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.
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.
If you’re looking for a straightforward, compact, well-performing laptop with a good keyboard and trackpad, our recommendation is HP’s latest Spectre x360 13. The Spectre x360 is a premium-level 2-in-1 Windows laptop with the latest processor options from Intel, a vibrant touchscreen, and more port options than are found on other laptops in this segment.
The x360 weighs less than three pounds and is about two-thirds of an inch thick when closed, which makes it very easy to travel with. The latest model has a smaller footprint than before, thanks to shrunken bezels above and below the screen, but it still maintains a full-size keyboard and spacious trackpad. In addition, it provides both facial and fingerprint biometric authentication, so you can choose which way you prefer to log in.
Prior Spectre x360 models suffered from very poor trackpad performance, with sluggish scrolling and terrible palm rejection, but HP updated the drivers it uses in the latest model to Microsoft’s Precision set and the experience is improved to the point where it’s no longer an issue. The x360’s trackpad is now right up there with the best Windows trackpad options (which are still a tick behind what you get on a MacBook) in terms of scrolling, multifinger gestures, and palm rejection.
The Spectre x360 is available in 1080p and 4K OLED touchscreen options, but we recommend sticking with the 1080p display as it will have better battery life and costs less. The OLED panel is very vibrant, but at this size it’s hard to notice the difference in resolution.
Since it’s a 2-in-1, you can use the x360 in a variety of configurations: standard laptop, tablet, “tent”, and “media mode”. Of those, most people will end up using it as a laptop most of the time, with the tent and media modes coming in handy if you are just watching a movie on a plane. Like other 2-in-1 Windows laptops, the x360 is too big and heavy to really be practical in its tablet mode, but we don’t think that’s a knock against it since most people will just use it as a laptop anyway.
Compared to other laptops in this segment, such as Dell’s XPS 13 2-in-1 or Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3, the x360 provides more port options, a keyboard that’s as good or better, and very similar performance and battery life for everyday productivity tasks and light creative work such as photo or video editing. It’s also a few hundred dollars less than other options when similarly configured.
The biggest argument against the x360 is that it has a 16:9 display, as opposed to the 16:10 or 3:2 screens you’ll find on Dell or Microsoft’s computers. Those taller aspect ratios are much better for productivity work, whether that’s working in two documents side by side or researching on the web without having to scroll as much. But unless you are very particular about your screen’s aspect ratio, most people won’t find this to be a deal breaker.
Overall, the Spectre x360 13 hits the right balance of features, performance, design, and cost better than any other laptop option right now, earning it our recommendation.
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.
There are many other laptop options on the market, even within the premium priced, over $1,000 tier. Some provide more horsepower and larger screens than our picks, so if your focus is on photo editing, video editing, or coding, they might be a better option for you.
Others have a taller aspect ratio screen, which is much more comfortable to use if you primarily do your work in Office documents or a web browser. Once you try a 3:2 or even 16:10 display, it can be hard to go back to the cramped, tunnel-like view that a 13.3-inch 16:9 screen provides.
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