The best laptops: Premium laptops, budget laptops, 2-in-1s, and more

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2020 looks like it’s going to be a great year for laptops. We have AMD and Intel battling it out on the CPU front, new mobile discrete GPUs enabling thinner, lighter, and faster gaming laptops, and battery life that won’t quit. Check out the latest reports from CES below, and stay tuned for new models we bring in for review. 

Laptop buyer’s cheat sheet

Our quick-hit recommendations

Latest laptop news and reviews

We just returned from CES with a slew of mobile news, and we reviewed HP’s Elite Dragonfly, a corporate laptop that’s not boring. Here’s the latest: 

  • AMD’s Ryzen 4000 mobile CPUs announced at CES will likely be the biggest laptop news of 2020. After years of underwhelming chips, the new generation will offer 7nm efficiency and more cores. With 100 laptops ready to rock the new CPUs, the industry is clearly behind AMD on this one. What we don’t know is how battery life will play out, as that’s been an Achilles heel for AMD in the past. Read our full story. 
  • We also saw one of the first 5G laptops at CES, Dell’s Latitude 9510. Dell even provided a teardown to show the challenge of fitting all the antennas 5G requires into a mobile PC. Most likely the first 5G laptops will be on the higher end, where users can absorb the design cost. (The rest of us can hope for affordable dongles.) Read our full story. 
    hp elite dragonfly 3 Gordon Mah Ung

    The HP Elite Dragonfly is a corporate laptop with classy looks, tons of features, and all-day battery life.

  • We don’t review a lot of corporate laptops, but we had to check out the HP Elite Dragonfly ($2,100 from HP.com), which is anything but business-boring. Thin, light, and stuffed with features, it also boasts a fingerprint-resistant finish and a beautiful cerulean magnesium body. Something to aspire to as you climb the career ladder. Read our full review. 
  • Google’s Pixelbook Go (available via Google.com) is a perfectly good, affordable Chromebook—and our new top pick for the category. If you’re committed to the Chromebook universe, this is a laptop worth buying. Read our full review.

Best thin-and-light laptop

It’s official: You can have both performance and light weight in the same laptop, and Dell’s new XPS 13 7390 is here to prove it. With its 6-core Intel Core i7-10710U CPU, this thin, light machine (available via Dell.com) has actually outpaced bigger workhorse models.

And no, before we get you too worked up: The XPS 13 7390 and its Comet Lake-U CPU aren’t going to outpace a current workstation with, say, a smoking-fast, state-of-the-art Core i7-9750H. But it is the first ultraportable laptop to actually outrun older 7th-gen “H”-class CPUs in heavier laptops, including those in its XPS 15 cousins.

The amount of performance in this amount of portability was simply unheard of just, well, earlier this year. Read our full review. 

Best laptop under $500

If you’re looking for an inexpensive quad-core laptop that’s less than three-quarters of an inch thick, the Acer Aspire 5 A515-54-51DJ might fit the bill. This slim laptop packs in more than enough power for everyday computing tasks, and its quad-core performance is respectable, if shy of awe-inspiring. A fingerprint reader and nearly all-day battery life will appeal to productivity-minded road warriors, although they’ll have to settle for a display that’s on the dim side. Read our full review.

Best 14-inch/15-inch workhorse

Workhorse laptops need to have enough CPU performance and screen real estate to keep you productive, plus good battery life and portability for long days on the road. Dell’s XPS 15 9570 (available on Amazon) sets the standard: It’s thin but packed with features, fairly light, and its 6-core Core i7 will keep up with you all day. So will the 97-Whr battery life, which lasted a whopping 14 hours in our video rundown test.

The much-lauded XPS design hasn’t actually changed much from prior generations—why mess with near-perfection?—but one highlight is an honest-to-goodness fingerprint reader. Read our full review.

Runner-up

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme (available from Lenovo) come in a close second to the XPS 15 9570. It packs a six-core Core i7-8850H, GeForce GTX 1050 Ti Max-Q GPU, and a 15.6-inch 4K screen into a package that’s a scant four pounds—a full half-pound lighter than a similarly configured XPS 15 9570. That’s pretty awesome. Unfortunately because it’s slightly slower than Dell’s XPS 9570, and pricier than comparable laptops, it misses the top spot. Corporate types may actually prefer it nonetheless because of its vPro-capable Core i7-8850H CPU and other IT-minded perks—and have a fat budget to absorb the premium. Read our full review.

$1,395 to $3,727 ($3,149 as tested.)

Best convertible laptop

HP’s latest Spectre x360 13t has something to say to other thin-and-light laptops, which, it seems, are all about taking good things away from you. Where others say No, the HP Spectre x360 13t simply says Yes. You want a standard M.2 SSD? Got it, the Spectre x360 13t says. NBA-level of travel in your keys? Sure thing. USB Type-A port?! Of course the Spectre x360 13t has that, too. When we head-to-head compared the HP Spectre x360 13t to the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 7390, another leading convertible, the HP came out on top. Read our full review.

Runner-up

Dell’s Latitude 7400 2-in-1 (available via Dell.com) is a 14-inch business laptop that delivers all-day battery life and performance. It achieves a simply incredible 18 hours of battery life using a powerful Intel 8th-gen Whiskey Lake processor, and it offers a full complement of ports plus a slightly gimmicky feature called ExpressSign-in (yes, it’s really spelled that way). While our review unit clocked in at a whopping $2,800, the starting price is $1,599, meaning you could make prudent downgrades to the configuration to fit your budget. Read our full review.

Best budget convertible laptop

For years, Asus has offered great value in its notebooks, and the ZenBook Flip (available at Amazon) is a strong example of its affordable, high-performing offerings. For $700, you get a fully convertible notebook that can handle everyday tasks with ease.

In fact, its pricing and specs are virtually identical to our favorite budget ultrabook, the Asus UX305 (now discontinued). Inside you get a Core m3-6Y30, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD, and outside there’s a 1920×1080 IPS screen with an anti-glare finish.

Yet despite the modest CPU, the Asus ZenBook Flip is fairly peppy. In our benchmarks, it actually outperformed faster (and newer) Core m5 and m7 processors in rival machines during short CPU-intensive tasks. Its storage drive is no slouch, either.

This laptop is slender and lightweight, too. It measures 0.54 inches thick and 2.8 pounds, which keeps it in line with more expensive ultraportables. You’re not saddled with chunkier dimensions or extra weight in exchange for a lower price.

A couple of compromises do exist: There’s no backlighting on the keyboard, and the trackpad is a tad springy. Still, it’s a good deal in a price range that usually nets you thick, ugly, and plastic.

Best 2-in-1 / tablet / hybrid laptop

This category originally started out as the best “Surface” category because, well, for a time, there was nothing like Microsoft’s 2-in-1 / tablet / hybrid device.

The best Surface-like device isn’t built by Microsoft anymore, though. Instead, our pick for our top 2-in-1 / tablet / hybrid is Lenovo’s IdeaPad Miix 520 (currently about $876 on Amazon.) Besides being almost affordable, the Miix 520 wowed us because of its 8th generation Core i5 CPU. Yup: That’s a real quad-core CPU in a Surface-like device. Take that, iPad Pro.

If you’re turning your nose up at the Miix 520 because it’s “only” a Core i5, just know that in multi-threaded CPU-bound tests, you’re looking at a 36-percent increase in performance over a high-end Core i7 Surface Pro.

So yeah, if you thought there was no way you could do CPU-heavy tasks on a Surface clone, you can. There’s a price to be paid for that but you’ll have to read our review for those details.

Keep reading for our top picks in gaming laptops and more.

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Best gaming laptop

The MSI GS75 Stealth challenges that old PC laptop proverb that says you can have high performance, and you can have a 17-inch screen, and you can have light weight—but you can only pick two. Sure, at five pounds GS75 is hardly “light.” But along with its 17.3-inch display it packs an 8th-generation 6-core CPU and Nvidia’s brand-spanking new GeForce RTX 2080 Max-Q graphics inside.

The MSI GS75 is one of the first laptops to debut with Nvidia’s RTX graphics for laptops, announced in January at CES. As you’ll see in our benchmarks, the MSI GS75 is a (relatively) lightweight laptop with a heavweight wallop. The initial signs seem to point toward a lighter, faster future for mobile PC gaming.   Read our review.

Best budget gaming laptop

Yes, you can buy a budget gaming laptop for less than $1,000, but we think the Acer Predator Helios is worth the stretch to a cool thou. We’ve actually tested several iterations of this laptop, including our most recent review of the bestselling Predator Helios 300. Our main reason to convince you to depart with an extra $150? Faster graphics. With most PC games today, the number-one priority is still the graphics card. The Predator Helios 300’s GeForce GTX 1060 is a big step up over laptops with GeForce GTX 1050 GPUs. Add in easy upgrade paths, and a 144Hz panel for smoother gaming, and you have a budget gaming laptop that balanced power and affordability surprisingly well. Read our full review.

Runner Up

HP’s Omen 17 gaming laptops have a reputation with us that can be summarized in four words: solid performance. Shockingly affordable.

That’s particularly true for the Omen 17. Is it a looker? Debatable. Is it the best gaming laptop? Definitely not. But HP always manages to cram more hardware than you’d expect under the hood, then sell the Omen 17 way below market rate.

I’m not sure how HP pulls off this bit of wizardry, but it’s made the Omen 17 a hit. And the trend continues, as the 2019 model we’re testing (poetically monikered the 17-cb0040nr) packs in some of the latest and greatest CPUs and GPUs for hundreds of dollars less than the competition. Read our full review.

Best portable gaming laptop

The MSI GS65 Stealth Thin 9SD we’ve reviewed (available via MSI.com) is similar to the MSI GS65 Stealth Thin 8RE that preceded it, but with new hardware: Intel’s 9th-gen Core i7-9750H, along with Nvida’s GeForce GTX 1660 Ti, which turns it into the GS65 Stealth Thin 9SD. (If you want your RTX hardware, you can get that in the pricier GS65 Stealth Thin 9SX.) Although it’s heavier than before, it still beats many competing laptops with the same hardware, which tip far closer to five pounds. Read our full review.

Runner-up

Razer isn’t exaggerating when it calls its Blade 15 the “world’s smallest 15-inch gaming laptop.” It’s nearly as small as the popular workhorse Dell XPS 15, yet it offers blistering gaming performance. 

The Razer Blade 15 that we reviewed features a 15.6-inch, 1920×1080 IPS 144Hz factory-calibrated screen, an 8th-gen 6-core Intel Core i7-8750H, 16GB of DDR4/2677 in dual-channel mode, Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1070 Max-Q (optional GTX 1060 Max-Q), and a 512GB Samsung M.2 PCIe SSD

While it’s impressive to get a six-core 8th gen Core i7-8750H and GeForce GTX 1070 Max-Q performance into a compact chassis, note that it’s densely packed and feels heavy for its size. If you can deal with the additional weight, the payoff may well be worth it. Read our review.

Best luxury laptop

Years after its release, it’s still very difficult to find a class to put Microsoft’s Surface Book-series of laptop / hybrid / tablet / convertibles / dunno (review here.) If there is one place we could put it, though, it would be in the “stupidly fast” category.

With the Surface Book 2, our top pick for all-out luxury laptop (our test unit costs $3,299), Microsoft basically took its original Surface Book, put it into the copier and hit Enlarge. What you get is a new Surface Book with a 15-inch 3:2 aspect ratio screen, a quad-core 8th-gen CPU, and ta-da: a GeForce GTX 1060 GPU.

That’s basically enough firepower to run modern games at 1080p+ on Very High to Ultra settings. You get all that with the expected futuristic design of the Surface Book 2, and what is arguably the most powerful tablet convertible we-still-don’t-know-what-to-call-it device around.

Is there a gotcha? Yes, and it’s something you should know: The Surface Book 2 has a slight problem with its power (documented here). Microsoft bundled a slightly undersized power brick for the amount of hardware it packs. As a result, under heavy GPU and CPU loads, the battery will start to discharge slowly—by as much as 15 percent in our tests. At that point (when set on maximum performance), it holds the line because the GPU has heated up enough that it begins to throttle back on power consumption, basically reaching an equilibrium.

Should Microsoft have included a slightly bigger power brick to compensate or maybe used an Nvidia Max-Q part? Probably. Is this a deal-breaker? Nope. This is an amazing amount of graphics performance in an amazingly portable machine. In fact, there’s a good chance the GTX 1060 here, even set at a somewhat slower clock speed, will be untouched by the upcoming crop of Kaby Lake G laptops in graphics performance. 

All we know is, if you’re looking for lots of power in a portable package with some style and class, today, it’d be hard to beat the Surface Book 2. 

Best overall Chromebook

Google’s Pixelbook Go is a perfectly good Chromebook, and that’s exactly what the company set out to create. It offers a careful balance of quality features and economical compromises for a reasonable $649 starting price. And it’s a darn sight better than the typical bare-bones model. If you’re committed to the Chromebook universe, this is a laptop worth buying. 

Best budget Chromebook

Most Chromebooks are budget models, but the Asus Chromebook Flip (C101PA-DB2) has an extra talent: It can rotate backward into a 10.1-inch tablet. Now that Chromebooks can run Android apps, too, the Flip is a versatile as well as affordable machine.

The Chromebook Flip is powered by the new OP1, a no-name processor made by Rockhip with help from Google that will handle everything you throw at it just fine. Just note that the Flip is a bit small for day-long productivity with adult-size fingers, though fine for the hands of children.

 [$300 MSRP; available on Amazon]

Best MacBook

Apple’s laptops might not be game-changing or cheap, but they don’t need to be. Paying more for the same kind of hardware you’d find in a Dell, HP, or Asus laptop is the entry fee for access to macOS and its integration with iOS devices.

Of the options available, we think that the $1,499 13-inch MacBook Pro (available at Apple.com) provides the best balance of value and performance. While the MacBook Air (2018 model) is more affordable, this MacBook Pro features faster hardware and a higher-resolution screen. It also has a far better keyboard than the smaller and lighter 12-inch MacBook.macbook pro 13in no touchbar gray 2017 Apple

This particular model offers a 7th-generation 2.3GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory, 256GB of flash storage, Iris 540 integrated graphics, a 2560×1600 screen, and two Thunderbolt 3 ports. If you want Apple’s new Touch Bar as a feature, you’ll need to upgrade to the $1,799 model. The $1,799 model also offers a faster 8th-generation 2.3GHz quad-core Core i5 processor, a Touch ID biometric sensor, and two additional Thunderbolt 3 ports.

Note: The $1,799 model replaces a dual-core model with one sporting a quad-core CPU. The new model probably offers a boost in performance with multi-core apps, but we haven’t gotten one in to test. That being said, there’s probably still a good bang/buck value with the $1,499 laptop.

The main downside to the MacBook Pro is that its ports are all USB Type-C connections. While they all support the Thunderbolt 3 spec and thus allow you to use them for DisplayPort output, charging, and data transfer, it does mean you’ll need to buy adapters or a dock to use USB-A devices and wired LAN connections.

You can read more about the MacBook Pro and its recent upgrades at our sister site, Macworld.

This story, “The best laptops: Premium laptops, budget laptops, 2-in-1s, and more” was originally published by

PCWorld.

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