[Review] What Laptop Should I Buy? The Best Laptops for Every Need

Smartphones and tablets may have taken over much of people’s screen time, but most people still need to use a “real” computer sometimes—and for many, that means a laptop. For school and office work, for spreadsheets and video editing, there’s just no good substitute for a decent keyboard and a big screen. But which laptop you should get depends a lot on how often you’ll use it, what you’ll use it for, and (of course) how much money you can afford to spend on it.

We’ve tested close to a hundred laptops in the past few years, from sleek ultrabooks to cheap Chromebooks to massive gaming laptops and beyond. Here are the best models you can buy in every category, along with advice on choosing one.

Windows or Mac (or something else)?

Many people already have a good idea about whether they want a MacBook or a Windows laptop: If you’re already familiar with macOS or Windows, the easiest choice is to buy a computer that runs that operating system. That said, macOS and Windows have never been more similar, and most popular apps have versions that work just as well on either platform (or at least have alternatives that work similarly). If you’re interested in switching, it isn’t as big a deal as it used to be.

If you’re not tied to a platform, the biggest factor for most people these days is support. Specifically, how easy is it to get support? Do most of your family and friends use Macs? Do you have an Apple Store nearby? Do your most tech-savvy friends use Windows? If you’re a student, does your school have a help desk? Will your company’s IT department provide support for your home computer? If you’re not a self-sufficient techie, you’ll appreciate easy access to reliable assistance when things go wrong. (If you are self-sufficient, go with what you like.)

Alternatively, as more and more computing tasks can be accomplished online and via Web-based apps, you might not even need a traditional operating system with OS-specific apps—a Chromebook may be all you need.

Best for most people: Ultrabook

The Dell XPS 13 (non-touch) is the best Windows ultrabook for most people. It packs a beautiful screen, incredible battery life, and a solid keyboard and trackpad into a laptop smaller and lighter than Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. Photo: Kimber Streams

Dell XPS 13

A great screen, the longest battery life of any Windows ultrabook, and a solid keyboard and trackpad—all in the smallest and most portable package we’ve found.

MacBook Pro

We recommend different configurations for different people. But if you need a new Apple laptop, you should be looking at the MacBook Pro line.

Strengths: All-around excellent, these laptops are versatile, small, and light, with great keyboards, screens, and battery life—the sweet spot for almost everyone.

Good for: College students, writers, office workers, commuters, everyone

Expect to pay: $900 to $1,500

If you use your laptop a lot, you should get an ultrabook namely an Apple laptop or a Windows ultrabook such as the Dell XPS 13. Ultrabooks are thin and light, with great displays and keyboards and all-day battery life, and they have enough power to do everything most people need a computer for. Get the Dell XPS 13 if you want the best hardware in the smallest package, or if you prefer Windows; get an Apple laptop if you want macOS and a great support network. You should expect to pay between $900 and $1,300 for a great ultrabook that will last you three to four years.

The 2016 non-touchscreen Dell XPS 13 is the best Windows ultrabook for most people because it’s thin and light, its battery life is among the longest we’ve seen, and it has a great screen, a good keyboard and trackpad, and a healthy mix of new and old ports. It has the newest Intel processors, enough memory for most tasks, a 256 GB solid-state drive, and Thunderbolt 3 (via the versatile USB-C port). It weighs just 2.7 pounds and measures 12 by 7.9 by 0.6 inches, and although a handful of other ultrabooks are even thinner or lighter, most of them lag far behind the XPS 13 in battery life. It also has a 13.3-inch 1080p display packed into a laptop that’s closer in size and weight to the 11-inch MacBook Air than to Apple’s 13-inch models. If you have no operating system preference, the XPS 13 gives you better specs for less money than the MacBook Pro, but the MacBook Pro offers a superior screen and a superior support network.

The 2016 non-touchscreen Dell XPS 13 is the best Windows ultrabook for most people because it’s thin and light, its battery life is among the longest we’ve seen, and it has a great screen, a good keyboard and trackpad, and a healthy mix of new and old ports. It has the newest Intel processors, enough memory for most tasks, a 256 GB solid-state drive, and Thunderbolt 3 (via the versatile USB-C port). It weighs just 2.7 pounds and measures 12 by 7.9 by 0.6 inches, and although a handful of other ultrabooks are even thinner or lighter, most of them lag far behind the XPS 13 in battery life. It also has a 13.3-inch 1080p display packed into a laptop that’s closer in size and weight to the 11-inch MacBook Air than to Apple’s 13-inch models. If you have no operating system preference, the XPS 13 gives you better specs for less money than the MacBook Pro, but the MacBook Pro offers a superior screen and a superior support network.

Asus ZenBook UX330UA

This is a ridiculously good inexpensive laptop, but it’s larger than our other picks, has a less reliable trackpad, and lacks Thunderbolt 3.

If you’re on a budget but still in need of a quality ultrabook, get the Asus ZenBook UX330UA—it’s a fantastic ultrabook for its price. Slim and light, it offers great battery life, a good backlit keyboard, and a fingerprint reader. Its specs are nearly identical to those of the XPS 13—except for a slower solid-state drive—but it costs about $350 less. The only things holding this ZenBook back from being our top pick are its less reliable trackpad, larger size, and lack of Thunderbolt 3. But if those features aren’t worth several hundred dollars to you, get the ZenBook UX330UA.

If you want the best service for your computer, buy a Mac, because you can take it to any Apple Store to get it fixed. No other computer maker provides that level of support, and many Wirecutter staffers think a Mac offers the best overall experience when you combine that support with Apple’s hardware and software.

Our top pick among Apple laptops is the late-2016 MacBook Pro with a 13-inch screen and two Thunderbolt 3 ports (so no Touch Bar). It is more expensive than the Dell XPS 13, but it’s the least-expensive Mac laptop that has all the power, connectivity, and features most people will need, in a package that will continue to serve you well for many years. It offers great performance, two 40 Gbps Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, one of the best trackpads around, and a fantastic 2560×1600 Retina display with exceptional color accuracy, all in a lightweight aluminum body. The computer’s operating system, macOS, is stable, easy to use, and free of bloat. We think you should get the configuration with the stock i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of storage.

If you truly need legacy ports, we recommend 2015’s MacBook Pro. It is still a current model and sports two 20 Gbps Thunderbolt 2 ports, two USB 3 ports, an HDMI video port, an SD card reader slot, and Apple’s handy MagSafe magnetic power connector. Right now, the 2015 MacBook Pro has a better array of ports for the gear that people already own and are likely to buy soon. It also has one of the best keyboards on the market (better than the 2016 model, in fact), and because it’s last year’s model, it’s often available at a discount. However, compared with the 2016 model, the 2015 MacBook Pro is a little bit slower, its screen isn’t quite as good (though it has the same resolution), and it’s a little thicker and half a pound heavier.

For Windows users with budget limitations: Budget laptop


Acer’s Aspire E series laptops generally meet our criteria for budget laptops. They’re bulkier and slower than ultrabooks, but they cost less than $600 and do everything most people need. Photo: David Murphy

Acer Aspire E5-575G-57D4

Acer’s laptop has all the essentials—8 GB of memory, a current-gen Core i5 processor, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi—plus a few rare bonuses such as a 256 GB solid-state drive, a 1080p screen, and a dedicated graphics card. It’s a fast and cheap multipurpose computer.

Strengths: Offering good bang for your buck, these laptops usually include the same CPU and RAM options as ultrabooks but come in a physically larger size, with a lower-resolution screen, a slower hard drive, a bulkier chassis, and worse battery life.

Good for: K–12 students, people on a strict budget, and people who use their computers mostly at home in the evenings for schoolwork, Web browsing, managing a budget, or watching Netflix

Expect to pay: $450 to $600

If you need only a single, primary PC for home, work, or school—and you can’t afford to spend a lot—you can buy a good Windows laptop for $450 to $600. It won’t be as light or sleek as an ultrabook or last half as long on a charge, and you won’t be able to play the latest games on it, but you will get strong performance and pretty good features for half the price of an ultrabook. Cheaper, lighter laptops tend to be too slow to recommend, while faster ones usually cost too much.

Choosing budget laptops to recommend is tricky for us, because you’ll find dozens—even hundreds—of configurations at a given time. Their prices fluctuate constantly, too, and companies release and discontinue models with no warning. Right now we recommend the Acer Aspire E5-575G-53VG. The E5-575G-53VG has a speedy Intel Skylake Core i5-6200U processor, current-generation Wi-Fi, 8 GB of DDR4 memory, and a 256GB solid-state drive, so it should have enough power for almost anything you want to use it for. It also has an Nvidia GeForce 940MX graphics card with 2 GB of dedicated memory, so although it won’t play graphically demanding games well, it should be able to handle, say, Overwatch on medium settings. Check to see if a particular game will run using this handy chart from Notebookcheck.

If that model is not currently available or too expensive, the next best option is the Acer Aspire E5-575G-52RJ for around $500. It has the same screen, keyboard, and processor as the E5-575G-53VG, but it has a slower 1TB hard drive.

To get those components at a decent price, you’ll have to make a lot of compromises. Most budget laptops that meet those specs have 15-inch screens and weigh 5 or 6 pounds, which makes them impractical to lug around. Such a machine will have good enough battery life for you to use it around the house without problems, but it won’t last half as long on a charge as an ultrabook. And because budget laptops generally employ a traditional hard drive instead of a solid-state drive, they feel slower than an ultrabook with the same processor and memory. A budget laptop will, however, give you more storage space and plenty of power for half the price of an ultrabook.

For people who work on the Web: Chromebook


The Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA is the best option for most people. Photo: Michael Hession

Asus Chromebook Flip 302CA

The Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA has solid performance, all-day battery life, and a comfy, backlit keyboard.

Strengths: The Web and only the Web, but for many people that’s enough for most everyday tasks—if it works for you, it’s better than a Windows laptop for the money. A great secondary computer. Easy to maintain.

Good for: Students, kids, people with desktops

Expect to pay: Around $400

If you spend most of your time in a Web browser, if you already have a decent desktop computer, or if you’re on a very tight budget, consider a Chromebook. A good Chromebook can do almost anything a regular laptop can do—as long as it’s possible in a Web browser. And these machines are cheap: A $400 Chromebook is faster, lighter, and sleeker than a $500 Windows laptop and blessed with better battery life.

Chromebooks can’t run Microsoft Office, iTunes, Photoshop, games, or many of the programs you might be used to on your Mac or Windows PC. They don’t have much local storage, either, and they pretty much require a full-time Internet connection. On the other hand, if you use Web-based email, can get by with Office 365 and Google’s office Web apps, stream your music and movies over the Internet, and prefer to game on your console or smartphone, a Chromebook should do just about everything you need it to. Since it runs only Chrome, and since its software receives updates automatically over the Web, you won’t have to worry about software updates, hardware drivers, or as many security issues as you would with a Windows laptop—a Chromebook is hard to screw up and easy to maintain.

Our current favorite Chromebook is the Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA, which is fast enough for tab-heavy browser work, provides a full workday of battery life, and has a small, light body. It also offers a comfortable backlit keyboard and a bright screen. At around $500, it’s more expensive than we’d like, but unfortunately all good Chromebooks are expensive right now—and the Flip C302CA feels more like a $1,000 Windows ultrabook than a $500 laptop, so it’s worth that price. We recommend getting the DHM4 version with a 12.5-inch 1920×1080 IPS touchscreen, an Intel Core m3-6Y30 processor, 4 GB of RAM, and a 64 GB solid-state drive. The Flip C302CA has very few ports—two USB-C ports, a microSD slot, and a headphone jack—so if you need to connect things to this Chromebook, you’ll need some adapters.

For power users with demanding tasks: Power notebook

which macbook 15-inch macbook pro

The 15-inch MacBook Pro (right) is the best choice for people who need both portability and power, and the Touch Bar is a nifty feature we think will eventually find its way to all MacBook models. Photo: Apple

MacBook Pro

We recommend different configurations for different people. But if you need a new Apple laptop, you should be looking at the MacBook Pro line.

Dell XPS 15 Touch

Competitive to the MacBook Pro in size and power, with a beautiful screen but worse battery life.

Strengths: These machines offer larger screens with higher resolutions, more RAM and storage, faster processors, and more-powerful graphics.

Good for: Video and photo editors, 3D modelers who need portability

Expect to pay: $1,500 to $2,500

If you want a laptop that’s more powerful than an ultrabook, with a larger, higher-resolution screen and a heftier graphics card, but you don’t need a gaming laptop, you should get what we call a power notebook. One of these laptops will be ideal if you’re an audio, video, or photo editor, or if you do a lot of 3D modeling, but you still want something fairly light and portable. They’re pricey, though, so expect to pay between $1,500 and $2,500.

Apple’s MacBook Pro (15-inch, late 2016) is the consummate power notebook, with a four-core Intel Core i7 processor, a wide-gamut (P3) 2880×1800 retina display, dual GPUs (including a discrete Radeon), four 40 Gbps Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, a ginormous trackpad, and super fast memory and solid-state storage. It also has Apple’s nifty new Touch Bar, which replaces the F-key row with a high-resolution touchscreen that dynamically changes to display controls for the current app – if the app has been updated for it. The Touch Bar includes a Touch ID sensor, which lets you use your fingerprint to log in, authorize system-level tasks such as software installations, pay for online purchases using Apple Pay, and even authenticate your identity in some third-party apps. All configurations include 16 GB of RAM, which can’t be upgraded; we think 512 GB of storage makes sense for most pro users. (Apple still sells the 2015 15-inch MacBook Pro, but while it has comparable processor performance and a better keyboard, it lacks the 2016 version’s improved screen, faster components and GPUs, Thunderbolt 3 ports, Touch Bar, and larger trackpad. We think most pro users should go with the 2016 version.)

The only real Windows competition to the MacBook Pro (other than a MacBook Pro running Windows, which is popular in some circles) is the Dell XPS 15. It’s essentially a larger version of our favorite Windows ultrabook, with the same nearly bezel-free screen. In terms of durability, style, power, and size (though not battery life), it’s competitive to the MacBook Pro. It bests the MacBook Pro with 4K resolution and touchscreen options, although these features reduce battery life even further. We haven’t tested the XPS 15 ourselves, but it gets good reviews from Ars TechnicaCNETLaptop Mag, and The Verge. But if you can hold off until early 2017, we expect to see some new Windows power notebooks, including a new XPS 15 from Dell.

For hardcore gamers: Gaming laptop


The Acer Predator 17 offers the best performance for the price, though its blocky, matte-black design doesn’t look as sleek as the brushed metal of other gaming laptops. Photo: Michael Hession

Acer Predator 17 G9-793-78CM

This Acer model offers great gaming performance, effective cooling, a comfortable keyboard, and a beautiful screen.

Strengths: These laptops give you excellent gaming graphics, effective cooling, a large screen, and a good keyboard, but they’re big, bulky, and cursed with short battery life.

Good for: Gamers who don’t want a desktop, including deployed soldiers, college students, truckers, and the like

Expect to pay: $1,750 and up

If you want to play the latest games with decent settings at high frame rates—and you’re willing to sacrifice portability, battery life, and value—a high-end gaming laptop is the way to go.

These computers have fast processors and graphics cards, a good amount of RAM and storage, effective heat and noise management, and the right array of ports for you to connect your gaming peripherals. Keep in mind, though, that a $1,500 desktop gaming PC is much more powerful and upgradable than a $3,000 gaming laptop; meanwhile, a $1,000 ultrabook will handle non gaming tasks just as well as a gaming laptop at one-third the weight and four times the battery life, with much better build quality. (The gaming laptop may have a better keyboard and trackpad than other laptops, however, thanks to deeper, more comfortable keys and dedicated left- and right-click buttons.) A gaming laptop makes sense only if you’re a serious gamer and you want to be able to bring your gaming machine to a friend’s house or LAN party or to travel with it.

Our current favorite gaming laptop is the Acer Predator 17 G9-793-78CM, because it offers the best performance for the price without any major flaws. The Predator 17 stays cool, has a comfortable, responsive keyboard, and sports a great 17-inch 1080p IPS screen with G-Sync. Its fans are loud, and the keyboard looks ugly and cobbled together, but those flaws are worth the trade-off for excellent performance at a low price (for a gaming laptop, anyway).

For casual gamers: Budget gaming laptop


The Dell Inspiron 15 7000 provides the best gaming performance for the lowest cost. Photo: Kimber Streams

Dell Inspiron 15 7000

No other laptop offers as much gaming power for as little cost.

Strengths: Cheaper and more portable than our main gaming pick, these are for gaming with midrange graphics and 15-inch screens instead of 17-inchers.

Good for: Gamers again, though with tighter budgets or smaller backpacks, especially students

Expect to pay: $800 to $1,300

Not everyone has $2,000 to spend on a gaming laptop that will play modern games on ultra settings. Fortunately, for about $800 you can get a laptop with a smaller (15-inch) screen, a thinner and lighter body, and longer battery life that still plays games pretty well. It will play last year’s games on high settings, with a few exceptions for particularly demanding games that need a bump down to medium to run well. This kind of laptop will serve you well for classic games, and you can expect it to play most games on at least medium settings for the next couple of years.

Unfortunately, every affordable gaming laptop we’ve tested has had at least one serious flaw. But the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 (7559), currently $800, is the best available budget gaming laptop because it offers the best gaming performance for the lowest cost and remains easy to upgrade when your budget allows. (The next-best gaming laptop we tested costs around $350 more, and for that kind of money you could add a spacious hard drive and more memory to the Dell and have more than $250 left to spend on games.)

The Inspiron 15 7000 keeps its components and underside at reasonable temperatures during demanding gaming sessions, and its fans are among the quietest we tested. This Dell also has a good trackpad, long battery life, and a decent screen for a budget gaming laptop. But the keyboard is shallow—closer in feel to a MacBook Pro keyboard than that of a cushy gaming laptop—and it got warm during our gaming sessions. The keyboard is responsive, however, and good enough for most people playing games. Flaws aside, the Dell Inspiron 15 7000’s gaming performance can’t be beat at its price.

For business users: Business laptop


Lenovo ThinkPad laptops are the quintessential business notebooks, thanks to their rock-solid construction, easy serviceability, generous port allocation, and excellent, deep-throw keyboards. Photo: Nathan Edwards

Lenovo ThinkPad T470 Business Laptop

More durable and serviceable than other laptops, with an amazing spill-resistant keyboard and lots of ports.

Strengths: Similar to ultrabooks but not quite as portable, these offer better keyboards, better durability, and business features such as more ports, vPro/TPM, ease of service, and upgradability.

Good for: Only some people, such as staffers of small businesses without corporate-issued laptops, people at BYOD companies with security requirements, road warriors, or people willing to pay more for extra work-related features.

Expect to pay: $1,000 and up

Most people don’t need a business laptop—even most business users are better off with a lighter, thinner, less expensive ultrabook—and those who do will probably get one issued from their IT department. But we can still think of a few reasons to get a business laptop, even if you’re paying for it yourself, including better long-term durability, easier serviceability and upgrades, more RAM and storage, and more plentiful and varied ports than you get with an ultrabook.

Our favorite business laptop is the Lenovo ThinkPad T460. Our recommended minimum configuration, at around $1,000, has a Core i5-6300U processor, 8 GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD, as well as a 1920×1080 non-touch display. You should definitely pay the extra $15 for a backlit keyboard.

The T460 has similar processor, memory, and solid-state drive options as our top ultrabook picks, but it’s much thicker and heavier than the MacBook Air or the Dell XPS 13. On the other hand, it’s more durable, and it has an amazing spill-resistant keyboard with deep, satisfying key travel—the ThinkPad keyboard is the best one you can get on a laptop. The T460 also has ports that businesspeople often need but ultrabooks usually lack, such as Ethernet, HDMI, and Mini DisplayPort. And it has security features that some workplaces require, including a fingerprint scanner, a SmartCard reader, a TPM chip, and hardware encryption.

Unlike with most ultrabooks, you can open the T460 to add RAM (up to 32 GB, twice the amount of most laptops) or a roomier SSD. It also has two batteries, a non removable one in the front and a hot-swappable one in the rear—you can replace the rear battery without turning off the computer, as long as the front battery has some charge left. These batteries are the main reason we picked the T460 over the slimmer and lighter T460s, which has a non removable battery that doesn’t last as long. The T460s lasted just 4 hours, 19 minutes on our battery rundown test, while the T460 lasted 5 hours, 44 minutes with the included 23.2 Wh rear battery and a whopping 11 hours, 4 minutes with the optional 72 Wh battery, which adds about half an inch of thickness to the rear of the laptop. For reference, the Dell XPS 13, which is 0.6 inch at its thickest, lasted 7 hours, 45 minutes on the same test.

For seekers of versatility: Convertible or detachable hybrid


Dell’s Inspiron 11 3000 costs less than $600 but can handle everyday tasks pretty well. It’s also especially portable, and you can flip it into tablet mode if you don’t feel like reading over your keyboard during your commute. Photo: David Murphy

HP Spectre x360

Larger and heavier than our favorite Windows ultrabook, the Dell XPS 13, but less expensive and with a 360-degree hinge.

Dell Inspiron 11 3000

Not as powerful as our budget laptop pick, but more portable (and blessed with much longer battery life).

Strengths: A hybrid is similar to an ultrabook, but with a hinge that lets you use it as a bulky tablet or prop it up on an airplane tray table.

Good for: People who want laptop- and tablet-like experiences in one machine, possibly students, and people on a budget who don’t want a massive 15-inch laptop

Expect to pay: $600 to $1,200

These models are for people who need a laptop but also want some tablet features. Note, however, that even the best hybrid ultrabook makes for a bulky, awkward tablet; the ones we recommend right now are good laptops with a bonus mode for use in the kitchen, on the couch, or on the train. If you don’t need tablet features, we recommend sticking with one of our ultrabook picks above.

You’ll encounter two main types of laptop/tablet hybrids. Convertibles are just ultrabooks with a hinge that lets you fold the laptop’s screen all the way around, flat against the bottom of the keyboard, to use the entire package as a bulky tablet. Since the fancy hinge is the only real difference on such models, the best ones are great laptops but too bulky for regular use as a tablet. Detachables, the other type, are more like tablets with a keyboard you can remove. They tend to be awkward in at least one of their two modes, and the operating systems they run on are usually good for either laptop work or tablet work, but not both. Convertibles are a better choice if you want a laptop that you’ll occasionally use as a tablet; detachables are the more appropriate option for people who want a tablet they can sometimes use as a laptop.

So far in this relatively new category, the two-in-one laptops we recommend are convertibles. Our current favorite convertible ultrabook is the HP Spectre x360; we also like the smaller, cheaper Dell Inspiron 11 3000.

We talk about the HP Spectre x360 in our Windows ultrabook guide. As an ultrabook, we don’t like it quite as much as the Dell XPS 13 we recommend above, because this model weighs more and doesn’t have as good a keyboard or trackpad. But if you want the 360-degree hinge of a convertible, it’s the best option right now. As for the Dell Inspiron 11 3000, it has most of the right features for a small, $600 convertible laptop, including an Intel Core i3-6100U Skylake processor, an 11.6-inch screen (running at a resolution of 1366×768 pixels), and barely any bloatware. Though we wish it had more than 4 GB of RAM, the version we recommend comes with a 128GB solid-state drive that makes it feel fast and responsive.

The detachables category includes the Microsoft Surface 4, Surface Pro 4, and Book; Acer’s Switch family; and Asus’s Transformer Books. Most inexpensive detachables are neither good laptops nor good tablets, as they usually don’t have great keyboards, trackpads, hinges, battery life, or even internal specs; in addition, most of them run Windows, which isn’t a great operating system for tablets. You’re better off with a convertible laptop or an iPad with a keyboard.



  1. Carrie Magil September 23, 2017
  2. 86Maude August 21, 2017
  3. RaquelX August 21, 2017

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