If you’re looking to buy a laptop right now, the answer is Dell’s XPS 13. It’s light, portable, powerful, beautiful, and reasonably affordable. We recommend it not only over every other Windows notebook, but also Apple’s MacBook line and Google’s Chromebooks.
Still, if you insist, we have picked out the best MacBook for MacOS die-hards, the best Chromebook for those who desire an affordable laptop with a super-light OS, and the best laptop if you’ve $600 or less to spend. We’ve also selected the best 15-inch laptop — though it, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the Dell XPS 15.
Dell XPS 13
Why should you buy this: It’s portable, fast, attractive, and reasonably priced.
Who’s it for: Everyone except gamers.
How much will it cost: $800 to $1,600
Why we picked the Dell XPS 13
Dell’s XPS 13 blends a metallic exterior with carbon-fiber interior. It’s a look that’s premium, yet inviting. The XPS 13 is the kind of cool new toy that you’ll be itching to show everyone willing to look.
The super-thin InfinityEdge bezel is another highlight. Most laptops have a half-inch to an inch of plastic surrounding the display on all sides. The XPS 13 has less than a quarter of an inch. That’s as functional as it is beautiful, as it makes the system smaller and lighter.
Does that make the XPS 13 too small? Nope. The touchpad is as large as the competition and the keyboard is a breeze to use. The system even squeezes in a large battery, which means most models can last a full day before needing a charge (the top-shelf Core i7 model with a 3,200 x 1,800 panel is borderline, though it can manage eight hours if you’re easy on it).
There is just one oddity you should know about — the web cam. The bezels are so thin there’s no room for it, so it’s below the display, rather than above. That makes for an awkward angle. Most people won’t care, but it will bug you if you video conference while traveling.
Cutting edge 7th-generation Kaby Lake Core i3, i5, and i7 processors are available along with a selection of solid state hard drives and up to 16GB of RAM. The Core i7 models don’t have the Core i7-6500U found in most expensive ultrabooks, but instead opts for the 7th-generation Core i7-7500U, which boasts quicker integrated graphics and a higher maximum clock speed.
But the XPS 13 doesn’t earn the “best laptop” title because of its premium configuration. The laptop starts at just $800, and can be handsomely equipped for $1,000. These entry-level versions don’t have the fastest available hardware, but they retain the same design, features, and battery life as the most expensive. Nothing else offers the same overall value, and many competitors feel hopelessly out of date when placed next to Dell’s flagship.
Before buying, be sure to read our XPS 13 buying guide.
The best Mac
MacBook Pro 13-inch (without Touch Bar)
Why should you buy this: You refuse to use Windows.
Who’s it for: Anyone who refuses to use Windows.
How much will it cost: $1,500
Why we picked the MacBook Pro 13-inch (without Touch Bar)
Most people are looking at a Mac for one of two reasons. Either you’re a fan of MacOS and refuse to use Windows, or you’re attracted to Apple’s brand and want to buy one based on the company’s reputation.
If you’re in the first group, then nothing we say will sway you. In that case, we recommend you purchase the MacBook Pro 13 without Touch Bar. Why not one of the more expensive models with the highly-anticipated OLED Touch Bar where the function keys used to reside? In our opinion, the Touch Bar just doesn’t add enough functionality, certainly not enough to justify an extra $300 to an already high price tag.
If you’re looking at a Mac based on its reputation, we suggest you reconsider. The company has allowed its computers to fall by the wayside. All Mac models equip Intel processors that are one or two generations behind the latest, as even the recently updated MacBook Pro line features processors from Intel’s 6th-generation lineup, not the new 7th-gen. MacOS is a fine operating system that does its job, but we think Windows 10 is even better. Finally, Apple’s laptops are much too expensive for the hardware they offer.
Apple does have one big benefit — service. The company tends to cover defective hardware that others might refuse to service, and you can take your Mac to a retail store if you need help. This might sway users who are particularly concerned with potential problems. But a Mac is not bombproof, and most modern laptops can easily last five years. We don’t think fear of an ambiguous future problem that may or may not happen should be what guides your buying decision.
Our full review (with Touch Bar)
The best Chromebook
Acer Chromebook 15
Why should you buy this: You want a nice, barebones laptop for less.
Who’s it for: Students, people who need only basic functionality, anyone who wants a cheap laptop to use as a second PC.
How much will it cost: $200 to $300
Why we picked the Acer Chromebook 15
Chromebooks — laptops that run Google’s Chrome OS — have become a popular budget laptop over the last few years, and we quite like them at Digital Trends. The Acer Chromebook 15 is a great example of their strengths. It has a 1080p display, fast Intel processor, and plenty of memory, all starting at $300 when the product first came out. No Windows notebook priced at $300 comes close. And today you can get it for less even than that.
If you’re looking for a budget laptop, Chromebooks are a good choice. But these systems rarely sell for north of $500, with the obvious exception of Google’s Chromebook Pixel, which is too niche for us to recommend. The price brings limitations, of course. You won’t find a Chromebook with a quad-core processor, a fast solid state drive, or an optional discrete GPU.
Even if Chromebooks were equipped to compete with the best laptops, the operating system would hold them back. Chrome OS, which is designed around Google’s Chrome Web browser, is wonderfully simple and intuitive, but it can’t run “normal” software. It only runs extensions and Web apps. So while you can access Word Online, for example, you could never install Word.
This, of course, means you’re reliant on Wi-Fi access, which isn’t a problem in most situations but becomes a very big problem if the Internet cuts out. Google has upgraded Chrome OS over time to combat this. Now, you can download your Gmail inbox and Google Drive content for offline access, and apps have offline modes for use away from Wi-Fi.
The best 2-in-1 laptop
HP Spectre x360
Why should you buy this: You want a great laptop and a good tablet.
Product Card: The HP Spectre x360 is a 2-in-1 without compromises, combining stellar performance with a flexible, premium-built chassis.
Who’s it for: Anyone who needs versatility on top of performance.
How much will this cost: Starts at $1,050
Why we picked the HP Spectre x360
2-in-1 laptops are still something of an acquired taste, but if you’re not sure about laptops-as-tablets, the HP Spectre x360 might change your mind. First and foremost it’s a stylish, lightweight, and powerful ultra-portable laptop.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: the tablet mode. The HP Spectre x360 is not a great tablet, if only because it doesn’t quite fold flat against itself and is just a tad too heavy to use as a tablet for any extended period of time. The Spectre is a laptop first and tablet second, you’re not going to be getting something as comfortable to use as, say, a Microsoft Surface or an Apple iPad, but being able to flip the screen around and use the Spectre as a tablet is a nice touch.
Think of it as a really versatile ultra-portable laptop, like a Swiss army knife with an HP logo.
Coming in at just over half an inch thick, it’s not the smallest laptop in its class, but it’s just as thin as the Lenovo Yoga 910, and a little bit lighter at 2.85 pounds. In other words, it’s very small. Toss it in a bag and you’d never notice the extra weight.
The form factor is particularly impressive when you consider the kind of power it packs. There are three configurations with three different price points, starting at $1,050, and topping out at $1,500, but each one has a 7th-generation Kaby Lake processor under the hood. The unit we reviewed is available for $1,300, and has a 7th-generation Intel Core i7, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD.
That extra performance really shows. Not only did it perform spectacularly well in our benchmarks, it turned out excellent performance as an everyday workhorse. It’s quick, snappy, and versatile, everything you could want out of an ultra-portable laptop.
The best budget laptop
Asus Zenbook UX305CA
Why should you buy this: You want an affordable PC that’s also a joy to use.
Who’s it for: Everyone except gamers, other power users.
How much will it cost: $600 to $800
Why we picked the Asus Zenbook UX305CA
The Dell XPS 13 starts at $800. We don’t think that’s a lot for a laptop, but the world obviously disagrees; the average selling price of new laptops has hovered around $600 for years.
One option is to watch out for a sale. You shouldn’t have to wait long. Refurbished models have sold for as little as $470, and new systems sometimes dip near the $600 mark. Keep an eye out for coupons on Dell’s site and for sales at major retailers including not just the usual suspects but also the Microsoft Store, which carries a selection of the best Windows laptops.
If that doesn’t work, then we suggest the Asus Zenbook UX305CA, another ultrabook we’ve awarded an Editor’s Choice. The Zenbook isn’t as powerful as the Dell XPS 13, and doesn’t emulate the Dell’s strikingly thin bezels. But otherwise, it’s an incredible machine.
And its value can’t be beat. The base model, which is routinely priced at $600 on the Microsoft Store, has a Core m3 processor, eight gigabytes of RAM, and a 256GB solid state drive. That’s twice the memory and storage of the $800 Dell XPS 13 — and far better than what you’ll find in other competitors. We’re not sure how Asus makes money off it.
If you don’t mind spending $50 more, you might consider the Asus Zenbook UX305UA. Only one letter separates its name from the UX305CA, and they’re as similar as that suggests. The UX305UA is slightly larger, slightly heavier, and has a quicker Core i5 processor. These changes make it a better choice for power users.
The best large display
Dell XPS 15
Why should you buy this: You want a sleek PC, but also need excellent performance.
Who’s it for: Power users, and those who want a big, beautiful display
How much will this cost: $1,000 to $1,650
Why we picked the Dell XPS 15
Okay, the XPS 13 is great, but maybe you want a larger display. You’re not alone. Sales figures have continually shown 15-inch systems beating their smaller rivals. We think this is partially because good, small laptops aren’t cheap — but some people just want a bigger display. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Fortunately, Dell also has the XPS 15. It’s great for all the same reasons the XPS 13 is great and, because it’s larger, can be optioned with the fastest hardware available today including a quad-core processor, Nvidia mobile graphics, and a 4K display. We don’t like it quite as much its little brother because it’s quite expensive, and the battery doesn’t hold up as well relative to the competition. But it’s definitely the best 15-incher available right now.
The XPS 15 starts at $1,000, though, which is a steep sum. Is there anything more affordable?
There is, but nothing stands out as the clear winner. Acer’s Aspire E15 is affordable and powerful, but not attractive. Asus’ X555UB-NH51 looks and feels more luxurious, but is priced higher without a performance bump. Dell’s Inspiron 7000 is a powerful do-it-all entry that can even serve as a budget gaming laptop, but its display is disappointing. Acer’s Chromebook 15 can’t be beat in value, but you have to be alright living with Chrome OS.
Yes, that’s a lot of options. Picking a budget 15-inch is a tough choice, but if you’re tired of looking and just want a name, go with the Acer Aspire E15 (make sure you buy one with a 1080p display). It’s ugly, but it’ll do the job well enough at an extremely low price.
Should you buy now, or wait?
Intel has recently announced its new 7th-generation processors. If possible, it’s a good idea to wait until you see an update to the 7th-gen hardware before buying the particular model you have your eye on.
But it’s not critical. The new generation isn’t that much quicker than the previous version, and the battery life gain in 7th-gen is minimal. If you can buy a 6th-generation model at a slight discount, or you have reason to believe the 7th-gen update won’t come soon, go ahead and make a purchase.
AMD also has new hardware available. While we don’t generally recommend AMD over Intel in laptops, the company’s APUs can make sense in some affordable systems. Keep and eye out for the new chips, which are detailed in this post.
Also, this is the holiday buying season. That means a plethora of discounts. A keen eye and quick trigger finger could snag you hundreds of dollars in savings.
How we test
You’ve read our laptop reviews. You’ve read our conclusions. And now you’re wondering how we came to them.
Good question. Reviews often lack context, which is evident in the wildly different scores some laptops receive from different publications. Conflicting opinions can actually make buying a laptop more difficult if the review’s criteria isn’t made clear.
Allow us to lift the veil. Here we’ll explain the benchmarks we use for objective testing and the perspective from which we approach subjective topics. We don’t expect everyone to agree with our opinions, but we hope that sharing our process will leave you better equipped to decide what laptop best fits your needs.