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In this report

MacBook Air: Experts' favorite laptop, now with "insane" battery life

Professionals now recommend Mac laptops more often than Windows models because many of the traditional advantages of Windows no longer apply. Today, you can run Windows on any Mac since they all use Intel processors, and independent tests and surveys show that Macs are more reliable and less vulnerable to virus attacks than other laptops. Perhaps most important, Apple has lowered the price of its Mac laptops so there's not much of a cost difference if any. For more on Mac versus PC, see our Buyer's Guide.

Once the pretty underachiever of the Apple family, the 13-inch MacBook Air (Est. $1,050 and up) has matured into experts' favorite laptop, period. "If you're a normal person shopping for a laptop, you should buy a MacBook Air," says Nilay Patel at TheVerge.com after testing the newest 13-inch Air.

It looks, feels and works just like last year's Air -- in other words, pretty fantastic, experts say -- except for its mind-boggling battery life. Apple estimates 12 hours, but critics say that's just being modest. Patel cruises the web for an "insane" 13.5 hours, CNET plays videos for 14.5 hours and PCMag.com manages an "astonishing" 15.5 hours on one charge. That shatters the record for laptops without an external battery, considering that seven hours is usually considered excellent.

Performance is still as snappy as ever, thanks to the Intel Core i5 Haswell processor, speedy 128 GB flash drive and 4 GB of RAM. Or you can step up to a Core i7, 8 GB of RAM and 512 GB of flash storage. New Intel HD Graphics 5000 even makes for nice casual gaming.

It's no longer the lightest laptop around, but the MacBook Air's 3-pound shell tapers to just a fraction of an inch thick, and testers barely notice they're carrying it. Reviewers say its sturdy yet beautifully crafted design, terrific keyboard and multi-touchpad, and rock-solid reliability still set the gold standard. The Air packs plenty of power for most users, experts say, but if portability is paramount, the 11-inch MacBook Air (Est. $1,000 and up) performs nearly identically for a half-pound and $100 less.

If you need more power and a better screen, the recently updated 15-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display (Est. $2,000 and up) is a compelling choice. The base 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display ships with an Intel Core i7 Haswell processor and an integrated HD Graphics 5200 (Iris Pro) graphics solution.

This is a fairly significant change from its immediate predecessor, which had discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 650M graphics. It's one reason why Apple was able to cut around $200 from the laptop's price tag. The good news is that it didn't cut much from the machine's graphics performance. It nearly matches its predecessor's graphics benchmarks in testing at PCMag.com. "This means that for light to moderate gaming, the Iris Pro 5200 is more than adequate," says Joel Santo Domingo.

The rest of the hardware lineup is impressive, headlined by the class-establishing 15.4-inch, 2,880-by-1,800-pixel Retina display. You also find 8 GB of memory and 256 GB of flash memory (SSD). Both memory (up to 16 GB) and storage (up to 1 TB) can be increased, but you'll pay steeply for the privilege, and reviewers indicate that there's no need to do that for most. There is sufficient connectivity, including HDMI, USB 3.0 (x2), and Thunderbolt 2 (x2) ports. You'll also find an SD card reader. Wi-Fi is also built in, but you'll need to use an extra-cost adapter to get a wired (Ethernet) network connection. The glass and aluminum styling and backlit keyboard are just about identical to its predecessor and get admiring comments all around. Ditto for build quality; it is impeccable.

For those that want more gaming prowess, the step-up 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display (Est. $2,000 and up) includes the aforementioned Iris Pro graphics plus a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT750M graphics card with 2 GB of dedicated memory. David Pierce at The Verge says that dedicated, hard-core gamers should probably still stick with Windows-based gaming laptops, but that's more because the Apple universe still trails Windows in terms of the number of available high-end titles. As for the hardware Pierce says, "I've definitely used better gaming machines, but not many."

Most reviewers look at the step-up version, but most also add that it's more computer than most will need. In addition to the upgraded graphics, RAM (to 16 GB) and storage (to 512 GB) are doubled. "It's a $2,599 machine, and appears to be utter overkill for everything I could possibly want to do," Pierce says. "I gave up opening browser tabs to try and cripple the machine after about 50, and everything from 4K footage to iMovie ingestion and rendering happened faster even than I expected."

Apple has also brought Haswell technology to the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display (Est. $1,300) , and the latest update of this laptop has also been earning tons of praise, including Editors' Choice nods at CNET, Laptop Magazine, DigitalTrends.com and elsewhere. Its ultra-sharp, 2,560-by-1,600-pixel screen continues to impress. Colors pop; text looks beautifully crisp, and images gain new depth and detail.

The incorporation of Haswell technology allowed Apple to downsize the dimensions and heft of this laptop compared to its predecessor. "Not a Retina MacBook Air, but awfully close," blares the headline on CNET's review. Yes, it's still thicker than the Air, and heavier, but still not that much of a burden at less than 0.75 inch thick and less than 3.5 pounds. What you gain is a more powerful processor, improved graphics and that wonderful Retina display.

The base version of this Apple laptop sports a fourth-generation Intel Core i5 CPU with Intel Iris integrated graphics, 4 GB of RAM and a fast 128 GB PCIe flash drive. Most reviewers test a step-up version (Est. $1,500 and up) that's similar but ups memory to 8 GB and storage to 256 GB. Note that if you think there's any chance you'll want or need extra memory, go for the step-up version at purchase since memory is not user replaceable.

In terms of performance, this laptop splits the difference between the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display and the MacBook Air; it also beats out most Windows-based Ultrabooks in benchmark testing. At Laptop Magazine, those include the well-regarded Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus and Acer Aspire S7, covered elsewhere in this report. "The refresh of the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display once again keeps it one step ahead of other ultraportable notebooks," says Michael A. Prospero. "Not only does this machine offer one of the best displays and better performance, but its battery life is also the best in its price range."

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Acer Aspire S7-392-9890 13.3-Inch Touchscreen Ultrabook (Crystal White)
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from Amazon.com
New: $1,599.99   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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Apple MacBook Pro ME866LL/A 13.3-Inch Laptop with Retina Display (NEWEST VERSION)
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New: $1,799.00 $1,699.00   
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Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus NP940X3G-K01US 13.3-Inch Touchscreen Laptop
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from Amazon.com
New: $1,399.99 $1,237.95   
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Apple MacBook Pro ME293LL/A 15.4-Inch Laptop with Retina Display (NEWEST VERSION)
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from Amazon.com
New: $1,999.00 $1,829.00   
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Laptops Runners Up:

13-inch Apple MacBook Air Est. $1,050 and up

9 picks including: Amazon.com, CNET…

Alienware 14 Est. $1,100 and up

5 picks by top review sites.

Alienware 17 Est. $1,500 and up

4 picks by top review sites.

Acer Aspire S7 Est. $1,330 and up

3 picks including: Amazon.com, DigitalTrends.com…

Asus Zenbook UX51VZ Est. $1,820 and up

2 picks including: DigitalTrends.com, Engadget.com…

Lenovo IdeaPad Y510p Est. $1,050 and up

2 picks including: Laptop Magazine, PCMag.com…

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch Est. $1,300 and up

1 pick including: DigitalTrends.com, Engadget.com…

Dell XPS 12 Est. $1,000 and up

1 pick including: Engadget.com, CNET…

CyberPower FangBook Evo HX7-200 Est. $1,530 and up

1 pick including: PCMag.com, PC World…

Sony Vaio Pro 11 Est. $1,150 and up

1 pick including: Engadget.com, CNET…

image
Acer Aspire S7-392-9890 13.3-Inch Touchscreen Ultrabook (Crystal White)
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $1,599.99   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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ASUS UX51Vz-DH71 15.6-Inch Laptop (OLD VERSION)
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from Amazon.com
New: $1,999.00   
Average Customer Review:  
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Lenovo IdeaPad Y510p 59388313 15.6-Inch Laptop (Dusk Black)
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from Amazon.com
New: $1,099.99   
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Average Customer Review:  
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ASUS TX300CA-DH71 13.3-Inch Detachable 2-in-1 Touchscreen Laptop (OLD VERSION)
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New: $1,499.00   
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Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 14-Inch Touchscreen Laptop (Black)3444CUU
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from Amazon.com
New: $1,999.99 $1,479.99   
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Average Customer Review:  
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CyberpowerPC FANGBOOK EVO HFX7-200 17.3-Inch Laptop
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Sony VAIO Pro SVP11213CXB 11.6-Inch Core i5 Touchscreen Ultrabook (Carbon Black)
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New: $1,149.99 $1,100.00   
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