Best Laptops: Q2 2016by Brett Howse on May 27, 2016 12:30 PM EST
The big consumer push for laptops is generally around the CES timeframe in January, but not all of those devices are available immediately. There have also been a couple of new models launched since January so we’ll see a few new additions to this guide since our last refresh.
The PC market has certainly been struggling lately, but the increased competition has been good news for consumers with some fantastic laptops coming to market over the last several years. There has been a big push to better displays, solid state storage, and much better battery life than only a couple of years ago. Intel’s latest Skylake processors are out in full force, and with this guide we even see a device with AMD’s Carrizo processor available.
Low Cost Laptops
Low cost has a whole new meaning now. With Microsoft changing the pricing on Windows for low cost devices, it has opened up a new PC competitor to the Chromebook. There are plenty of compromises with devices that cost at or around $200, especially the TN displays, but performance is enough for light work.
HP Stream 11
I still like the HP Stream 11. The pop of color sets this apart from a lot of the other devices around, and despite the low price, the build quality is pretty good. The TN display is the biggest detractor, along with the low amount of eMMC storage, but with Windows 10 the 32 GB is sufficient for the OS and you can add a SD card for extra apps and data storage. There are both 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch models from $179.99 to $199.99 which includes a dual-core Braswell CPU, 2 GB of memory, and 32 GB of storage.
ASUS VivoBook E200HA
The company that started the Netbook was ASUS, and they offer a similar product to the HP Stream 11, but with a much different design. This 11.6-inch notebook is very portable, and goes with an Atom x5-z8300 Cherry Trail chip with four Airmont cores instead of the dual-core Braswell of the HP. A 38 Wh battery keeps it running for up to a rated 13 hours by ASUS, and it even includes 802.11ac wireless. The E200HA sells for $199.99
Moving up a bit in price, but still coming in less than the price of an Ultrabook, is the ThinkPad E460/560 and E465/565. The two model numbers denote a choice in CPU and display size, with the E460/E560 being offered with a 6th generation Intel Core, and the E465/E565 comes with AMD’s Carrizo A10-8700P, and the 4 designates the 14-inch model and 5 designates the 15.6-inch version. The AMD offering is a bit less money, but both can be configured with 1920x1080 IPS displays (A 1366x768 TN is unfortunately the standard) and 192 GB SSDs. You can buy them with spinning drives for a bit less money, and the 500 GB offered is of course more storage, but you give up a lot of real-world performance without the SSD option. Being a ThinkPad, the devices are more configurable on Lenovo’s site than most of the consumer laptops as well. Graphics see AMD’s R6 M340DX in the AMD version and the R7 M360 in the Intel version. The E465 and E565 start at $431.10, and the E460 or E560 start at $521.10.
Utrabooks have moved the laptop forward, with sleek and thin designs that still feature good performance with the Core i-U series processors, and even thinner and lighter models are available with the Core m-Y series models. The definition has expanded somewhat over the years, but a good Ultrabook will have at least a 1920x1080 IPS display, SSD storage, and over eight hours of battery life, with many of them over ten now. If I was to recommend an everyday notebook, it would be an Ultrabook. The traditional laptop form factor is less compromised for notebook tasks than most of the 2-in-1 designs, and there are some great choices now.
HP recently launched a new entrant in the Ultrabook category with the “world’s thinnest laptop” which they are calling the Spectre. It’s not quite the lightest, but the 2.45 lbs is a very low weight, and the design is stunning. U series Core processors are available with 8 GB of memory, and HP has gone with PCI-E storage in 256 or 512 GB offerings. The display is a 1920x1080 IPS model at 13.3-inches. The very thin design has precluded the use of USB-A though, but the Spectre does have three USB-C ports, with two of them capable of Thunderbolt 3. The Spectre is just 10.4 mm thick, yet despite this they have still included a keyboard with a solid 1.3 mm of travel. The Spectre starts at $1169.99, which is a lot, but it’s a stunner.
Dell XPS 13
The reigning Ultrabook on the best-of lists is generally the Dell XPS 13. The Infinity Display makes it stand apart, with very thin bezels packing a large display into a small chassis. The downside of this is the webcam, which is mounted on the bottom of the display, which might make this a non-starter for people who do a lot of video chat, but despite this, Dell has crafted a great machine here. The Skylake model features a slightly larger battery than the Broadwell version, bumping total capacity to 56 Wh even though the laptop is smaller than most other 13.3-inch Ultrabooks. I love the aluminum outside with the black carbon fibre weave on the keyboard deck, and the black keys make the backlighting stand out with great contrast. The Core i7 model now features Iris graphics, which would be a great addition if you have the 3200x1800 display. The XPS 13 starts at $799 for the i3 model.
ASUS packs a lot into the UX305CA, and you likely get more Ultrabook for the money with this model than pretty much any other. At a MSRP of just $699, the UX305CA features a Core m3 processor, 8 GB of memory, and 256 GB of SSD storage. Compare that to a Dell XPS 13 which is hundreds more to get a model with that much RAM and storage. The Core m CPU is plenty for most tasks, and with the 4.5 W TDP you get the advantage of a fanless device. ASUS includes a 1920x1080 IPS display as well. If you want a thin and light, all aluminum laptop, but don’t want to break the bank, the ASUS UX305CA needs to be highly considered.
Love it or hate it, the MacBook is the only Mac to make the list this go-around. Apple recently updated it to use Skylake Core m CPUs, and although I would expect the rest of their lineup to be updated soon, this is the only current generation CPU based MacBook at the moment. The display is great, and Apple continues to buck the trend and use 16:10 aspect ratio displays. Apple’s MacBook keyboard is a big change from normal laptops, leveraging butterfly switches to keep the travel consistent despite having a very short throw. The trackpad has no click action at all, and instead uses haptic feedback. The biggest controversy is the single USB-C port, which is also the charging port, but despite this the Retina display and fanless design make it a great portable laptop if you need a Mac. It’s pretty hard to recommend the Air at this point, since it still features a low resolution TN display and old processors.
As much as I love an Ultrabook when I need a true laptop experience, there are some great convertible devices out there too which can serve multiple roles. They may not be the best laptop and they may not be the best tablet, but they can generally handle either chore well enough.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
The best convertible is the Surface Pro 4. This 12.3-inch tablet has basically created the 2-in-1 tablet market, with many competitors now creating similar devices, from Dell to Google and Apple. The Surface Pro 4 certainly sets the bar high compared to the other Windows based devices, and with the legacy software support, is highly productive. All the changes from the Surface Pro 3 to the Surface Pro 4 are subtle, with a slightly larger display in the same chassis size, higher resolution, and Skylake processors, but there are new features too like the lightning fast Windows Hello facial recognition camera. Possibly the best new feature is an accessory, with the new Type Cover offering edge to edge keys and a much larger glass trackpad, meaning the Surface Pro 4 can double as a laptop much better than any previous model could. Starting with the Core m3 processor, the Surface Pro 4 starts at $899, but the more popular Core i5 version with 8 GB of memory and 256 GB of storage costs $1199 without the Type Cover. It’s not the most inexpensive 2-in-1, but it’s a leader in this category.
Microsoft Surface Book
Software issues plagued the Surface Book at launch, but in the last several months Microsoft has seemed to sort all of them out. The Surface Book is now easily recommended as a great 2-in-1 if you need something that’s more of a laptop than a tablet. The 13.5-inch 3:2 display with it’s 3000x2000 resolution is one of the best displays on a laptop, with a sharp resolution and great contrast. Performance is solid too with either a Core i5-6300U or Core i7-6600U, and you can also get discrete NVIDIA graphics with a custom GT 940M. It’s not a gaming powerhouse, but the NVIDIA option is pretty much double the integrated performance. The all magnesium body gives the Surface Book a great look and feel, and the keyboard and trackpad are some of the best on any Ultrabook as well. The Surface Book is not perfect though; the device is heavier than traditional Ultrabooks and the weight balance makes it feel heavier than it is. Also, there’s the price, which starts at $1349 and goes all the way up to $3199 for a Core i7 with 16 GB of memory, 1 TB of SSD storage, and the dGPU. Still, it’s got solid performance, good battery life, and a great detachable tablet.
ThinkPad X1 Yoga
Lenovo pretty much invented the flip-around convertible with their Yoga series, and the latest ThinkPad X1 Yoga takes it all to the next level. This 14-inch convertible has the tried and true 360° Yoga hinge, meaning the keyboard can fold underneath to use it as a tablet. But even better is you can fold it part way and use it in stand mode or tent mode, which I find to be much more useful than the full tablet mode. The X1 Yoga is more of a traditional laptop, with the CPU and other components in the keyboard, meaning it has the correct weight balance for a laptop and you could use it as an Ultrabook with no issues at all. The extra functionality is only a quick flip away though. Amazingly the X1 Yoga weighs about the same as the original ThinkPad X1 Carbon, despite the extra hinge capacity. As someone who uses convertibles as laptops more than tablets, I find the Yoga style devices to be better suited to my needs than full detachables, and the X1 Yoga is the best in this segment. It starts at $1161.75.
For some people, a 13.3-inch or 14-inch laptop is just too small. Maybe they need more performance, and the quad-core chips in larger laptops and better discrete GPUs are necessary. Maybe they just like the larger display. There are some great large form factor laptops that are available too.
Dell XPS 15
Dell took the winning formula with the XPS 13 and applied it to their larger XPS 15, and the result is a great looking laptop, which has a 15.6-inch display in a smaller than normal chassis. The XPS 15 features quad-core 45-Watt Intel Core processors, and the NVIDIA GTX 960M discrete graphics card, which is a big jump in performance over what’s available in any Ultrabook. You can get a UHD display with 100% of the Adobe RGB gamut as well, although the battery life takes a big hit with that many pixels, so the base 1920x1080 offering may be better suited to those that need a bit more time away from the power outlet. The keyboard and trackpad are both excellent, just like the XPS 13, and it features the same styling cues. The XPS 15 starts at $999.
HP Spectre x360 15
Just to mix it up a bit, let’s take a look at the other end of the large laptop spectrum with the HP Spectre x360 15. This is a larger version of the great x360 launched last year, and keeps the same all-aluminum styling and the 360° hinge to let you use this as a touch device too. Unlike the XPS 15, the x360 sticks to Ultrabook class processors, which mean dual-core i5 and i7 offerings. The lower performance gives better battery life though, with the x360 15 rated for up to 13 hours with the FHD display, but despite the Ultrabook class parts, it’s really not much thinner or lighter than the XPS 15. The big difference of course is that this is a true convertible. The x360 15 starts at $1149.99.