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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 and 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 modelling. 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.
The best Mac laptop
Who these are for: If you prefer macOS or need great tech support, Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Air usually offers the best combination of size, weight and speed. It’s great for the same people a Windows ultrabook is good for, including writers, office workers, commuters and college students. It has 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 Air usually costs a bit 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 modelling.
Why we like this one: The 2018 MacBook Air has some shortcomings, but they’re almost all shared by other modern Apple laptops: the low-travel keyboard, a small number of homogenous ports (in this case, two Thunderbolt 3 ports) that may require the use of USB-C hubs or new cables, and a high price relative to Windows laptops with similar performance and features (especially if you need more storage). But the Air’s light weight, solid construction and industry-leading support make it a good laptop, especially if you also own an iPhone or other Apple devices.
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 a Chromebook is faster, lighter and sleeker than a 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 programmes 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 Windows ultrabook. 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.
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 modelling, but you still want something fairly light and portable. They’re pricey, though.
Where they fall short: Laptops with colour-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 Surface Book 2 configuration we recommend has a 4K display, an eighth-generation 1.9 GHz Intel Core i7-8650U processor, 16 GB of RAM and a 512 GB solid-state drive. It also comes with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 with 6 GB VRAM, a powerful graphics processor that can handle demanding tasks – like quickly exporting 4K footage in Adobe Premiere Pro – much faster than the GPU in the MacBook Pro (it’s also good for gaming). The Surface Book 2 model’s keyboard is clicky and comfortable to use for long periods of time, and its trackpad is even better: it tracks smoothly and accurately, and it executes gestures and other Windows-related tasks with ease. It also has all of the necessary ports and connections: two USB 3.0 ports, a USB-C port (though not Thunderbolt 3), as well as a full-size SD card reader and a proprietary Surface Connect port. It also had the longest battery life of any laptop we tested this year by about 20 minutes, and you can even detach its screen and use it as a tablet if you want.
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, and come with enough memory and storage to last three or four years.
Where they fall short: Apple’s latest MacBooks have removed common ports like USB-A, DisplayPort, and HDMI, so you’ll have to pay more for dongles and adapters to connect your peripherals.
Why we like this one: If you need a Mac for creative work, Apple’s 2018 15-inch MacBook Pro is the best option. The MacBook Pro’s 15.4-inch 2880×1800 Retina display was imperceptibly more colour-accurate than the Dell XPS 15’s, and its screen reproduced more of the sRGB and DCI-P3 colour 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.
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, a high-end gaming laptop is the way to go. They’re ideal for anyone who travels frequently and doesn’t want a desktop.
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 cheaper ultrabook handles non-gaming 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 favourite gaming laptop is the Asus ROG Strix Scar II. It has powerful Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 graphics, an eighth-generation Intel Core i7-8750H six-core processor and 16 GB of memory. It comes with 256 GB of solid-state storage and a 1 TB hybrid drive. But it has a garish faux-military design with contrasting camouflage and carbon fibre patterns, and it lacks G-sync and Thunderbolt 3, two features we expect in high-end gaming laptops. You’d have to pay more to get both with the specs we like.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.