Among laptops, there's a good assortment of options that deliver the right balance of performance, features and value to fit any computing need or budget. Super-cheap, sub $500 Windows laptops, along with even cheaper Chromebooks (which run the Chrome OS) and Windows-based Chromebook alternatives, are covered in our discussion of the best cheap laptops. If, instead, you are interested in an Apple MacBook laptop, the options are covered in our discussion of best Apple laptops. In this section, we discuss mainstream Windows laptops, ideal for users who need reasonably powerful systems for work or school, as well as gaming systems that deliver great performance without unreasonably draining your bank account.
For many users, the 13-inch Dell XPS 13 (Est. $800 and up) looks to be an easy choice as the Best Reviewed Windows laptop. It's available in a wide variety of custom and stock configurations to fit any budget and any use short of high-end gaming. It's available in both touch-screen and non-touch versions, at prices that range from around $800 for the base version to maxed-out configurations that will set you back around $2,200. Every expert that's looked at one configuration or another has come away at least somewhat impressed, and that includes Editors' Choice selections at Laptop Magazine, PCMag.com, Reviewed.com, ComputerShopper.com and HotHardware.com. TheWirecutter.com names the Dell XPS 13 the best Windows ultrabook that you can buy right now.
The previous version of the XPS 13 was a hit as well, driven in part by what Dell dubs the Infinity Display -- a near borderless screen that lets the company fit a 13.3-inch screen into a laptop with the footprint of a typical 11-inch. The effect of the thin bezel is stunning, especially in versions upgraded to have a touch screen, as that display offers 3,200 by 1,800 pixel QHD+ (quad HD) resolution and is fitted with an edge-to-edge glass overlay that gives the XPS 13 some added flair.
That display is part of the goodness that was left untouched in this latest incarnation. Instead, Dell made important technology upgrades in late 2015, and the result, according to experts such as Sam Rutherford at Laptop Magazine is that "The best laptop is now even better." In particular, Rutherford notes, "Dell has given the XPS 13 É a brighter screen, longer battery life, a new USB-C port with Thunderbolt 3 and your choice of Intel's latest 6th-generation Core Series CPUs."
While stock configurations are available at many retailers, you can custom configure the XPS 13 for the mix of processor power, memory, storage and display that meets your specific needs at Dell's website. The base configuration is outfitted with a 6th generation (Skylake) Intel Core i3 processor, 4 GB of memory, a 128 GB solid state drive and a non-touch Infinity display. Available upgrades include 6th generation i5 and i7 processors, 8 GB or 16 GB of memory, 256 GB or 512 GB solid state drives, and the aforementioned QHD+ Infinity touch screen display.
In terms of design, the Infinity Display is the attention getter, but that's not the only positive that the XPS 13 brings to the table. "The look and feel of the updated XPS 13 is virtually identical to the Broadwell-based model from early [last] year, which is to say that it is beautiful, says Chris Goetting at HotHardware.com. "Dell's design team created a machine that is every bit as appealing to mainstream audiences as it is to us geeks," he adds, noting that the machine stands out without being overly flashy. The XPS 13 is small and lightweight, coming in at .6 inches at its thickest point, and 2.7 pounds (2.9 pounds for the touch screen version.
We also found some great recommendations for the ThinkPad X1 Carbon (Est. $1,150 and up), including Editors' choice selections at PCMag.com, Laptop Magazine, ComputerShopper.com and NotebookReview.com. Like the XPS 13, you can buy fixed configurations of the X1 Carbon at retailers such as Amazon.com and BestBuy.com, or custom configure one at the Lenovo website.
The ThinkPad X1 sports a larger, 14-inch screen than the Dell XPS, yet weighs less, quite a feat experts say. "When I was carrying the Carbon back and forth to work, I often had to open my backpack, just to see if I had forgotten it, because I felt like I wasn't carrying anything," says Laptop Magazine's Avram Piltch. But despite that's light weight, it's built to survive life on the road, making it a near perfect business laptop.
"The keyboard is spill-resistant, and the system's hardy frame has been certified for several MIL-STD 801G tests, including high humidity, low temperature, high temperature, blowing sand, vibration, mechanical shock, high altitude, and temperature shock," says PCMag.com's Joel Santo Domingo. He adds that given the laptop has also passed Lenovo's durability and drop testing, "Surviving a daily train commute should be a breeze."
The base configuration has been updated to include a 6th generation Skylake Intel Core i5-6200U processor, a 14-inch 1,920 by1,080 HD non-touch display, 8 GB of memory and a 128 GB hard drive. Step up configurations let you boost the processor, memory (to 16 GB), storage (up to 512 GB) and the display to QHD resolution (2,560 by 1,440 pixels). There is no touch option, but that's not a deal killer for many now that Windows 10 is here, but still a disappointment in the eyes of some reviewers. The other downsides include a MicroSD card slot instead of a standard SD memory card slot, and the lack of either USB-C or a built-in Ethernet port, though the latter can be added via an adapter.
The laptops above, regardless of their configuration, share one thing in common -- they are great for every task save high-end gaming. For that you need a laptop with serious graphics chops. It's easy to spend tons of money on such systems -- over $5,000 for those who demand the very best performance, along with a little (or a lot of) panache. For those with more modest budgets, it's possible to get a very satisfying gaming experience while leaving some dollars in your pocket.
The Razer Blade (Est. $2,000 and up) is a gaming laptop that can double as your everyday laptop. It measures just 0.7 inch thick and weighs just 4.25 pounds, yet manages to pack true gaming prowess into a wafer the size of an Ultrabook. Finally, experts say, a real gamer that you can toss into your backpack on a daily basis.
For 2016, Razer made several performance and aesthetic upgrades to the Blade, and cut the price. Ergonomics are generally excellent. The Razer Chroma keyboard draws considerable expert admiration. "Razer Chroma lets you completely customize the keyboard's backlight and there are even some spiffy animated presets that you can toggle on that react to your typing, or that are just there to look cool," says Brendan Nystedt at Reviewed.com. But the keyboard has more than cool aesthetics going for it. "The keys feel good, support full anti-ghosting to prevent input jamming, and are programmable with the included software," notes Matthew Buzzi at PCMag.com.
The 14-inch QHD (3,200 by 1,800 pixels) touch screen introduced in 2014 is back, and is just as spectacular as ever. As before, playing tough games at maximum resolution will clearly tax the system, "but that shouldn't have much practical effect in everyday gaming, where you're likely to dial the in-game resolution down to 1,920x1,080," says CNET's Dan Ackerman, who also notes that, at least at present, even the highest performance graphics cards struggle to provide maximum details at the highest resolution settings.
The base Razer Blade is equipped with a 6th generation Intel Core i7–6700HQ Quad-Core Processor, a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970M graphics card, 16 GB of memory, and a 256 GB SSD (upgradable to 512 GB for an additional $200). Connectivity is good, including a USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port, but no memory card slot.
Reviews are generally excellent for the Razer Blade. Most experts grant it four stars or better, and Laptop Magazine, PCMag.com and Reviewed.com are among those that award this laptop Editors' Choice status. Gripes are relatively few, but many note that the Razer Blade can run quite hot. Most say that goes with the territory, but a few, such as ComputerShopper.com, do ding it a little for getting "hot and loud while gaming on built-in graphics."
The Wirecutter.com goes one step further, and argues that you should avoid all ultraportable gaming notebooks for that reason, and instead points to the Asus ROG G752VT-DH72 (Est. $1,600) as its top choice. Reviews of this laptop elsewhere are on a par with the Blade, or sometimes a notch below, but still generally positive.
If you do opt for the Asus, be aware it's not a machine you'll want to be toting around too often. "With a 17.3-inch display and an 8.8-pound carry weight, the G752 is also one of the biggest, heftiest gaming notebooks on the market from a mainstream laptop maker these days," notes Charles Jefferies at ComputerShopper.com.
However, this desktop replacement laptop is certainly power packed. Like the Blade, you'll find a 6th generation Intel Core i7–6700HQ Quad-Core Processor, a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970M graphics card and 16 GB of memory (which can be upgraded up to 64 GB). Storage is via a 128 GB solid state drive, plus a traditional 1 TB hard drive. and versions of the ROG laptop with larger solid state drives are available. Connectivity is good, including a USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port, a memory card reader and a writable DVD/CD drive-- something that's becoming harder to find in today's laptops.