GORDON MAH UNG, MELISSA RIOFRIO and ALAINA YEE’s top picks feature the best tech advances in portable PCs
Choosing the best laptop can be difficult these days. With companies like Dell, HP, Acer, and Asus continually launching updates of popular notebooks and expansions of product lines, we’re all but swimming in options right now.
Summer has pushed even more convertibles, 2-in-1s, and traditional notebooks onto store shelves. The most interesting ones poke holes in existing assumptions about certain categories. Microsoft’s Surface Laptop, for example, is an attempt to revive the company’s battle with Chromebooks, while Dell’s Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming – our ‘Best budget gaming laptop’ pick – offers 1080p gaming. Vendors also are serious about squeezing AMD’s new CPUs into their line-ups, with Asus recently debuting the first Ryzen laptop at Computex.
Best ultrabook laptop
Winner: Dell XPS 13
Dell might be sticking to the adage of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ when it comes to the XPS 13 (pictured), but that strategy keeps producing the best ultrabook of the bunch. The Kaby Lake XPS 13 shares the same design as its predecessors: a quality aluminium exterior and carbon fibre top, and that wonderfully compact, bezel-free 13in screen.
The firm actually released two updates to the XPS 13 in 2016: the one at the start of the year swapped in a Skylake CPU, added a USB Type-C port that served as an alternative charging port, and offered upgraded storage options. The most recent refresh – and our new pick for Best Ultrabook – keeps the same chassis changes as the Skylake XPS 13, features a jump to Intel’s new Kaby Lake processor, and sports a slightly larger battery. You get improved performance across the board, with a nice bump of an extra half-hour of battery life during video playback.
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.
Runner-up: HP Spectre Laptop
If looks are more your thing, the HP Spectre Laptop certainly has a distinct profile: It’s one of the thinnest ultrabooks around. For anyone coveting the streamlined experience of Apple’s 12in MacBook, this 13in 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, and so on), 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 XPS 13, but this laptop is still a very fine companion.back to menu ↑
Best convertible laptop
Winner: HP Spectre x360
We liked the first Spectre x360 when it launched back in 2015, but that 2-in-1 laptop had a few flaws. The updated version, which released in October 2016, blew away its predecessor by being smaller, thinner, and noticeably lighter, while still providing excellent performance and battery life. Now there’s a 2017 edition that adds active pen support and the option of a 4K screen to the 2016’s already-excellent package.
Inside our review model was a Kaby Lake Core i7 processor that kept pace with a quad-core Skylake CPU during tasks like word processing and spreadsheet editing, and handled games like Minecraft and League of Legends at low-resolution and low-quality image settings. If you opt for a FHD (1920×1080) screen, the battery will last almost 11 hours during continual video playback, and just over seven if you go for the beautiful 4K (3840×2160) display. Active pen support rounds out the experience – it’s easy to jot clear notes and sketch clean diagrams with the included pen accessory.
This laptop is so good, it gives our top pick for Best Ultrabook a run for its money. If it weren’t for the wide- aspect ratio trackpad, the low number of ports (just three total, and you lose one to charging whenever it’s time to top up), and a couple of slight performance dips on the 4K version, it might have won. For now, though, it can rule this convertible category until it’s time to challenge the Dell XPS 13 yet again.back to menu ↑
Best budget convertible laptop
Winner: Asus ZenBook Flip
For years, Asus has offered great value in its notebooks, and the ZenBook Flip is a strong example of its affordable, high-performing offerings. You get
a fully convertible notebook that can handle everyday tasks with ease.
In fact, its pricing and specs are similar to our favourite 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 1920×1080 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 56mm thick and 1.3kg, 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.back to menu ↑
Best hybrid laptop
Winner: Microsoft Surface Pro 4
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, even given the launch of the Surface Pro. (This Applestyle 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. 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 to the price. (No, it’s not included.) That means the midrange Surface Pro 4 with 256GB of storage, 8GB of RAM, and a Core i5 is a computer. Hopefully, prices will get cut now 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.
Runner-up: Samsung Galaxy Book
Samsung’s follow-up to its first 2-in-1 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 favourite 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 10.6in screen. If you want a 12in screen, you’ll have to jump to a starting price of from fave.co/2vM8Pmm.
Despite these two tougher choices, the Galaxy Book is still compelling. It offers solid performance (including over 10 hours of video playback on the 12in Core i5 model) and addresses some of our complaints with the Galaxy Tab Pro 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 an optional purchaseback to menu ↑
Best gaming laptop
Winner: MSI GT73VR Titan
The arrival of Nvidia’s Pascal-based mobile GPUs has transformed high-end gaming laptops – for the first time, they’re able to give desktops a run for their money. Case in point is MSI’s GT73VR Titan, which pairs a GTX 1080 mobile GPU with a 17.3in, 1920×1080, 120Hz G-Sync panel. It delivers crazy-smooth, high frame-rate gaming at an unprecedented level: We saw frame rates over 150 fps with everything maxed out in our Tomb Raider and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor benchmarks.
Other GTX 1080 options exist, but none come as loaded with benchmark-topping technology and run as quietly. Origin’s similarly configured EON17-X, for example, blasts like a jet engine, but provides only a very small gain in performance.
This Titan does have a couple of potential drawbacks – the trackpad buttons, for example, are incredibly stiff and require a lot of force to click, but overall, the GT73VR is a great gaming notebook that has what it takes to dominate its class.back to menu ↑
Best budget gaming laptop
Winner: Dell Inspiron 7000
Not long ago, playing a game at higher-resolutions and higher graphics settings on a laptop meant shelling out.
That’s changed in the past year. You can get a gaming laptop that will play at 1080p and offers a quad-core i5-7300HQ, 8GB RAM, and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti in its base configuration.
It’s a lot of muscle for the price. This system can handle today’s games on High at 1080p (in Rise of the Tomb Raider, this Inspiron ran at over 50 fps), and it can definitely play popular titles like League of Legends,
Dota 2, Rocket League, Team Fortress 2, and Overwatch.
There is one catch, however. The launch version of the Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming has a terrible TN panel with extremely bad viewing angles and washed-out colours.
If you plan to game using an external monitor or can handle a less-than-stellar screen, though, this is a heck of a machine for the price.back to menu ↑
Best portable gaming laptop
Winner: Alienware 13
Nvidia 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 2.6kg, the Alienware 13 is a little heavy for its size, but it’s worth toting around. The model we reviewed packed a gorgeous OLED 2560×1440 display, a quad-core i7 processor, and a VR-capable Nvidia GTX 1060 for flawless 1080p gaming.
Its extra weight comes from it’s incredibly sturdy and solid chassis, built to withstand hot climates and gamers who react physically to the highs and lows of gameplay. If you’re of a more even temperament, and really want to ditch the weight, you can instead opt for our runner-up, the MSI GS63VR, which is a pound lighter and sports a larger display. The MSI model can’t compete with the luxury of this Alienware’s screen, though: gaming on it makes the best LCD panels seem pixelated and washed out.
While performance is a hair under that of the MSI GS63VR, the difference is almost negligible: 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.
Runner up: MSI GS63VR Stealth
Nvidia’s impressive jump in performance between last-generation Maxwell GPUs and this year’s Pascal GPUs has truly changed the gaming laptop space.
MSI’s GS63VR Stealth is the boldest example of this: This portable gaming laptop sports a 15.6in screen, a quad-core i7-6700HQ processor, and a GTX 1060 – all while weighing just 1.8kg. (That’s not a typo; we double checked that number on our office’s postal scale.)
You do make some trade-offs to get the weight that low, of course. DIY upgrades are difficult on the GS63VR, and the build quality is less sturdy than that of Alienware’s 10-series laptops. Adding to the list of potential negatives are the GS63VR’s display, which has muted colours and doesn’t get very bright, as well as the weak audio subsystem.
Despite its drawbacks, the MSI GS63VR Stealth is still a 15.6in, four-pound laptop that can play the newest games at 1920×1080 with settings at or near Ultra. It’ll allow you to finally have portability and performance at the same time.back to menu ↑
Best luxury laptop
Winner: Microsoft Surface Book
There’s no way to describe Microsoft’s Surface Book 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 out. But what you get is glorious. Start with the beautiful, high-resolution 13.5in 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 will probably start conversations in the first-class cabin as you fly from Dubai to London.