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Best Windows Laptops

By: Carl Laron on August 02, 2017

The Dell XPS 13 is tough to beat

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. Those range from super-cheap, sub-$500 Windows laptops and Chromebooks (which run the Chrome OS) to high-powered gaming laptops that deliver maximum performance at a maximum price tag, typically running into the thousands of dollars. Apple MacBooks, which run the MacOS operating system and, optionally, Windows, are another alternative. MacBooks are priced at $1,000 (for the MacBook Air) and up, and are covered in our discussion of Apple laptops.

However, if you are looking for a mainstream Windows laptop, ideal for users who need a reasonably powerful system for work or school, the 13-inch Dell XPS 13 (Est. $800 and up) looks to be an easy choice. The XPS 13 was also an easy choice last year, but the current version has received some upgrades -- including the incorporation of 7th generation Intel Core processors -- to make what was already a great machine even better. "The Dell XPS 13 improves upon our top-rated laptop by offering even longer battery life, faster performance and stronger Wi-Fi in an equally compact design," raves Mark Spoonauer at Laptop magazine, where it's named an Editors' Choice and the best laptop overall.

Most other reviewers largely agree. Reviewed.com bestows Editors' Choice and Best of the Year honors on the XPS 13. TheWirecutter.com names the current version of the XPS 13 "The best Ultrabook." It's also an Editors' Choice at ComputerShopper.com, PCMag.com, and HotHardware.com. PC World says that the XPS 13 is "arguably one of the best if not the best laptop available." CNET seems a touch less enamored then some, but still says "Whether you scale back for better battery life or load it up for the best performance possible, the Dell XPS 13 remains one excellent ultraportable laptop."

As you can tell from the preceding, you can custom configure the XPS 13 to hit the price/performance point you desire, and users who do so and leave reviews at Dell's web site are largely pleased, as around 80 percent of the more than 8,200 that weigh in give it a recommendation. Preconfigured versions are also available from some retailers, but user reviews from those sites tend to be more limited and more lackluster. Based on that, our recommendation is that if an XPS 13 is right for you, get the one that's exactly right for you at Dell's site. Versions run from an $800 base configuration powered by a 7th generation (Kaby Lake) Intel Core i3-7100U to a version with a touch screen and powered by 7th generation Intel Core i7 that will run you around $1,700 (and that can accept memory, hard drive and other upgrades that can boost the price to over $2,400). In addition to the aforementioned i3, the base configuration comes with 4 GB of memory, integrated Intel HD Graphics 620 graphics and a 128 GB solid-state drive (SSD) -- no performance powerhouse, to be sure, but still a machine that's more than capable of handling most everyday computing tasks.

As was the case with previous versions of the XPS 13, Dell's InfinityEdge display is a key plus. That near-borderless display lets the company fit a 13.3-inch screen into a laptop with the footprint of a typical 11-inch model. 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 (the non-touch versions have a more basic 1,920 x 1,080 full HD display).

That display is part of the goodness that was left untouched in this latest incarnation. What is new is improved battery life, thanks to the switch to the latest generation Intel processors and a larger capacity battery; improved performance (at least on benchmarking tests); and better Wi-Fi connectivity -- "The Dell XPS 13's Killer 1535 Wireless-AC card, which comes standard on all configurations, is one of my favorite features," Laptop magazine's Spoonauer reports. He adds that he places the XPS 13 and 12-inch Apple MacBook side-by-side some distance away from his router and that the Dell had "no trouble" loading sites quickly while the MacBook "struggled to maintain a connection."

Battery life floors -- or at least impresses very much -- most reviewers. "Coming in just a minute shy of first place in our Battery Eater Pro test, (clearly within the test's margin of variability) and blowing out the competition in our HD video loop test, the new Dell XPS 13 is an absolute battery life beast," HotHardware.com reports. They also note that the i7-equipped configuration it tested lasted nearly 7 hours while continuously playing HD video. ComputerShopper.com tests an i5 equipped version, and emphasizes maximum battery life in its trial, and is every bit as impressed. "It seems that Dell's decision to increase the battery size, paired with the move to a newer-generation Intel CPU, added more than three hours to the XPS 13's longevity," Matt Safford says. His test unit clocks in at over 14 hours in the site's video rundown test.

Now that we've looked at what's new, let's focus on what's not as the Infinity display wasn't the only successful thing about the XPS 13 that Dell decided not to mess with. As was the case with last year's model, the XPS 13 is relatively port rich for an ultraportable, including two USB 3.0 ports and a USB-C port with Thunderbolt 3. There's no optical media drive (as is par for the course for an ultraportable), but there is a memory card reader. It also hasn't messed very much with the design, save for adding a new rose gold chassis option that you can select instead of the standard silver brushed aluminum one (for a $50 upcharge). While you can get sleeker ultraportables, at 2.7 pounds (2.9 pounds with the touch screen option) and measuring 11.98 by 7.88 by .6 inches, this is an easy laptop to tote around.

We also found some great recommendations for the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (Est. $1,325 and up), including Editors' choice selections at PCMag.com, Laptop Magazine, ComputerShopper.com and elsewhere. Like the XPS 13, you can custom configure one at the Lenovo website or buy pre-configured versions at some retailers. However, at the time of this update the latest 5th generation version of this Ultrabook was just starting to reach the retail channel and, while there are lots of fourth generation models available, the newest version remains scarce except directly from Lenovo.

For 2017, the base configuration of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon includes a 7th generation Intel Core i5- 7600U processor, a 14-inch 1,920 by1,080 HD non-touch display, integrated Intel HD Graphics 620 graphics, 8 GB of memory and a 128 GB hard drive. Step up configurations let you boost the processor to an i7, memory (to 16 GB), storage (up to 1 TB) and the display to QHD resolution (2,560 by 1,440 pixels). There is no touch option. That's not a deal killer for many under Windows 10, but still a disappointment in the eyes of some reviewers. ComputerShopper.com's Eric Grevstad happily notes that some of last year's omissions have been rectified -- including the inclusion of an Ethernet port (of the micro variety, so you'll need to use an included adapter) and two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, plus two standard USB 3.0 ports.

Feedback among users is still too thin to be meaningful (even at Lenovo's site, we saw fewer than 25 reviews), but most experts like the ThinkPad X1 very much. It earns Editors' Choice awards at PCMag.com, Laptop Magazine, ComputerShopper.com and elsewhere, along with a host of additional largely positive reviews. Some like it a little less that the XPS 13 (for example, HotHardware.com gives it a Recommended award instead of the Editors' Choice it bestows on Dell's laptop) while others, such as ComputerShopper.com (which lists it as the top laptop in its current top 10), like it a bit more. 

ComputerShopper.com notes that the latest version is a little bit svelter than last year "Lenovo has lopped a quarter-inch off the Carbon's width and half an inch off its depth, leaving a machine that measures 12.7 by 8.5 by 0.63 inches -- a 14-inch laptop, the company brags, in a 13.3-inch chassis." As noted, the laptop sports a larger, 14-inch screen than the Dell XPS, yet weighs less -- just 2.49 pounds.

Don't let the small size fool you, however. The X1 Carbon is one tough traveler. "The laptop is built to pass MIL-SPEC tests for extreme temperatures, shocks, vibrations and sand blasts," Laptop magazine notes, adding that it also passed "Lenovo's own proprietary bump-and-drop tests." It also has the stamina to run all day long, and then some. All reviewers are impressed by this laptop's battery life. In trials at ComputerShopper.com, a Core i5 equipped Lenovo laptop ran for nearly 16 hours before conking out -- longer even than the Dell laptop when subjected to a similar test.

A great gaming laptop that won't break the bank

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 14-inch Razer Blade (Est. $1,900 and up) measures just 13.6 by 9.3 by.7 inches and weighs just 4.10 pounds, yet manages to pack true gaming prowess into what's pretty much an Ultrabook form factor. Finally, experts say, a real gamer that you can toss into your backpack on a daily basis.

Like the laptops above, the Blade is an already well-liked system that's become even better thanks to a jump to Kaby Lake technology. While that's not all that's been updated, that represents the bulk of the changes compared to the 2016 version -- and for many reviewers, it's more than enough. "The minimally updated Razer Blade shares last year's design and most of its components, but the upgraded processor and improved battery life make it the best ultraportable gaming laptop you can buy," says PCMag.com's Matthew Buzzi. PCMag.com is among the reviewers that award the Blade an Editors' Choice or similar accolades, alongside ComputerShopper.com, Laptop magazine and others.

The base Razer Blade is equipped with a 7th generation Intel Core i7–7700HQ Quad-Core Processor, a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060M graphics card, 16 GB of memory, and a 256 GB SSD (upgradable to either 512 GB or 1 TB). Connectivity is good, including a USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port, but no memory card slot. The base configuration comes with a 1080p full HD display, which might seem rather low resolution next to the many QHD-equipped laptops now available, but can be a plus for gaming. "The combination of the relatively low-res screen and top-tier hardware means that the Blade managed to handle almost any game I threw at it with relative ease," says Chaim Gartenberg at TheVerge.com. A QHD touch display, which carries a reported $500 upcharge, is promoted as an option, but does not appear to be available at retail at the time of this report.

As should be expected with Kaby Lake technology, battery life is much improved over last year's model -- some 40 percent per CompterShopper.com, which logged over 7 hours until shutdown in its video rundown battery test. Other reviewers test differently and report different run times, but all say that this year's version easily outlasts last year's -- and beats some competing systems, albeit ones that trade a little performance and run time for a higher resolution display.

Gamers are sometimes willing to shell out bigger bucks for laptops that look as hot on the outside as they perform on the inside. If that's you, the Blade might not be the laptop you are looking for. "Aside from the company's signature glowing green snake logo on the lid, the Blade continues to be a welcome breath of elegant and restrained design in a gaming PC market that all too often focuses on 'edgy' plastic protrusions and angular vents," Gartenberg says. Beware, however, that the black aluminum exterior is a bit of a fingerprint magnet.

While not everyone is in absolute love with this gaming laptop, given the price versus performance, gripes are relatively few. Some complain about the color accuracy of the display, while others have no such reservations. One thing that most agree on is that the there's a bit too much bezel around the screen. In addition, the Razer Blade can run quite hot. Most say that goes with the territory, but a few, such as Laptop magazine, do ding it a little on that score, saying "As pretty as the Blade's aluminum chassis is, it doesn't take much to turn from a cool customer into a hot potato." It does have dual fans to prevent things from getting excessively hot, but those can disturb the peace a little when they are cranked up to their top speeds during high-intensity gaming.

The 17-inch Alienware 17 (Est. $1,425 and up) is another gaming laptop that's very much worth considering -- as long as you don't plan to take it off your desktop too often. The laptop weighs nearly 10 pounds (on average, depending on the configuration) and measures 16.7 by 13.1 by 1.18 inches.

Critics and users largely love the Alienware 17, which is now in its fourth revision (R4). "An authoritative 17-incher that's configurable from the basics to total bad-boy status, the Alienware 17 R4 pulls out all the stops," says Charles Jefferies at ComputerShopper.com, where the laptop is an Editors' Choice. It also earns Editors' Choice accolades from other reviewers, such as Laptop magazine and PCMag.com, and Recommended status at HotHardware.com. It's made by Dell, and as noted above, you can custom configure this machine to hit your price and performance sweet spot at Dell's site, or buy preconfigured versions at a host of retailers, including Amazon.com and BestBuy.com.

The base configuration of the Alienware 17 currently includes a Kaby Lake Intel Core i7-7700HQ quad core processor, 8 GB of memory, a 128 GB SSD plus a 1 TB conventional hard drive, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050Ti discreet graphics and a 17.3 inch full HD (1,980, by 1,080 pixel) display. But while experts allow that that configuration can handle modern gaming at full HD resolutions, most choose to load their review systems to the gills.

For example, calling the base configuration on the Alienware 17 "decidedly [middling], as far as gaming notebooks go," ComputerShopper.com instead looks at a configuration with a Core i7-7820HK quad-core processor, GeForce GTX 1080 discreet graphics, 16GB of RAM, a 512 GB SSD plus 1 TB hard drive, and a QHD (2,560 by 1,440 pixel) display with Tobii eye tracking, which lets you interact with the computer using your eyes (it responds to what you are looking at). Those options, however, add lots of dollars to the bottom line and a similarly configured system will currently set you back more than $2,500. But if that's the neighborhood you want to play in, the Alienware 17 R4 more than holds its own against the competition, with Laptop magazine, for instance, saying that the high end configuration it tests "is up there with the best 17-inch gaming laptops on the market."

For maximum bang for the buck, this laptop "Aspires" to be the best

Up to now, we've focused on laptops that provide ample power for serious work and serious play. However, to be honest, they can be overkill for those who only want a laptop for basic productivity, light duty gaming, web browsing, checking email, and the other basic tasks that are all that many laptop users typically do. If that describes your computing needs, it's hard to imagine a better bargain than the Acer Aspire E 15 E5-575-33BM (Est. $350).

Make no mistake, if you opt for this Acer, you are doing so for maximum value rather than maximum performance, but considering that it's priced in the same range as far less capable systems, such as Chromebooks (covered below), that value makes this a no brainer for those who just want a laptop for basic computing. User reviews are a little mixed -- largely over issues with the display (and Acer has been proactive on reaching out to affected users who post negative reviews at Amazon.com, where most feedback can be found) -- but the majority are mostly to completely pleased

Experts that have looked at the E 15 are nearly unanimously floored, however. It earns Editors' Choice awards at both PCMag.com and Laptop magazine. "A colorful display, long battery life and strong build quality make the É Aspire E 15 E5-575-33BM a fantastic value," says Laptop magazine's Avram Piltch.

This 15-inch class desktop replacement laptop packs a hardware lineup that punches way above its weight class. Inside you'll find a latest generation (Kaby Lake) Intel Core i3-7100U processor, a 1 TB traditional hard drive, a DVD burner, SD card slot, 4 GB of DDR4 memory and integrated Intel HD Graphics 620 graphics. There are plenty of ports, including a pair of USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI output and an Ethernet connector. Wireless 802.11ac is built in as well, but not Bluetooth. The downside to all of this hardware is that this laptop is anything but svelte and light, measuring 15.02 by 10.2 by 1.19 inches and weighing a touch over 5.25 pounds. I

The 15.6-inch display won't hold a candle to the quad resolution displays that are sometimes found on pricier laptops, but is full HD at 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. Though not unique among laptops in this price class, a 1080p display is above the norm with many competing models offering only 720p resolutions. The color gamut it can produce is "impressive," Piltch says, though the colors themselves are not always 100 percent accurate, and the viewing angle for best image quality is a bit narrow. As noted above, some users report getting screens with dead pixels or horizontal lines. That's relatively rare, but it also means that it's best to buy from a retailer with a strong exchange policy in case you wind up with a lemon.

But that's largely where the bad news ends. Thanks in part to its use of a Kaby Lake processor, performance and, especially, battery life are excellent. "It's not up to the speeds of Core i5 and i7 systems, obviously, but those machines enter whole different price tiers," says PCMag.com's Buzzi. "You won't want to make this your media project centerpiece, but as a general-use laptop for watching videos, browsing the web, word processing, and similar tasks, it'll get the job done." And it will get the job done all day long without a trip to the charger -- 9 hours and 45 minutes on the battery rundown test conducted by PCVerge.com, and 8 hours and 16 minutes in Laptop magazine's trial -- and that latter number is about an hour and 20 minutes longer than the category average, Piltch notes.

At this price point, some corners had to obviously be cut, and that shows up mainly in the build quality. However, even there, the cuts are not too deep. PCMag.com complains a little about some keyboard flex, but adds that it's "solidly build for a budget system." But don't let the brushed aluminum effect on the lid fool you -- the system is plastic all the way.

Finally, experts and users appreciate that this laptop is easier to upgrade than many others. There's a removable panel that grants easy access to the memory slots and the hard drive. You can upgrade the user memory up to 32 GB, and swap out the hard drive for a 2.5-inch SATA solid-state drive (SSD) if you value speed over storage capacity. Aftermarket components are often relatively inexpensive, so, as Laptop magazine notes, "for $480 or less, you can have this laptop with an SSD, 8GB of RAM and a 1080p display."

Few other laptops in the sub-$500 price range garner this level of respect. Our Best Reviewed budget laptop of 2016, the Asus VivoBook E403SA (Est. $390), remains available. It drew tons of kudos when it first hit the market, but it's tough to make a case for it today -- unless portability and style are top concerns. Unlike the Aspire E 15 profiled above, the Asus is pretty totable, measuring 13.3 by 9.3 by 0.7 inches and weighing 3.3 pounds. Design is more upscale as well. From the outside, the Asus looks like a premium Ultrabook, with its brushed aluminum finish "that looks like it belongs on a notebook that costs twice as much," says Laptop Magazine's Henry T. Casey

It's under the hood where things come up short, with the Asus VivoBook. The laptop is equipped with an Intel Pentium Quad-Core N3700 processor, 4 GB of memory, and a 128 GB flash drive. "Its quad-core Intel Pentium chip won't change your life, but it brings enough muscle for browsing Facebook, watching Netflix, and of course for Microsoft Office," says Reviewed.com's Brendan Nystedt. He goes on to say that performance is roughly on a par with what you could have expected from an "entry-level Ultrabook from a couple of years ago." Still, performance will fall far short of the Acer, let alone more capable, but still pricier laptops.

Connectivity is good, including a USB-C port and a memory card reader. The keyboard is full-sized; some reviewers like the functionality more than others, but all agree it's better than average for a cheap laptop. "It's a good keyboard for a budget machine, without the flex and cheap feel we've encountered in many other low-cost models," says Jamie Bsales at ComputerShopper.com. Battery life is excellent, reviewers say, but some are disappointed that the battery is not user replaceable. The Asus VivoBook laptop does a good job displaying video on its full HD (1080p), 14-inch display -- with one caveat: The screen is bright and well saturated when looking at it straight on, but the type of panel used limits viewing angles and quality drops off quickly.

Like lots of cheap laptops, user reviews are mixed -- even more so than for the Acer. We saw some complaints at Amazon.com about a finicky space bar. Some users also share information regarding a quick and easy fix, while adding that needing to do that to a new laptop is a bit disappointing. The other complaint we spotted was an issue when waking from hibernation. However, there are also comments that say that updating the drivers to the latest versions will address the problem.

A Chromebook to "Flip" over

Chromebooks are simple, web-centric, cheap laptops that do basically everything in "the cloud" through Google's Chrome browser. Don't try it if you need Windows -- it's missing -- or want to run traditional software; there are lots of unhappy reviews from disappointed buyers who didn't understand that going in.

Instead, you'll need to rely on a growing number of apps accessible via a mobile-device-like Chrome App Store. Categories such as business, education, entertainment, games, productivity, social and more are well-represented. What that means, experts say, is if your computing needs are light and you use a laptop mainly for activities such as browsing the web, reading and sending email, watching movies on services like Netflix, keeping up with your friends on Facebook and some casual gaming -- yes, Angry Birds is available -- a basic Chromebook could be all you need.

There are some other upsides to a Chrome-based operating system. When you sign in to the Chrome browser, you'll find all your bookmarks there if you use Chrome on other PCs. Gmail and Google Calendar sync up nicely, too. Google also offers 100 GB of free Google Drive cloud-based storage for two years to Chromebook buyers, which helps ease the pain of the scant built-in storage of some basic Chromebook models. In addition, some Chromebooks can run your favorite Android apps from the Google Play store, which translates to some added functionality to those Chromebooks that are touch enabled. You can see a list of which Chromebooks are compatible with Android apps here.

Among Chromebooks, we found a pretty strong consensus of opinion that the Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA (Est. $470) is the best Chromebook you can buy right now. PCMag.com notes that while the C302CA is "ostensibly an update of the Chromebook Flip," which was our Best Reviewed Chromebook last year, it is, in fact, "all new, and an excellent evolution of the Chromebook in general." It earns an Editors' Choice award there, and pulls down additional ones at Laptop magazine, ComputerShopper.com and elsewhere, as well as a host of other mostly positive reviews. Users -- at least those who understand what a Chromebook can and can't do -- are largely happy as well, and this Asus Chromebook earns a score of 4.5 stars at Amazon.com based on over 180 reviews.

As was the case with its predecessor, the Flip C302CA has a convertible design, sporting a hinge that lets the display rotate 360 degrees to convert to a slate tablet form factor. PCMag.com says that the "12.5-inch full HD touch screen is a highlight," and Joel Santo Domingo adds that "It displays bright, accurate images, with a wide-angle view you can share with a few close friends." Extremely portable, the Flip C302CA measures 11.97 by 8.28 by 0.54 inches and weighs 2.65 pounds.

Reviewers love the build quality and high-grade materials. Laptop magazine says that "The aluminum Chromebook Flip C302CA looks and feels like a MacBook, so it might fool anyone who doesn't see the big Asus logos on the 2-in-1's lid and bezel." Calling it a "premium Chromebook," Mathew Elliot of ComputerShopper.com says "The Flip C302CA makes a compelling case today as a sleek, versatile laptop while also keeping an eye on the future."

Under the hood, the C302CA packs decent horsepower, at least for this class of computer. Forget the Rockchip Quad-Core RK3288C processor that the original Flip sported, and which struggled a bit performance-wise. The Flip C302CA instead is powered by an Intel Core m3-6Y30 processor, backed by 4GB of memory, Intel HD Graphics 515 integrated graphics and 64 GB of flash storage. While that configuration might sag a bit under the strain of Windows, it does just fine under the Chrome ecosystem. "A trio of 1080p video streams ran smoothly while I used a half-dozen other tabs to view websites, check email, and stream music, and so on," Santo Domingo reports. Battery life should get you through a typical day and then some -- over 10 hours and 20 minutes in PCMag.com's rundown test.

Other aspects of the Flip are well liked. The touch-screen is judged to be nicely responsive, and features Corning Gorilla Glass for extra protection. The backlit, full-sized keyboard is solid and provides a pleasant, largely flex-free typing experience. The port selection is forward looking, but it has some downsides. There are two USB Type C ports, but no Type A ports, which means you will need to buy an adapter to connect older peripherals. There's no optical drive, of course, but there is an SD memory card reader. Like all Chromebooks, look elsewhere if you want to run Windows programs, but the Flip C302CA is among those Chromebooks that can also access Google Play store Android apps (when in its beta mode).

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