar aims have gotten slimmer and lighter in that time. Thankfully, there are still lots of ports onboard, and the keyboard here is still one of the best in existence.
There is one new addition: A “Force Touch” trackpad, which replaces the usual clicking mechanism with haptic, vibrating feedback. It allows for a Force Click option, which acts like the 3D Touch feature on the latest iPhone, bringing up additional functions in some apps. All of this works, and it should become more useful as developers adapt to it, but it’s not quite essential just yet.
What about the other MacBooks?
Whether or not the MacBook Pro is the best value of the MacBook family is another question. It’s really up to what you prioritize. We can rule out the new MacBook: That’s a remarkably well-made device, but it’s underpowered for its $1,300 price tag, and its keyboard is dreadful.
Your real alternative is the MacBook Air, whose entry-level 13-inch model can be had for around $400 less. It’s wonderfully slim, and its battery life is nearly unmatched, but it packs an outdated 1440×900 display, it’s neither as strong nor as future-proof, and it ditches a few Thunderbolt, HDMI, and USB ports. It also uses a standard trackpad, for what that’s worth.
They’re both good machines — although neither is upgradable and 128GB is a meager amount of storage — but which one is right for you depends on how you use your notebook. If you peruse more casually or travel often, get the MacBook Air. (Or the pick below.) If money is less of an object and you’re what people call a “power user,” the MacBook Pro is the better of the two.
- Great display
- Excellent battery life
- Mac OS is clean and easy
- Design is getting stale
- Limited storage space
- Can’t upgrade after buying
BI Rating: 10/10
Flickr / Alejandro PintoTake one look at the Dell XPS 13 and you’ll wonder why every laptop doesn’t follow its lead. Thanks to its absurdly thin bezels, it puts a 13-inch notebook in the body of an 11-inch one. It’s slim and light enough to make the MacBook Air feel out of date. That makes this a supremely portable device, but it doesn’t hurt that its aluminum chassis is sturdy, smooth, and striking as well.
If you’re going to shave this much off the frame around the display, the display itself has to be good. Thankfully, the 1080p IPS panel on this configuration is wonderful — it’s not the sharpest you’ll see, but its colors are lively and accurate, and it doesn’t wash out at an angle. It has a matte finish, too, so glare isn’t a problem.
That ultra-slim bezel is the thing to behold, though. “Immersive” is an overused word in tech writing, but this is one of the few products where it genuinely fits. You just want to keep looking at this thing. It forces the webcam off to an awkward spot below the display, but that’s a sacrifice we can live with.
The model linked above packs a new Intel Skylake Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB solid state drive for $800. If price is a concern, that’s enough to get you through everyday tasks smoothly enough.
If you can spare an extra $200, though, this configuration from the Microsoft Store doubles the RAM and adds a super sharp 3200×1800 panel. Another $150 upgrades the limited storage and strengthens the processor further. Beyond that you can get a (glossy) touchscreen, which isn’t totally crucial with Windows 10.
Generally speaking, the XPS 13’s speed and strength isn’t going to wow you, and it can run a little warmer than what’s ideal. For the most part, though, it meets the standards of a modern Ultrabook. The one exception is in battery life, where the XPS can get around 10 to 11 hours on a charge. That’s great.
There aren’t many noteworthy negatives here, but the few that do exist are natural extensions of a device being this slim. The keyboard is laid out well and above-average on the whole, but the keys don’t have as much travel as you could get elsewhere. You lose dedicated HDMI and Ethernet ports, too. (You can buy a Thunderbolt adapter for the former, but that’s a pain.) It’s also worth noting that some user reviews have cited issues with the XPS 13’s trackpad, though we didn’t have much of any issue with the overhauled version on this refreshed model.
The Dell XPS 13 pushes traditional laptop design forward, with a good battery, great display, and surprisingly affordable starting price. For all of that, it’s the best Ultrabook you can buy.
- Supremely compact
- Nice display
- Good battery life
- Awkward webcam placement
- Lacking in ports
- Can get faster performance elsewhere
BI Rating: 9/10
Flickr / Alejandro PintoIf your budget keeps you planted in the midrange, look to the Asus Zenbook UX305. This “Signature Edition” from Microsoft — which comes with a clean Windows 10 install free of any manufacturer-imposed bloatware — gets you 8GB of RAM and a 256GB solid state drive for $600, which is bonkers.
That it’s made from a solid coat of aluminum that’s simultaneously good-looking, slender (about a half-inch thick), and light (about 2.5 pounds) only adds to the value. Throw in a good 9 or so hours of battery life, a trio of USB 3.0 ports, and a crisp, glare-free 1080p panel and the Zenbook reveals itself to be an superb value.
But alas, there are compromises. First and foremost is the last-gen Core M processor at the heart of the machine. Although the Zenbook’s performance is generally solid, there’s no getting around the dropoff between this and Intel’s higher-level chips. You can do most of what you need to do, but you don’t want to push things to their limits.
On the flip side, this processor is fanless, which means it creates very little noise as it runs along. And if you want, you can grab an updated model with a faster (though not brand new) fifth-gen Core i5 processor for $750 — though at that price, we’d just recommend you step up to the XPS 13.
There are other petty annoyances. The display, while bright, isn’t the best at color reproduction. The keyboard, while comfortable, doesn’t have a backlight. And the speakers are just plain weak.
Still, none of that is enough to ruin the bargain. The Zenbook puts sufficient power into a great build. For $600, it’s just about a steal.
- Great value
- Slim, handsome design
- Good battery life
- No backlit keyboard
- Weak speakers
- Color reproduction could be better
BI Rating: 9/10
Flickr / Alejandro PintoChances are you don’t need a dedicated “business laptop” to get work done. Any of the other picks here are plenty capable of banging out lighter assignments, and more powerful options like the MacBook Pro and Surface Book are general purpose devices that can handle just about anything you throw at them.
Still, some machines are better suited for working on the go than others. Lenovo in particular has built its name in this space, and its ThinkPad T450s is the best of the productivity-oriented lot. It isn’t exactly a looker, but at 3.5 pounds and 0.83 inches, it isn’t nearly as bulky as it could be either.
More importantly, it’s tough enough to withstand years of abuse, and it comes with a truckload of connectivity options. Three USB 3.0 ports, an Ethernet port, a VGA port, an SD card reader, a SIM card slot, a Kensington lock port, a mini DisplayPort — most of the dorky bonuses a heavy-duty user could want are all here. (Besides HDMI.) Its batteries are replaceable, too, and you can rest easy if you ever spill coffee all over its spill-resistant keyboard.
About that keyboard: It’s the actual best. The travel, the spacing, the little indentations around each key — it’s all conducive to a remarkably fast and comfortable typing experience. If you’re buried in reports, it’ll make digging your way out at least somewhat pleasurable. The touchpad that goes along with it is fine, and the ThinkPad’s signature pointing stick is there for those who need it. If you pay $20 extra, you can add backlighting to the whole thing, too.
Speaking of paying extra, how the ThinkPad performs depends on how deeply you configure it. The entry-level model linked above has a 1600×900 display, a fifth-gen 2.7GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard disk drive. That’s enough to get things done, but not impressively so. Another $60 will bump you up to a decent 1080p panel, and further tinkerings can boost the RAM and ditch that old HDD, improving speeds across the board.
The same idea goes for the ThinkPad’s battery life: It’s solid on its own, but if you pick up extra swappable batteries from Lenovo, you can easily go a full day before needing to recharge. You can even switch batteries without turning the notebook off. Unfortunately, all of this means that getting the most out of the T450s will cost more than its relatively low starting price would suggest.
The ThinkPad T450s isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as an Ultrabook, but it aims at a much more specific crowd than those mainstream machines. For road warriors and business professionals, it’s a prototypical productivity notebook.
- Best keyboard in the business
- Rugged, and slim for a business notebook
- Loads of ports and connectivity options
- Lagging specs on entry-level model
- One-year warranty could be longer
BI Rating: 9/10
Flickr / Alejandro PintoAnd now we head to the other end of the spectrum. If you spend most of your computer time in a web browser, consider a Chromebook. These things run Chrome OS, which mostly limits you to staying online and using Google’s services, but that’s enough to do plenty, and the OS itself has expanded over time. It also means that the machines don’t need higher-end hardware to run smoothly — as a result, they’re typically very cheap.
The best of these is the Toshiba Chromebook 2, which Toshiba recently refreshed for the fall. For $330, it gets you a superb 1080p IPS display, an Intel Celeron 3215U processor, 4GB of RAM, a 16GB solid state drive, wireless-ac WiFi, and an excellent 9 to 10 hours of battery life.
That 13-inch display is really the highlight: It’s colorful, bright, and accurate, with solid viewing angles. It wouldn’t look too out of place on a $1,000 machine. Our only complaint is that it’s glossy, so you’ll catch some glare in sunlight.
Those internals are modest on paper, but they’re more than enough to run Chrome OS with aplomb. The Celeron CPU is what’s new this year, and it allows the CB2 to run quickly and smoothly even with multiple tabs open. A built-in fan keeps it cool, too. It’s a noticeable improvement over last year’s model, which would buckle if you loaded too much at once. Having only 16GB of storage space could be a pain, but again, Chrome OS is really designed to stay in the cloud.
All the other boxes are checked off well enough. An improved keyboard is fast, clicky, and well-spaced. (It has a backlight, too.) The trackpad is good. The build is sufficiently thin and nicely light. It’s not ugly. The Skullcandy-tuned speakers are better than what you’ll often find on laptops twice as expensive. There are USB 2.0, USB 3.0, HDMI, and memory card ports as well — far from overwhelming, but about standard for Chromebooks.
Put it all together and you have the most well-rounded Chromebook on the market. Provided you can accept Chrome OS’s limitations, it’s simply a great buy.
- Superb display for the money
- Stronger than most Chromebooks
- Chrome OS is an acquired taste
- Display attracts some glare
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