Buying a new laptop is both an exciting and potentially frustrating experience. Exciting, of course, because a powerful computer that allows you to communicate and work efficiently — and keep yourself entertained — is invaluable.
You may find yourself understandably frustrated, however, as you browse through dozens of different models, configurations, designs and brands. It’s our job to keep up on the latest trends in tech, and we’d be lying if we said we never felt overwhelmed by all of the options ourselves.
But it is our job, and we take it seriously. So for the last few months, we’ve been testing the latest and greatest laptops we could get our hands on, from Apple to Dell to Lenovo, and we’ve found some standout machines:
When it came to declaring our top picks, we split things by ecosystem: Apple and Windows. Make no mistake, though, with either of these you’re getting a dependable laptop that can scale for intense tasks when needed and power through everyday workloads.
The MacBook Air with an M1 chip inside supercharges Apple’s entry-level machine. You’ll have no problem completing nearly any task, from web browsing to 4K video exporting — with room for everything else in between. Better yet, the M1 chip generates less heat while providing more power — so much so that Apple removed the fan from the MacBook Air. This latest-generation Air won’t get significantly hot during demanding tasks, either. You’ll be controlling the experience with a large trackpad and a punchy keyboard. And if you’re in the Apple ecosystem, it will work perfectly with other devices such as iPhones and AirPods while staying in sync with them.
The Dell XPS 13 is our pick for the best Windows laptop, thanks to its stunningly slim design, fast 11th-gen Intel power and one of the most crisp and immersive screens available on a notebook. It blazed past most other popular Windows 10 machines in our performance tests and held its own against the latest MacBook Air. The new XPS 13’s keyboard is a joy to type on for hours at a time, thanks to ample travel, and its dependable battery life will get you through a workday. But perhaps its biggest selling point is its four-sided InfinityEdge display, which has almost no bezel to get in the way of important work documents — or your favorite shows and movies.
Whether you opt for a MacBook Air or the XPS 13, you’re getting a laptop that’s suitable for the mundane and the intense. Both start at just $999 and feature portable builds with hearty materials, strong performance from the latest-generation processors and robust support for applications. You’ll just need to decide on macOS or Windows.
While we previously declared the 16-inch MacBook Pro the best for video editing, we’re making a switch. And it’s one that can potentially save aspiring filmmakers and pros quite a bit. The 13-inch MacBook Pro ($1,299 starting, down from the starting $2,399 of the 16-inch) is now our pick for video editing — and it’s all thanks to the M1 chip inside. It gives you a long runway that can handle nearly any intense creative task and get it done in record time. We’re talking 4K and 8K video exports while you’re rushing to meet a deadline. You’d be hard-pressed to make the 13-inch MacBook Pro show a spinning pinwheel. The coolest thing? The battery lasts for days, and you won’t see enormous percentage drops after each export.
Enterprise users will feel right at home with our top pick for business laptops: the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon. It’s astonishingly lightweight, the keyboard exudes confidence for number crunchers and it has enough ports to connect whatever you want to it. The X1 Carbon’s performance was in the middle of the pack, but its battery life was unmatched by any laptop we tested. It’s sure to last through a full day of work and then some. It has a standard HD display, however, and it just doesn’t look as vibrant as the MacBook or Surface Laptop when placed next to them. With long battery life and a history of enterprise success, in a housing that’s extremely portable, we gave it a nod as our best business laptop.
Best Apple laptop: Apple MacBook Air (starting at $999; amazon.com)
If you’ve been following the wave of hype around Apple Silicon, our top pick for a laptop isn’t that surprising: the entry-level, M1-powered MacBook Air ($999). It keeps the same exact build of the previous Air, including the Magic Keyboard that’s truly a treat to type on. But this new model removes the fan and swaps out the Intel chip for an Apple-made one.
Apple’s M1 chip sets a new standard with blazing performance that doesn’t result in any slowdowns or a leaf blower of a fan kicking in. That’s something we haven’t encountered on a Mac before. In our benchmarking, the M1 Air moves past the previous Air and the Intel-powered 13-inch MacBook Pro, and meets the 16-inch MacBook Pro in a tie. That’s $2,399 performance for $999.
But what about in everyday use? Well, it’s still great for productivity and personal tasks like writing, emailing, messaging, browsing the web, streaming and even creative tasks. We were easily able to export 1080p HD and 4K videos at full resolution with no slowdowns. It can handle multiple instances of the same app — several windows in Safari or Chrome with multiple tabs open — and you can leave Photoshop open in the background.
Apple’s macOS is also optimized for the M1 chip, as are several major apps. Apple’s entire suite of applications is optimized, and Chrome already has a new version. But fear not, for Intel apps will run here as well. This is thanks to an emulator called Rosetta, and you as the user don’t have to lift a finger. Just open the app and dive right in — the initial opening might be a bit long, but it speeds up with time. You’ll also find that the standard 8GB of RAM is plenty — even for those creative tasks.
You’ll notice speed from a MacBook Air that you haven’t experienced from an Intel-based Mac, and you won’t hear a fan. The latter is arguably the big difference maker, and it reflects the Air name better, as this laptop finally doesn’t blow any out.
The new MacBook Air has the same battery inside as the Intel version, but the M1 uses a lot less energy while pushing out more power. This laptop delivers ridiculous battery life, clocking more than 12 hours. In everyday use, you’d be hard-pressed to kill the battery. That makes it perfect for remote work around the house, and gives students enough bandwidth to make it through classes and then hit the library to crank out an essay.
The 13-inch Retina display comes in with a resolution of 2560 x 1600 and 227 pixels per inch, and it boasts True Tone, which allows the color temperature to adjust for the space you’re in. And along with processor boost, Apple delivered 400 nits of brightness and support for wide color. The controls are all great. The Magic Keyboard not only fixes all the previous problems of the butterfly keyboard but also puts the focus back on a compelling typing experience. It’s punchy, with plenty of travel room (aka the depth needed for a proper keypress), and there’s an equally weighted recoil effect. This results in the key being readily available for prompt use after a previous press. The keys once again make a joyful click and clack with each press. That’s paired with an expansive trackpad that’s smooth to the touch with haptics under the hood for right, left and double clicks.
As the MacBook Air with M1 stands, it’s difficult to find a better overall machine that can handle so much. Performance is much stronger than before and puts the Air into a whole new category. Yes, it’s good for productivity and personal needs, but it can meet the demands of creative and power users as well. It’s our choice for the best Apple laptop.
Best Windows laptop: Dell XPS 13 (starting at $989.99; dell.com)
The Dell XPS 13 has long been a near-perfect Windows laptop, and the latest model makes it even better with the most immersive and stunning PC display we’ve seen yet. It sports a four-sided InfinityEdge display, meaning there’s virtually no bezel to get in the way of any movies, shows or work documents you have open on its gorgeous 13.4-inch panel.
Dell’s laptop comes with a crisp full HD (1920 x 1200) screen to start, though you can configure it with a 4K (3840 x 2400) display if you’re willing to pay up. Our full HD model looked beautiful in everyday use, with thick, inky blacks that made it easy to sift through work documents and plenty of color and detail when we stared at Henry Cavill’s chiseled face and shiny gray hair while streaming The Witcher.
And with optional touch functionality, the XPS 13 is as versatile as mainstream laptops get. The XPS 13’s touch display proved fast and responsible in our testing, whether we pinched to zoom into web pages or bounced between tabs and applications with the tap of a finger. You should check out the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 if you want a true convertible tablet experience, but the standard XPS 13’s touch screen still gets the job done for basic tasks.
The Dell XPS 13’s eye-popping display is packed into an equally sleek design that weighs just under 3 pounds and is a mere 0.5 inches slim. If portability is a priority, this laptop should be at the top of your list. Dell’s notebook comes in silver and black by default, but we recommend springing the extra $50 for the gorgeous Arctic White variation. It looks stunning.
And despite its svelte size, the XPS 13 is a beast under the hood. Powered by Intel’s latest 11th-generation Tiger Lake processors, the newest XPS 13 can tear through everyday tasks. We frequently pushed Dell’s laptop during everyday multitasking and never noticed any slowdown, even as we bounced between dozens of browser tabs and apps such as Discord, Spotify and Slack running all at once. The XPS 13 also blazed past many top Windows laptops on our benchmark tests.
The XPS 13’s keyboard feels fantastic, offering plenty of travel complete with a comfortable soft-touch coating on both the keys and wrist rest. We spent hours hammering away at work documents and never felt any discomfort, thanks to the keys’ smooth and bouncy feedback.
Dell’s stunningly slim design does come at the expense of an equally slim port selection, as you get just two USB-C ports, a microSD card slot and a headphone jack. The inclusion of a microSD port gives it a slight edge over the MacBook Air, and Dell deserves credit for including a USB-C to USB-A adapter for your older accessories. But if you’re a power user who uses a variety of peripherals and monitors at once, you’ll probably need to spring for a dongle or USB-C dock.
The Dell XPS 13 starts at $999, which gets you an 11th-gen Intel Core i3 processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of solid-state drive (SSD) storage and a 13.4-inch, 1920 x 1200 non-touch display. We reviewed a slightly higher-end $1,322 model, which packs a faster Core i7 processor, a bigger 512GB SSD and a touch screen. We’d recommend opting for the $1,099 configuration or higher, as you’ll get a dependable Core i5 processor.
No matter how you configure it, however, the XPS 13’s beautifully svelte design, zippy performance and stunningly immersive screen make it the best Windows laptop you can buy.
Best video editing laptop: 13-Inch MacBook Pro (starting at $1,299; amazon.com)
The 13-inch MacBook Pro quickly showed it had the necessary muscle for video editing in our testing. So much so that it’s actually replacing the 16-inch MacBook Pro as our top laptop for video editing.
And let’s get something clear: if you want a workhorse machine with a big, expansive display and plenty of ports, you might want to still look at the 16-inch MacBook Pro. But if you’re cool with opting for an external display and a set of dongles or hubs, the 13-inch MacBook Pro should be your first look.
Similar to the MacBook Air above, there’s an Apple-made chip inside that delivers fast performance that the Intel chip cannot meet. And it’s nearly the same M1 chip with an extra graphics processing unit (GPU) core. The 13-inch MacBook Pro features an 8-core CPU and 8-Core GPU. Apple’s also left a fan (or, as the brand calls it, an “active cooling system”) in the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Theoretically, it’s there to let the M1 chip work harder, and if it produces more heat, the fan can keep things cool.
The new MacBook Pro has a longer runway for intense tasks and repetitive workflows over that of the MacBook Air. It’s on par with pro-grade desktop app setups and allows you to have a mobile workhorse for these tasks. And in our testing, the Air and 13-inch Pro were neck and neck for the most part. Each was able to handle simple apps and workflows while carrying out creative and intense tasks, including batch exports in Photoshop or Lightroom, a rendering in Pixelmator and HD and 4K edits in Final Cut Pro. But the video side is where we saw the Pro come out ahead. It rendered full files seconds faster and in some cases, with 8K footage, minutes faster. Those saved minutes can make a difference when on a deadline for a project or working out in the field.
The new laptop is a bit quieter than the previous 13-inch MacBook Pro with Intel inside. We did manage to activate the fan for 8K renderings and with double-digit exports of 4K video right after each other. When we saw faster export speeds, we knew it was due to the extra single GPU core, but more so thanks to the fan. And we expect more pro-level applications to make use of the fan for these intense workflows. Adobe is optimizing Lightroom by year’s end, and Photoshop will be early next year. Keep in mind that you can also run Intel apps on any Silicon machine thanks to Rosetta, which automatically emulates non-optimized apps for use on the latest Macs.
Inside the 13-inch MacBook Pro is a 58.2-watt-hour battery, and that’s larger than that of the MacBook Air. Therefore it delivers longer battery life and we were able to stretch it out to last for long 14-hour days. Rapid exports of HD, 4K and 8K video dropped the battery only by a few percent. That’s seriously impressive, and Chrome (optimized for Silicon) doesn’t cause the battery to tank either. We’re still running our battery test on the 13-inch MacBook Pro, but we expect it to hit close to 18 hours. That beats the 16-inch MacBook Pro, which lasted for just shy of 10 hours and 30 minutes.
Aside from processor upgrades, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is unchanged from the previous model. You still have the Magic Keyboard, which provides excellent travel and recoil, and marks a big improvement over Apple’s old butterfly keyboards. Apple’s Touch Bar replaces the physical row of function keys and allows for applications to customize the experience. Touch ID is just as fast as on the Intel machines for authentication and easy unlocking.
When working in complex timelines or even scrolling through massive spreadsheets, the large trackpad comes in very handy. There’s also enough room so if you’re hooked to an external display you can drag and drop windows or files with ease.
The 13.3-inch Retina display with True Tone remains unchanged, and for creative tasks it can hit up to 500 nits of brightness. It still delivers a 2560 x 1600 resolution at 227 pixels per inch with support for P3 Wide Color.
As a whole, the 13-inch MacBook Pro impresses and sets a high standard for a Pro machine powered by Apple Silicon. Luckily the prices are staying the same with the 13-inch, starting at just $1,299. It’s much cheaper than the 16-inch MacBook Pro and provides a better experience with a less noisy fan that you won’t need as much.
Best business laptop: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (starting at $2,190; lenovo.com)
Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a rather unassuming laptop. Its black design with subtle red highlights makes it look like another run-of-the-mill laptop. And, in a lot of ways, it is. However, once you start using the X1, you realize its sole purpose is to get work done.
The X1 measures 12.72 by 8.54 by 0.59 inches and weighs 2.4 pounds, but it feels so much smaller and lighter than that; we wouldn’t complain one bit if we were handed this laptop and told we had to carry it around campus all day.
The 14-inch display has a resolution of 1920 x 1080 and is more or less your basic high-definition display. That’s not to say it falls short in any way, but there’s nothing noteworthy about its color or clarity. We didn’t find any faults with it and are confident you won’t either.
The keyboard really sealed the deal for us. The keys aren’t the standard square shape but instead have a slight curve on the bottom edges that round it off. This small change from a typical keyboard key, along with the spacing between the keys themselves, makes typing on the X1 a rather enjoyable experience. It didn’t take long after setting it up before we were typing at full speed with minimal errors.
In the middle of the keyboard is a small red nub, or TrackPoint, that puts controlling the mouse pointer at your fingertips — literally. Instead of having to move your hand down to the touchpad below the keyboard, you can place a finger on the small red dot and move the mouse around, then use the left- and right-click buttons at the top of the touchpad to select an item. It’s what we grew up using on older laptops, so we feel right at home when switching between typing and moving the mouse. Just don’t tap on the TrackPoint and expect it to do anything; it’s strictly used to move the mouse around.
Next to the touchpad is a fingerprint sensor you can use to unlock the laptop, and while it feels slightly out of place, it’s as simple and efficient as Apple’s implementation.
The ThinkPad doesn’t use Intel’s high-end i7 processor like some of the other laptops we tested. Instead, it uses a modest Intel Core i5 processor that includes 256GB of storage and 8GB of memory (RAM). At least, that’s what the $1,613.50 configuration we tested was equipped with. All of those numbers can be distilled down into a laptop that’s fast enough to crunch numbers and deal with countless meeting requests, but without a faster processor or a dedicated GPU, you won’t want to push it with intense gaming or video editing.
Battery life is where the ThinkPad X1 Carbon truly shines, even though it fell short of Lenovo’s estimate of 19.5 hours, lasting 10 hours and 35 minutes, the longest out of all the laptops we tested — so you’ll be able to work all day on it without hunting down a nearby plug.
As for ports, there are two USB-A ports, two USB-C ports, one HDMI port and a network extension port for docking your ThinkPad in the office.
With a starting price of $1,249, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is affordable and capable — and built for the business environment. Whether you need to type out an agreement, mark up an NDA or crunch through a spreadsheet, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is up for the challenge. Most importantly, it doesn’t weigh you down, with a stealthy build and long battery life.
How we tested
After combing through new models, tabulating on the right configurations and circling back on our previous favorites, we settled on a pool of 10 laptops. Once we had all the models on hand, we began the unboxing process and charging them up to 100%. (Many laptops come with some power out of the box, but very rarely do they ship topped up.)
As with every CNN Underscored review, we rigorously test devices both quantitatively and qualitatively. For laptops, we made the decision to benchmark first to get a standard for quantitative performance. If you’ve read our standalone laptop, tablet or mobile phone reviews, these tests will be familiar.
On Windows laptops, we performed GeekBench 5 and PCMark 10 tests. These run the laptops through a series of workflows and application processes, many of which you’d find yourselves (and we found ourselves) completing on a daily basis. For Mac laptops, PCMark 10 is not available, so GeekBench 5 was performed.
Regardless of operating system, we put each laptop through our standard battery test, which involves charging the laptop to 100%, setting brightness to 50% and engaging airplane mode to ensure connectivity is off. We then loop a 4K video file with the sound set to 15% until the battery dies and the machine turns off. These tests are monitored in person as well as via two cameras to ensure accuracy.
The combination of battery and benchmark testing gives us a quantitative feel for the devices and a hard number for each that can be used for comparisons. We then used each laptop as our daily driver for work, play and entertainment tasks, testing the battery to see if it could last through a full day of tasks, watching a movie to get a feel for the display and, of course, running a bunch of different applications.
Our testing categories were as follows:
- Build quality: We looked at what the laptop was physically made of and how it felt in our hands, on a desk and in our laps.
- Portability: Thickness and weight of each laptop was top of mind here, along with the overall size and bezels. We also tested if it could fit in a range of bags.
- Looks: We took note of the overall design, if it was sleek or stealthy.
- Total battery life: The CNN Underscored battery test, explained above, was used to determine a quantitative battery life number.
- Stress test: We noted whether intense photo or video editing reduced battery life and how the laptop performed when playing a game.
- Benchmarking: Using GeekBench 5 and PCMark 10, explained above, we established a baseline for performance.
- Processors and GPU: We observed how the internal hardware performed and if most models across similar price points had the same specs. Can these handle a full productivity load? Can we get the laptop to bottleneck?
- RAM: We considered how much RAM or memory comes standard and if it’s enough for core tasks.
- Storage: We noted whether the laptop opts for a solid-state drive (SSD) or a traditional hard drive (HD).
- Ports: We looked at how many ports the laptop features, any legacy options available and if a dongle comes in the box.
- Overall: We observed how the speakers performed in core use cases, including movies, music and system sounds.
- Compression: We made note if the laptop speakers added any extra compression to core sounds or tracks.
- Bass: Did the laptop generate bass, or was it mostly missing?
- Overall: We tested the display with various test images, applications (including word processing for pixelation), videos, VoIP, photo editing, gaming and even video editing.
- We additionally took a closer look at vibrancy, bezels, clarity and resolution.
- Overall: To get a feel for a keyboard, you really need to type a ton — and that’s exactly what we did.
- We paid close attention to specific categories, like tactileness and punchiness of the keys.
- Experience out of the box: What apps come preloaded that provide real user benefits? Is there a ton of bloatware?
- Ease of use: How easy was it to navigate around the respective base software and any core apps?
- Overall: We noted what it was like to use as a daily driver and how it performed with a plethora of apps and workflows.
- Overall: We noted the length of the included warranty and what it covers.
How we rated
We gave every laptop a score in each subcategory described above and combined them to determine a score for the overall category. We gave the most weight to hardware, with other categories following behind.
- Hardware had a maximum of 60 points: processors and GPU (25 points), benchmarking (10 points), storage (10 points), ports (10 points) and RAM (5 points).
- Design had a maximum of 25 points: build quality (10 points), portability (10 points) and looks (5 points).
- Battery life had a maximum of 20 points: total battery life (15 points) and stress test (5 points).
- Display had a maximum of 20 points: overall (10 points), vibrancy (3 points), clarity (3 points), bezels (2 points) and resolution (2 points).
- Software had a maximum of 15 points: experience out of the box (5 points), ease of use (5 points) and preloaded apps (5 points).
- Speakers had a maximum of 10 points: overall (5 points), compression (3 points) and bass (2 points).
- Keyboard had a maximum of 10 points: overall (5 points), tactileness (3 points) and punchiness (2 points).
- Usability had a maximum of 10 points: overall (10 points).
- Warranty had a maximum of 5 points: overall (5 points).
Other laptops we tested
Apple MacBook Pro 13-Inch (starting at $1,299; amazon.com)
Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Pro is a fine machine, no doubt. It’s well designed, has Touch ID, integrates with Apple’s ecosystem and has a display that makes other laptops jealous. But for us, the use of an eighth-generation Intel processor (compared with 10th-generation processors in all other models we tested) combined with its price tag kept this from being crowned the best overall laptop. Performance-wise, you’re unlikely to notice the difference between the two processors, but over time, the older hardware will show signs of slowing down sooner. If you want something more powerful than the MacBook Air and have the room in your budget, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is a worthy choice.
Acer Aspire 5 ($709.57; amazon.com)
Acer’s Aspire 5 surprised us with its performance, especially when you factor in its low price. Overall, however, the build quality, display and battery life held it back. Out of all the laptops we tested, the Aspire 5 had the worst battery life, clocking in at five hours and 30 minutes in our benchmarking. The plastic housing helps with the overall weight but at the cost of feeling cheap. About performance: The Aspire 5 kept up with the Dell XPS models we tested, and even some of the MacBooks, so we have confidence that this model will be able to get the job done. Just keep your charger handy.
Dell XPS 13 (starting at $783.99; dell.com)
Dell’s XPS line has remained competitive and impressive over the years, and while the XPS 13 had a strong showing in our testing, it fell short of any top honors. Performance-wise, the XPS 13 9300 was able to keep up with whatever routine task we threw at it. But the sheer amount of preloaded shortcuts, applications and even antivirus software was enough to give us pause. Bloatware needs to be a thing of the past, especially when it comes to constant passive-aggressive prompts and reminders about our antivirus trial expiring soon. In addition to bloatware, the keyboard on the XPS 13 felt, to be blunt, cheap. Despite its drawbacks, the Dell continues to use stunning displays in its XPS line.
Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 (starting at $881.99; dell.com)
We have a lot of the same complaints and compliments for the XPS 13 2-in-1 as we do for the standard 2-in-1. Performance, again, was respectable and something we’d have no problem working on daily. The touch screen and display quality makes up for some of that, especially when you fold the screen all the way back and use it more as a tablet than a laptop. But at the end of the day, the combination of bloatware and a keyboard that just isn’t an enjoyable experience kept it off the podium.
Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 15 (starting at $999.99; microsoft.com)
As we noted, we really liked the smaller of the two Surface Laptop 3 models, but the 15-inch model fell flat when it came to performance in our testing. Specifically, we tested the AMD edition, and both regular performance and battery life fell short of expectations — Microsoft’s and ours. For example, we saw a lowly five hours and 36 minutes of battery life in our battery benchmark. That’s not nearly enough to get through a couple of movies, let alone an entire workday. The overall design and appeal is there with the larger Laptop 3, but we just wanted more from it.
Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 (starting at $999.99; microsoft.com)
The Surface Laptop 4 is one of the best-looking laptops we’ve tested yet, and it’s a delight to use. The notebook has the same slim design we loved on the Surface Laptop 3, except now it comes in a stunning new Ice Blue version that really pops in person. You’re also getting the same unique 3:2 display (which is taller than competitors for easier multitasking) and a truly excellent keyboard.
Despite its great looks and fast overall performance on the 11th-gen Intel Core i7 model we tested, the Surface Laptop 4’s roughly 8.5-hour battery life lags behind many competing notebooks. For comparison, Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon lasts over 10 hours. The Laptop 4’s webcam and speakers are also weaker than we’d like, and it’s fairly slim on ports (though you do get a USB-A connection — a rarity in many modern laptops). For those wanting a Windows laptop, take a look at Dell’s XPS 13 or the ThinkPad X1 Carbon from Lenovo.
Samsung Galaxy Book S (starting at $949.99; samsung.com)
Samsung’s Galaxy Book S looks absolutely stunning. It’s compact and lightweight, and it packs enough battery life to go well into the night after a full day of classes. However, it uses the same type of processor your phone uses, which means apps need to be built specifically for the platform. Because of that, whether or not an app works, or if it works well, is going to be a learning experience of its own. The technology behind the Galaxy Book S is undoubtedly the future, but it’s not quite ready for most.
Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing: