We live in a world where smartphones are ubiquitous, tablets are commonplace, and even smartwatches are no longer novel. But throughout all of these advances, the humble laptop has persevered, and for good reason. When it comes time to actually get something done — whether that’s editing photos, writing a lot of emails, composing documents, or staying in touch with colleagues and family — the laptop is often the ideal device for the job.
That isn’t to say there haven’t been advancements in the world of laptops or notebook computers. We no longer have to deal with inch-plus-thick clunkers that weigh upwards of seven pounds and last less than two hours away from an outlet. The modern laptop is lightweight, sleek, efficient, easily portable, and powerful enough to get most computing tasks done.
What separates a good laptop from a great one is how it balances power, efficiency, portability, and comfort. It should have a fantastic keyboard and trackpad — after all, those are the two biggest reasons you’d choose a laptop over a smartphone or tablet. Its display should be easy on the eyes, bright, and sharp enough that you aren’t distracted by jagged edges and visible pixels. It should be powerful enough for almost anything short of intensive video editing and advanced gaming. It should be easy to carry around from place to place, and it should be able to last all day without needing to be plugged in. Increasingly, it should have a touchscreen to provide more flexibility with how you are able to interact with the laptop.
Naming “the best laptop” is a little different than naming the best phone or tablet. Needs for laptops can vary widely. Some people need to do intense video editing and should pony up for a pro machine. Others just need a reliable keyboard and a few windows, so something less powerful will do. Some might want a super light laptop that can sometimes double as a tablet. Some will want a portable gaming machine capable of running all of the latest titles. Here, we’re talking about the best all-around product: a traditional laptop that will work well doing most things for most people, and even stretch to handle more intensive tasks on occasion.
There are plenty of great options in the Windows PC world, complete with the latest processors and designs, but Apple’s MacBook lineup has been plagued with keyboard reliability issues, which makes them hard to enthusiastically recommend. Still, if you have your heart set on buying a macOS laptop for familiarity or compatibility reasons, we have a pick for you, too.
This guide does not include gaming laptops; if that’s something you’re looking for, we have a separate guide for that. This article will be continually updated as new laptops are released and reviewed, so be sure to check back if you’re not in the market right now.
Dell’s XPS 13 is the best overall laptop available right now. It has a very compact and portable design, a reliable keyboard, a great trackpad, excellent performance, and a wide variety of configurations at various price points. It can handle almost any kind of productivity work you might need to do, whether that’s taking notes in classes all day long or slogging through emails in an office. It can also handle photo editing and even some light video editing from time to time.
Dell has been using the same design on the XPS 13 for years, so it probably looks rather familiar. But the latest model finally addressed the biggest problem with the XPS 13’s design: the webcam placement. Dell used to put the webcam below the screen, which would provide horribly unflattering angles for video calls. For the 2019 refresh, Dell finally moved the camera up to the top bezel above the display and it works just as well as any other laptop’s webcam. It’s a surprisingly good quality camera as well, and though it doesn’t support Windows 10’s facial recognition login system, Dell provides a quick and easy-to-use fingerprint scanner embedded in the XPS 13’s power button.
The XPS 13 starts well under $1,000, but our recommended configuration will likely cost slightly more than that. That includes a quad-core Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, and a 1080p, non-touch display. To get a touchscreen, you have to pony up hundreds more for the high-end 4K display, which is one of the drawbacks to the XPS 13. Many people will be fine without paying for the touchscreen, but in our testing, we’ve found it to be very convenient to have. The other thing that’s not worth paying for is the higher-end Core i7 processor: the XPS 13 is a thin and light computer, which means it will not be able to easily cool more powerful processors, negating their advantage. (This advice goes for basically every laptop in this segment.)
One advantage of having the non-touch display is longer battery life. In our tests of the 4K panel, we saw over eight hours of use between charges. If you’re using the 1080p display, you can expect an even longer battery life.
Overall, the XPS 13 is just a great balance of all the things that make a great laptop, with very few compromises to get there. Dell is likely going to revamp its XPS line in the near future, but until that happens, you really can’t go wrong with the mature and capable XPS 13.
If you are looking for a Mac laptop and are unable or unwilling to consider a Windows PC, then the best option available now is the latest version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro. This model has two Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports (which distinguishes it from the more expensive models with four ports) and a quad-core Core i5 processor. Our recommended configuration has 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage and is priced just under $1,500.
The MacBook Pro is more expensive than Apple’s entry-level laptop, the MacBook Air. But it justifies that cost with much better performance and quieter operation, without adding too much weight or bulk to its design. It is able to handle lots of browser tabs, virtual desktops, and frequent multitasking with ease, and it can hold its own with photo and light video editing, too. As with the XPS 13, it is not worth spending more to upgrade to the higher-end processor; as long as you’re getting a quad-core Core i5 chip, you’ll be fine.
The Pro also includes the Touch Bar, a touchscreen strip just above the keyboard that replaces the traditional row of function keys. Opinions on the Touch Bar are decidedly mixed, and many owners don’t find it to be any more useful than the old function keys for adjusting screen brightness and volume. There are some neat things you can do with it through third-party apps, and we don’t think its existence is enough to tank the MacBook Pro.
The Pro’s keyboard is a different story, however. The Pro still has the extremely low-profile butterfly switch keyboard found on the prior model and every other MacBook you can buy right now, but it has been revised with the “new materials” and dust shield that Apple introduced in later iterations. This has the effect of making the keyboard slightly quieter to type on, but these changes are primarily to improve the reliability of the keyboard, so it’s less likely to succumb to stuck or doubling keys because a tiny piece of dust got lodged in the switch.
In response to years of reported keyboard problems, Apple is now offering a four-year warranty and free repair service for any customer that experiences the following issues with their MacBook’s keyboard:
- Letters or characters repeat unexpectedly
- Letters or characters do not appear
- Key(s) feel “sticky” or do not respond in a consistent manner
We applaud Apple for acknowledging the issue and providing support for customers affected by it. But without a clear answer on whether it has addressed the fundamental design that causes these issues, it’s quite possible that the problems will come back over time. That means that you’ll likely have to go through the process of getting your laptop fixed when the keyboard fails at some point, which is a hassle, even if it’s free.
If you don’t like Dell’s XPS 13 or the new MacBook Pro, there are a lot of other laptops to choose from. Some might be better options if you’re a gamer or an artist who wants something to draw on, while others are even more light and portable than our top picks.
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