The 10 Best Laptops of 2016

The laptop market has undergone major changes in the past few years, and there’s likely to be more confusion in the notebook aisle now than at any other time. Today’s models encompass everything from featherweight, business-savvy ultraportables that barely tip the scales at less than 2 pounds, to lap-crushing gaming behemoths of 10 pounds or more.

And your standard laptop doesn’t look like it once did, with dozens of convertible designs that rethink the standard clamshell to take advantage of touch interfaces. Some laptops double as tablets, with hinges that bend and fold, while other touch-enabled PCs are actually slate tablets that come with hardware keyboards for notebook-style use. There’s simply too much variety in the laptop space for one size or style to fit every person’s needs.

That’s where this buying guide comes in. We’ll brief you on all the latest designs and specs, and parse the current trends, helping you figure out which features you need, and how to find the laptop you really want.

Windows and Touch Input
The advent of Windows 8 a couple of years ago ushered in a more touch-centric interface, and you’re going to see more of the same when Windows 10 systems start to take over store shelves in the near future. If you haven’t spent any time with a new Windows PC lately, you may be a bit disoriented by the user interface (UI), which is tile-based and focused on touch input. Meant to bridge the gap between laptops and tablets, it has a tile-based Start Screen that replaces the traditional Start Menu, and an app-friendly software environment. Window 10 combines elements from the Windows 8 touch-based UI with more traditional features that don’t rely on a touch screen. There’s more to Windows 8 and 10 than can be addressed here, but the bottom line is that the operating system has brought the touch interface to the forefront. As a result, the majority of new laptops will feature a touch screen, and those that don’t will have features in place to provide similar functionality.

If you’re in the market for a Windows 8.1 or 10 laptop, a touch screen is highly recommended. Even entry-level models in the $230-to-$300 price range feature touch displays, and the Windows user experience is dramatically more intuitive when using it with touch input. Gaming machines are the outliers, because touch input could potentially interfere with the precision control schemes you need to master today’s game titles.

Walk down any laptop aisle and you’ll notice that the selection of laptops has gotten dramatically thinner and sleeker. Intel has spent the last few years pushing ultrabooks, which combine svelte lightweight designs with the latest energy-efficient hardware and long lasting batteries to produce laptops that deliver productivity with the sort of portability that old bulky clamshell designs could never offer. Make no mistake though, ultrabooks are simply ultraportables that meet Intel’s standards for certification.

Ultrabooks took the ultraportable category and refined it with industry-wide standards governing everything from boot times to chassis thickness—no more than 23mm (0.91-inch) thick for units with screens smaller than 14 inches, and no more than 20mm (0.79-inch) for units under 13.3 inches. These wafer-thin systems represent a new vision for ultraportable computing: a no-compromises laptop light enough that you’ll forget it’s in your briefcase, whose battery and storage let you resume work in seconds after being idle or asleep for days. Solid-state drives (SSD)—whether a full 128GB or 256GB SSD or, more affordably, a small one used as a cache with a traditional hard drive—give these ultraportables their quick start and resume capability. Lately, Intel’s marketing focus has migrated to the convertible laptops and detachable tablets that it refers to as 2-in-1 devices, but ultrabooks will continue to be a distinct category a while longer.

Most importantly, the entire laptop category has thinned down in general. Whether you’re looking at ultraportables that are carefully designed to be sliver thin, or mainstream PCs, and even gaming machines, the entire laptop category is thinner, lighter, and better suited to life on the go. The best of these ultraportables will still cost you a pretty penny, particularly if you’re looking for a business system that won’t weigh you down when you travel for work, but the performance they offer is remarkable, and often comes with several high-end features as well. Features like 1080p touch screens, full-size HDMI ports, and 8+ hours of battery life are commonplace these days. Premium laptops (with premium prices) now come with high-resolution screens, up to 3,840-by-2,560 resolution at the top end.

For more, check out The 10 Best Ultrabooks and The 10 Best Business Laptops.

Hybrid Laptop Designs
This emphasis on touch has done more than encourage the adoption of touch screens. In a further effort to enter the tablet market while still meeting the needs of laptop buyers, a new category of laptop/tablet hybrid has emerged. These convertible-hybrid laptop designs can transform from laptop to tablet and back again, most opting for a folding design that flips the keyboard out of the way.

Other systems allow you to dock a detachable tablet PC with an accessory keyboard for laptop-like functionality. Some of these hybrid designs offer docking keyboards with secondary batteries providing all-day charge, while others opt for Bluetooth keyboards, forgoing the bulk of a docking hinge and connecting wirelessly.

Check out our roundup the 10 Best Windows Tablets.

Mainstream and Premium Models
While the entire laptop category has gotten slimmer, there’s still a market for larger desktop-replacement laptops that blend premium design and function. Desktop replacements aren’t quite as easy to cart around as smaller ultraportables, but these 14- and 15-inch laptops offer everything you need in a day-to-day PC. These larger laptops offer bigger displays, a broader selection of ports and features, and are one of the few categories that still offer optical drives. Screen resolutions run the gamut from 1,366 by 768 for budget systems to the 1,920-by-1,080 resolution common in mainstream laptops, and up to the 3,840-by-2,160 resolution found on high-end multimedia laptops made for graphics professionals.

Media and Gaming Machines
There’s no question that laptop and desktop sales have started to decline in recent years, and tablet sales have expanded to fill the gap, but gaming PCs have actually sold more. For the gamer who wants top-of-the-line performance, the combination of a high-end processor, a potent discrete graphics card, and a large, high-resolution display is well worth the higher prices that gaming rigs frequently command. And boy do those prices run high—while an entry-level gaming laptop typically starts at about $799, prices can go up to and over $3,500 for a high-end system with multiple GPUs and the horsepower to play games at Ultra-quality settings.

Before you drop a grand or two on a gaming laptop, however, you should know what you’re getting for your money. Powerful quad-core processors are par for the course, with Intel Core i7 and AMD A10 chips pushing serious performance even for non-gaming applications. Discrete GPUs from Nvidia and AMD provide silky-smooth graphics and impressive framerates. Some high-end rigs come with two GPUs, helping justify their high price tags. Additional features to watch for include high-resolution displays offering 1080p resolution or better, and hard drives that offer 1TB or more of local storage space, letting you store your entire game library on the machine.

Not all gaming laptops are hulking beasts, however. The sleek designs of ultrabooks have given rise to a new breed of machine that puts gaming-level performance into a more portable design. These gaming ultraportables draw inspiration from ultrabooks, and offer the same sort of thin dimensions and long-lasting battery life. But just like other gaming rigs, this sort of performance doesn’t come cheap, with gaming laptops running in the $2,000 range.

Check out our top-rated gaming laptop picks.

What About Chromebooks?
Chromebooks are at the other end of the pricing spectrum from gaming laptops. These Chrome-OS-based laptops run from $199 to around $500 in price (the exception being the luxury-oriented Google Chromebook Pixel), though many are in the middle of that range. They are power-efficient systems, made solely to surf the Internet using Chrome OS. Small in stature, tall in power, narrow of purpose, and wide of vision, Chrome OS is essentially the Google Chrome browser running on hardware specs that would be considered “tight” for a Windows PC. System memory is typically a small 2GB, and local storage is commonly limited to 16GB of Flash storage (though you will see systems with 32GB). However, that’s certainly enough to get on to the Internet, where cloud services like Google Drive store your files.

Acer Chromebook 15

A primary benefit of Chrome OS is that it is relatively immune to the malware plaguing Windows systems, because you’re not running Windows programs at all. Chrome OS updates also take seconds, rather than the minutes and hours you’ll wait on OS X and Windows. If you spend more than 90 percent of your computer time in the Chrome Web browser, you should have no trouble using a Chromebook as your primary PC.

In the market for a Chrome OS laptop? We’ve rounded up the best Chromebooks available.

Laptop Shopping by Spec 
Connectivity is key for a modern laptop. Every model on the market today offers Bluetooth for connecting wireless peripherals, and Internet connectivity is delivered with 802.11n Wi-Fi, with the 802.11ac standard coming to more systems every day. Mobile broadband options, for when there’s no Wi-Fi hotspot handy, include 3G, 4G HSPA+, and 4G LTE, but these are increasingly rare, as users opt for personal mobile hotspots that work with several devices or that forgo a second mobile contract to stay with their smartphone connection.

Ultraportables and desktop replacements alike depend upon USB connectivity to work with a broad range of accessories and peripherals. USB 3.0, which offers much greater bandwidth and faster data transfer than USB 2.0, can be found in all but the oldest and lowest-priced designs; it’s identifiable by a port colored in blue or labeled with the letters SS (for Super Speed). Some USB ports double as eSATA ports for external hard drives, while others can charge handheld devices, such as cell phones or MP3 players, even when the laptop is powered down. Look for a lightning bolt icon next to the USB logo for these charging ports. Meanwhile, Apple, HP, and Lenovo have implemented Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 ports, an interface even faster than USB 3.0 for monitors, storage, and docking stations.

What is USB-C?

USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 have made the news lately, promising extra performance from peripherals like hard drives and chargers. As laptops become even thinner (0.67 inch is a current benchmark), there is less space for large ports like Ethernet and HDMI. As a result, the traditional USB Type-A port is gradually being replaced by the USB-C port (also known as USB 3.1), which is much thinner and lets you plug the cable into the port without having to flip the orientation of the plug. Thunderbolt 3 rides in on USB-C’s coattails, using the same plug and socket, with extra circuitry to boost throughput to 40Gbps for humungous data transfers. That’s eight times as fast as USB 3.0, and four times as fast as USB 3.1/USB-C. While we’ve only seen USB-C in a couple of laptops, and Thunderbolt 3 has just been announced, expect these two interfaces to make their way into laptops in the near future.

The venerable VGA interface is rapidly disappearing, due in part to space constraints in ultraportables that preclude the bulky connector, and newer monitors and projectors that work better with DisplayPort or HDMI. The latter is especially popular lately, thanks to the demand for connecting laptops to HDTVs. HDMI’s cable-free cousin, Intel’s Wireless Display or WiDi, beams a laptop’s audio and video to an HDTV set fitted with a third-party adapter. You’ll also find some laptops supporting Miracast, a wireless display standard that works with a wider selection of devices, including HDTVs, mobile phones, tablets, and laptops.

Another feature becoming scarce is the optical drive. With so many software and game purchases occurring online, and cloud services taking over for many local applications, the optical drive has been dropped from most model lines, with new systems touting slimmer, lighter form factors. For those who still need to install software from a disc or want to enjoy movies on DVD or Blu-ray, you can still find them, but it takes some hunting. For those without, external USB DVD and Blu-ray drives are as easy to use as built-in drives.

While premium ultraportables rely solely upon solid-state drives (SSDs) for the performance boost offered by solid-state memory, most mainstream systems use a combination of speedy flash memory and the traditional spinning hard drive. These hybrid drives can easily offer 500GB of storage or more, while SSD-only laptops frequently top out at 256GB or 512GB, though 1TB and larger drives are coming available this year in premium systems. If you need more hard drive space, an external USB 3.0 hard drive does the trick.

Under the Hood
The most dominant processor chips come from Intel, which in recent months launched its fifth-generation (code named “Broadwell”) processors. Made with ultraportables and hybrid designs in mind, these new CPUs offer significantly improved energy efficiency and better cooling, resulting in battery life that stretches through most of the day. Compared with fourth-generation (codenamed “Haswell”) CPUs and third-generation (codenamed “Ivy Bridge”) parts—identifiable by model numbers in the 5000s as opposed to the 4000s and 3000s—not only stretch battery life, they also boast improved graphics processing. Core M is another extension of Broadwell that trades some performance gains for ultimate battery life. AMD’s own line of processors also offer enhanced performance, but can’t match the efficiency gains of Intel’s latest chips.

Whether Ivy Bridge, Haswell, Broadwell, or AMD APUs, you should find an integrated graphics subsystem adequate for graphics tasks, unless you’re a part-time gamer or a CAD user. High-end, discrete graphics processing units are terrific for 3D games, transcoding 1080p video, or watching Blu-ray movies, but like fast processors, they also feast on laptop batteries. AMD Enduro, Nvidia Optimus, and Apple Automatic Graphics Switching are technologies that stretch battery life by switching seamlessly between integrated and discrete graphics based on application demand.

Many laptop designs now incorporate non-removable batteries that can’t be swapped out. While the move toward sealing batteries into the chassis does allow for thinner designs, it removes the possibility of swapping out batteries on the go for longer use between charging. On the other hand, the efficiency gains of Intel’s Broadwell and Haswell processors mean that most laptops will still last for the better part of a day.

Beyond Plastic
As designs get sleeker and slimmer, manufacturers are using an array of materials in their construction. Plastic (or polycarbonate) is the least expensive and most commonly used material in laptop frames, but manufacturers have shown great ingenuity in making plastic not look cheap. The most common technique is called in-mold decoration or in-mold rolling, a process made popular by HP, Toshiba, and Acer in which decorative patterns are infused between plastic layers. This process has evolved into etched imprints and textures, commonly seen on laptop lids.

In the end, though, plastics are often associated with low-priced laptops, while higher-end models rely on metal. Common premium choices include aluminum, which has a more luxurious look, and can be fashioned into a thinner chassis than plastic. Unibody construction, where the entire chassis is made from a single piece of metal, has become the gold standard, seen on the Apple MacBook Air and Pro lines. Other designs mimic this same look and feel, with all-metal designs that securely sandwich two separate layers together.

Other light, but strong chassis materials include magnesium alloy and carbon fiber. Both add strength while keeping overall weight low. Glass has long been found covering displays, but with ultra-strong variants like Gorilla Glass, you’ll find the material being used in everything from the lid to the touchpad.

Buying an Extended Warranty
Most laptops are backed by a complimentary one-year warranty on parts and labor. The standard warranty is a limited one, so it won’t cover accidents that stem from, say, a spilled drink on a keyboard or a drop to a hard surface. 

Most laptop manufacturers also sell accidental coverage as a separate plan on top of optional extended warranties, so you might end up spending close to $300 for three years of comprehensive coverage. Apple offers a maximum three-year extended warranty ($250), while most Windows-based laptop manufacturers will offer up to four years.

Our rule of thumb is that if the warranty costs more than 15 percent of the laptop’s purchase price, you’re better off spending the money on backup drives or services that minimize downtime. Of course, you can’t put a price tag on peace of mind. There are instances when the logic board or the display—the most expensive parts of a laptop—fail, and while rare, such a catastrophe can cost you half of what the laptop is worth. Defective components usually break down during the first year; anything after that is typically attributed to wear and tear. If the breakdown can be attributed to a design flaw, laptop manufacturers will sometimes extend free warranties to cover these flaws, but only for certain models built during limited time periods.

Asus Chromebook Flip (C100PA-DB02)

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The Asus Chromebook Flip (C100PA-DB02) blends the best elements from other designs into a single Chrome-based laptop with a slick, convertible form factor, fast performance, all-day battery life, and an affordable price. Read the full review ››

Microsoft Surface Book

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The innovative Microsoft Surface Book offers comfortable ergonomics, a big, beautiful screen, more than 15 hours of battery life, and the power to make short work of everyday and multimedia tasks. It’s the first premium detachable-hybrid tablet to earn our Editors’ Choice. Read the full review ››

Acer Aspire E5-573G-57HR

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The Acer Aspire E5-573G-57HR is a capable desktop-replacement laptop with long battery life, a 1080p screen, and hardware suited to strenuous daily tasks, all at a fairly affordable price. Read the full review ››

Apple MacBook Air 13-Inch (2015)

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The latest upgrade of the 13-inch Apple MacBook Air brings a more powerful Core i5 processor and an astounding 17.5 hours of battery life. It remains our top choice for ultraportable laptops. Read the full review ››

Apple MacBook Pro 13-Inch, Retina Display (2015)

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Although the fifth-generation Intel Core i5 processor and Force Touch trackpad are minor updates, this year’s 13-inch Retina Apple MacBook Pro is still an easy top pick for high-end ultraportables. Read the full review ››

Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Series (7559)

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With its strong build, ample storage, and full HD display, the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Series (7559) is an excellent entry-level gaming laptop that delivers better performance than you’d expect for the price. Read the full review ››

Dell Latitude 13 7000 Series 2-in-1 (7350)

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The Dell Latitude 13 7000 Series 2-in-1 (7350) detachable-hybrid tablet is a great middle ground between a slim tablet and a clamshell laptop. Read the full review ››

Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 12

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The Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 12 is a business-oriented, convertible-hybrid laptop that offers better performance than most ultraportable laptops, along with greater flexibility. Read the full review ››

Lenovo Yoga 900

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The Lenovo Yoga 900 premium convertible-hybrid laptop is a wonder of engineering, with a complex multimode hinge that lets you use it in a wide variety of positions. Yet it measures just a half-inch thick. Read the full review ››

MSI GT72 Dominator Pro G-1438

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The MSI GT72 Dominator Pro G-1438 gaming laptop improves 3D-animation speed and quality with the combo of a fifth-generation Intel Core i7 CPU and Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M graphics with G-Sync. With smooth 3D rendering, it eliminates the glitchy artifacts that could take you out of the game. Read the full review ››

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