The joy of Windows laptops is choice. Cheap and cheerful? Check. Thin enough to slice brie? Check. Battery that runs 16 hours? Got that, too.
Not all at once, of course—and that’s what makes Windows laptop shopping hard. Trying to cull the year’s top-selling and best-reviewed models, I couldn’t get my list under 18. So I borrowed them all for my lab, and ran them through a wringer of battery tests, speaker playoff parties and keyboard pounding.
If you haven’t been shopping for Windows laptops in a few years, you might be surprised at what’s changed. After the long nightmare of Windows 8, Windows 10 makes it simpler (and safer) to use a PC again, without ditching the increasingly useful touch screen.
Now even inexpensive models come with HD displays, fast-booting solid-state drives and longer battery life. Spend more, and you get double-jointed transformers that backbend into tablets. Some let you log in securely just by looking at the camera, a futuristic feature called Windows Hello.
These laptops are getting so good, we’re willing to spend more. The average price of a premium Windows laptop in early 2015 was under $950. Now it’s over $1,000, according to NPD analyst Stephen Baker.
At the same time, Windows laptop makers haven’t left us high and dry by ditching familiar ports for connecting printers and phones. That’s in contrast with Apple, which not only killed off its most affordable MacBooks but also introduced fancy new ones that had only the smaller USB-C ports. Many Windows laptops also have USB-C, but some couple it with the older types, as well as SD card readers for transferring photos.
Sure, Windows still has its problems; in particular, relevance in a world increasingly attached to smartphones. But at least one age-old concern—PC makers larding up their machines with promotional software, aka “crapware”—has begun to fade. Many of the laptops I list here are sold in hold-everything-please “Signature” editions at the Microsoft Store, both online and in malls.
Here are this year’s winners—and the compromises you need to know about to choose wisely.
For the Road Warrior
Always on the go? Meet HP’s 13.3-inch Spectre x360 . The Joseph Gordon-Levitt of laptops, it does many, many things well in one efficient package.
After an October refresh, this $1,050 laptop weighs in at 2.85 lbs. and just about a half-inch thick. It comes with the latest-generation Intel processors, which means it’s not only fast but also has a battery that can last up to 15 hours. (My grueling test, which involves web browsing in a loop, delivered closer to 9 hours.)
The x360’s glass-top trackpad is responsive, and the keyboard has a satisfying tap. Forward-facing speakers by Bang & Olufsen are among the loudest I’ve heard in a small laptop. And it has both the familiar USB port and new USB-C with Thunderbolt 3. What’s missing? Pretty much just a dedicated SD card reader. And it’s a quibble, but the power button is on the side where you might accidentally graze it.
Now comes the razzle-dazzle. Flip around the x360’s aluminum body and you’ve got a touch screen tablet. And with Windows Hello, you can log in just by looking at the camera.
If you’d rather keep it simple, and save some money, I recommend Dell’s XPS 13, which starts at just $800. It’s the Old Faithful of laptops, combining a slender footprint with traditional portsand an SD card reader. It’s super customizable: You can choose a lower-resolution or non-touch screen, if battery life is particularly important to you. What you can’t get is nice-to-haves like Windows Hello. Know, too, the XPS 13’s camera is buried at the bottom of the screen, so you’ll risk up-the-nose selfies on video calls.
My “Honey I Shrunk the Laptop” award goes to the 12.5-inch Asus ZenBook 3. It weighs nearly a pound less than the HP, yet has a fingerprint reader and more horsepower than Apple’s equally svelte 12-inch MacBook. The speakers on this leaf of a laptop even sound pretty good. The compromises are fan noise, less-satisfying keys, just one lonely USB-C port for charging and plugging in your stuff—and a price tag starting at $1,100.
For the Pro
If you have serious work to get done, and money to burn, you should consider the beast that is Microsoft’s Surface Book with Performance Base.
Microsoft’s first proper laptop was beset by technical glitches when it came out last year. With a recent refresh, Microsoft has fixed those and given it another power boost. The $2,400-and-up Performance Base models don’t have the latest Intel processors, but they do have a dedicated graphics processor for churning through visual editing tasks. What really amazed me, though, was how much battery life Microsoft stuffed into 3.68 pounds: They promise up to 16 hours, and I got 13 in my tests, better than other performance-focused laptops.
The new Surface Book can keep up with the demands of a photographer or videographer. It includes an SD card reader to please photographers though curiously lacks the future-facing USB-C ports.
This laptop also has parlor tricks: There’s a stylus for writing or drawing on the touch screen—now if only they’d included a place to store it. Next trick: With the press of a button, the screen separates from the keyboard base into a decently powered 13.5-inch tablet. But that means its lid is heavy, and can wobble like a penguin.
If you can’t imagine ever needing a stylus or detachable screen, consider the $1,000-and-up Dell XPS 15, which offers blazing fast speed in a more sensible package. With higher-end models, you can get a dedicated graphics processor and 4K resolution on its beautiful 15.6-inch touch screen. All the key ports and readers are there, even an HDMI port for easy TV connection. The downsides: Awkward camera positioning, lack of fingerprint or face reader and a scale-tipping weight of 4.4 lbs. On my 4K test unit, the battery didn’t last 7 hours.
For photo and video editors, there’s one honorable mention with a stunning OLED screen: Lenovo’s $2,080 ThinkPad X1 Yoga. It doesn’t offer a dedicated graphics processor, but if you spend all day staring at pictures, your eyes will thank you for this.
For the Penny Pincher
We assume the worst about budget laptops—slow boot times, lousy screens, poor battery life. But the Lenovo Ideapad 710S banishes those ideas. For $600, it has a full-HD 13.3-inch display and a quick 128-gigabyte solid-state drive. With Intel’s core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM, Windows 10 hums—and the battery lasted well over 9 hours.
The Ideapad also doesn’t feel cheap in your hands, thanks to a magnesium alloy shell; underneath it’s just plastic. But beware, it could scuff. What you give up is a touch screen and those USB-C ports. My biggest complaint: The keyboard’s unusually-small right-Shift key means you may have to adjust your typing technique.
If you’ve got just $400 to spend, look no further than the Asus VivoBook E403SA. In this price range, you’re making serious compromises, but the E403SA made the right ones. It’s got an aluminum lid, a battery that lasted 10 hours in my tests and a full-HD 14-inch screen. You give up processing power, but it’s still sufficient for most classroom and kitchen-counter needs.
For some, the best inexpensive laptop might not be Windows at all. Chromebooks, which use web-based software for word-processing and other tasks, are increasingly popular, especially in schools. We picked our favorites.
Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at email@example.com