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
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Best budget gaming laptop

You no longer have to be P. Diddy to be able to afford a gaming laptop that has some chops. 

The new Inspiron 15 7000 (available at Dell.com) improves on the previous version by adding a GeForce GTX 1060 Max-Q chip (the previous model topped out at a GeForce GTX 1050 Ti). 

No, the GTX 1060 Max-Q isn’t quite as fast as the non-power-saving version but it’s really, really close. Close enough that when you’re getting a GPU that used to only come in laptops in the $1,500 range, you won’t mind.

That’s because while you’re getting a lot more GPU from the new Inspiron, you’re only paying about a $100 more than you did over the last model.

That price includes the GTX 1060 Max-Q, a quad-core Core i5, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. The RAM and SSD are easily upgradable and you can even drop in a hard drive.

There’s still a catch on the new Inspiron 15 7000: the display. The original Inspiron 15 7000 featured a downright-ugly TN display. Dell has since upgraded that to an IPS panel, which is also used in this version. It’s better, but for those who expect all IPS panels to be wonderful, that adjective doesn’t apply here.

But hey, you are getting a GPU capable of running most modern games without turning down the image quality. To a gamer on a budget, that’s the most important part.

[$800–$1,400 MSRP; $950 MSRP as reviewed]

Best portable gaming laptop

Believe it or not, people do use a gaming laptop for things other than gaming. And for those who care about battery life but still want performance when plugged in, it’s going to be hard to beat Gigabyte’s Aero 15X. It’s essentially an upgraded version of the Gigabyte Aero 15 with a GeForce GTX 1070 Max-Q GPU. Sure, cynics will say it’s really just a GeForce GTX 1065 but it’s actually more like, well, a GeForce GTX 1068— so there.

gigabyte aero 15x a front edited 1 Adam Patrick Murray

Gigabyte’s updated Aero 15X takes our top pick for a gaming laptop that can actually be used, well, like a laptop.

The real magic of the Aero 15X is the use of a giant battery, which gives it actually decent battery life in non-gaming use. By “non-gaming” we mean browsing, office drone and other not-fun tasks—like any laptop with a GPU, once you crank it up, don’t expect more than an hour or two of life.

There are sacrifices to be made for that battery life—there’s no G-Sync, there’s no high-res 4K panel and, well, the audio could be louder, but when you consider that you’re getting GeForce GTX 1070 Max-Q performance in a sub-5-pound laptop, who can complain?

[$2,200 as reviewed]

Runner-up

Nvidia’s Pascal GPUs haven’t just put the traditional beefy gaming laptops on a par with desktop machines. They’ve also made the term “portable gaming laptop” no longer an oxymoron. Put a GTX 1060 into a laptop and you have a capable machine that can survive away from a wall socket—and won’t break your back while carrying it, either.

Now, at five pounds, the Alienware 13 (available at Dell.comis a little heavy for its size—but it’s worth toting around those extra ounces. The model we reviewed packed a gorgeous OLED 2560x1440 display, a quad-core i7 processor, and a VR-capable Nvidia GTX 1060 for flawless 1080p gaming. (Yes, you can play at 2560x1440, too, if you crank down some of the settings...or buy an Alienware Amplifier and pop in a beefier video card.) 

Its extra weight comes from its incredibly sturdy and solid chassis, built to withstand hot climates and gamers who react physically to the highs and lows of gameplay. For some, that’ll be a drawback. But it’s hard to hold the Alienware 13’s design against it, especially after experiencing the pure luxury of its OLED screen: Gaming on it makes the best LCD panels seem pixelated and washed out.

While performance is a hair under rival machines like the MSI GS63VR, the difference is almost negligble—just one or two frames less per second in our Tomb Raider and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor benchmarks. If you can splurge on this version of the Alienware 13, we say do it. From its slick design to its performance, battery life, and OLED display, it’s exceptional in every metric we usually examine.

[$2,099 MSRP as reviewed]

Best luxury laptop

There’s no way to describe Microsoft’s Surface Book (available at Microsoft.com) as anything but a luxury item. The configuration you want—the one with the GPU under the keyboard—isn’t even available until you fork over $1,650. But what you get is glorious.

Start with the beautiful, high-resolution 13.5-inch screen, a discrete GeForce option, Skylake dual-core and exceptional battery life. That you can remove the screen to use as a tablet—err, clipboard—with the included pen is just a major bonus.

Performance in general is near the top of the heap, particularly in the Core i7 model that we reviewed. On graphics loads, including video-accelerated encoding, it can’t be touched by anything in its class.

Those who can afford it are going to get what they want: a beautiful laptop that’ll probably start conversations in the first-class cabin as you fly from Dubai to London.

[$1,499–$3,199 MSRP; $3,199 MSRP as reviewed]

Best high-end Chromebook

While our former favorite is still a really nice Chromebook, HP’s Chromebook 13 (available from HP.com) literally outshines it with a beautiful-looking laptop that no one will mind showing off, and power to spare.  

It’s also the first serious competition to Google’s Chromebook Pixel flagship (specifically, the second-generation, 2015 model). Our review unit, the third-highest of four SKUs, priced at $819, performed on a par with the $999 Chromebook Pixel in our tests, plus it has a higher-resolution display.

The only thing about the Chromebook 13 that might be less than outstanding is the battery life, which fell well below HP’s spec in our tests, though it’s still pretty good. We’ve also heard complaints about the trackpad’s responsiveness, though we didn’t notice it on our review unit.

[$499–$1039 MSRP; $819 as reviewed]

Best budget Chromebook

We have low-end Chromebooks to thank for bringing web productivity to the masses—budget-minded individuals, and of course, cost-conscious schools. Our pick for the best budget model is the Asus C202S (available at Amazon). Built to endure being shared among students, schlepped around classrooms, and shoved into backpacks, it’s more than ready to handle incidental wear and tear in your home environment.

asus chromebook c202s 3qtr Melissa Riofrio

Despite being a budget Chromebook, the C202S has a surprisingly nice keyboard.

Most Chromebooks in the $200 price range don’t feel up to much challenge, honestly, but you’d actually have to work a bit to rattle the C202S. The durable design also makes it nicer to use than most bargain models. What we love most: It has a surprisingly nice keyboard (whereas many low-cost Chromebooks’ slabs are awful), and it’s even water-resistant and repairable.

[$229 MSRP]

Best MacBook

Apple’s laptops might not be game-changing or cheap, but they don’t need to be. Paying more for the same kind of hardware you’d find in a Dell, HP, or Asus laptop is the entry fee for access to macOS and its integration with iOS devices.

Of the options available, we think that the $1,499 13-inch MacBook Pro (available at Apple.com) provides the best balance of value and performance. While the MacBook Air is more affordable, this MacBook Pro features faster hardware and a higher-resolution screen. It also has a far better keyboard than the smaller and lighter 12-inch MacBook.

macbook pro 13in no touchbar gray 2017 Apple

This particular model offers a 7th-generation 2.3GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory, 256GB of flash storage, Iris 540 integrated graphics, a 2560x1600 screen, and two Thunderbolt 3 ports. If you want Apple’s new Touch Bar as a feature, you’ll need to upgrade to the $1,799 model. The $1,799 model also offers a faster 3.1GHz Core i5 processor, a TouchID biometric sensor, and two additional Thunderbolt 3 ports.

The main downside to the MacBook Pro is that its ports are all USB Type-C connections. While they all support the Thunderbolt 3 spec and thus allow you to use them for DisplayPort output, charging, and data transfer, it does mean you’ll need to buy adapters or a dock to use USB-A devices and wired LAN connections.

You can read more about the MacBook Pro and its recent upgrades at our sister site, Macworld.

[$1,299–$2,799 MSRP; $2,799 as reviewed by Macworld.]

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