The best laptops: Ultrabooks, budget PCs, 2-in-1s, and more

Our top picks feature the best tech advances in portable PCs, from new CPUs and GPUs to new materials.

laptops Rob Schultz

It’s a great time to be shopping for a laptop. Models sporting Intel’s new 8th-generation Core i5 and Core i7 mobile processors started appearing in late 2017, promising a dramatic leap in performance in thin-and-light convertibles, 2-in-1s, hybrids, and traditional laptops. One of the first out of the gate is the HP Spectre x360 13t(currently about $1,250 from hp.com), which is now our best convertible laptop.

Updated 01/23/2018: The story just keeps getting better, though. At CES, Intel unveiled its new Core H-series parts: 8th-generation, quad-core Core i5 and Core i7 chips, married with what AMD calls the Radeon RX Vega M GPU. That’s right: discrete graphics on a mobile chip, thanks to a surprise partnership between the two longtime rivals. Intel has yet to commit to a ship date more specific than Q1 2018, however.

Not to be outdone, AMD announced everything at CES except the kitchen sink, seemingly, including its own mobile chip, also with Vega in the name. Ryzen Vega Mobile promises high frame-rate AAA gaming in compact form factors, using an RX 580 GPU with its own memory. AMD promises we’ll see these chips sometime in 2018.

While we wait for these new chips to come out, there’s still plenty to love among current models. We have new picks for a faster budget gaming laptop  (Dell’s Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming Laptop, currently about $980 on dell.com) and a portable gaming laptop (Gigabyte’s Aero 15X, currently $2,199 on Amazon) with good battery life.

Other recent reviews include the Acer Swift 1Origin EVO 15-SAcer Predator Triton 700PowerSpec 1710 and 1510, Lenovo Miix 520HP Spectre 13, and Microsoft Surface Book 2. Keep reading for our top picks in every category.

Best ultrabook laptop

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—but while you’re at it, make it faster too. Yup, Dell basically added a Kevin Durant to its Golden State Warriors this year with the newest XPS 13.

Dell basically drops in a game-changing 8th generation quad-core into its award-winning laptop and goes to town.  The rest is the same: a quality aluminium exterior and carbon-fiber top, and that wonderfully compact, bezel-free 13-inch screen.

Yes, we get tired of writing that the XPS 13 is the “best one yet” but in this case, it’s true in every sense of the word.

Kaby Lake Dell XPS 13 Gordon Mah Ung

The Kaby Lake version of the Dell XPS 13 maintains that balance between portability, compact size, and performance that we like so much.

Our only lingering complaint is the small keyboard, but overall, you can’t lose with the newest XPS 13. It’s a truly compact ultrabook that punches out of its class. 

[$800–$2,039 MSRP; $1199 MSRP as reviewed]

Runner-up

If looks are more your thing, the HP Spectre 13.3 (available at HP.com) certainly has a distinct profile: It’s one of the thinnest ultrabooks around. For anyone coveting the streamlined experience of Apple’s 12-inch MacBook, this 13-inch notebook will bring you close while providing superior performance.

You might expect such a skinny laptop to sport a lower-wattage Core i3 or i5 processor, but HP fits a 15 watt Core i5 or i7 processor into this Spectre. That puts it on par with other, chunkier top-tier ultrabooks, like the XPS 13. Combined with its 256GB M.2 SSD, it runs smoothly and swiftly during typical office drone work (word processing, spreadsheet editing, web browsing, etc), without any heavy throttling of performance during CPU-intensive tasks. HP also made the ports count: While there are just a few, you get not one but two Thunderbolt 3 ports, as well as a USB-C port.

The drawbacks of this modern and sleek notebook are its battery life, which is modest due to its smaller battery, and its wider frame. (The Spectre 13.3’s hardware and cooling configuration requires a certain amount of space—HP’s engineering is impressive but can’t defy the laws of physics.) It’s for those reasons that we prefer the Dell XPS 13, but this laptop is still a very fine companion.

[$1,170–$1,250 MSRP; $1,250 MSRP as reviewed]

Best convertible laptop

While Apple and Dell are content to show up to dance in the same dress year after year, you won’t have that from HP. Just two years removed from its original launch, the Spectre x360 13t (available at HP.com) has now gone through no fewer than three major redesigns. The latest, of course, is the best and adds a fingerprint reader, a nifty rechargeable pen, and of course, an 8th-generation Core i7 CPU too.

In raw performance it doesn’t quite keep up with Dell’s XPS 13 but this is a convertible and most convertibles give up a little performance for the ability to work as a tablet. What matters more is that it leaves the 7th-generation Spectre x360 13t in the dust on CPU heavy workloads.

dsc00032 edited 1 Adam Patrick Murray

The best part is battery life doesn’t suffer (it’s still damned good) and it’s even a couple of ounces lighter to boot. HP doesn’t make the faux pas, or is that port pas, and keeps a USB Type A port along with two Thunderbolt 3 ports that support external graphics.

So yeah, it’s easy to see why the Spectre x360 13t is our go to convertible laptop and the one everyone is chasing right now.

[$1,090–$1,600 MSRP; $1,100 MSRP as last reviewed]

Runner-up

Samsung’s Notebook 9 Pro impressed us when we reviewed it. Compared to other models we’ve tested recently that offer a high-resolution touchscreen display, a 360-degree hinge, a cool metal chassis, and even pen support, it’s carefully designed to offer a little bit of everything, with a few standout features: a discrete Radeon RX 540 GPU, an integrated S-Pen with special Samsung applications as well as Windows 10 inking compatibility, and impressively long battery life. Given its good overall showing, the Samsung Notebook 9 Pro is a laptop many people can like, including entry-level gamers.

[$930 to $1,400 MSRP]

Best budget convertible laptop

For years, Asus has offered great value in its notebooks, and the ZenBook Flip (available at Amazon) is a strong example of its affordable, high-performing offerings. For $700, you get a fully convertible notebook that can handle everyday tasks with ease.

In fact, its pricing and specs are virtually identical to our favorite budget ultrabook, the Asus UX305 (now discontinued). Inside you get a Core m3-6Y30, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD, and outside there’s a 1920x1080 IPS screen with an anti-glare finish.

Yet despite the modest CPU, the Asus ZenBook Flip is fairly peppy. In our benchmarks, it actually outperformed faster (and newer) Core m5 and m7 processors in rival machines during short CPU-intensive tasks. Its storage drive is no slouch, either.

This laptop is slender and lightweight, too. It measures 0.54 inches thick and 2.8 pounds, which keeps it in line with more expensive ultraportables. You’re not saddled with chunkier dimensions or extra weight in exchange for a lower price.

A couple of compromises do exist: There’s no backlighting on the keyboard, and the trackpad is a tad springy. Still, it’s a good deal in a price range that usually nets you thick, ugly, and plastic.

[$699 MSRP (256GB model); $749 MSRP (512GB model) as reviewed]

Best hybrid laptop

That a Surface Pro laptop is the winner of this category shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, Microsoft gave legs to the concept of hybrid tablet/laptop devices (also known as “2-in-1” laptops)—the Surface series is really an evolutionary step beyond the typical “convertible” devices that physically separate from the keyboard to run independently as tablets.

What may be surprising is that our best pick remains the Surface Pro 4 (available at Amazon), even given the launch of the Surface Pro. (This Apple-style of naming hides the fact that the new Surface tablet is akin to a Surface Pro 5.) However, given the Surface Pro’s performance throttling and higher price tag, we think the Surface Pro 4 offers the better mix of value and performance while it’s still available.

Sure, Surface clones have arisen that are also light yet still very capable, like Lenovo’s Miix 700 and HP’s Spectre x2. But we like this hybrid tablet better than its cheaper rivals for its top-rated display, great performance, and the fact that its keyboard and trackpad are miles ahead of competing designs.

The only caveat: It’s expensive—and the essential keyboard adds $130 to the price. (Nope, it’s not included.) That means the midrange Surface Pro 4 with 256GB of storage, 8GB of RAM, and a Core i5 is a $1,430 computer. Ouch. Hopefully, prices will get cut now that the new Surface Pro has arrived.

In any case, if you value portability—it really is laptop performance in a tablet—and will actually use it as a tablet on occasion, you’d be hard-pressed to beat the Surface Pro 4 right now.

[$899–$1,799 MSRP; $1,430 MSRP as reviewed with optional keyboard cover]

Runner-up

Samsung’s follow-up to its first 2-in-1 (available at Amazon) doesn’t take any extreme turns off the established path. It’s still incredibly thin and lightweight, and it offers an even more stunning AMOLED screen that supports HDR.

But it’s still not quite our favorite convertible, and that’s partially due to Samsung’s decision to sell both a small and a big version of the Galaxy Book. The more affordable, lower-power Core m3 model has a smaller 10.6-inch screen. If you want a 12-inch screen, you’ll have to jump to a starting price of $1,130.

Despite these two tougher choices, the Galaxy Book is still compelling. It offers solid performance (including over 10 hours of video playback on the 12-inch Core i5 model) and addresses some of our complaints with the Galaxy TabPro S. You now get two USB-C ports, and the keyboard secures tightly to the tablet. And of course, it has that gorgeous display.

So while it may no longer have a huge advantage in price, Samsung still manages to hold its own with a few compelling features. Particularly the included pen—Microsoft’s equivalent accessory is a $100 optional purchase.

[$630 or $1,130 MSRP base price; $1,300 MSRP as reviewed]

Best gaming laptop

The arrival of Nvidia’s Pascal-based mobile GPUs transformed high-end gaming laptops. These days, getting desktop-equivalent performance is just the natural course of things, and you no longer have to pay through the nose for it, either.

Our current pick for best gaming laptop is the Alienware 17 (available at Dell.com)—it comes equipped with a GTX 1080 mobile GPU and a 17.3-inch 2560x1440, 120Hz G-Sync panel, and it starts at $2,300. For that chunk of cash, you’ll get smooth, high frame-rate gaming at a previously unprecedented level. Our review unit posted frame rates over 150 fps with everything maxed out in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and over 100 fps in Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Sure, this machine isn’t as portable as other gaming laptops sporting Nvidia’s new Max-Q mobile GPUs—but Alienware gives you full 1080 performance all the time, with a better and more consistent frame rate than those lighter notebooks. 

The Alienware 17 does have a couple of drawbacks: Its fans are loud, and its battery life is average. It’s also huge. However, these aspects that shouldn’t bother people in the market for a true desktop replacement.

[$1,300–$3,650 MSRP; $2,700 MSRP as reviewed]

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