How to Choose the Right Laptop
Ever since smartphones ate the world whole, tapping and touching screens has become an expectation in new gear you buy. But tap the screen on any given laptop in your local electronics superstore, and it’s a roll of the dice whether you’ll get a response, or just an oily fingerprint.
Touch screens are a staple of modern computing, but not every laptop has one. It’s a feature that you need to shop for specifically. With some categories of laptop, it’s uncertain whether the machine will support touch. With others, their very nature is a virtual guarantee that they will—or won’t. The key is knowing the difference.
At PCMag, we test hundreds of computers a year, some with touch screens, many without. Based on our in-labs testing and deep-dive reviews, we compiled a group of the best touch-equipped machines that have passed through our hands. Below, let’s run through the basics of laptop touch screens and why you might (or might not) want one.
Touch Screens 101: The Basics
First of all, some terminology. In most cases, a touch-screen-equipped laptop has a conductive digitizing layer, overlaid on the panel element, that allows for tap, pinch, or swipe input. Most modern laptops make use of what’s known as capacitive touch input, in which the over-screen layer detects where you’ve touched with one or more fingers using the conductivity of your skin. This layer is typically a grid of ultra-fine wires, or a film; it needs to be subtle or translucent enough to not interfere with viewability.
That electrical aspect explains why touch screens don’t work if you’re wearing gloves. This is in contrast to the resistive touch technology you might see in other implementations of touch screens, in which the upper layer covering the screen flexes. When you write or tap on a resistive screen, that upper layer closes a circuit with another layer beneath it. (Having to press a little to, say, sign your name on a screen is an earmark of resistive touch.)
Back to capacitive, though. The capacitive touch layer maps your finger or pen input to coordinates on the screen that determine the position of your touch. Also detected are parameters such as tap speed, whether you’ve tapped versus swiped, or if you’ve executed multi-finger touch. Note that tap pressure sensitivity is not a parameter that is typically detected through simple finger touch, though certain touch implementations and stylus pens might transmit that. More on those later.
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A few panels use an infrared X/Y axis-mapping technology, in which sensors in the bezel cross-reference an interruption of their beams at a specific intersecting screen location, but the employment of this tech in laptops is rare. It’s usually seen only in cases where the panel is very large, or uses a display technology that is not available in a variant that can accept capacitive touch (or is cost-prohibitive).
Note that the screens in a given laptop family may come with options for touch and non-touch versions. This is the case with some mainstream and business-oriented clamshell laptops, especially ones in model lines that sell in lots of subtly different retail configurations, or that have many tweakable configuration options when sold direct. When looking at one of these machines, be very much cognizant whether or not the particular screen or screen option you are looking at supports touch.
For example, a laptop might come in a version with a 1,366-by-768-pixel screen without touch support, as well as in another with an upticked 1,920-by-1,080-pixel (1080p) panel that does do touch. Or, more confusingly, the manufacturer might offer both touch and non-touch options at 1080p. Attention to detail matters here.
Which Laptops Will Have Touch Input?
Depending on the specific kind of laptop you’re looking at, the tendency toward touch support will vary. Let’s dig into the major types.
Budget clamshells. Most low-cost machines that are straight-up laptops (that is, models that do not have 2-in-1-type hinges or tablet modes) will not have touch screens, but you’ll run across the occasional exception. In under-$500 machines, a touch screen should be seen as a pleasant surprise, not a given. Exception: 2-in-1s, more about which in a moment.
For more, see our picks for the best budget laptops.
Mainstream and business clamshells. You’ll see the most varied mix of touch and non-touch models here. This is the category most likely to be frought with touch versus non-touch models in the same system family. Take for example, the 1,920-by-1,200 non-touch panel versus the 4K touch panel in the latest Dell XPS 13.
For more, see our picks for the best business laptops.
2-in-1 convertibles and detachables. By their very nature, all 2-in-1 machines will have touch screens. When you’re using a 360-degree-rotating 2-in-1 in tent or tablet mode, you don’t have access to the keyboard, so touch input is essential in those modes. Likewise in a detachable 2-in-1: Remove the keyboard, and all you’re left with for input is your tapping fingers or a stylus, Indeed, a key differentiator here is whether the 2-in-1 additionally supports stylus input, and if so, whether the stylus is included or costs extra. A high-profile example of the latter: the Microsoft Surface devices, which mandate $99 for their complementing Surface Pen stylus.
For more, see our picks for the best convertible laptops.
Gaming laptops. Most gaming laptops have 15- or 17-inch screens, and very few offer touch input. PC gamers don’t have much use for touch input (PC games aren’t written to support it), and implementing a touch screen would reduce what is an often already-challenged battery.
For more, see our picks for the best gaming laptops.
Giant-screen machines. It’s rare to see a laptop of any stripe with a 17-inch display that supports touch input. Touch-panel implementations at that size are pricey and simply not cost-effective. They’re also not very practical: As we said, many touch-screen laptops are 2-in-1s, and a 17-inch tablet would be pretty unwieldy. The Dell Inspiron 17 7000 2-in-1 (7786) proves this point as the rare, very awkward 17-inch convertible.
Chromebooks. Touch screens did not feature in early Chromebook models, but we’re seeing them in more and more new ones. With the emergence of 2-in-1 convertible chromebooks (most are 360-degree-rotating designs), touch is becoming more common in this class, especially as support for Android apps profilerates on these machines. The Chrome OS operating system itself is not optimized or intended for touch.
For more, see our picks for the best Chromebooks.
Apple MacBooks. Denied outright…sorry! No current Mac desktop or MacBook laptop supports touch screen input, unless you count the thin Touch Bar touch strip forward of the keyboard on MacBook Pro models. (The Touch Bar is merely a contextual-shortcut strip that adapts to the program at hand.) Like Chrome OS, the macOS operating system isn’t optimized for touch. In the Apple-sphere, full touch displays remain the province of the company’s iPhones and iPads.
Do You Even Need a Touch Screen?
You might think it’s a given that having a touch screen is a good thing, if you can get one. But you’ll want to consider a few factors before going all in.
Consider battery drain. All else being equal, a touch screen will reduce your battery life versus an identical non-touch screen in the same system. That’s because the system has to keep a trickle of power fed to the digitizing layer, which will be always on, waiting for your fingertip or stylus tip to tap. That said, we emphasize “all else being equal”: The battery factor is seldom an apples-to-apples comparison, because touch screens in a given laptop line that also offers non-touch options also tend to be higher-end, higher-resolution, or higher-brightness screens that, by their nature, consume more power to start with—the touch aspect regardless.
Will you actually use it? Think about how you actually work or play, day to day, before insisting on a touch panel. If your main PC activity is mincing through fine-celled spreadsheets, jabbing a touch screen with a finger might not afford the precision or utility you need for operations. If you spend 80 percent of your time tapping from YouTube vid to YouTube vid, on the other hand, touch can be a delight.
Also consider the ergonomic aspects. To use a touch panel much, you’ll be reaching from keyboard to screen, which can clash with your workflow on a clamshell machine. So make sure that kind of reaching jibes with your day-to-day usage. Alternately, if you’ll often be tapping at music- and movie-playback controls on the screen or poking frenetically at YouTube thumbnails, consider a 2-in-1 that you can prop up in A-frame or tent mode, in which tapping the screen makes more sense and requires less reaching.
Chromebook? Think about the Android factor. As we mentioned earlier, Chrome OS is not optimized for touch. So, on a Chromebook, touch is only marginally useful unless yours is a 2-in-1, or you mean to use a lot of Android apps (that is, assuming the unit supports them). For Android stuff, a touch screen is almost essential. Controlling these apps with a touch pad and keyboard is a fast path to frustration, since they were designed to work on smartphones and tablets.
Are you good with glossy? Most touch screens have a glossy facing that extends across both the screen and its bezels (the borders surrounding the screen). Matte-finish touch screens are uncommon. The seamless bezel coverage allows for side-in swipes and prevents interruption of your tap and swipe activity near the screen’s periphery. That’s fine if you like glossy screens, and they can enhance the perceived vividness of the panel. But know that screens of this kind are more prone to smudging, and they tend to be afflicted by glare outdoors or under harsh indoor lighting more than matte panels are. Keep a lens cleaning cloth handy.
Thickness and weight. Implementing a touch layer on the screen’s face means a bit of additional material and circuitry. It’s minimal, but know that a touch versus a non-touch laptop will levy a slight penalty on both fronts—again, all things being equal.
You Pen? Stylus Considerations
Separate from simple tap, swipe, and pinch actions on the screen, pen support requires a touch-capable screen, and if sketching or handwritten note-taking are part of how you work, you’ll want to investigate the pen options available in a given touch-screen laptop.
Usually, it’s just the 2-in-1s that will offer them. Stylus types range from a simple passive stick, which is essentially a more precise surrogate for your fingertip, to an active pen, which has a built-in battery and will have click buttons on the pen and possibly support for pressure sensitivity.
Top of the line are true digital pens, which are active—meaning, they are powered by their own internal battery. Pens of this kind will include click buttons, pressure-sensitivity detection, angle detection, and possibly a digital “eraser” on the top. A prime example of the latter is Microsoft’s Surface Pen we mentioned earlier, which works with its line of detachable laptops.
If you go this route, also investigate the pen storage scheme. A laptop or convertible stylus is easy to lose in your bag or leave behind if it doesn’t have a niche to tuck into. Some laptop and 2-in-1 makers employ a magnetic “clip” that sticks the pen onto the side of the unit (the Surfaces are known for that), or in a few cases, provide a plastic bracket that may insert into a USB port.
Windows Ink, which was introduced in a 2016 update to Windows 10, can also be a compelling reason to investigate the stylus capabilities of a given touch-enabled laptop. With the introduction of Ink came support for Sticky Notes, Sketchpad, and Screen Sketch within the OS. With Sticky Notes, you can scrawl on virtual Post-It notes and have Cortana interpret relevant information from your scribbles, such as email addresses and phone numbers, and make them actionable. Sketchpad lets you do freeform drawing with basic tools, while Screen Sketch lets you annotate onscreen images freehand, great for UI designers, developers, or others who work with graphical elements that need feedback. Other pen-enabled apps appear in the Windows Ink Workspace, a pen-centric panel that you can pop up with an icon in your taskbar.
So, Which Touch-Screen Laptop to Buy?
That’s where our reviews come in. Our rankings above and below line up our current-favorite clamshells, detachables, rotating 2-in-1s, and Chromebooks that support touch. Note that if you find one you like and decide to order from an e-tailer, we strongly recommend that you double-check that the specific model you’re looking at (especially if it’s a configurable clamshell) actually does include the touch-screen option.
In the case of a few models in our ranking, the specific model may support a touch-screen option, but we may have reviewed a non-touch version and our online pricing links may point to that. Bear that in mind if you click through to an e-tailer.
Where To Buy
Best For Style-Minded Travelers Who Need to Present Often:
Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 (7390) —
Best For Heavy-Typing Business Travelers:
Lenovo ThinkPad X390 —
Best For Style-Minded Travelers Happy With Clamshell Designs:
Dell XPS 13 (9300) —
Best For Executives on the Road:
HP Elite Dragonfly —
Best For Sketchers, Note-Takers:
Microsoft Surface Pro 7 —
at Microsoft Store
Best For Creative Pros Who Can Use Two Screens:
Asus ZenBook Pro Duo —
Best For Travelers, Presenters Who Need Long Battery Life:
HP Spectre x360 13 (Late 2019) —
Best For Power-Seeking Creatives:
HP Spectre x360 15 (2019, AMOLED) —
Best For On-the-Go Professionals:
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga Gen 4 (2019) —
Best For Content Creators, Casual Gamers:
Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 (15-Inch) —
at Microsoft Store
Microsoft Windows 10
Pros: Improved Cortana voice-responsive digital assistant.
Faster start-up. Enhanced software and device ecosystem. Updated interface for Start menu.
Better gaming features.
Included progressive music, news, and video apps.
Cons: Now sports a hefty price-tag.
Bottom Line: Windows 10, known for being a free upgrade, takes the features of Windows 7 and 8 and blends them into a fast, feature-loaded operating system with excellent touch support and the Cortana digital assistant.
The latest update adds yet more polish.