I’ve reviewed 100 laptops. These are my favorite 5

I’ve completed my 100th review for Digital Trends since my first one in November 2016. To me, at least, that’s an auspicious number. It’s hard to believe I’ve poked and prodded at so many different laptops, run them through hundreds of benchmarks and battery tests, and evaluated them to assign a score that — I hope, at least — reflects a fair assessment of each product’s strengths and weaknesses.

To recognize this milestone, I thought I’d reveal my five favorite laptops out of the 100 I’ve reviewed. I’m not saying these are the five best laptops you can buy right now — that’s what Digital Trends’ best laptops list is for, and some of these laptops have since been replaced by newer models. But these laptops connected with me on a different level, and I missed them dearly when it came time to send them back to the manufacturer.

HP Spectre x360 13 (Late 2019)

The late 2019 version of the HP Spectre x360 13 blew me away when I reviewed it. I loved the previous versions, but HP had thus far eschewed the tiny bezel movement, so the 360-degree convertible 2-in-1 had been larger than it needed to be.

Then, HP chopped off the top and bottom bezels and shrunk the side bezels, suddenly making the Spectre x360 13 a tiny 2-in-1 that just felt right. Somehow, HP managed to lose the size without compromising the form factor. Everything fits well, with an edge-to-edge keyboard that remains my personal favorite, and a touchpad that I wish were larger, but whose size is perfectly understandable given the amount of space available. And the gem-cut look is gorgeous in such a compact frame, giving the laptop an elegance that you don’t often find in consumer electronics.

The late 2019 Spectre x360 13 had the right components too, including Intel Ivy Lake CPUs with Iris Plus graphics. It’s not a gaming machine, but it’s a productivity tour de force. It handled everything I threw at it and didn’t flinch. It even connected to my Thunderbolt 3 dock and drove two external 27-inch 4K displays — in addition to the beautiful internal 4K OLED display — without hesitation. The fans would occasionally spin up, but it mostly remained quiet as I threw demanding tasks at it.

There’s not a laptop I’ve used before or since that fits my preferences so perfectly. For that reason, the HP Spectre x360 13 is my absolute favorite laptop of the 100 I’ve reviewed.

HP Spectre Folio

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

The HP Spectre Folio is on the opposite end of the spectrum when compared to the Spectre x360 13. The Folio isn’t particularly small for a 13.3-inch laptop, and it runs low-power CPUs that give it great battery life, but not the greatest performance. It’s fine for typical productivity tasks, but try to do anything more demanding, and you’ll find yourself waiting impatiently for the system to finish.

What the Folio does offer is one of the most innovative designs you’ll find, with genuine leather serving not just as a covering but as an integral part of the chassis’ construction. And that leather serves a function beyond just looking great. It feels spectacular. Leather is a special material that makes anything feel classy, and it has the advantage of avoiding the chilly effects of a cool morning and the heat generated by an operating computer. In other words, it maintains more of a consistent temperature, meaning it never feels too hot or too cold. It’s comfortable not only in how it feels in hand, but also thermally.

Beyond the leather chassis, the Folio is a great computer in its own right. I had the opportunity to use the laptop for several months, and my experience with the Spectre Folio was excellent from start to finish. It was fast enough to keep up with my typical workload, and thanks to a low-power Full HD display, it lasted forever on a charge. It’s since been superseded by other laptops (including the low-power display on the late 2019 Spectre x360 13), but for a time, it was one of the longest-lasting we’d tested.

The Spectre Folio’s leather design isn’t just a gimmick. It makes the laptop wonderfully unique. I’d never used a laptop like it before, and I’m afraid I might never get to use one like it again.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 2

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 2 is a real workhorse. Generally speaking, I’m not a ThinkPad fan — I’m not as enamored of their look and feel as some — and I’ve universally found their battery life to be disappointing (including the ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 2). But this machine was a powerhouse that I thoroughly enjoyed using every time I opened it.

All of the usual ThinkPad strengths are there, such as the superior build quality and the excellent keyboard and touchpad. There’s expandability inside with the ability to add in a second solid-state drive (SSD). And the laptop’s performance was up to par across the board, meeting or exceeding what one might expect from the components inside. It even manages to be lighter than its strongest competitor at the time, Dell’s XPS 15, while packing better performance.

But here’s where I really fell in love with the laptop. I reviewed a model with an OLED display, this one Dolby Vision certified. While every other OLED display I tested struggled with Netflix HDR, the ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 2 excelled. In fact, it’s the best device I’ve ever used for watching Netflix HDR (though, I’ll admit, I don’t own a fancy OLED television). The ThinkPad used HDR to make my favorite sci-fi shows — many of them filled with dark scenes — eminently watchable.

That display remains a standout feature to this day. OLED screens are still rare, available only in the most expensive configurations of the most powerful laptops. I hope they’ll become more common in the near future because, as the ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 2 proves, OLED completely outclasses the LED-backlit screens we’re used to seeing on laptops.

Asus ZenBook S

Asus ZenBook S review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

The Asus ZenBook S is the oldest laptop on this list, reviewed in July 2018, and there’s a new version coming soon that should blow this one away. But here’s what I wrote about the laptop in my conclusion: “Sometimes the whole really is more than the sum of the parts, and the ZenBook S is a prime example. In fact, it’s a really small notebook that might just appeal to someone who doesn’t normally like really small notebooks.”

Using the ZenBook S was just plain fun. Battery life was a bit low due to the excellent and bright 4K IPS display, but otherwise, the laptop performed well and kept its cool while doing so. The angled keyboard was the most effective I’ve seen at keeping air flowing, and on the right surface, it really did improve audio. Not all angled keyboards can say the same, at least not to the same extent. That keyboard was excellent for such a small machine, comfortable and precise, and able to keep me at my maximum performance.

The ZenBook S also looked great and was well-configured at the time. Thanks to Thunderbolt 3, I was able to hook up to an external GPU and play some modern titles with solid performance. I’m looking forward to the updated version, which I’m guessing might make it onto my next favorite laptops list.

Acer ConceptD 7 Ezel

The Acer ConceptD 7 Ezel is a laptop designed and engineered to meet the needs of a very particular niche of users — and it accomplishes the task. Too often, a single-purpose computer makes too many compromises and ends up meeting nobody’s needs. Not so with the ConceptD 7 Ezel. This is a laptop that forces only a couple of compromises, price and weight, both of which are to be expected given the power that’s inside this machine.

I’m not a creative professional (well, not the kind Acer is targeting, at least), so this laptop was definitely not made for me. Still, I love flipping the display into its various useful, and stable, positions. I love that Acer managed to create such an innovative and flexible machine that still managed to act like a normal clamshell laptop.

And the ConceptD 7 Ezel is fast, one of the fastest consumer laptops we’ve tested. It blew through our benchmarks and scored the highest we’ve seen in a few of them. Most notably, it completed our Premiere Pro test, which renders a two-minute 4K video, faster than any other laptop we’ve tested, meaning Acer succeeded in producing a high-performance laptop aimed squarely at creative professionals.

I’d never buy this laptop, especially not at $4,000, but it’s an outstanding laptop for the demographic it’s made for, and it gets there with unique features and risky compromises that ultimately work. I can’t help but appreciate the sheer engineering talent that went into it.

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