Jacob Krol/CNN
CNN —  

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, 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.

Best Apple laptop

At $999, the MacBook Air with M1 is a budget laptop that can take on any task — from web browsing to productivity to 4K video editing. And if you're in the Apple ecosystem, it will work perfectly with other Apple devices.

Best Windows laptop

The Dell XPS 13 packs a gorgeous, lightweight, slim and highly portable design for working anywhere, a nearly borderless display that makes content pop and a powerful 11th Gen Intel processor that can burn through most workloads with ease.

The upgrade pick

The 14-inch MacBook Pro offers beastly performance for serious power users, as well as the best ports, display and speakers on a MacBook.

Best 2-in-1 laptop

The Surface Pro 8 delivers fast performance, a vivid display and an excellent keyboard within a versatile, detachable design

Best gaming laptop

The Asus ROG Strix G15 Advantage Edition offers the best combination of performance, battery life, features and value of any gaming laptop we've tested, all packed into an attractive and highly customizable design.

Best Apple laptop: Apple MacBook Air (starting at $999; amazon.com, apple.com or adorama.com)

Key specs

  • Display: 13.3-inch Retina display at 2560 x 1600 (tested)
  • Processor: Apple M1 with 7-core (tested) or 8-core GPU
  • RAM: 8GB (tested) / 16GB
  • Storage: 256GB (tested) / 512GB / 1TB / 2TB
  • Size and weight: 11.97 x 8.36 x 0.16 - 0.63 inches, 2.8 pounds

Our top pick for an Apple 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 the M1, the first Apple Silicon processor.

Apple’s M1 chip sets a new standard with blazing performance, and it’s so energy efficient that it stays cool enough that the new Air doesn’t need a cooling fan. That’s something we haven’t encountered on a Mac before. In our benchmarking, the M1 Air beats the previous Air and the Intel-powered 13-inch MacBook Pro, and ties the 16-inch MacBook Pro. That’s $2,399 performance for $999.

But what about in everyday use? Well, it’s 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 most Intel apps will run just fine, thanks to an emulator called Rosetta 2, which is installed automatically when you open a non-optimized app. Just open the app and dive right in — the initial launch might take a little extra time as Rosetta 2 works, but it will run normally afterward. You’ll also find that the standard 8GB of RAM is plenty — even for those creative tasks.

The new MacBook Air has the same battery inside as the previous Intel version, but the M1 uses a lot less energy while pushing out more power. This means the Air stays cool in operation (it doesn’t even have a fan) and 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 a day of classes and then hit the library to crank out an essay afterwards.

The 13-inch Retina display comes in with a resolution of 2560 x 1600 and 227 pixels per inch, it supports the P3 wide color gamut, and 400 nits of brightness were enough for us to see the display clearly wherever we used it. Apple’s True Tone adjusts the color temperature to suit the space you’re in.

The controls are all great. The M1 Air, like last year’s Intel Air, uses the improved Magic Keyboard that replaced the problematic butterfly keyboard that marred some recent Apple laptops. The keyboard is punchy, with a typewriter-like recoil, and was very comfortable to type on, with plenty of travel (aka the depth needed for a proper keypress). The large trackpad is smooth to the touch, with clear haptic feedback for right, left and double clicks.

It’s difficult to find a better overall machine than the M1 Air. Performance is so much improved that it makes the budget Air competitive with Apple’s power-user oriented MacBook Pro range. 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 $969.99; dell.com)

Mike Andronico/CNN

Key specs

  • Display: 13.4-inch display at 1920 x 1200 (tested) / 3.5K OLED / 4K
  • Processor: 11th Gen Intel Core i3 / Core i5 / Core i7 (tested)
  • RAM: 8GB (tested) / 16GB / 32GB
  • Storage: 256GB / 512GB (tested) / 1TB solid state drive
  • Size and weight: 11.6 x 7.8 x 0.6 inches, 2.64 pounds

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 $969, 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.

The upgrade pick: 14-inch MacBook Pro (starting at $1,949; amazon.com and apple.com)

Michael Andronico/CNN

Key specs

  • Display: 14.2-inch Liquid Retina XDR display at 3024 x 1964
  • Processor: Apple M1 Pro (tested) or M1 Max
  • RAM: 16GB / 32GB (tested) / 64GB (M1 Max only)
  • Storage: 512GB / 1TB (tested) / 2TB / 4TB / 8TB
  • Size and weight: 14.01 x 9.77 x 0.66 inches, 4.7 pounds

The new 14-inch MacBook Pro revives the classic magnetic MagSafe charger, drops the polarizing Touch Bar for physical function keys and finally gives you a healthy amount of ports again. When you combine that with a stunning Liquid Retina XDR screen, incredible speakers and some wild M1 Pro performance, this is the laptop to get for power users who need as much speed and connectivity as possible.

The new Pro features three Thunderbolt 4 USB-C ports for connecting to high-end displays and accessories, an SDXC slot for transferring photos and videos from a camera, an HDMI port for external monitors and TVs and a headphone jack that can sense how much current a connected set needs supplying the appropriate voltage to drive basic earbuds or the high-impedance headphones audiophiles love, . While it’d be nice to also have a USB-A port for the many legacy accessories we still use daily, that selection is still a big upgrade from the measly two Thunderbolt 4 ports you got on the 13-inch Pro and Air.

This charger snaps magnetically to the resurrected MagSafe port (just like the one on your 2000s-vintage MacBook) on the new MacBook with a satisfying click, creating a firm connection, but one that can safely detach without sending your laptop flying should someone trip on the wire. This cable also charges the new MacBook ridiculously fast, matching Apple’s claims of going from 0 to 50 percent in 30 minutes in our tests.

The new MacBook Pro’s keyboard finally ditches the much-maligned Touch Bar in favor of a full-size row of physical function keys, which we find much more useful for quickly adjusting things like brightness and volume. Other than that, this is largely the same snappy Magic Keyboard that we loved on last year’s models, just with a slick black-on-black design that helps distinguish the new Pro as a heavy duty work machine.

The 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro ship with your choice of M1 Pro or M1 Max processors, both of which are designed to give exponentially more performance muscle to serious creatives and developers than the M1 chips on the 2020 models. We’ve been testing the 14-inch model with an M1 Pro processor, which manages to significantly outdo the already absurd speeds we’ve gotten from the M1 MacBooks.

Rotating a detailed 3D sculpture in Cinema 4D felt smooth and instant, and there wasn’t a single stutter as we scrolled down more than 1,500 audio tracks in Logic Pro. An 8K video project loaded instantaneously in Final Cut Pro, and we were able to export it to 720p in about 30 seconds.

On the Geekbench 5 multi-core test that measures general processing speed, our 14-inch Pro scored a whopping 12,463 — that’s a big leap over the 7,628 we saw from the M1 MacBook Pro, and more than double the score of Windows competitors like the Surface Laptop Studio and Dell XPS 13 OLED.

The M1 Pro’s graphics capabilities are equally impressive, as we noticed on the Geekbench 5 OpenCL test (which measures GPU performance) as well as on our gaming benchmarks. The 14-inch MacBook Pro’s OpenCL score of 36,326 is nearly double what we got from the M1 MacBook Air (17,183) and Pro (19,339), which illustrates just how much extra visual muscle the new model has over the standard M1 machines. Heck, it even came somewhat close to the Surface Laptop Studio (51,933) — a laptop that has a discrete Nvidia RTX 3050 Ti GPU.

It’s worth noting that we tested an upgraded $2,899 version of the base 14-inch MacBook, which features an M1 Pro chip with a 10-core CPU and 16-core GPU alongside 32GB of RAM (which aids in multitasking) and 1TB of storage. Those who need the absolute best power for things like advanced 3D rendering and software development will want to consider the higher-core M1 Max options, but even our middle-of-the-pack M1 Pro pumped out some of the best laptop performance we’ve ever gotten our hands on.

The new Pro packs a 14.2-inch Liquid Retina XDR display at a 3,024 x 1,964 resolution, which, like the iPad Pros that feature the same display tech, pumped out some very rich colors and preserved the finer details of photos and videos. When flipping through XDR-optimized images in Affinity Photo, we were struck by the bright, bold blues and deep blacks in a composite image of a ballerina, and noticed accurate colors and tons of detail in an 8K nature video.

The new MacBook Pro display finally makes the jump to 120Hz, meaning it’s twice as smooth as previous MacBook screens and the faster refresh rate makes things like scrolling through webpages and thumbing through video look considerably more fluid. Around the display, Apple has shrunk the bezels down considerably (about 24 percent compared to the latest 13-inch MacBook Pro) for a more immersive screen, which doesn’t leave room for a camera. Instead, the camera lives in an iPhone-style notch at the top of the screen. Some reviewers have complained about this design decision, but we didn’t really notice it much in everyday use.

The webcam itself is exceptional, thanks to a bump in resolution from 720p to 1080p that works in tandem with some very impressive image processing smarts to produce accurate-looking images that even beat out our best webcam pick in the Logitech C920 in certain scenarios. The new MacBook Pro’s speakers are likewise superb, with enough volume to fill our bedroom while providing plenty of depth and clarity for all the music we threw at it.

There’s one area where our particular 14-inch MacBook Pro unit didn’t blow us away, and it’s battery life. Apple’s new laptop lasted just over six and a half hours on our continuous 4K video playback test, and we got roughly the same amount of endurance during a typical day of using Slack, Chrome and Outlook while occasionally jumping to heavier creative apps.

That’s only a fraction of what we got from the M1 MacBook Air (14:12) and 13-inch MacBook Pro (16:30), and behind the 8 hours and 14 minutes we saw on the Surface Laptop Studio. The good news is that the MagSafe 3 charger often fully juiced the laptop in less than an hour, so you’ll want to keep it handy on the road.

If you can live with its battery life and don’t mind the high price, the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros are the new MacBooks to buy for video editors, 3D artists, developers or any other kind of power user that could benefit from tons of processing and graphics muscle.

Best 2-in-1 laptop: Microsoft Surface Pro 8 (starting at $1,099; microsoft.com, adorama.com and amazon.com)

Mike Andronico/CNN

Key specs

  • Display: 13-inch display at 2880 x 1920
  • Processor: 11th Gen Intel Core i5 1135G7 / Intel Core i7-1185G7 (tested)
  • RAM: 8GB / 16GB (tested) / 32GB
  • Storage: 128GB / 256GB (tested) / 512GB / 1TB
  • Size and Weight: 11.3 x 8.2 x 0.37 inches, 1.96 pounds

The Surface Pro 8 is the best overall 2-in-1 laptop we’ve tested, offering excellent performance, portability and versatility for the price. This PC can be a powerhouse laptop with a great keyboard when you need it to, and if you detach the keyboard it becomes a sleek and highly portable tablet when you just want to browse the web or take notes.

The Pro 8 will look familiar to anyone who’s used a Surface device before, but there are enough noteworthy changes here to warrant an upgrade — even for folks coming from the Surface Pro 7.

Microsoft’s latest 2-in-1 now sports two Thunderbolt 4 USB-C ports, which brings it up to speed with our other top picks like the Dell XPS 13 and MacBook Pro in terms of its ability to connect to multiple 4K displays and quickly transfer data from external drives. We wish there were more connectivity options overall — two USB-C ports aside, all you get is a headphone jack and Microsoft’s proprietary Surface Connect port for charging — but we’re glad to see the Surface Pro finally adopt this useful standard.

Speaking of useful upgrades, the Surface Pro 8 sports a much-improved display over previous iterations, with lots of screen space to work with and thinner bezels that make it easier to get immersed in whatever you’re doing. The laptop’s 13-inch, 2880 x 1920 display made all kinds of content pop, from the sharp contrast between black and white on everyday work documents to the stunning greens and oranges we noticed while watching an 8K nature video on YouTube.

The Pro 8 also bumps the maximum display refresh rate up to 120Hz, which effectively means it’s twice as smooth as many competing laptops — including the latest MacBooks. The benefits of 120Hz may look subtle to some, but we definitely noticed the improved fluidity when scrolling through webpages, watching high-frame-rate video and even just moving our cursor around.

This extra-smooth screen is also useful for drawing and note-taking, especially since the Pro 8 is one of the few machines to support Microsoft’s $129 Surface Slim Pen 2. Between the Slim Pen 2’s advanced haptics (which offers different vibrations for things such as pens and markers) and the Pro 8’s highly responsive display, making some messy doodles in Microsoft Whiteboard felt as nearly natural as writing on paper.

The tablet portion of the PC feels as lightweight as ever at just under 2 pounds, and its 0.37-inch slim frame looks especially attractive in our black Graphite unit (there’s also a silver option available). Its rear-facing kickstand feels sturdy and easy to adjust, and you can bend it as far back as 165 degrees for everything from drawing to movie bingeing.

But while the Surface Pro 8 is a capable tablet, it really comes to life when you snap it to one of Microsoft’s Signature Keyboards. The bad news is that these continue to be sold separately for $179, and are all but an essential purchase if you want to use the Pro 8 to its full potential. The good news is that Microsoft’s keyboards are still some of the best we’ve ever used.

The Signature Keyboard’s keys are snappy and deep, and the built-in touchpad offers a satisfying click. When you combine that with its comfortable upward incline and soft Alcantara fabric coating, you’ve got a keyboard that’s made us happy to use the Pro 8 as our main work device for days on end.

In terms of performance, the Surface Pro 8 can handle pretty much any workload you throw at it. We never had to deal with any slowdowns or crashes while using Microsoft’s machine, even while jumping between upward of 10 apps and a few dozen memory-hungry Chrome tabs. This is thanks to our unit’s 11th Gen Intel Core i7 processor and 16GB of RAM, which put up benchmark scores that are comparable to rivals such as the Dell XPS 13 and Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360.

The Pro 8 even matched the higher-end Surface Laptop Studio on general processing tests, though the latter turned in much better graphics performance, thanks to its discrete Nvidia RTX 3050 Ti GPU. The Pro 8 doesn’t quite reach the sheer CPU power of Apple’s M1-powered MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, but it’ll give you more than enough speed for a typical day of Slack, video calls, drawing and note-taking as well as some light video or photo editing.

Microsoft’s detachable could be better when it comes to battery life, lasting a just OK seven hours and five minutes on our continuous 4K video playback test. That’s better than the sixish hours we got out of the Dell XPS 13 OLED and the cheaper Surface Go 3, but it’s behind the more premium Surface Laptop Studio (8:14) and a fraction of what we got from the MacBook Air (14:12) and MacBook Pro (16:30). The Pro 8 will still get you through most of a workday or a long flight, but you’ll want to keep that charger handy.

Battery life aside, we think that the Surface Pro 8’s excellent display, keyboard, performance and overall versatility make it the best 2-in-1 laptop you can buy. Whereas the affordable Surface Go 3 is too slow and the expensive Surface Laptop Studio is overkill for noncreative types, the Pro 8 is just right.

Best gaming laptop: Asus ROG Strix G15 Advantage Edition ($1,649; bestbuy.com)

Mike Andronico/CNN

Key specs

  • Display: 15.6-inch display at 1920 x 1080 and 300 Hz
  • Processor: AMD Ryzen 9 5900HX
  • Graphics: AMD Radeon RX 6800M
  • RAM: 16GB
  • Storage: 512GB
  • Size and weight: 13.8 by 10.2 by 1.1 inches, 5.5 pounds

The Asus ROG Strix G15 Advantage Edition offers the best mix of performance, battery life and features for the price of any gaming laptop we tested — and it looks good too, with a look that’s clearly gamer-focused but won’t scare co-workers if you take it to the office This laptop regularly topped our benchmark tests while giving us no shortage of special features to play with, all for a very reasonable midrange price of $1,649.

The G15 Advantage Edition is unapologetically a gaming laptop, with just enough aesthetic flourishes to make it stand out from the pack without looking garish. Asus’ laptop is loaded with RGB lighting, which extends from the keyboard to an attractive light strip at the bottom of the PC that added a nice subtle underglow to our desk while we worked and played games. You also get three swappable faceplates for customizing the laptop’s hinge — our G15 was sporting a red plate out of the box, but we swapped in a silver one for a more sleek, subdued look. This type of physical customization isn’t very common on gaming laptops, and it’s nice to see.

While the G15’s keyboard isn’t quite as satisfying or snappy as the ones on the Lenovo Legion 5 Pro and Razer Blade 15 Advanced we tested, it was still very comfortable to type on for long stretches, with plenty of bounce and a nice soft-touch material coating each key. We especially appreciate the fact that the G15 has dedicated controls for media playback, volume control and even switching performance modes, all of which saved us from having to perform pesky keyboard shortcuts or searching for the system’s companion app.

The Strix G15 Advantage Edition’s 1080p display is plenty bright and colorful, making the cartoon-like action of Psychonauts 2 look especially rich and vibrant while preserving all of the cinematic detail of Marvel’s Avengers. The G15 looked a bit saturated and overly bright when performing everyday tasks like trawling Discord and cramming away in Google Docs, but that wasn’t as much of an issue while playing games.

It’s also worth noting that the Strix G15 has one of the highest refresh rates of any display we tested at 300 Hz. That means that everyday scrolling looked especially smooth, and that the laptop is capable of running games at especially high frame rates for the hypercompetitive Fortnite and Valorant players out there. And if you’d rather have a sharper display in favor of an extra-smooth one, Asus also offers a Strix G15 configuration with a quad HD (2560 x 1440) screen at 165 Hz.

Where the Strix G15 Advantage Edition really shines is performance, delivering some of the most impressive benchmark results of our entire test pool while proving more than capable enough for our everyday gaming habits. Asus’ laptop rendered the photorealistic racing action of Dirt 5 better than any laptop we tested by a wide margin while trailing only the much more expensive Razer Blade 15 Advanced on our Rise of the Tomb Raider test. And when we sat down for extended sessions with Marvel’s Avengers, we enjoyed smooth frame rates as high as 80 frames per second (fps) while beating up bad guys with the graphics settings cranked to the max. You simply won’t have trouble running demanding games on this thing.

The Strix G15 Advantage Edition’s best-in-class performance also extends to its battery life, which outperformed our entire pool by lasting a very impressive eight hours on our continuous 4K playback test. That’s very high for a gaming laptop (the second-best result was Asus’ own Zephyrus G14 at just under six hours), and means that Asus’ notebook is well equipped for a workday’s worth of mixed use.

Asus’ Armoury Crate companion app is one of the more robust and intuitive we’ve used, allowing you to monitor your system’s overall usage, toggle different performance modes and, of course, play with the RGB lighting. There are no shortage of ways to make the G15 pulsate all kinds of different colors here, complete with an Aura Creator app that, after a brief learning curve, allowed us to create custom patterns by adjusting individual zones on the keyboard.

Despite its stellar performance and great features, Asus’ laptop does have one major Achilles’ heel — there’s no webcam. We’re not quite sure why, as the laptop’s display bezels aren’t exceptionally thin, and it costs roughly the same as similarly specced machines with built-in cameras. It’s worth noting that every gaming laptop webcam we tested is pretty poor, and anyone who wants to look crisp and professional on video calls or Twitch streams can get a good dedicated webcam for pretty cheap. Still, the lack of an integrated camera does hurt the G15’s versatility as a work-from-home machine out of the box.

But if you don’t mind bringing your own camera to the party (or can live without one), the Asus ROG Strix G15 Advantage Edition’s performance, battery life and overall design is about as good as it gets for the price.

How to choose the right laptop for you

While there are a number of factors to consider when choosing the right laptop, we advise that you start by figuring out how much display you need. Most laptops are available in display resolutions ranging from 1080p to 4K (3840 x 2160), and in screen sizes from 13 to 17 inches. Many Windows machines also offer optional touch displays.

We think a 13 to 15 inch laptop at 1080p (“Full HD” resolution) is the sweet spot for most people, as you’ll get very good clarity and a decent amount of real estate within a machine that’s still fairly portable and reasonably priced. This class of machine (known as an “ultrabook”) makes relatively few compromises and works well for most users.

Recommended specs

  • Display: 13” to 15” at 1920 x 1080
  • Processor: 11th Gen Intel Core i5 or i7 or AMD Ryzen 5 5000
  • RAM: 8GB or more
  • Storage: 512GB or larger solid state drive
  • Ports: At least two USB-C connections

A higher screen resolution means you can see more detail when using apps and watching movies, or get more screen real estate for apps (assuming you are willing to look at very small text), but it can also drive the price of a laptop up considerably. So a 4K display (or alternative display technology options like OLED, also available in very high screen resolutions) makes the most sense if you do a lot of graphics work or use your laptop as your main entertainment screen for movies and TV, (though you’ll get the most benefit if you choose a 15” or larger display). Also think about how you’ll be using your laptop — a slim 13-inch notebook is ideal for working on the road, while a 17-inch machine isn’t quite as portable, but will get you more screen space (and possibly more power) for working at your desk.

Many Windows-based machines also offer optional touch displays, but we generally feel that you can skip this to save some cash. Unless you’re looking to carry only one device and are specifically looking for a 2-in-1 laptop that doubles as a tablet, we think a dedicated tablet does a better job at touch, and touch doesn’t add that much functionality to a laptop.

Many modern laptops are slim on connectivity options, usually packing a handful of USB-C ports in addition to a microSD card reader and a headphone jack. If you want a laptop that can connect to USB-A gadgets (and chances are you have a lot of those) as well as traditional HDMI cables for external displays, you’ll want to check out some of the thicker, business-class Windows notebooks out there from manufacturers like Acer and Lenovo. Alternatively, you can pick up a USB-C hub to augment your Mac or Windows laptop’s connectivity options.

Windows laptops come with a swath of processor options, but we consider the latest 11th Gen Intel Core i5 or the AMD Ryzen 5 5000 series to offer a good amount of performance for everyday multitasking for the price. And to back that processing power up, we recommend opting for at least 8GB of RAM to keep all of your apps running smoothly. If you’re someone who does heavy creative work such as video and photo editing, it’s worth considering Core i7/Ryzen 7 as well as 16GB to 32GB of RAM. And if you’re a gamer, you’ll need a laptop with discrete graphics, starting with at least an Nvidia GTX 1660 Ti or AMD RX 5600 XT.

There are less specs to worry about on a Mac, as Apple’s most recent laptops — even the entry-level Air — include the company’s powerful Apple M1 processors. There are a few Intel-powered Macs still available, but we recommend going with M1 for the best possible performance unless you are a graphics or video professional who needs extra connectivity or use external graphics processors or multiple high-resolution monitors, which the Apple Silicon chips don’t yet support.

Of course, you’ll also have to decide between Windows and Mac, which largely comes down to personal preference. Windows can be found on the largest range of laptops, including budget notebooks and powerful 2-in-1 workstations, and offers a better selection of gaming software. Meanwhile, macOS is limited to a handful of Apple’s own laptops, and is ideal for folks who already own lots of Apple products thanks to its ability to sync up with your iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch. Windows laptops can be found for as cheap as a few hundred dollars, whereas MacBooks occupy a premium middle ground that starts at $999 for the MacBook Air or $1,299 for the Pro.

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:

Design

  • 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.

Battery life

  • 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.

Hardware

  • 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.

Speakers

  • 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?

Display

  • 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.

Keyboard

  • 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.

Software

  • 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?

Usability

  • Overall: We noted what it was like to use as a daily driver and how it performed with a plethora of apps and workflows.

Warranty

  • Overall: We noted the length of the included warranty and what it covers.

Other laptops we tested

Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (starting at $1,169; amazon.com and apple.com)

The M1-powered 13-inch MacBook Pro was our previous upgrade pick for Apple users, thanks to a slight bump in maximum graphics performance over the M1 MacBook Air. However, it has since been replaced by the new 14-inch MacBook Pro, which offers a much bigger leap in overall performance, has far better ports, and ditches the annoying Touch Bar for a more practical set of physical function keys.

Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch 2021 (starting at $2,499; amazon.com and apple.com)

The 16-inch MacBook Pro has everything we love about our upgrade pick in the 14-inch model, just with a larger screen and a few more configuration options for really maxing out the processor. It’s a great choice if those two things matter to you (and if you have the cash to spare), but we think the 14-inch MacBook Pro’s lower starting price and more portable design make it the better pick for most power users.

Acer Aspire 5 (starting at $383; 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 2-in-1 (starting at $1,146; 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 Studio (starting at $1,599; microsoft.com and adorama.com)

In terms of sheer performance and versatility, the Surface Laptop Studio is arguably Microsoft’s best notebook yet. Thanks to its durable, flexible hinge, this 2-in-1 works well as a laptop for everyday multitasking, a sturdy drawing tablet and a stand-up display for giving presentations or watching movies.

It’s also the only Surface with optional discrete Nvidia graphics, making it ideal for demanding visual tasks and even some light PC gaming. However, with an expensive starting price that only gets higher if you opt for a dedicated GPU and more processing power, we’d only recommend this machine to artists, video editors and general power users.

Microsoft Surface Go 3 (starting at $399; microsoft.com and adorama.com)

The Surface Go 3 packs a full Windows 11 experience and a surprisingly good webcam into a tiny 10-inch tablet, which turns into a comfortable mini laptop once you attach a Type Cover keyboard. However, its performance can be frustratingly slow at times, and its alluring $399 starting price quickly balloons closer to $800 once you configure it with a keyboard and halfway decent processor.

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.

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