How to Choose the Right Laptop
The evolution of laptops has always been driven by the push for thinner, lighter, and more power-efficient designs, and whatever the year, these demands coalesce into the perfect expressions of leading-edge laptop design: ultraportables.
What exactly defines this category? In general, ultraportables weigh 3 pounds or less, have screens 14 inches or smaller, use processors more powerful than the Intel Atom, and offer enough battery life to survive most of a workday off-plug. These systems are now faster than ever, are well-suited to travel, and come with a variety of features and display resolutions wide enough to fit anyone’s needs. You may have seen laptops of this breed referred to over the years as ultrabooks or streambooks, but those are primarily attempts to attach some branding to the same basic template of ultralight laptop. The design always comes back to the same foundational elements: thin, light, and long-lasting.
How Much Should You Spend on an Ultraportable?
Although ultraportable laptops as a class may look sleek, quite a few key differentiators distinguish models from one another. The first to consider is price. There’s a huge difference between a system that costs $400 and one that costs $1,300, even if they boast the same brand name, and similar looks and features.
At the low end are entry-level systems, which generally run $500 or less. For many casual users, this is the only price range worth looking at, but there are some caveats to keep in mind. The processing power, display resolution, and storage capacities are usually lower on inexpensive ultraportables, as they’re built for basic web browsing, word processing, and media viewing purposes, and the construction can be on the flimsy side.
Entry-level ultraportables make solid systems for younger family members to use for homework or watching movies around the house, since they are both highly portable and relatively inexpensive. Value is a big factor in this category, as plenty of budget ultraportables can entice you with a low price. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself let down by a system that’s only a bargain because its manufacturer cut too many corners.
That said, the spec floor has risen in this category. As faster base parts become less expensive and more common, cheaper systems with decent build quality are more capable of completing day-to-day tasks. They’ve become fairly competent if you’re looking to perform simple tasks such as web browsing and word processing on the go.
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Midrange systems are better, but by definition they also cost more, ranging from about $500 to $1,250. Materials and specs that were once exclusive to high-end ultraportables are now the norm in midrange systems, including features such as full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) or even QHD (2,560-by-1,440) resolutions, touch displays, and metal chassis. Battery life and storage have improved, as well, making it easier to get better bang for your buck in this price range. You’ll still have to compromise in one or two areas such as storage capacity, port options, and resolution compared with the high-end systems, but for most shoppers, this price range represents the best mix of price and performance.
At the top of the price ladder are premium systems, which we categorize as anything costing $1,250 or more. With these high-end systems come choice materials, cutting-edge components and features, and top performance that will speed up photo editing and other productivity tasks. Here, you’ll also see 3K- or 4K-resolution displays, quality sound hardware (often from familiar brands like Bang & Olufsen), spacious and speedy storage, and other exciting features, all while the system’s form factor remains slim and compact. This pricing tier yields the best overall user experience, the most features and port options, and the fastest internal hardware, but not every premium system is created equal, and when you’re spending this much money, do you really want second best? If you have the budget, and will be spending a lot of time on your laptop, it may very well pay to invest in quality.
Choose Your Power Wisely: Processors in Ultraportables
For smooth performance and a good user experience, you’ll want to be choosy about your processor. Even in a less-expensive system, the average processor is more capable than ever of handling routine tasks, but if you need speed, select carefully. At the top of the heap are Intel’s Core i5 and Core i7 processors, which can be found in midrange and premium models. Most ultraportables from 2019 use Intel’s 9th Generation Core CPUs, while the newer releases have moved to Intel’s latest 10th Generation Core processors, divided into “Ice Lake” and “Comet Lake” varieties. Some 8th Generation ultraportables are still out there, but most have shifted to 9th, if not 10th Generation chips by Q2 2020. The CPU is typically paired with 8GB of memory, though some premium systems boast up to 16GB of RAM. The processors in ultraportables will usually be classified as U-series CPUs, which are designed for lean laptop designs.
A few middle-of-the-pack models will opt for processors in Intel’s power-saving Y series. These chips, from the Core families, are identified by the “Y” in their model number and are capable but ultra-low-powered, intended to bridge the gap between U-series chips and the Intel Atom processors you find in inexpensive Windows tablets and extreme budget laptops. With 8th Generation Core, you’ll find Core i5 and i7 Y-series chips, as well as one that still holds the previous generation’s “Core m3” designation; Intel has been downplaying Core M of late. (In earlier generations, Core m3, m5, and m7 were synonymous with extremely low-power CPUs and the Y series.)
The design of a Y-series CPU allows for processing power that approaches that of Core i5 chips, but with lower power consumption and often no need for cooling fans. This results in slimmer laptop designs, quieter operation (in some designs, no fans mean no fan noise), and longer battery life, often extending past 8 hours. Y-series systems are a good choice if you want the most portable ultraportable. They aren’t usually less expensive, though, and you may find yourself paying more than you would for a machine that’s more powerful, but also slightly thicker and heavier. Many of the faster, higher-end ultraportables will opt for the U-series chips regardless, which also focus on power saving. You’ll have to look at some machines in person to find the right balance of physical design and performance to fit your needs.
Aside from Intel’s near-ubiquitous CPUs, you will see a few less-expensive systems featuring processors from other manufacturers, primarily AMD and in a couple of cases, Qualcomm. While AMD chips support the same range of uses as Intel chips, from web browsing to video editing and gaming, they aren’t remotely as common in ultraportables. This may change given the promising early returns from AMD’s latest Ryzen CPUs in other categories, but we haven’t tested any in ultraportables yet. If you aren’t sure about the model used in the system you’re considering, take a look at our reviews (particularly the results of our benchmark tests) to see how it will fare in real-world conditions.
Finally, at the low end are Intel’s Pentium and Celeron processors. These budget processors are inexpensive and energy-efficient, but power users may find themselves frustrated by slow performance, and lesser RAM allotments (as low as 4GB) concurrent with extreme-budget designs. You will definitely feel a difference in speed, but you can probably make do if you’re a casual user and not multitasking much.
Pay Attention to Graphics: The GPU Factor
Also important: the graphics processor, also known as the GPU. Almost all ultraportables rely on integrated graphics, such as Intel’s UHD Graphics 620 and 630; this is graphics-acceleration silicon that is part of the CPU, not a dedicated chip of its own. This level of horsepower is fine for casual (often web-based) or old games, streaming media, and maybe editing the odd photo, but not for substantial gaming.
If you want to do more with media and perhaps do some gaming, you’ll need a discrete graphics chip, like the mobile versions of Nvidia’s GTX and RTX graphics cards. These GPUs require more power and cooling, and as such are generally only seen in gaming laptops or bulkier desktop-replacement notebooks. There are an increasing number of exceptions that are both portable and game-ready, however, like the Razer Blade, but by and large the most travel-friendly systems are not suited to gaming. Don’t expect the integrated graphics to suffice for playing much more than a few less-demanding games on lower detail settings.
Space Is Everything: Assessing Storage
Speedy hardware is all well and good, but you also need somewhere to keep all your digital stuff. For almost all ultraportables now, this means a solid-state drive (SSD). These compact, flash-based storage devices are weight savers and immune to data loss from shock or bumps because they don’t have any moving parts, which is ideal for systems doing a lot of traveling. Increasingly, SSDs use a form factor called M.2, which is smaller than your traditional 2.5-inch SATA drive—and smaller connectors allow smaller designs, which makes them a perfect fit for an ultraportable. Increasingly, these M.2-connected drives use a PCI Express (PCIe) bus connection for faster data transfer, and thus faster overall performance.
A 256GB capacity for SSD storage is very common on midrange and high-end ultraportables. While it would be nice to have a bit more room than that, boosting SSD capacity still tends to be pretty pricey, so the cost can jump up fast if you opt for a larger 512GB or 1TB option if the manufacturer offers it. A 256GB drive will do the job for many users, though, especially since you likely won’t be storing large game installations or media projects on this type of computer.
While SSDs are the most common storage format for ultraportables, you will see two other storage options used on less-expensive systems. A few use an embedded MultiMediaCard (eMMC), a form of solid-state storage sometimes identified as an SSD in product specs but actually flash memory like the kind used on memory cards. As such, it’s slower and a lot smaller in capacity (32GB to 64GB) than a standard SSD. You’ll generally find this type of storage only on the very cheapest laptops.
Finally, some systems still use good, old-fashioned spinning hard drives. These drives are less expensive than SSDs, and they offer substantially more room for your files for the money—you will often see hard drives with capacities of 500GB or more. You won’t get the same speedy performance as you do with an SSD, but there’s something to be said for lots of storage space. Some laptops pair a small SSD with a larger hard drive, but that’s seldom seen among ultraportables. And increasingly, given thin designs, most makers of ultraportables are phasing out bulky hard drives altogether.
Picking Your Pixels: Ultraportable Displays
Let’s go from what’s inside a typical ultraportable to the most visible aspect of the exterior: the screen.
Ultraportables’ displays come in an increasingly varied array of resolutions, from now-humdrum standard high definition (1,366 by 768 pixels) in budget models to full HD (1,920 by 1,080) and even Ultra HD or 4K (3,840 by 2,160). Lower-resolution screens are most frequently found in entry-level systems simply because they’re the least-expensive option. They work well enough for reading and typing text, and YouTube often defaults to something lower than full HD, anyway, so less discerning users can get by just fine. But a 1,366-by-768-pixel screen is best avoided here in 2020 if you can help it.
Full HD (often referred to as 1080p) screens are what you should expect on many budget systems, all midrange models, and some premium ultraportables. The 1080p display is becoming standard enough that even some cheaper options now offer them, a far cry from the situation just a few years ago, when 1,366 by 768 was the norm. These displays offer support for full-1080p video playback and are better equipped for multitasking, since you can fit more readable text and two side-by-side windows onto a 13- or 14-inch 1080p screen. This is a sharp, true HD resolution, ideal for most daily use.
Ultra HD is currently the resolution of choice for the highest-end ultraportables. As 4K screens have four times the resolution of a full HD display, you can fit a lot onto them. The sheer number of pixels requires more power, however, and 4K-equipped systems usually see a significant drop in battery life compared with similar full HD systems. There’s also the question of content. Although 4K TVs and displays are becoming increasingly common, there still aren’t a lot of places to stream 4K video (this is slowly improving on some streaming services), and gaming in 4K is definitely way more than any ultraportable can support. At present, these displays are best suited to uses like photo and video editing, but they do look stunning.
Some premium laptops now use QHD or QHD+ screens, which are resolutions that fall between HD and 4K. They represent a nice middle ground between expensive, power-draining 4K resolutions and sharp, better-than-HD picture quality, so you should be happy to see QHD or QHD+ on a laptop you’re considering buying.
The other feature to watch for is support for touch input. While touch-capable displays were uncommon just a few years ago, they’re now much more a thing in ultraportables, even in the entry-level and business-laptop categories. Windows 10 includes some baked-in gesture controls and touch-friendly features, which helps promote its use. Touch technology is also useful on a bus or train where you may not have a mouse, making it a good match for ultraportables. Even if you don’t regularly use touch in your day-to-day computing and don’t plan to incorporate it, it may be worth having just so you don’t regret the decision not to get it down the road.
Two Laptops in One: Convertibles and Detachables
More and more ultraportables are being released as what we call “convertible hybrids,” or 2-in-1s. Some 2-in-1s rotate around the hinge, while others have a separate keyboard base that detaches from the screen. In the former case, these mash-up machines let you enjoy both laptop and tablet functionality, thanks to hinges and swiveling joints that let you bend the display back around to use without a keyboard. These systems don’t come apart the way the latter detachable kind do. More and more manufacturers are adopting the rotating non-detachable design.
Rotating-hinge convertible devices are laptops first, but they aren’t limited to traditional clamshell designs. Because they feature specialized hinges and touch screens, you can also prop them up like a tent, or turn the keyboard facedown so the screen is better positioned for watching a movie or giving a presentation. While convertibles are a category in their own right, the ability to shape-shift naturally lends itself to making a good travel laptop, so you’ll see that some of our highest-rated ultraportable laptops are convertibles, too. (See our guide to the best 2-in-1 convertible laptops and detachables.)
A Value Option: Lightweight Chromebooks
Depending on what you do with your computer, you might find a Chromebook to be one of the best values in ultraportables. A Chromebook is a bare-bones laptop that runs Google’s Chrome OS, and thus limits you to using web apps and, as of models released in the last couple of years, Android apps too. (You’ll want to check for that, though.)
This means that you won’t have access to traditional Windows software, so if that’s central to how you work and play, a Chromebook isn’t for you. But if you use a web-based email client such as Gmail or Outlook.com for communications, rely on Google Drive for doing your work, and spend most of your time watching videos on YouTube or playing web games, and you don’t expect your needs to change, chances are you’ll get along just fine with a Chromebook. And considering that computers of this type can be extraordinarily affordable (with most costing $500 or less), you could outfit your family with several Chromebooks for what you’d pay for just one high-end Windows 10 ultraportable.
So, Which Ultraportable Should I Buy?
With ultraportables available now that are thinner, lighter, and more powerful than ever, there’s something in this vibrant class of laptops to suit everyone’s usage habits and travel needs. Below are 10 of the top ultraportables we’ve tested. We refresh the list constantly to include the newest products, but because of the large number of laptops we review every year, not every top-rated product makes the cut.
Dell Inspiron 14 7000 (7490)
Pros: Packs 14-inch screen in 13-inch chassis.
Thin and light magnesium alloy enclosure.
Intel “Comet Lake” CPU is powerful and efficient.
Nearly around-the-clock battery life.
Cons: Screen could be brighter.
Touchpad a bit noisy when clicked.
Bottom Line: The Dell Inspiron 14 7000’s enviable blend of performance, screen size, and portability unseats the company’s near-legendary XPS 13 as our favorite ultraportable.
Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 (7390, 2019)
Pros: Excellent design and build quality.
Intel 10th Gen “Ice Lake” CPU and graphics.
Wi-Fi 6 support.
Long battery life.
Bundled USB adapter.
Cons: Shallow keyboard.
No USB Type-A ports.
Balky fingerprint reader.
Bottom Line: With sterling build quality, a brilliant display, and an Intel “Ice Lake” CPU with real graphics pep, the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 is tops among convertible laptops.
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 7 (2019)
Pros: Thin, light, and very sturdy. ThinkPad-typical comfortable keyboard. Long battery life, as configured with 1080p screen. Many screen options. Optional Intel vPro. Full-size HDMI output.
Cons: Small touchpad. Requires (not-included) Ethernet adapter.
Bottom Line: With a sturdy, lightweight carbon-fiber exterior, an excellent keyboard, and plenty of security and manageability features, Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 7 is the best laptop you can buy for your business.
Acer Swift 5
Pros: Unbelievably light for its screen size.
Sunny 1080p screen.
Good battery life.
Cons: No Thunderbolt 3 port or SD card slot.
Screen is reflective.
Bottom Line: The lightest 15.6-inch laptop the world has ever seen, Acer’s 2.2-pound Swift 5 is a design landmark whose portability outweighs its minor imperfections.
Apple MacBook Air (2020)
Pros: Improved keyboard action and feel. Sleek, lightweight design. Multiple color options. Long battery life. Reasonably priced, for a Mac.
Cons: As ever, no touch screen. Limited port selection. Lackluster raw computing performance. No support for Wi-Fi 6.
Bottom Line: If you’re a macOS fan who primarily uses a laptop to write and browse the web, the 2020 Apple MacBook Air’s redesigned keyboard and lower price make it easy to recommend.
Apple MacBook Pro 13-Inch (2019)
Pros: Thin, light, and stylish. Excellent trackpad. Long battery life. Brilliant display. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Cons: Relatively expensive, even in starting config. Limited connectivity for peripherals in lower-end models. Polarizing keyboard lacks vertical travel.
Bottom Line: The 13-inch MacBook Pro is Apple’s best ultraportable laptop, thanks to stylish looks, an excellent touchpad, and long battery life.
Dell XPS 13 (9300)
Pros: Sleek styling
Excellent 16:10 display
Narrow screen bezels
Long battery life
Cons: Expensive as configured
Limited port selection
Bottom Line: The 2020 version of the Dell XPS 13 is an excellent ultraportable laptop, with head-turning looks and plenty of power for everyday tasks.
HP Elite Dragonfly
Pros: Extremely light weight.
Exceptional build quality.
Supports Intel vPro.
USB Type-A and HDMI ports.
Standard three-year warranty.
Cons: Frequent fan noise.
Uses older-generation CPUs.
Only available in dark blue.
Bottom Line: The HP Elite Dragonfly is a no-compromises, no-nonsense business laptop that manages to stay under 2.5 pounds while including a 360-degree convertible hinge.
HP Spectre x360 13 (Late 2019)
Pros: Compact footprint. Potent Intel “Ice Lake” CPU and Iris Plus graphics. Optional AMOLED screen. Well-positioned power button. Wi-Fi 6. Digital pen included. Long battery life.
Cons: Chassis is thicker than its predecessor’s. Clumsy touchpad. Cumbersome USB port.
Bottom Line: Nifty design flourishes, strong performance and battery life, and a reasonable price make the latest HP Spectre x360 13 a first-class convertible laptop.
Razer Blade Stealth 13 (Late 2019)
Pros: Thin 13-inch laptop genuinely capable of 1080p gaming. Premium construction, including top-notch touchpad. Admirably quiet while gaming. Good battery life. USB-C with Thunderbolt 3 support.
Cons: Premium price. Not the fastest on CPU-intensive media tasks.
Bottom Line: Combining the 13-inch Razer Blade Stealth with a gaming-ready GPU makes for a very appealing hybrid of sleek ultraportable and capable gaming laptop. There’s nothing else quite like it on the market right now.
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