Faced with the question “what’s the best laptop for 2021?” (or any other year), the first sensible response is: “What do you want to use it for?” That’s because the best laptop for knowledge workers in the office or home, for example, will be very different from the kind of device that’s suitable for power users and creators, or for students and the otherwise cash-strapped, and so on. Then there are the platform enthusiasts who will only consider Windows, MacOS, Chrome OS, or Linux devices, for whatever reason, or determined early adopters who must have the latest and greatest mobile technology.
As a result, this ‘best laptop’ roundup covers different use cases and compute platforms to provide a late-2021 overview of the cream of the laptop market. As always, though, individual requirements and preferences will vary, so when choosing a laptop check out other similar models, examine the specifications and price points, visit the manufacturers’ online forums to see how customer relations are working out in practice, get hands-on, if you can, to get a feel for the ergonomics — and, of course, read the reviews.
Our 11 laptop categories are: Knowledge workers; Mobile professionals; Power users and creators; Workstation users; Budget-limited users; Field workers; Early adopters; Apple users; Microsoft Surface users; Chromebook users; and Linux users. If you want to know about gaming laptops, we suggest you head over to our sister site, CNET.
OS: Windows 11 (Home, Pro), Windows 10 (Home) | CPU: Intel Core i3-1115G4, Core i5-1135G7, Core i7-1185G7, Core i7-1195G7 | GPU: Intel UHD Graphics (Core i3), Intel Iris Xe Graphics | RAM: 8GB, 16GB, 32GB | Storage: 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB | Screen: 13.4in. InfinityEdge, 1920 x 1200 (169ppi, non-touch/touch), 3840 x 2400 (338ppi, touch), 500 nits | Wireless: Bluetooth 5.1, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) | Ports and slots: 2x USB-C/Thunderbolt 4, MicroSD | Camera: HD (720p) RGB and IR | Audio: 2 mics, stereo speakers, 3.5mm headphone/mic jack | Battery: 52Wh (14h 11m FHD+, 8h 12m 4K+/UHD+) | Dimensions: 295.7 x 198.7 x 14.8mm | Weight: 1.2kg (non-touch), 1.27kg (touch) | Price: From $970 (Core i3), $1,070 (Core i5), $1,970 (Core i7)
Knowledge workers spend a lot of time staring at the screen and pounding the keyboard, mostly running a mix of productivity and collaboration apps. As well as a decent screen and keyboard, knowledge workers need solid all-round performance, a spare connection for an external monitor, if required, and a good webcam/mic/speaker combo for handling video calls (this will be particularly important if the user is also working remotely). Many devices could perform these duties, but the Dell XPS 13 currently leads the field, in our opinion.
Powered by 11th-generation Intel Core i3, 15 or i7 processors with integrated Intel (UHD or Iris Xe) Graphics, the 13.4-inch XPS 13 is compact and lightweight, yet durable. The minimal-bezel InfinityEdge display is available in FHD+ (non-touch/touch) or 4K+/UHD+ (touch) resolutions with 16:10 aspect ratio, while the keyboard is quiet, responsive and comfortable to type on at speed. All-day battery life should be achievable from the 52Wh battery, depending on the workload mix and screen resolution/brightness setting. It’s not cheap, especially if you add copious options (such as a Thunderbolt Dock), but it will serve you very well.
Dell offers a variant of the XPS 13 with an OLED touch display featuring ‘3.5K’ resolution (3456 x 2160 pixels, 304ppi), 100% DCI-P3 colour gamut coverage, DisplayHDR 500 and Dolby Vision certification, and 400 nits maximum brightness.
Read the review: Dell XPS 13 review
Here are some other highly-regarded contenders for knowledge/remote workers, in order of increasing screen size:
OS: Windows 10 (Home, Pro) | CPU: Intel Core i3-1115G4, Core i5-1135G7, Core i5-1145G7 vPro (G2 only); Core i7-1165G7, Core i7-1185G7 vPro (G2 and Max) | GPU: Intel UHD Graphics (Core i3), Iris Xe Graphics | RAM: 8GB, 16GB, 32GB | Storage: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB | Screen: 13.3in. IPS, 1920 x 1080 touch screen, 400 nits; 1920 x 1080 touch screen + HP Sure View, 1000 nits (only option on Max); 3840 x 2160 touch screen, 550 nits | Wireless: Bluetooth 5.0, 802.11ax (WiFi 6), 4G LTE (option), 5G (option) | Ports and slots: 2x USB-C/Thunderbolt 4, USB 3.2, HDMI 2.0, Nano SIM (for optional WWAN) | Cameras: HD (720p) + IR (G2), 5MP + IR (Max) | Audio: 3 mics (G2), 4 mics (Max), 4 stereo speakers, 3.5mm headphone/mic jack | Battery: 38Wh, 56Wh | Dimensions: 304 x 198 x 16mm | Weight: 0.98kg (G2), 1.13 (Max) | Price: G2 from $2,572 (i3-1115G4), $2,770 (i5-1135G7), $2,984 (i5-1145G7), $3,124 (i7-1165G7), $3,421 (i7-1185G7); Max from $2,409 (i7-1165G7), $2,622 (i7-1185G7)
Mobile professionals ask a lot of laptop designers: a usable and performant combination of lightweight, flexible configuration, sturdy build, connectivity, security, battery life and design credibility. It’s a tall order to shoehorn all of that into one product, but HP gives it an exemplary go with the 13.3-inch Elite Dragonfly. We were extremely impressed with the first-generation Elite Dragonfly, and at CES 2021, HP announced the Elite Dragonfly G2 and Elite Dragonfly Max, based on Intel’s latest 11th-generation processors, which are both now available.
The Elite Dragonfly G2 ticks most of the boxes for mobile pros who don’t mind paying for a premium device: prices for the (just) sub-1kg G2 start at $2,572 for an entry-level Core i3 model, but can rise to over $5,000 if you max out on the options. It has an elegant sub-1kg chassis with MIL-STD 801G robustness and a 360-degree FHD (non-touch/touch) or UHD (touch) screen. The spill-resistant, backlit keyboard has a good, firm action and is not too loud, while the glass multi-touch touchpad works smoothly, as do the integrated mouse buttons. Options include mobile broadband (4G LTE or 5G), a Wacom AES 2.0 Pen and integrated Tile tracking, and there’s an electronic privacy slider for the HD (720p) IR webcam. Video calls are well served by the combination of the webcam, 3-mic array and 4-speaker system, and both standard (38Wh) and long-life (56Wh) batteries are available — the latter to serve the power-hungry 4K (UHD) screen.
Read the review: HP Elite Dragonfly G2 review
The Elite Dragonfly Max is only available with Core i7 processors and lacks the 4K screen option. It also has four rather than three mics (2 world-facing, 2 user-facing) and a 5MP IR camera with a manual rather than electronic privacy shutter. The G2 and Max both have two USB-C/Thunderbolt 4 ports, a USB 3.2 port and an HDMI port.
Even though mobile professionals have been considerably less mobile during the coronavirus pandemic, ultraportables and convertibles remain a growth area in the PC market, and there are many devices out there. If the Elite Dragonfly G2 doesn’t do it for you, here are four more highly regarded contenders, in order of increasing screen size:
OS: MacOS (Big Sur) | CPU: Intel Core i7-9750H, Core i9-9880H, Core i9-9980HK | GPU: AMD Radeon Pro 5300M (4GB), Radeon Pro 5500M (4GB, 8GB), Radeon Pro 5600M (8GB) | RAM: 16GB, 32GB, 64GB | Storage: 512GB, 1TB, 2TB, 4TB, 8TB | Screen: 16in. Retina, 3072 x 1920 (226ppi), 500 nits | Wireless: Bluetooth 5.0, 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) | Ports and slots: 4x Thunderbolt 3/USB-C | Camera: 720p FaceTime HD | Audio: 3-mic array, 6 speakers, 3.5mm headphone jack | Battery: 100Wh (11h) | Dimensions: 358 x 246 x 16.2mm | Weight: 2kg | Price: from $2399 (Core i7), $2799 (Core i9, 2.3/4.8GHz), $2999 (Core i9, 2.4/5GHz)
Laptops designed for power users and creators are always going to command premium prices, because they need high-end features such as serious processing power, powerful discrete graphics, copious memory and storage, a large high-quality screen and robust industrial design. Apple is the premier purveyor of such devices, although the company had until recently been accused of neglecting its original core market.
That’s why the 16-inch MacBook Pro was widely welcomed on its release in November 2019. Its 16-inch screen fits into a chassis that’s only slightly (9mm) wider than its 15-inch predecessor, and the weight is a reasonable 2kg. The 3,072 by 1,920 (226dpi) Retina display is excellent and supports the DCI-P3 colour standard used in professional broadcasting. Apple also courts audio specialists with an impressive 3-mic, 6-speaker system.
Naturally it’s expensive, but with 9th-generation Intel Core i7 (6-core) and Core i9 (8-core) processor options, discrete AMD Radeon Pro 5x00M graphics, all-day battery life, and a redesigned (scissor-mechanism) keyboard, Apple’s top-end Intel-based MacBook Pro continues to cut a dash even in the Apple Silicon era.
Read the review: Apple MacBook Pro (16-inch) review
If a MacOS device doesn’t meet your requirements, check out the Windows-based contenders in ZDNet’s separate roundup of creator laptops:
Read more: Best laptop for graphic design in 2021
OS: Windows 10 (Home, Pro), Linux Fedora 33 | CPU: Intel Core i7-10750H, Core i7-10850H vPro, Core i7-10875H vPro, Core i9-10885H vPro, Xeon W-10855M vPro | GPU: Nvidia Quadro T1000 with Max-Q (4GB), Quadro T2000 with Max-Q (4GB) | RAM: 8GB, 16GB, 32GB, 64GB | Storage: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB; RAID 0, 1 optional | Screen: 15.6in. IPS FHD (1920 x 1080), 300, 500, 600 nits; OLED 4K (3840 x 2160), 400 nits, touch screen | Wireless: Bluetooth 5.1, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) | Ports and slots: 2x USB-A 3.2, 2x USB-C Thunderbolt 3, HDMI 2.0, SD Card Reader | Cameras: 720p camera with ThinkShutter; hybrid IR and 720p HD camera with ThinkShutter (option) | Audio: 2x far-field mics, 2x 2W stereo speakers (Dolby Atmos-certified), 3.5mm combo audio jack | Battery: 80Wh (15.9-17.1h), Rapid Charge (80% in 1h) | Dimensions: 18.4mm x 361.8mm x 245.7mm | Weight: 1.7kg | Price: from $1,705 (Core i7-10750H), $1,884 (Core i7-10850H), $1,960 (Core i7-10875H), $2,024 (Core i9-10885H), $2,656 (Xeon W-10855M)
Many people require more compute, graphics, memory and storage than even a power user/creator laptop provides. These demanding professionals include 3D designers, architects, engineers, scientists, video editors, VR developers and more, and what they need is a full-blown mobile workstation.
As well as Core i7/i9/Xeon or Ryzen 9 CPUs, Nvidia Quadro or Radeon Pro GPUs, at least 16GB of RAM (32GB or more preferable) and multiple terabytes of storage, workstation-class laptops need high-quality IPS or OLED screens with high resolution (4K preferable) and good colour space support (sRGB, Adobe RGB, DCI-P3). They also need certifications from ISVs (Independent Software Vendors) such as Adobe, Autodesk, Avid and others, to signify that specific configurations are optimised for mission-critical apps.
The leading mobile workstation vendors are Dell, HP and Lenovo, but your search for a suitable solution may also encompass recent entrants from the gaming market such as Gigabyte, MSI and Razer. We’ve chosen a top-end model from a tier-1 vendor, in the shape of Lenovo’s “ultra-premium and luxury in a workstation” ThinkPad P1 Gen 3.
This 15.6-inch clamshell device is a typically black-clad, robust (MIL-STD 810G) ThinkPad with the usual excellent keyboard and signature red TrackPoint. In the US, an entry-level ‘Build Your Own‘ model with an Intel Core i7-10750H processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of SSD storage, an FHD (1920 x 1080, 141.2ppi) 300 nits IPS screen and Nvidia Quadro T1000 graphics costs $1,702. That won’t cut the mission-critical mustard, though, and customisation options go all the way up to a Xeon W-10855M processor (+$1,100), 64GB of EEC RAM (+$1,165), a pair of 2TB PCIe SSDs in RAID 0 or 1 configuration, a 4K (3840 x 2160, 282.4ppi) 400 nits OLED touch screen (+ $660) and Nvidia Quadro T2000 graphics (+ $210). That little lot currently adds up to $4,404.52.
Read the review: Lenovo ThinkPad P1
There’s also a ‘Build with Linux‘ option running Linux Fedora 33, which starts at $1,594.42. And those all-important ISV certifications? These are available for ArcGIS, AutoCAD, CATIA, Creo, Inventor, Microstation, NX, PDMS, Revit, Solid Edge, SolidWorks and Vectorworks.
If a 15.6-inch screen isn’t large enough for you, here’s a couple of 17.3-inch mobile workstations to consider:
OS: Windows 10 (Home) | CPU: AMD Ryzen 5 4500U, Ryzen 7 4700U, Ryzen 5700U | GPU: AMD Radeon Graphics (integrated) | RAM: 8GB, 16GB | Storage: 256GB, 512GB, 1TB | Screen: 14in. IPS, 1920 x 1080 (157ppi) | Wireless: Bluetooth 5.0, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) | Ports and slots: USB-C, USB 3.2, USB 2.0, HDMI | Camera: HD (720p) | Audio: 1 mic, stereo speakers, 3.5mm headphone/mic combo | Battery: 48Wh (11h) | Dimensions: 323 x 218 x 18mm | Weight: 1.2kg | Price: from $630 (Ryzen 5 4500U), $700 (Ryzen 7 5700U), $800 (Ryzen 7 4700U)
Not everyone can afford the laptop they might like to have (students and employees of small businesses spring to mind), but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for a substandard device. The top-tier manufacturers all have ‘affordable’ ranges, and there’s any number of unashamedly budget brands, many of which offer excellent-value devices. Our choice, Acer’s AMD-powered Swift 3, is from a top-tier vendor and gets the nod thanks to its excellent combination of sub-$1,000 price and solid performance without making too many trade-offs on features, build quality or support options. (Note: Chromebooks, another rich seam of budget laptops, are covered elsewhere in this article.)
Key to the Swift 3’s value proposition is AMD’s Ryzen 4000 mobile processor series, which delivers excellent price/performance compared to Intel’s equivalent chips. (Note: at CES 2021 AMD announced the latest Ryzen 5000 mobile processors with significant claimed improvements in performance and power consumption.) Not only is the CPU, 8GB or 16GB of RAM and up to 1TB of storage well up to scratch, but wireless connectivity — Bluetooth 5.0 and 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) wi-fi — is bang up to date, which is impressive in this price band. The 14-inch FHD screen is perfectly adequate, although some may find that its matte finish and moderate brightness make it somewhat lacklustre. The Swift 3’s build quality is good, there’s a good selection of ports, the keyboard is backlit, and you can expect to get a full day’s (not too demanding) work done on battery power (Acer claims 11 hours). It’s not too heavy either, at 1.2kg. Starting at $630 (with a Ryzen 5 4500U processor), the Swift 3 is excellent value.
Read the review: Acer Swift 3 review CNET
As noted earlier, there’s any number of affordable laptops out there, and you can easily find usable Windows 10 devices for under $250 if that’s your budget limit. If you’ve got a bit more to spend, here’s two more good-value laptops from top vendors:
OS: Windows 11 (Pro), Windows 10 (Pro) | CPU: Core i3-7130U, Core i5-8350U, Core i7-8650U | GPU: Intel HD 620 Graphics | RAM: 8GB, 16GB, 32GB | Storage: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB | Screen: 14in. WVA, 1920 x 1080 (non-touch, non-touch/outdoor-readable, touch/outdoor-readable) | Wireless: Bluetooth 4.2, 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5), 4G LTE (option) | Ports and slots: 3x USB 3.0, USB-C, RS-232 serial, RJ-45 Ethernet, HDMI, SD card slot, SIM slot, SmartCard reader (option) | Cameras: FHD web or IR camera with privacy shutter (option) | Audio: 2 mics, speaker, 3.5mm headphone/mic combo jack | Battery: 51Wh, optional 2nd 51Wh hot-swap battery | Dimensions: 347 x 244 x 32.8mm (ex. bumpers and handle) | Weight: from 2.22kg (1 battery, no handle) | Price: from $2,264 (Core i3), $2,346 (Core i5), $2,625 (Core i7)
Laptops must often brave the elements, which can include bright sunshine, rain, a dust storm, baking heat, serious vibration, and drops from a variety of heights onto different surfaces. No wonder that ‘rugged’ laptops come in many shades — ‘extreme’ or ‘fully’ rugged, ‘semi’ or ‘business’ rugged, for example. Two main classifications are used to assess the ruggedness of laptops and other equipment: the US military’s MIL-STD 810 series (commonly 810G, or the latest 810H); and the IP or Ingress Protection code. There are numerous MIL-STD 810 tests, and most laptops will only undergo a subset, so check the specs carefully to see which they are. The IP code reports two numbers, the first concerning resistance to solids (5 denotes ‘dust protected’, for example, while 6 means a device is ‘dust tight’) and the second to liquids (1 = ‘dripping water’, 9K = ‘powerful high-temperature water jets’).
Our choice in this tough-laptop category, Dell’s 14-inch Latitude 5420 Rugged Business Laptop, isn’t the most bulletproof portable computer on the market by any means, but it offers a good mix of price, performance, features and robustness for business users. Like all rugged laptops, the Latitude 5420 is bulkier and heavier than mainstream devices, thanks to extra protection for the screen and keyboard sections. Still, it weighs a reasonable (for its class) 2.22kg with one battery and no (optional) handle. You can specify a second hot-swappable 51Wh battery to ensure greater longevity in the field. The 14-inch FHD screen comes in touch, non-touch and outdoor-readable versions, and there’s plenty of configurable wired and wireless connectivity, including Ethernet and (optional) 4G LTE broadband. If you need a portable computer that can take a few knocks, this is an excellent choice that’s already available with Windows 11.
Read the review: Dell Latitude 5240 Rugged review
Dell has the widest range of rugged laptops among the top-tier laptop-makers, but there are a number of specialist vendors, including Getac, Xplore, DT Research and Panasonic. The latter’s Toughbooks are probably the best-known specialist brand. Here are some notable examples:
OS: Windows 10 (Home, Pro) | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2 5G Compute Platform | GPU: Qualcomm Adreno GPU | RAM: up to 16GB | Storage: up to 512GB | Screen: 13.5in. 1920 x 1280 Edge-to-Edge Glass, 10-point multi-touch | Wireless: Bluetooth LE 5.0, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6), 4G LTE and 5G mobile broadband | Ports and slots: 2x USB-C 3.2, Nano SIM | Camera: HD IR + hybrid Y2.2mm HD webcam | Audio: 2x front-facing mics, 4x stereo speakers, 3.5mm headphone/mic combo jack | Battery: up to 24.5h of local video playback | Dimensions: 299 x 230 x 15.9mm | Weight: 1.3kg | Price: from $1,419
A subset of the laptop-buying population will always be hankering after the latest form factors and platforms, and CES is the place to get a first look at what’s in store for the coming year. Despite being online-only due to the coronavirus pandemic, CES 2021 didn’t disappoint, offering up a healthy crop of cutting-edge industrial designs and configurations.
We’ve picked out HP’s Elite Folio, a 13.5-inch 2-in-1 device, because it shows how Windows laptops are developing in response to Apple’s Arm-based M1 MacBooks. The Elite Folio runs Windows on ARM on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2 5G platform, which includes both 4G LTE and 5G modems, along with Wi-Fi 6. The message is that this ultraportable (1.3kg) 2-in-1 is ‘always on, always connected’, with claimed battery life of up to 24.5 hours of ‘local video playback’. With optional Sure View privacy for the touch screen, an Elite Slim Active Pen (with on-device storage and charging), a well-specified audio-video subsystem and fanless operation, this is a sought-after laptop for the well-heeled mobile professional.
ZDNet’s review confirmed the appeal of the Elite Folio’s design, and recorded battery life of around 15 hours with mixed-use workloads. Drawbacks included app compatibility issues under Windows on ARM and a shortage of ports.
Read review: HP Elite Folio review
There are plenty of other innovative laptop form factors out there that might catch the eye of the early adopter. Here’s a selection:
OS: MacOS (Big Sur) | CPU: Apple M1 | GPU: Apple M1 (7 or 8 cores) | RAM: 8GB, 16GB | Storage: 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB | Screen: 13.3in. Retina, 2560 x 1600 (227ppi), 400 nits | Wireless: Bluetooth 5.0, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) | Ports and slots: 2x Thunderbolt 3/USB4 | Camera: 720p FaceTime HD | Audio: 3-mic array, stereo speakers, 3.5mm headphone jack | Battery: 49.9Wh (15h) | Dimensions: 304 x 212 x 4.1-16.1mm | Weight 1.29kg | Price: From $999 (7-core GPU), $1,249 (8-core GPU)
Apple announced its ARM-based M1 Macs in November, and within days benchmarks showed the new MacBooks delivering very impressive performance, even when running software written for the Intel platform using Apple’s Rosetta 2 translation technology. Coupled with low power consumption, this gives the M1 platform cutting-edge performance per watt, presenting a big challenge to the Windows ecosystem. Like the A-series chips in Apple’s iPhones, iPads and Watches, the M1 is a system-on-chip (SoC) design, delivering multiple functions on a single piece of silicon. Built on a 5nm process, the M1 has 16 billion transistors and a thermal design power (TDP) of 10 watts (in the MacBook Air).
The MacBook Air may be Apple’s entry-level laptop, but being Apple that means a starting price of $999. Outwardly it looks almost identical to its Intel-based predecessor, although the 227ppi Retina display now supports the professional DCI-P3 colour standard and the weight has increased slightly (by 40g to 1.29kg). Wireless connectivity is up to date (Bluetooth 5, Wi-Fi 6) and the two Thunderbolt 3 ports now support USB4, although the webcam is still a 720p FaceTime unit. RAM and storage upgrades (at purchase time) are limited and pricey, but it’s the performance and battery life that make the M1 MacBook Air stand out. We recorded a Geekbench 5 (multi core) CPU score of 7590, which blows away the early 2020 Intel Core i7-based MacBook Air’s score of 3050. Meanwhile, our battery tests recorded the M1 model lasting for 17 hours 19 minutes, compared to around 11 hours for the Intel-based MacBook Air.
Read the review: MacBook Air (2020) review
Two other MacBook models – the M1-based 13.3-inch MacBook Pro with a bigger battery (58.2Wh) and the Intel-based 16-inch MacBook Pro — are also excellent choices, with the latter particularly suitable for creators (see above):
OS Windows 10 (Home, Pro) | CPU Intel Core i5-1135G7, Core i7-1185G7, AMD Ryzen 5 4680U (13.5in.) • Core i7-1185G7, AMD Ryzen 7 4980U | GPU Intel Iris Xe Graphics, AMD Radeon Graphics | RAM 8GB, 16GB, 32GB | Storage 256GB, 512GB, 1TB | Screen 13.5in. PixelSense, 2256 x 1504 (201ppi) • 15in. PixelSense, 2496 x 1664 (201ppi), 10pt multi-touch | Wireless Bluetooth 5.0, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) | Ports and slots: USB-C, USB-A, Surface Connect | Cameras Windows Hello, 720p HD f2.0 | Audio 2 far-field Studio Mics, Omnisonic speakers with Dolby Audio, 3.5mm headphone jack | Battery 47.4Wh (19h AMD, 17h Intel, 13.5-inch • 17.5h AMD, 16.5h Intel, 15-inch) | Dimensions 308 x 223 x 14.5mm (13.5in.), 339.5 x 244 x 14.7mm (15in.) | Weight 13.5-inch: 1.26kg (Alcantara), 1.29kg (metal) • 15-inch: 1.54kg | Price from $999.99 (13.5-inch) • from $1,299.99 (15-inch)
Microsoft’s Surface devices made their debut in 2012 with a 10.6-inch tablet sporting an optional attachable keyboard, running the ill-fated Windows RT on an ARM-based Nvidia Tegra SoC. Since then, the brand has established itself as a design and technology showcase for the Windows platform, evolving into a profitable business for Microsoft and picking up a hard core of devotees. Today Microsoft offers no fewer than 10 Surface laptops of various descriptions, most of them in consumer and business guises: Surface Pro 8 (13in. tablet/laptop), Surface Pro 7/7+ (12.3in. tablet/laptop), Surface Pro X (13in. Arm-based tablet/laptop), Surface Go 3 (10.5in. tablet/laptop), Surface Go 2 (10.5in. tablet/laptop), Surface Laptop Studio (14.4-in. convertible laptop), Surface Book 3 (13.5in./15in. detachable laptop/tablet), Surface Laptop 4 (13.5in./15in. laptop), and Surface Laptop Go (12.4in. laptop).
See: The best Surface PC: Every Surface device is Windows 11-ready
Laptop users seeking a Surface device for mainstream productivity tasks are probably best directed to the Surface Laptop 4, which comes in 13.5-inch or 15-inch sizes, powered by either 11th-generation Intel Core processors with Iris Xe graphics or AMD Ryzen 4000-series processors with Radeon graphics. With an elegant aluminium chassis and available in a range of colours and finishes, both Surface Laptop 4 models have 201ppi PixelSense touch screens with 3:2 aspect ratios.
The main disappointment for ZDNet’s reviewers with the Surface Laptop 3 was battery life: Microsoft claimed up to 11.5 hours of ‘typical usage’, but our tests came in at more like 6 hours. Microsoft clearly aimed to address this with the Surface Laptop 4, claiming up to 19h and 17h respectively for the 13.5-inch AMD- and Intel-based models; for the 15-inch model, Microsoft claims up to 17.5h (AMD) and 16.5h (Intel). In our review of the 13.5-inch AMD-powered model, we saw around 14 hours of life under mixed-use workloads. That’s below the 19h claim, but impressive nonetheless.
Read review: Surface Laptop 4 (13.5-inch, AMD) review
Prices for the 13.5-inch Surface Laptop 4 start at $999.99 with an AMD Ryzen 5 4680U processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD storage, rising to $2,299.99 with an Intel Core i7-1185G7, 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD. The 15-inch model starts at $1,299.99 with a Ryzen 7 4980U, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, rising to $2,399.99 with a Core i7-1185G7, 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD.
OS: Chrome OS | CPU: Intel Core m3-8100Y, Core i5-8220Y, Core i7-8500Y | GPU: Intel UHD Graphics 615 | RAM: 8GB, 16GB | Storage: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB | Screen: 13.3in. 1920 x 1080 (166ppi), 3840 x 2160 (331ppi), touch screen | Wireless: Bluetooth 4.2, 802.11ac (Wi-Fi5) | Ports and slots: 2x USB-C | Camera: 2MP Duo Cam (1080p/60fps) | Audio: 2 mics, stereo speakers, 3.5mm headphone jack | Battery: up to 12h | Dimensions: 206 x 311 x 13.4mm | Weight: 1.06kg (FHD), 1.09kg (UHD) | Price: from $649 (m3), $849 (i5), $1,399 (i7)
Chromebooks have come into their own during the coronavirus pandemic, their combination of simplicity, affordability and long battery life delivering exactly what was needed for students and knowledge workers forced to study and work from home. According to analyst firm Canalys, Chromebooks hit record worldwide shipment volumes in Q4 2020 with 11.2 million units, up 287% year on year, while 30.7m units were sold during the full year. That’s impressive performance, although Chromebooks still only represent some 6.7% of the total PC/tablet market.
Chromebooks come in many shapes and sizes, and at many price points, but the pick of the crop is Google’s Pixelbook Go, a premium device that costs from $649 with an 8th-generation Intel Core i3 processor, rising to $1,399 for a Core i7 model. There are many plus points about the Pixelbook Go, including its sleek fit and finish, high-quality 13.3-inch 166ppi or 331ppi screen, up to 12 hours of battery life with fast charging, an excellent keyboard, two USB-C ports and a 3.5mm headphone jack, and weight just over 1kg.
Read the review: Google Pixelbook Go review
Here are a couple of other excellent Chromebooks (for more suggestions, see ZDNet’s roundup):
OS: Ubuntu Linux 20.04 | CPU: Core i5-1135G7, Core i7-1165G7 | GPU: Intel Iris Xe Graphics | RAM: 8GB, 16GB | Storage: 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB | Screen: 13.4in. InfinityEdge, 1920 x 1200 (169ppi, non-touch, touch), 3840 x 2400 (338ppi, touch), 500 nits | Wireless: Bluetooth 5.1, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) | Ports and slots: 2x USB-C/Thunderbolt 4, MicroSD | Camera: HD (720p) RGB and IR | Audio: 2 mics, stereo speakers, 3.5mm headphone/mic jack | Battery: 52Wh (14h 11m FHD+, 8h 12m 4K+/UHD+) | Dimensions: 295.7 x 198.7 x 14.8mm | Weight: 1.2kg (non-touch), 1.27kg (touch) | Price: from $899 (Core i5), $1079 (Core i7)
Linux has a small but dedicated following among desktop and laptop users — particularly developers — and PC manufacturers have taken notice in recent years. For example, Lenovo recently certified its high-end laptops and desktops for Linux, and preloads its ThinkStation and ThinkPad P Series workstations with Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Ubuntu LTS. You can, of course, install a Linux distro on all manner of laptops, but for peace of mind you’ll want to buy from a ‘name’ brand, preferably with Linux pre-installed.
Read the review: Dell XPS Linux review
Which brings us to another win for Dell’s XPS 13 — this time, the Developer Edition with Ubuntu Linux 20.04 on board. The (excellent) hardware is identical to that described earlier for the regular XPS 13 running Windows 10. Developers are likely to want to attach multiple peripherals — an external monitor, extra storage, for example — and there are just two USB-C/Thunderbolt 4 ports (one of which is required for power). This means a compatible docking station will almost certainly have to be added to the laptop’s price, which starts at $899 for a Core i5 processor, or $1079 with a Core i7 at the helm.
Why should you buy a laptop, and not a desktop or a tablet?
These days, a ‘computer’, for most people, is a laptop of some kind. The desktop form factor — particularly in the shape of all-in-one (AIO) devices — is by no means finished, but laptops span the range from thin, light and ultraportable to bulky, powerful and deskbound, and cover a lot of use cases (as seen above). If screen real estate with smaller laptops is a problem you can always attach an external monitor, and there are plenty of hybrid 2-in-1 devices that straddle the divide between laptop and tablet.
Which operating system should you choose: Windows, MacOS, Chrome OS, or Linux?
Every computing platform has its committed supporters, but most people end up using a particular operating system because key applications run on it, or because it’s chosen for them by their employer, or because of budgetary issues — Windows spans the range from budget to premium, but Chrome OS is largely confined to the affordable end of the market, while Apple’s macOS laptops are mostly premium devices.
Windows 11 is rolling out on new PCs, and as a free upgrade on eligible Windows 10 systems, from October 5 2021. All of the Windows devices listed here qualify for Windows 11, so if you buy one with Windows 10 installed you’ll be able to upgrade to version 11 in due course if you wish. If you don’t, note that Windows 10 support ends on October 14 2025, after which there will be no more security patches or feature updates.
See: Windows 11 hands on: Microsoft’s biggest minor upgrade ever is all about new hardware
Laptop vendors: Should you stick to the ‘usual suspects,’ or seek out lesser-known brands?
Generally speaking, the leading PC vendors have the broadest range of offerings and the best-documented track records in terms of product development and customer relations. So in the absence of a specialised use case or budgetary constraint, you’re usually going to be looking at the likes of Lenovo, HP, Dell, Apple, and Acer — which currently lead the PC market in terms of shipments — plus a handful of other well-known brands.
How did we choose these laptops?
I have been writing, commissioning and editing reviews of laptops (and many other types of tech product) since the 1990s. The selection process for this ‘Best’ list is based on a combination of personal usage and experience, involvement in the ZDNet reviews process, and analysis of other reviews and roundups.
How can you decide which laptop is right for you?
As mentioned earlier, the key question when buying a laptop — as with any product — is: ‘What do you want to do with it?’ Once you’ve established the use case, you’ll have a focus for your research, and should quickly get a feel for the key features to look out for. If you’re a mobile knowledge worker, for example, you’ll want a usable and performant combination of lightweight, flexible configuration, sturdy build, connectivity, security, battery life, and design credibility. But if you’re a largely deskbound graphic designer or creator who occasionally needs to visit a client, with laptop in tow, your priorities will be different.
Once you have a long list of potential candidates, your budget will likely trim it down at the top end, while your cautionary instincts should kick in at the bottom end (if something appears too good to be true, it probably is). Armed with a well-researched shortlist, you should have a good chance of ending up with a laptop that will satisfy your requirements.