Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald
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Smartphones and tablets may have taken over much of people’s screen time, but there’s still a need for a “real” computer sometimes—and for most people, that means a laptop. For school and office work and things like spreadsheets and video editing, there’s no good substitute for a decent keyboard and a big screen. But which laptop you should get depends on how often you’ll use it, what you’ll use it for, and (of course) how much money you can afford to spend on it.
We’ve tested all of the most promising laptops over the past few years, from sleek ultrabooks to cheap Chromebooks to massive gaming laptops and beyond. Here are the best models you can buy in every category, along with advice on how to choose which type of laptop is right for you.
Mac or Windows (or something else)?
Many people already know whether they want a MacBook or a Windows laptop: If you’re already familiar with macOS or Windows, the easiest choice is to buy a computer that runs that operating system. That said, macOS and Windows have never been more similar, and most popular apps work just as well on either platform (or at least have alternatives that work similarly). If you’re interested in switching, it isn’t as big a deal as it used to be.
If you’re not tied to a platform, the biggest factor is how easy it is to get support. Do most of your family and friends use Macs? Do you have an Apple Store nearby? Do your most tech-savvy friends use Windows? If you’re a student, does your school have a help desk? Will your company’s IT department provide support for your home computer? If you’re not a self-sufficient techie and want the best service for your computer, buy a Mac, because you can take it to any Apple Store to get it fixed. No other computer maker provides that level of support. (If you are self-sufficient, go with what you like.)
Alternatively, as more tasks can be accomplished in a browser, without downloading and installing apps, you might not even need a traditional operating system—a Chromebook may be all you need.
For most people: The best ultrabook
Who these are for: Ultrabooks are the best laptops for most people, including college students, writers, office workers, and commuters. They have great keyboards, screens, battery life, and enough power to do everything most people need a computer for, and they’re thin, light, and portable. You should expect to pay between $900 and $1,300 for a great Windows ultrabook that will last you three to four years.
Where they fall short: Great ultrabooks cost more than most people want to spend on a laptop, even if they provide a better experience and last longer than cheaper alternatives. They also lack the processing power to play high-end games or do demanding tasks like professional video editing or 3D modeling. If you need a cheaper laptop or a more powerful one, check out our other picks below.
Why we like this one: The late-2017 non-touchscreen Dell XPS 13 (not to be confused with the “New XPS 13” or the XPS 13 2-in-1) is the best Windows ultrabook for most people because its battery life is among the longest we’ve seen, and it has a great 13.3-inch 1080p screen, a good keyboard and trackpad, and a healthy mix of new and old ports. It has the newest Intel processors, enough memory for most tasks, a 256 GB solid-state drive, and Thunderbolt 3. It weighs just 2.7 pounds and measures 12 by 7.9 by 0.6 inches, considerably smaller and lighter than most other 13-inch models.
You can read more about the Dell XPS 13 and our other picks in our guide to Windows ultrabooks.
The best Mac laptop
Who these are for: If you prefer macOS or need great tech support, Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Pros usually offer the best combination of size, weight, and speed. They’re great for the same people a Windows ultrabook is good for, including writers, office workers, commuters, and college students. Expect to pay around $1,500 for one with good enough specs and storage to last you three to four years.
Where they fall short: MacBooks are even more expensive than Windows ultrabooks—the 13-inch Pro usually costs around $400 more for similar specs. And like Windows ultrabooks, our recommended configuration for most people lacks the processing power to play demanding games or do professional 3D modeling.
Why we like this one: Our top pick among Apple laptops is the 2017 13-inch MacBook Pro (non-Touch Bar). It is more expensive than the Dell XPS 13, but it’s the least expensive Mac laptop that has powerful enough specs and all the features most people need—we recommend the configuration with an i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of storage. It offers great performance, one of the best trackpads around, a fantastic 2560×1600 Retina display with exceptional color accuracy, and two Thunderbolt 3 ports, all in a lightweight aluminum body. But the keyboard is failure prone, mediocre, and expensive to replace out of warranty. Apple has released new MacBook Pro models with improved keyboards, but we haven’t been able to test them yet.
If you need legacy ports or a less expensive Mac, take a look at our full guide to MacBook models.
The best cheap ultrabook
Who these are for: Most inexpensive Windows computers, especially those less than $500, are large and heavy and have poor battery life—among other flaws—but for a bit more money you can get an ultrabook that is almost as good as a thousand-dollar one. Budget ultrabooks are ideal for students in particular, and for anyone who can spend around $700 to $800 on a laptop.
Where they fall short: Budget ultrabooks tend to have bigger, creakier bodies and worse build quality than our top picks, and they can also have less responsive keyboards and trackpads, dimmer and less accurate screens, or fewer ports. But if you can find one that makes as few of these compromises as possible, you may be able to save a few hundred dollars.
Why we like this one: The Asus ZenBook UX331UA is a fantastic value. It costs around $400 less than our top ultrabook pick and has nearly identical specs except for a slower solid-state drive. It’s even a little lighter than the Dell XPS 13, despite being slightly bigger too. Battery life lasted just short of 7 hours in our tests; that’ll get you through a full workday, but it’s still more than an hour less than what we got from the XPS 13 and three hours less than the battery life of the Lenovo Yoga 920. This ZenBook’s trackpad is accurate and responsive, but its backlit keyboard is less enjoyable to type on than those of our other picks. It also lacks Thunderbolt 3 ports. But if you need a thin, light laptop for less than $1,000, you should definitely get the ZenBook UX331UA.
You can read more about the ZenBook UX331UA and how it compares to our other picks in our full guide to Windows ultrabooks.
The best Chromebook
Who these are for: Chromebooks are ideal for students and kids, but you should also consider one if you spend most of your computer time in a Web browser, if you’re on a tight budget, or if you already have a decent desktop PC. A good Chromebook can do almost anything a regular laptop can do—as long as it’s possible in a Web browser or via Android apps. And they’re cheap: A $400 Chromebook is faster, lighter, and sleeker than a $500 Windows laptop and blessed with better battery life. Plus, Chromebooks are secure and easy to maintain.
Where they fall short: Chromebooks can’t run iTunes, Photoshop, demanding games, or many of the programs you might be used to on your Mac or Windows computer. They don’t have much local storage, and they work best with a full-time Internet connection. But if you use Web-based email; can get by with Office 365, Google’s office Web apps, and Android app alternatives; and stream your music and movies over the Internet, a Chromebook should do just about everything you need it to.
Why we like this one: The Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA is fast enough for tab-heavy browser work, provides a full workday of battery life, and has a small, light body that feels more like a $1,000 Windows ultrabook than a $500 laptop. It also offers a comfortable backlit keyboard and a bright screen. It’s more expensive than we’d like, but unfortunately all good Chromebooks are expensive right now. We recommend getting the DHM4 version with a 12.5-inch 1920×1080 IPS touchscreen, an Intel Core m3-6Y30 processor, 4 GB of RAM, and a 64 GB solid-state drive. The Flip C302CA has very few ports—two USB-C ports, a microSD slot, and a headphone jack—so if you need to connect things to this Chromebook, you’ll need some adapters.
You can read our full guide to Chromebooks here.
The best budget Windows laptop
Who these are for: If you need a Windows laptop for home, work, or school—and you can’t afford to spend a lot—you can find a good one for $450 to $600. They’re ideal for K–12 students, people on a strict budget, and people who use their computers mostly at home in the evenings for schoolwork, Web browsing, managing a budget, or watching Netflix. Cheaper, lighter laptops tend to be too slow to recommend, while faster, sleeker ones usually cost too much.
Where they fall short: To get a laptop that doesn’t feel slow for a decent price, you’ll have to make a lot of compromises. Most budget laptops with decent specs have 15-inch screens, weigh 5 or 6 pounds, and have much shorter battery life compared with ultrabooks. And because some budget laptops use a traditional hard drive instead of a solid-state drive, they feel slower than an ultrabook with the same processor and memory.
Why we like this one: The Asus VivoBook Flip 14 has 64 GB of speedy eMMC storage, a good-enough Intel Core m3 processor, 4 GB of RAM, and a bright, 14-inch screen with a 1920×1080 resolution. Its keyboard and trackpad are comfortable and responsive, and while the case isn’t as we’d like, it’s still of better quality than other laptops in this price range. But the VivoBook Flip’s 4 GB of memory is a bit limiting, its battery won’t last a full day like the Chromebook’s, and like all Windows laptops, it comes with a lot of bloatware.
Choosing a budget laptop is tricky, because you’ll find dozens—even hundreds—of configurations at a given time. Their prices fluctuate constantly, too, and companies release and discontinue models with no warning. If our pick isn’t available, you should look for the following specs in an all-purpose budget laptop: seventh- or eighth-generation Intel Core i3 or i5 processor (they’ll have model names that start with i3 or i5 and end with 7xxx or 8xxx), 6 GB or 8 GB of RAM, a solid-state drive, and a 1366×768 or better screen resolution.
You can read our full guide to budget laptops here.
The best Windows laptop for photo and video editing
Who these are for: If you’re a creative professional and want a Windows laptop that’s more powerful than an ultrabook, with a larger, higher-resolution screen and a faster graphics processor, you should get what we call a power notebook. These are ideal if you’re an audio, video, or photo editor, or if you do a lot of 3D modeling, but you still want something fairly light and portable. They’re pricey, though, so expect to pay between $1,500 and $2,500.
Where they fall short: Laptops with color-accurate screens and enough power for creative professionals are expensive. Power notebooks also tend to have shorter battery life than ultrabooks, because of their larger, higher-resolution screens and power-hungrier processors. And because they’re thin and light enough to be reasonably portable, these laptops are often not as easy to upgrade as chunkier business or gaming laptops.
Why we like this one: The Dell XPS 15 has a powerful processor and graphics card, and its screen has the best out-of-the-box color accuracy and widest color gamut of any Windows laptop for creative professionals that we tested. Plus at 14.1 by 9.3 by 0.7 inches and 4.5 pounds, it’s light and portable (for a 15-inch laptop), and it has a comfortable keyboard and an accurate trackpad. The configuration we recommend has a 3840×2160 display, a 2.8 GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ processor, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 with 4 GB VRAM, a 512 GB solid-state drive, and 16 GB of RAM. Our pick also has all the necessary ports and connections: Thunderbolt 3, HDMI, two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot, and a lock slot. We recommend configuring the XPS 15 with a fingerprint reader for faster logins.
Dell released an updated version of the XPS 15 with an upgraded 4K panel, Intel’s eighth-generation processors (in Core i5, Core i7, and Core i9 configurations), and a new graphics processor. We’ll be testing the new model and updating our guide soon.
You can read more about these options in our full guide to power notebooks.
The best MacBook for photo and video editing
Who these are for: If you need a Mac for professional creative work such as audio, video, or photo editing, Apple’s 15-inch MacBook Pros offer larger screens, faster processors, and more powerful graphics processors than the 13-inch models. Expect to pay at least $2,500 for one with enough memory and storage to last three or four years.
Where they fall short: The 15-inch MacBook Pro is even more expensive than our Windows laptop for creative professionals. And Apple’s latest MacBooks have removed common ports like USB-A, DisplayPort, and HDMI, so you’ll have to pay even more for dongles and adapters to connect your peripherals.
Why we like this one: If you need a Mac for creative work, Apple’s 2017 15-inch MacBook Pro is the best option. The MacBook Pro’s 15.4-inch 2880×1800 Retina display was imperceptibly more color-accurate than the Dell XPS 15’s, and its screen reproduced more of the sRGB and DCI-P3 color gamuts; it has the best display and trackpad we’ve used on a laptop. But it has a shallow keyboard, it lacks older but still common ports, and it’s expensive. We recommend the model with a 2.8 GHz quad-core 7th-generation Intel Core i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, 512 GB of solid-state storage, and a Radeon Pro 560 dedicated graphics processor.
You can read more about these options in our full guide to power notebooks.
The best gaming laptop
Who these are for: If you want a laptop that can play the latest games with decent settings at high frame rates, then a high-end gaming laptop is the way to go. Expect to pay $1,750 or more for one. They’re ideal for anyone who travels frequently and doesn’t want a desktop, including deployed soldiers, college students, truckers, and the like.
Where they fall short: Gaming laptops need to be huge and heavy to make room for powerful components and proper cooling, and they also have abysmal battery life. And they’re expensive: A $1,500 desktop computer is much more powerful and upgradable than a $3,000 gaming laptop; meanwhile, a $1,000 ultrabook will handle nongaming tasks just as well as a gaming laptop at one-third the weight and four times the battery life, with much better build quality.
Why we like this one: Our current favorite gaming laptop is the Acer Predator 17 G9-793-79V5, because it offers the best performance for the price without any major flaws—it’ll play most modern games on ultra settings, and it can handle virtual reality, too. The Predator 17 stays cool, has a comfortable, responsive keyboard, and sports a great 17-inch 1080p IPS screen with Nvidia’s G-Sync adaptive sync technology. We recommend the model with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 graphics card, an Intel Core i7-7700HQ quad-core processor, and 16 GB of RAM. It also comes with a 256 GB of solid-state storage, and a 1 TB hard drive. Its fans are loud, and the keyboard looks ugly and cobbled together, but those small flaws are worth the trade-off for excellent performance at a reasonable price.
Read our full guide to gaming laptops here. If you want a gaming laptop but don’t have a couple grand to spend, see the next category.
The best budget gaming laptop
Who these are for: For $800 to $1,300 you can get a laptop with a 15-inch screen and a thinner and lighter body that still plays games pretty well. This kind of laptop will serve you well for older games on high settings, and you can expect it to play most new games on at least medium settings for the next couple of years. They’re ideal for gamers with tighter budgets, especially students.
Where they fall short: Every affordable gaming laptop we’ve tested has had at least one serious flaw. Some get way too hot, others have poor build quality, and some have dim screens with poor viewing angles. And though budget gaming laptops tend to be smaller and lighter than their more powerful brethren, all gaming laptops are large, heavy, and have short battery life compared with more portable options, like ultrabooks.
Why we like this one: The Dell Inspiron 15 7000 has far better graphics performance than anything else at this price, and it keeps its components and most-touched surfaces cool enough for long gaming sessions. It also has a decent keyboard and trackpad and a great screen, and it was easier to upgrade than anything else we tested. But it has mediocre battery life—it lasted around 4.5 hours in our tests—and its fans get distractingly loud when gaming. The configuration we recommend usually costs around $900 and includes an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 Max-Q graphics card with 6 GB of dedicated memory, an Intel Core i5-7300HQ processor, 8 GB of RAM, and a 256 GB solid-state drive. Prices fluctuate, but so far other laptops with similar specs cost $1,200 to $1,400. With those savings, you could add a spacious hard drive and more memory to the Dell and still have money left over to spend on games.
Read more about our budget gaming laptop pick in our full guide.
The best business laptop
Who these are for: Most people don’t need a business laptop, and those who do will probably get one issued from their IT department. But there are a few great reasons to get a business laptop, even if you’re paying for it yourself, including better long-term durability, easier serviceability and upgrades, more RAM and storage, and more plentiful and varied ports than you get with an ultrabook. Our main picks typically cost between $1,400 and $1,600, but we also have a great budget pick starting around $1,000.
Where they fall short: Ultrabooks are a better option than business laptops for most people because they’re thinner, lighter, and offer similar performance for less money. The majority of people don’t need to upgrade or repair their own laptops, and if you really need business-centric features like smart card support and vPro, it’s likely that the place where you work has already provided you a laptop that supports them. Dongles and docks, while inconvenient, can make up for some ultrabooks’ limited port selection.
Why we like this one: The Lenovo ThinkPad T480s has an excellent keyboard and trackpad, a decent screen, and a good mix of new and old ports that should keep you from ever needing a dongle or adapter. And the T480s has longer battery life than most business laptops we tested in 2018, and it’ll last you through a full workday or a cross-country flight. Our recommended configuration costs around $1,400 to $1,600 and includes an Intel Core i5-8250U processor, 8 GB of memory, a 256 GB PCIe SSD, a 14-inch 1080p IPS screen, and a backlit keyboard and fingerprint reader. Our pick’s specs are fast enough for everyday work, and it’s exceptionally easy to upgrade the memory or storage or replace the battery. The T480s does have only a single memory slot whereas other business laptops have two, but if you need that, our runner-up pick has an additional slot.
Check out our full guide to business laptops to learn more.
The best 2-in-1 laptop
You’ll encounter two main types of 2-in-1 laptops. Convertibles are just ultrabooks with a 360-degree hinge that lets you fold the laptop’s screen all the way around, flat against the bottom of the keyboard, to use the entire package as a bulky tablet or in any mode in between. Detachables, the other type, are more like tablets with a removable keyboard. They tend to be awkward in at least one of their two modes, and the operating systems they use (usually Windows, sometimes iOS, Android, or ChromeOS) are usually good for either laptop work or tablet work, but not both.
Who these are for: Convertibles are a good choice if you want a great laptop that you’ll occasionally use as a tablet or propped up like a tent. For example, tent mode can be convenient for navigating recipes in the kitchen or watching Netflix on an airplane. Detachables are the more appropriate option for people who want a tablet they can sometimes use as a laptop. If you don’t need tablet features at all, we recommend sticking with one of our ultrabook picks above.
Where they fall short: Even the best 2-in-1 makes for a bulky, awkward tablet; the one we recommend is an excellent laptop first, with bonus modes for occasional needs. And styluses for writing or drawing in tablet mode usually cost extra, on top of an already expensive laptop.
Why we like this one: The Lenovo Yoga 920 is an excellent ultrabook with a 360-degree hinge and a 13.9-inch touchscreen with pen support (although the $70 pen is not included). It’s the best option if you want a laptop that also works as a tablet sometimes. The Yoga 920 has the longest battery life of any ultrabook we tested (nearly 10 hours) and a good keyboard and trackpad. But it’s about an inch larger and a half-pound heavier than the Dell XPS 13, so it’s less convenient to throw in your bag for a day of working on the go. If you need a compact, light laptop above all else, we recommend getting our ultrabook pick instead.
You can read more about the Yoga 920 in our guide to Windows ultrabooks.
What about detachables? Most inexpensive detachables are neither good laptops nor good tablets, as they usually don’t have great performance, keyboards, trackpads, hinges, or battery life. High-end detachables like the Microsoft Surface Pro have fine battery life and performance but still make for bulky tablets and awkward laptops. Most people are better off with a convertible laptop like the Lenovo Yoga 920 or an iPad with a keyboard.
This guide may have been updated. To see the current recommendations or availability updates, you can read the full “Best Laptops” guide here.