Finding the right laptop
The best laptop is the one that meets your computing needs. If, like most people, you use a computer primarily for light duty tasks -- reading and writing email, posting on Facebook, streaming movies and music, playing casual games, writing a document in Microsoft Word, etc. -- a mainstream laptop costing $900 or less will almost certainly be just fine. At the higher end of that range, you can find surprisingly powerful laptops, including, for the first time, some configurations of the Apple MacBook Air (Est. $900 and up). We also found some cheap laptops priced at $400 and below with enough power for everyday use, including some that sport a touchscreen display for better compatibility with Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 (more below on that).
This report also covers more powerful computers that are designed for serious work or serious play. Typical business users, especially those who are frequent travelers, might want to look first at ultraportable notebooks that weigh less than 4 pounds or so and typically have very good battery life. Those who spend their days crunching numbers or working with graphics will likely want something that's a little more powerful, with a faster processor and better graphics capabilities. High-end gamers will want more power still to fire their way through intense 3D games with the smoothest action and the highest possible detail.
Laptop computers come in all sorts of shapes and sizes -- and capabilities.
Traditional laptops are usually fairly thick at 1 inch and up and heavy at 5 pounds or more. These types of computers run the gamut from the super cheap, where design and aesthetics take a decided back seat to the bottom line, to super powerful desktop replacements that can handle even heavy-duty tasks such as 3D gaming with ease. Whether you need a laptop with maximum power or one with a rock-bottom price, the odds are good that you can find a traditional laptop that will fill the bill.
Ultraportable laptops are super thin and super light. They rely on swift processors and nimble solid-state drives (SSDs) to feel quick on their feet while web surfing, streaming video, or performing productivity tasks like composing documents or preparing PowerPoint presentations. Examples include Windows Ultrabooks and the Apple MacBook Air. Ultraportable laptops are especially favored by those who need an everyday workhorse that doesn't feel like a ton of bricks to lug around. Ultraportables with the latest processors run fast and cool, with enough battery power to last for a whole day of work.
Chromebooks run Google Chrome instead of Windows or Mac operating systems. For basic tasks such as web browsing and streaming video, a cheap Chromebook could be all you need. However, they are not the best choice for more intensive use, or if you need to run specific applications like Microsoft Office. They also work best if you have dependable, steady access to the Internet. These are among the least expensive laptops you can buy, and are typically as thin and light as an Ultrabook, but be sure you understand the trade-offs before deciding on one.
Convertible laptop computers look like traditional laptops, but have a keyboard that either flips over or detaches when you want to use your laptop as a slate tablet. Most run the full version of Windows 8 (or 8.1), rather than the tablet-specific operating systems used by Android or Apple tablets, or the more limited Windows RT operating system used in the Microsoft Windows Surface 2 slate tablet. They also tend to rate more highly for use as a laptop than as a tablet. If you are primarily interested in a slate tablet, such as the Apple iPad Air 2 or the Google Nexus 9, those and many more are covered in our report on tablets.
When it comes to laptops, the only constant is change
For most product categories -- including most technology products -- life cycles are measured in years. For laptops, especially Windows laptops, they are sometimes measured in months or even weeks as makers are constantly tweaking configurations to take advantage of even small changes in available technologies and components, either to keep a competitive edge or merely to hit a price point.
Most of these tweaks are small -- showing up as incremental changes in benchmark tests (and not always for the better) but rarely having very much of an impact on real-world performance. Other changes can be more significant; for example, a step up to a new generation microprocessor can render earlier comments obsolete. Complicating matters, laptops bearing the same -- or very similar -- model names can come in a host of sometimes substantially different versions ranging from preconfigured models sold only through a specific retailer (Best Buy's Blue Label program is one example of that) to user-customized configurations sold directly by the manufacturer.
The bottom line is that the recommendations in this report should be used primarily as a starting point. The specific configurations available when you are ready to purchase may vary. However, we provide the hardware details -- processor, graphics, memory and storage -- for each laptop we recommend. Match those up to the closest available models -- or custom configure your laptop yourself -- and performance should be as good or better as the reviewed configuration. Other aspects of the laptop -- ergonomics, aesthetics, build quality, support, etc. -- should be consistent regardless of how much a manufacturer has overhauled the innards.
Let's get this out of the way from the start: Windows 8 is a mess. The problem is that in trying to create a "unified" operating system designed to work on tablets and laptops, Windows 8 wound up being one that didn't work all that well on either. Windows 8.1 introduced some fixes and workarounds that helped a little, but not enough in the eyes of many. "Touch-loving tablet users are still saddled with a touch-hostile Windows desktop, while point-and-clickers who live and breathe the Windows desktop still can't make Metro go away," says Woody Leonhard at InfoWorld.
Microsoft is in such a hurry to put Windows 8 in the rear-view mirror that it is skipping Windows 9 and jumping to Windows 10, which is expected to be released in mid-2015, though that date remains speculative and could slip farther down the road. A few makers, such as Lenovo, HP and Dell, are still offering a handful of laptops that ship with Windows 7 either standard or as an option, and a few rate well enough to earn a spot in this report. However, if you think Windows 8/8.1 would be a good fit for you, we recommend getting a laptop equipped with a touch screen for the best user experience. While it is possible to use Windows 8 on a non-touch laptop, feedback tells us that the process is not intuitive and not a whole lot of fun.
How we picked the best laptops
To find the best laptops we scour feedback from expert reviewers, such as PCMag.com and CNET, and user feedback at sites such as BestBuy.com and Amazon.com. We consider not only performance but also factors such as ergonomics, design and value, as well as which laptop makers do the best job of standing by you if trouble crops up. We name the best laptop overall, along with the top choices among cheap laptops and gaming rigs. While these laptops rise to the top, there are a bevy of laptops that don't fall very much behind, and some of those are able enough performers to make them worthy of serious consideration as well.
The Apple MacBook Air is tough to beat
Unless you are a competitive gamer or use software that only runs under Windows, Apple laptops have become an intriguing and perhaps even a compelling choice for mainstream users. As noted in the introduction, Windows 8 and its Windows 8.1 update have proven to be something less than a rousing success. Apple has resisted jumping on touch computing for its laptops and desktops, and OS X Yosemite (released in mid-October 2014) has earned solid reviews despite some typical early-release glitches. "Still the best desktop OS you can get, Yosemite is sleek, beautiful, and brimming with conveniences and new features," says PCMag.com in awarding it an Editors' Choice. And don't forget, if Windows is an absolute must for a specific application, Apple laptops can run that operating system as well -- though you'll need to pay for a copy of Windows as it's not included, and you'll need to master some non-touch screen workarounds if you opt for the latest version of that OS.
Experts love the latest Apple MacBook Air and users simply adore it. Performance, design, build quality, and support are among the reasons why. The laptop's 2014 upgrade saw modest improvements in processor power and a notable price drop. Two versions are available the 11-inch Apple MacBook Air (Est. $900 and up) is the least expensive MacBook ever. For those that don't need the smallest and lightest ultraportable, the step-up 13-inch Apple MacBook Air (Est. $1,000 and up) might be a better value; it adds a bigger display, roomier keyboard, longer battery life (12 hours in some tests) and a few extra features -- most notably an SDXC memory card slot.
Experts and users rate both versions highly, but the 13-inch MacBook Air draws slightly better feedback. For example, Laptop Magazine grants both Editors' Choice awards, but names the 13-inch version as the "Best Laptop Overall." Mark Spooner, Laptop Magazine's editor-in-chief, says "Although there's a lot of strong laptop competition out there - in all shapes, sizes and prices -the MacBook Air 13-inch is everything a great notebook should be." He adds that this 13-inch ultraportable laptop "offers a near-perfect combination of design, comfort, performance and endurance," and that the price is "quite reasonable."
Save for the aforementioned memory card slot, both versions are configured similarly. The internals include a 4th-generation (Haswell) 1.4 GHz Intel Core i5 processor, integrated Intel HD Graphics 5000, 4 GB of memory and a 128 GB flash drive. The memory (up to 8 GB) and processor (to a Core i7) can be upgraded, but storage cannot be. For that, you need to opt for step up versions that leave most of the other hardware as is, but swap in a 256 GB flash drive (upgradeable to 512 GB). Base pricing for the 11-inch Apple MacBook Air with 256 GB flash drive jumps to $1,100 and up, while the 13-inch Apple MacBook Air with 256 GB flash drive starts at $1,200.
The MacBook Air has some other things going for it. Apple's build quality is legendary -- no cheap plastics here -- and its customer support earns top ratings in survey after survey despite only offering a somewhat limited warranty -- and some of the pricier extended warranties in the industry. For those living near an Apple store, access to in-store Genius Bars for basic support and troubleshooting is free and highly prized. As the original ultraportable from which all succeeding ultraportables -- including Windows Ultrabooks -- have drawn their inspiration, aesthetics are first rate. However, they are also largely unchanged over the years, which means some Windows ultraportables are now a bit smaller and lighter, and perhaps a bit snazzier.
If there's a weakness in this laptop, it's in its display. While the 1,440 by 900 pixel (native) display of the 13-inch MacBook Air is nice, it's roundly beaten by some of the QHD (quad HD) displays offered on some Windows laptops, and the Retina displays on Apple's more powerful -- and more pricey -- MacBook Pro models.
Speaking of which, while the MacBook Air is more than powerful enough to tackle most people's computing needs, if you aren't most people and need or crave an even more powerful system, the Apple MacBook Pro line could fill the bill. It, too, earns raves from users and experts -- and some rate it even a little more highly than the MacBook Air.
Whether you need a powerful ultraportable or an even more powerful desktop replacement, there's an Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display that could be perfect for you. For power users who prize performance over light weight or low price, the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display is the go-to choice. The base configuration includes a 4th generation 2.2 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 16 GB of memory, a 256 GB flash drive and integrated Intel Iris Pro graphics. While Iris Pro graphics can't really compete with a gaming-oriented, high-end discrete graphics card, PCMag.com and others say it holds its own against most mid-tier discrete solutions. You'll need to put up with only medium quality settings, but frame rates are more than fast enough to allow for satisfying game play with even demanding 3D games.
If the base version doesn't provide enough power for your, there's a step-up to the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display that is worth considering, but it adds $500 to the price. The hardware line up is goosed up to include an even faster 2.5 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7, a 512 GB flash drive and dual graphics -- integrated Iris Pro as well as a discrete NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M with 2GB of dedicated GDDR5 graphics memory.
If high-end gaming is your thing, however, keep in mind that some Windows gaming rigs carry price tags in the same $2,500 range, but offer still more impressive graphics chops. We name some of those in our section on Best Gaming Laptops.
For power users who spend lots of time on the road, the smaller 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (Est. $1,300 and up) may be a good choice as well. Critics note that other laptops aren't far behind, but the 13-inch MacBook with Retina display still offers a great balance of portability and performance.Thin (.71 inches) and light (3.46 pounds), the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display fits neatly into the profile of an ultraportable, and PCMag.com grants it Editors' Choice standing as the best ultraportable laptop available. The base version is equipped with a 4th generation 2.6 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB of memory, a 128 GB flash drive and step-down Intel Iris Graphics (versus Iris Pro in the 15-inch model). Memory, the processor and more can be upgraded at purchase, but not the flash drive. If you need more storage, step up versions offer a 256 GB flash drive (Est. $1,500 and up) or a 512 GB flash drive (Est. $1,800 and up). The highest configuration also ups the processor to a 4th generation 2.8 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 and allows you to optionally upgrade the flash drive to a 1 TB capacity -- for an additional $500.
All of these MacBook Pros include a Retina display. Though Windows laptops with even higher-resolution displays are now available, the Retina display remains dazzling, reviews say. Apple also offers a 13-inch MacBook Pro (Est. $1,100 and up) without a Retina display. Originally introduced in 2012, it uses a 3rd generation Intel Core i5 processor and less-powerful Intel HD Graphics 4000. User feedback is strong, but very few experts have reviewed it.
Best Windows Laptops
While Apple laptops are currently garnering some of the best reviews from experts and users, they aren't right for everyone. Those sticking with Windows can find a good assortment of top laptops, all equipped with strong performance and key features -- including quality touch screens to make life with Windows 8.1 more pleasant.
We saw some of the best feedback for the 13-inch Dell XPS 13 (Est. $1,200 and up). Dell has offered versions of this Ultrabook for a few years, but while earlier models were decent choices, none could be considered standouts -- until now. The 2014 version of the XPS 13 is "a great all-around very portable laptop, and in some ways, more useful than a 13-inch MacBook Air," says Dan Ackerman at CNET. It earns high grades from other reviewers who have tested it as well. Laptop Magazine names it "Best Windows Laptop." ComputerShopper.com awards it an Editors' Choice.
The base configuration is outfitted with a 4th generation Intel Core i5-4210U processor, Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics, 8 GB of memory and a 128 GB solid state drive. The 13.3-inch display features full HD resolution -- 1,920 by 1,080 pixels. A step up version (Est. $1,600) swaps the processor for a 4th generation Intel Core i7 processor and ups the hard drive to 256 GB, but most reviewers look at the base model or a similar configuration. One grouse is that there's no memory card slot.
Apple laptops are generally lauded for their terrific build quality, but the Dell XPS 13 belongs in the same conversation. The chassis features an Air-like aluminum lid and a black carbon-fiber base. Corning Gorilla Glass stretches edge-to-edge on the touchscreen display deck.
Ergonomics are largely excellent. The black soft-touch bottom deck is very comfortable to type on according to most reviewers. ComputerShopper.com mildly complains that the keys don't provide enough travel to be comfortable for extended use, but then adds: "Admittedly, this is shallow criticism given that the ultrabook form factor all but demands the slightest possible keyboard depth without going over entirely to a membrane design." Reviews note that the touch screen is very responsive, making working in Windows 8.1 a more pleasant experience. "When I used apps optimized for touch, such as Word, Excel, and Internet Explorer, touch commands worked smooth as silk even for multi-touch gestures like pinch-zoom," says W. Bryan Hastings at PC World.
Performance is competitive with the MacBook Air, and CNET notes it does better in certain benchmarks. However, as Ackerman adds, all Core i5-equipped ultraportables are likely to benchmark close enough that performance differences between them won't be noticeable in real-world usage. High-end gaming is off the table with a laptop of this power, but it is fine for casual play. Battery life is impressive for a PC ultraportable at nearly 8.5 hours, give or take, depending on who is testing.
Lenovo has long been a go-to choice for business users. Expert reviews continue to be strong for several mid-priced, business-oriented laptops offered, though not all users are as impressed. The chief issue for many is a redesigned trackpad that trades off the traditional dedicated buttons for a sleeker looking design that uses hot corners on the trackpad itself to serve the same functions. This type of trackpad is becoming commonplace in laptops -- especially non-gaming-oriented laptops. Experts largely have no issues with it, or its functionality, and user reviews for most models aren't especially hostile toward it. However, long-time Lenovo users who prize Lenovo's traditional ergonomics are more "upset," and that shows up in lower user ratings than normal for laptops we recommend. If the trackpad issue is not a deal killer for you, however, there are a couple of Lenovo laptops very much worth considering.
The Lenovo ThinkPad T440s (Est. $850 and up) can be bought in preconfigured versions or customized to your heart's content at Lenovo's web site. For example, if you absolutely hate the idea of Windows 8.1, you can, for an additional $50, order this laptop with Windows 7 Professional 64 instead. If Windows 8.1 is A-OK with you, you can swap the standard non-touch 1,600 by 900 pixel 14-inch display for a 1,920 by 1,080 one with multi touch -- and despite the $300 upcharge, that's a very good idea for those opting for Windows 8.1.
Reviewers look at all sorts of configurations of the ThinkPad. Laptop Magazine tests a version with an 4th generation Intel Core i5-4200U processor, 8G of memory, a 256 GB solid state drive, the aforementioned touch screen, and Windows 8 professional (Est. $1,450) and is impressed enough to name it an Editors' Choice and the best laptop for business users. ComputerShopper.com looks at a slightly less powerful configuration, with 4 GB of memory and a 128 GB solid state drive (Est. $1,250), and awards it Editors' Choice status, as well.
Trackpad issues aside, The T440s offers terrific ergonomics. Laptop Magazine says the keyboard continues to be the most responsive one on the market. The touchscreen follows suit: "The 10-point touch screen was extremely responsive to all of our gestures, even allowing us to draw with all fingers on both hands at once in Windows Paint," says Avram Piltch.
Bloatware -- those trial and demo software applications that offer little value but can bog down performance, especially at start up -- is not an issue here. "The ThinkPad T440s ships with blessedly few preinstalled applications," says David Eitelbach at ComputerShopper.com. Eitelbach adds that the pre-installed apps that Lenovo does provide often prove to actually be useful. An example is QuickControl, which lets you control the T440s remotely via a smartphone app (Apple and Android devices are supported) -- a boon for those that use their laptops for presentations. The port line up is exceptional for a thin and light ultraportable (the T440s is .8 inches thick and weighs 3.6 pounds). Those include a full-sized Ethernet connector and a VGA port.
The T440s is built to withstand life on the road. While not unattractive, aesthetics take a back seat to build quality. It is designed to meet Mil-Spec standards for resistance to temperature extremes, shock, vibration, humidity and more. A roll-cage design helps add strength to the chassis, and the hinge folds a full 180 degrees. The battery design includes a built in internal battery and a swappable rear battery. As supplied, these test out to provide run times exceeding six hours. For a nominal charge (Est. $5), you can also opt for a higher capacity swappable battery that boosts run times to more than 14 hours (again, depending on who is testing), but at the cost of added weight and a less-svelte look as it is thicker and deeper. ComputerShopper.com notes that opting for the high-capacity battery means typing on the laptop at a tilted angle.
While the Lenovo ThinkPad T440s is small and light, if every inch and every ounce matter, the 12.5-inch Lenovo ThinkPad X240 (Est. $810 and up) is another option. Once again, you can upgrade and downgrade this laptop at Lenovo's site, changing operating systems (Windows 7 is again an option), display types (resolution as well as type -- touch or non-touch), processor, memory, storage and more to get the exact system your needs and/or budget dictate. Most reviewers look at a model with a 4th generation Intel Core i5-4200U processor, 8GB of memory, a 256 GB solid state drive, a 1,366 by 768 touch screen display and Windows 8 (Est. $1,420), and most give it high marks, including Editors' Choice awards at PCMag.com, Laptop Magazine and ComputerShopper.com.
There are a few gripes, nonetheless. The low-resolution of the base touch screen is one, though an upgrade to a full HD display can be had for a $50 upcharge. Different reviewers have different takes on the trackpad. Jamie Bsales at ComputerShopper.com says that the "jury is still out" on it, and has trouble getting some clicks to register. John R. Delaney at PCMag.com is happy, however, noting that the button-less design results in a trackpad that's larger and more usable. He adds that it "takes a little getting used to the extra surface area but once you do it's hard to image how you ever got along with a smaller trackpad." The port selection, while good, is not as robust as on the T440s, and an Ethernet connection requires an adapter.
Ergonomics (trackpad aside) and build quality are fully up to Lenovo's standards. "The island-style keyboard is a typical ThinkPad keyboard; in other words, it is awesome," Delaney says. Battery life is impressive, and the X240 uses the same dual-battery set up as the T440s but with even longer run times in tests.
Elsewhere in this Report:
Best Cheap Laptops | Best Gaming Laptops | Buying Guide | Our Sources