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The best laptops to buy in 2021

Best Laptops BadgeWe’ve tested and reviewed well over 400 laptops over the years, searching for the best of the best. But to earn the crown for “best laptop” in 2021, it needs to have it all: Gorgeous design, killer performance, a productive keyboard, long-lasting battery life, and much more.

Each of the laptops below has been vetted thoroughly, whether they’re an affordable Chromebook or a decked-out gaming laptop. Our pick for the best overall laptop, the Dell XPS 13, is the option we’d recommend to the most amount of people, but something from the list below should suit your needs.

If you’re hoping to find a discount on a new laptop, you can also take a look at our list of the best laptop deals right now.

Top 10 laptops at a glance:

Dell XPS 13

Dell XPS 13 9310 Featured Image
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: It’s the best overall laptop you can buy in 2021.

Who it’s for: Almost everyone, unless you have a specific need such as gaming or video editing.

Why we picked the Dell XPS 13:

No laptop in the past few years has been more influential than the XPS 13. It started the race to thinner bezels back in 2015, which has now spread to every gadget that has a screen.

In its newest iteration, which was updated in 2020, Dell’s taken things even further. The latest XPS 13 made the screen larger using a 16:10 aspect ratio, all while shrinking the bottom bezel. The result is a larger screen without needing a larger overall laptop, another trend that many other laptops have come to copy.

That update of the Dell XPS 13 also received a larger keyboard and touchpad, making use of every possible surface of the device. Of course, it’s just as powerful and long-lasting as before, not sacrificing function over form. The upcoming 2021 update even provides an option for an OLED 4K screen.

It all adds up to what is undoubtedly the best laptop you can buy. We recently reviewed very competitive rivals like the HP Spectre x360 14 and Razer Book 13, but still found the XPS 13 to be the best option.

Read our in-depth Dell XPS 13 9310 review

Apple MacBook Air M1

Macbook Air
Riley Young/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: It’s the best laptop for college students and the best MacBook for 2021.

Who it’s for: College students and Apple fans.

Why we picked the MacBook Air:

It might not look any different, but the most recent MacBook Air is a huge departure from the Macs of recent years. Like the latest MacBook Pro and Mac mini, the MacBook Air now runs on Apple’s own silicon, the M1 chip. Despite not increasing the price of the laptop, this M1 chip brings a few major advantages to the MacBook Air, making it the perfect laptop for college students.

The two big improvements the M1 brings are in battery life and performance. The old MacBook Air was hamstrung by a slow, dual-core processor. Not only is the new MacBook Air now completely fanless — it doesn’t have to sacrifice speed to keep the temperatures down.

The battery life, though, is really what makes this the ultimate student laptop. You’ll enjoy all-day battery life (or multiple days if your use is sparing) — perfect for classrooms, coffee shops, libraries, and other locations where an outlet is hard to find.

Indeed, $999 isn’t cheap, but the $100 discount for students makes the MacBook Air a perfect gift for a student going off to college.

Read our in-depth MacBook Air M1 review

Acer Swift 3

Why you should buy this: It’s the best budget laptop you can buy right now.

Who it’s for: Anyone who cares more about performance and functionality than style.

Why we picked the Acer Swift 3:

Usually, when you spend around $650 for a budget laptop in 2021, one of the first things you give up is performance. That’s not the case with the AMD version of the Acer Swift 3, which equips a Ryzen 7 4700U CPU. That’s an eight-core processor that churns through demanding tasks and laughs at mere productivity work. You can do real video editing work on this laptop, and that’s amazing for the price.

You also get 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, which is also great value. We’re not that excited about the display, but something had to give. The Acer Swift 3‘s build quality, though, is fine, even if this isn’t the prettiest laptop around.

You can expect the Acer Swift 3 to get updated with the latest Ryzen 5000 processors soon, which should deliver even more performance.

Read our in-depth Acer Swift 3 review

Google Pixelbook Go

Google Pixelbook Go screen

Why you should buy this: It’s the best Chromebook you can buy.

Who it’s for: Students, people who need only basic functionality, anyone who wants a cheap laptop to use as a second PC.

Why we picked the Google Pixelbook Go:

Chromebooks are best-known as cheap alternatives to Windows PCs, and there are plenty of good options for under $500. The Pixelbook Go, though, makes a serious case for a Chromebook with a bit more finesse. It’s beautifully designed, rigidly built, and a joy to use.

Thanks to its ultra-light 2.3-pound weight and fantastic battery life, it’s a great option for students and people taking their work on the go. With a starting price of $649, the Google Pixelbook Go is a significant price cut from the $999 original Pixelbook, while maintaining many of its best aspects.

You do, of course, face the usual limitations with Chrome OS. It’s designed around Google’s Chrome web browser, meaning you can’t download your normal Windows applications. It’s wonderfully simple and intuitive to use, however, and with the inclusion of the Google Play Store, you can fill some of the gaps in software with Android apps.

The newer Samsung Galaxy Chromebook 2 and Asus Chromebook Flip C436 both give the Pixelbook Go a run for its money, but in terms of battery life and portability, it’s still undefeated.

Read our in-depth Google Pixelbook Go review

Microsoft Surface Pro 7

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 front

Why you should buy this: It’s the best 2-in-1 laptop you can buy.

Who it’s for: Anyone who needs versatility on top of performance.

Why we picked the Surface Pro 7:

The Surface Pro line has earned its dedicated following over the years with its excellent detachable keyboard and full Windows 10 performance, earning its place as the best 2-in-1 laptop. It’s the familiar PC experience you’re used to, with the added interest of 2-in-1 capability, Surface Pen stylus compatibility, and a tablet mode. It’s a supremely well-built device, complete with a beautiful, high-resolution display and rock-solid kickstand.

The latest model, the Surface Pro 7, doesn’t make any substantial changes to the formula, but it does offer a couple of key upgrades. You get a USB-C port rather than a mini-DisplayPort, as well as upgrade performance with 10th-generation Ice Lake processors from Intel. That means snappier performance and improved integrated graphics.

Do we wish the Microsoft Surface Pro 7 had the slimmer chassis and smaller bezels of the newer Surface Pro X? Of course. But the Surface Pro 7 is cheaper, faster, and more universal in terms of app support.

Two business-oriented 2-in-1s have come to challenge the Surface Pro 7 recently — the Surface Pro 7+ and the ThinkPad X12 Convertible. They are better options for those who need some extra performance and security.

Read our in-depth Surface Pro 7 review

HP Elite Dragonfly Gen 2

Why you should buy this: It’s the best business laptop you can buy in 2021.

Who it’s for: Business pros who want a laptop that won’t embarrass them.

Why we picked the HP Elite Dragonfly:

Business laptops have a certain stigma around them. It’s often assumed that they need to be clunky, ugly, and full of bloatware. Not so.

The Elite Dragonfly has everything your IT department will need (and you’ll appreciate), without getting in the way of a supremely beautiful and modern laptop. The ideal person for the Dragonfly is someone who takes their work on the go with them, whether that’s in long flights or subways. That’s where the Dragonfly really comes alive as a highly portable laptop that might actually fit on your pull-down tray.

On top of all that, the HP Elite Dragonfly is one of the first 5G-enabled laptops, which could come in handy as the faster connectivity standard rolls out. And, HP announced two new models of the laptop at CES 2021, the Elite Dragonfly G2 and Max, the upgrade to Tiger Lake CPUs and add in a number of features that make the laptops even better for remote workers. Stay tuned for reviews of these new models, and they’ll likely take this spot once we’ve had a chance to check them out.

Read our in-depth HP Elite Dragonfly review

Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5

lenovo chromebook flex 5

Why you should buy this: It’s the best laptop you can buy under $500.

Who’s it for: Students, those with basic computing needs

Why we picked the Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5:

Many people don’t use their laptop for more than web browsing, social media, watching videos, and online apps for work. A cheap Chromebook fits the bill. Not all Chromebooks under $500 are made equal, though. The Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 outdoes many of its competitors with its fast Intel Core i3 processor, solid 1080p screen, and impressive battery life. It also comes in fairly portable package with an aesthetic that doesn’t offend.

It’s not a perfect laptop — the touchpad could be better, as could the speakers. But if your computing needs are fairly basic, don’t spend more than you need to on your next laptop. The Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 will surprise you by just how much laptop $410 can buy you.

If you need a Windows laptop under $500, the 2020 Acer Aspire 5 is a solid option — just stay away from the 2021 model.

Razer Blade 15

Why you should buy this: It’s the best gaming laptop you can buy in 2021.

Who it’s for: People who want a fantastic laptop that can also game.

Why we picked the Razer Blade 15:

From the exterior, you might not even know the Razer Blade is a gaming laptop. It’s as light and thin as a MacBook Pro, with thin bezels, a world-class keyboard and touchpad, as well as a bright, vivid, 15-inch display. Even if it weren’t a gaming laptop, the Razer Blade would probably still be a contender for one of the best 15-inch laptops. The fact that it can play games at respectable frame rates makes it a bit of a miracle.

Now with new RTX 30-series graphics, maxing out at the RTX 3080, the Razer Blade is a killer gaming machine. But the most exciting new configuration comes with a 1440p resolution screen and a 240Hz refresh rate. That represents the crossing of a new threshold for gaming laptops and is sure to make the Razer Blade 15 an even more impressive package.

Don’t misunderstand me: The Razer Blade isn’t the most powerful gaming laptop in the world. The system tends to get a bit warm and it’s quite expensive. If you’re looking for something more affordable, check out the AMD-powered Asus ROG Zephyrus G14 to save a few hundred bucks. Or better yet — wait for the rumored 14-inch model that could finally bring AMD Ryzen 5000 processors to Razer for the first time.

Read our in-depth Razer Blade 15 review

Dell XPS 17

Why you should buy this: It’s the best laptop for video editing you can buy.

Who it’s for: Video editors who want powerful components and a big, beautiful display.

Why we picked the Dell XPS 17:

When you’re editing video, you want plenty of space to view both the results and your favorite application’s interface. But, if you’re using a laptop rather than a desktop PC, then you want to be able to do your editing on the go. That’s where larger laptops come in — they’re both powerful and, thanks to today’s thin-bezel movement, highly portable.

The biggest and most powerful of the bunch for video editing is the Dell XPS 17. Despite having a 17-inch screen, the overall size of the laptop is not much bigger than your average 15-inch laptop. That’s thanks to the tiny bezels, of course. It even comes with four powerful Thunderbolt 3 ports and a full-size SD card slot for convenient transfers directly from your camera.

But the performance is what really counts for video-editing laptops. Between the eight-core, Core i9 processor and an Nvidia RTX 2060, the Dell XPS 17 is the most powerful editing laptop I’ve ever tested, blowing through video exports in Adobe Premiere like nobody’s business. The gorgeous 4K display is the final piece of the puzzle, which is bright, beautiful, and has nearly perfect color reproduction. You can trust your color edits with this one.

Read our in-depth Dell XPS 17 review

Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch

MacOS Catalina Hands-on | Macbook Pro

Why you should buy this: It’s the best laptop for photo editing you can buy.

Who it’s for: Photo editors who want a display that will give them real-world results.

Why we picked the Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch:

Apple’s MacBook line has been a favorite as one of the best laptops for photo editing for quite some time. The company has built up such a huge following by ensuring that the best software runs on MacOS, and by offering some of the best and most accurate displays you can buy. This is key if your creative work includes precise color grading.

The MacBook Pro maintains that focus on creative professionals, especially if you opt for the 16-inch model. It offers a ton of power in a very thin and light form factor, up to 10th-gen Intel Core i9 CPUs, 64GB of RAM, and 8TBs of fast storage. And, its display is great for editing photos thanks to a 16:10 aspect ratio providing more vertical space and wide color gamut (100% of sRGB and 91% of AdobeRBG) with the most accurate colors you can get.

The highly anticipated M-series update to the 16-inch MacBook Pro is likely coming later in 2021, though, so holding off until then might be a good idea. If you’re willing to go with a smaller screen size, the MacBook Pro 13-inch M1 is also a fantastic choice thanks to how powerful that M1 chip is.

Read our in-depth Apple MacBook Pro 16 review

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 aren’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.

Research and buying tips

What’s the best laptop brand?

Picking just one laptop brand as the best is a bit of a challenge lately. There are so many great laptops available today, and they come from several manufacturers. Hold our feet to the fire, though, and we’ll have to pick Dell as the overall best. Dell seems invested in applying the latest materials to improve the performance of its laptops, and it’s constantly coming up with new innovative designs.

HP is no slouch either. It, too, utilizes some unique materials and makes some customer-friendly design decisions, such as resisting the thin-and-light trend to pack in more battery capacity.

In terms of customer service and reliability, Apple carries the torch for its convenience. Its issues with its recent keyboards have been fixed, making MacBooks highly durable. Its customer service is top-notch. Though if you’re looking for 5G laptops specifically, only a few models already exist.

What’s a 2-in-1 laptop?

A 2-in-1 laptop is one that isn’t limited to the traditional clamshell configuration. Instead, a 2-in-1 can convert from a clamshell into some form of tablet PC that allows for natural inking and media consumption.

The concept isn’t brand-new — Microsoft sold a “Tablet PC” version of Windows as far back as 2001 that supported pen input, but it never caught on. As electronics have gotten more powerful and fit into smaller chassis, and capacitive touch and active pen technology has improved, the modern 2-in-1 has emerged. Microsoft kicked off the form factor with its Surface line in 2012, and most manufacturers followed with their versions.

Today, you can pick from among a variety of different kinds of 2-in-1s. The most popular types are the tablet with a detachable keyboard, epitomized by the Microsoft Surface Pro 7, and the 360-degree convertible where the display flips around to turn into a (usually larger) slate.

The main advantage of the tablet 2-in-1 is portability — tablets are extremely thin, light, and easy to carry around — while they also work the best for drawing and taking notes on the pen-enabled display. The 360-degree convertible 2-in-1, on the other hand, isn’t quite as handy as a tablet but it tends to work better in clamshell laptop mode — especially when using it on the lap, where it’s more stable than most detachable tablets.

What processor should I buy?

The most popular CPUs for laptops today are Intel’s eighth-generation Whiskey Lake processors that include low-power Y-series and fast and efficient U-series. For most productivity Windows 10 users, we recommend a minimum of the Core i5-8265U, which is a highly capable processor that can handle most productivity tasks without slowing down. It’s also efficient, meaning you’ll enjoy great battery life. If you skip back to older generations of Intel processors, you’ll find slower clock speeds and fewer cores at your disposal, meaning you may run into bottlenecks while multitasking or running multi-threaded applications.

Chromebook running on Google’s more efficient Chrome OS can utilize slower processors and still perform well, such as an Intel Core i3 or even a Pentium processor. Not many Chromebooks bother with the fastest Core i7 CPU.

If you’re looking for a gaming or content creation laptop, we recommend either last year’s eighth-generation or the most current ninth-gen, ultra-power H-series CPUs. You’ll find these in laptops ranging from the MacBook Pro 15 to the Razer Blade.

How much RAM do I need?

The sweet spot for memory for both laptops and desktops is 8GB. You can check out our story “How much RAM do I need” for the details. But generally speaking, 8GB will suffice whether you’re running Windows, MacOS, or even the more lightweight Chrome OS. And, it will provide plenty of headroom for multitasking and more demanding applications. If you’re doing high-end photo or video editing, then we recommend 16GB (or more).

Should I buy a laptop or a tablet?

As we mentioned above, you can get a tablet that can morph into a laptop just by attaching a keyboard. And so if you really want the power of Windows 10 in a form factor that’s easier to carry around, then you can select a tablet 2-in-1. We don’t recommend these devices as tablets in themselves, as the Windows 10 tablet mode is still fairly limited. If you want the utmost in simplicity and an even smaller device, then a pure tablet like the iPad can be great for web browsing, triaging email, consuming media, and other tasks that don’t require the full power of a “real” PC.

So, where doesn’t a tablet work? If you’re a hardcore gamer, need a laptop that can churn through video and huge photos, or do a lot of multitasking. Tablets are very thin and tend to use slower CPUs and integrated graphics that won’t accelerate creative applications or power modern games. Meanwhile, the software on these devices isn’t as full-featured as a desktop operating system like Windows 10 or MacOS.

Should my laptop have USB-C?

The short answer is: Yes, you should try to pick up a laptop with at least one USB-C port. This is the latest in connectivity that ensures that you can connect to legacy devices (via adapters) while being covered for future devices as well. USB-C can provide for data transfer, power, and display connections, and USB-C hubs can greatly extend how many peripherals you can easily connect to your laptop.

The good thing is that laptops, even budget models, increasingly include USB-C. The longer answer is that not only do you want USB-C, but you want ports that support the even more powerful Thunderbolt 3 standard. Thunderbolt 3 provides up to 40 gigabits per second (Gb/s) over a single connection, and it can support multiple 4K displays and external GPU enclosures that can greatly improve graphics performance. Lately, even laptops under $1,000 sport Thunderbolt 3 ports.

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