A Laptop That’s Ready to Travel
The evolution of laptops has always been driven by the push for thinner, lighter, and more power-efficient designs, but in recent years these demands have coalesced into what may be the perfect expression of Laptop design: the ultraportable. What exactly defines this category? In general, Ultraportables weigh 3 pounds or less, have screens 14 inches or smaller, use processors more powerful than the Intel Atom, and offer enough battery life to survive most of a workday off-plug. These systems are now faster than ever, are well-suited to travel, and come with a variety of features and display resolutions wide enough to fit anyone’s needs. You may have seen laptops of this breed referred to as Ultrabooks or Streambooks, but those are primarily attempts to attach some branding to the same basic template of ultraportables. The design always comes back to the same foundational elements: thin, light, and long lasting.
How Much Should You Spend?
Although all ultraportable laptops may look sleek, there are a few key differentiators between models. The first to consider is price. There’s a huge difference between a system that costs $300 and one that costs $1,300, even if they boast the same brand name, and similar looks and features.
At the low end are entry-level systems, which generally run $500 or less (sometimes less than $200). For many casual users, this is the only price range worth looking at, but there are some caveats to keep in mind. The processing power, display resolution, and storage capacities are usually lower on inexpensive ultraportables, as they’re built for basic web browsing, word processing, and media viewing purposes, and construction materials can be on the flimsy side. Entry-level ultraportables make solid systems for younger family members to use for homework or watching movies around the house, since they are both highly portable and relatively inexpensive. Value is a big factor in this category, as plenty of budget ultraportables can entice you with a low price. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself let down by a system that’s only a bargain because its manufacturer cut too many corners. That said, the spec floor has risen in this category. As faster base parts become less expensive and more common, cheaper systems with decent build quality are more capable of completing day-to-day tasks. They’ve become fairly competent if you’re looking to perform simple tasks like web browsing and word processing on the go.
Midrange systems are better, but also cost more, ranging from about $500 to $1,250. Materials and specs that were once exclusive to high-end ultraportables are now the norm in midrange systems, including features such as full HD (1,920-by-1,080) or even QHD (2,560-by-1,440) resolutions, touch displays, metal chassis, and more. Battery life and storage have improved as well, making it easier to get better bang for your buck in this price range. You’ll still have to compromise in one or two areas such as storage capacity, port options, and resolution compared with the high-end systems, but for most shoppers, this price range represents the best mix of price and performance.
At the top of the price ladder are premium systems, which we categorize as anything costing $1,250 or more. With these high-end systems come choice materials, cutting-edge components and features, and top performance that will speed up photo editing and other productivity tasks. Here, you’ll also see 3K- or 4K-resolution displays, quality sound hardware (often from familiar brands like Bang & Olufsen), spacious and speedy storage, and other exciting features, all while the system’s form factor remains slim and compact. This pricing tier yields the best overall user experience, the most features and port options, and the fastest internal hardware, but not every premium system is created equal, and when you’re spending this much money, do you really want second best? If you have the budget, and will be spending a lot of time on your laptop, it may very well pay to invest in quality.
Choose Your Power Wisely
For smooth performance and a good user experience, you’ll want to be choosy about your processor. Even in a less-expensive system, the average processor is more capable than ever of handling routine tasks, but if you need speed, select carefully. At the top of the heap are Intel’s Core i5 and Core i7 processors, which can be found in midrange and premium models. Most ultraportables out right now still utilize the latest Intel 14nm chips, the 7th Generation Core CPUs code-named Kaby Lake, but this is beginning to change. A refreshed version, Kaby Lake R, is popping up in newer laptops, offering even better speed than before. Either line will typically be paired with 8GB of memory, though some premium systems boast up to 16GB of RAM.
A few middle-of-the-pack models will opt for processors in Intel’s Core M line. These m3, m5, and m7 CPUs are capable but low-powered, intended to bridge the gap between more expensive Core i5 and i7 chips and the Intel Atom processors you find in inexpensive Windows tablets. The design of a Core M CPU allows for processing power that approaches that of Core i5 chips, but with lower power consumption and no need for cooling fans. This results in slimmer laptop designs, quieter operation (no fans mean no fan noise), and longer battery life, often extending past 8 hours. Core M–equipped systems are a good choice if you want the most portable ultraportable. They aren’t usually less expensive, though, and you may find yourself paying more than you would for something that’s more powerful, but also slightly thicker and heavier. You’ll have to find the right balance of physical design and performance to fit your needs.
Aside from Intel’s near-ubiquitous CPUs, you will see a few less-expensive systems featuring processors from other manufacturers, primarily AMD. While AMD chips support the same range of uses as Intel chips, from web browsing to video editing and gaming, they aren’t as common in ultraportables. If you aren’t sure about the model used in the system you’re considering, take a look at our reviews (particularly the results of our benchmark tests) to see how it will fare in real-world conditions.
Finally, at the low end are Intel’s Atom and Celeron processors. These budget processors are both inexpensive and energy-efficient, but power users may find themselves frustrated by slow performance, limited RAM allotments (1GB to 2GB), and 32-bit software support instead of 64-bit. You will definitely feel a difference in performance speed, but you can probably make do if you’re a casual user.
Pay Attention to Graphics
Also important is the graphics processor. Ultraportable systems almost exclusively rely on integrated graphics, such as Intel’s HD Graphics 620. This level of horsepower is usually enough for streaming media and maybe editing the odd photo, but not for substantial gaming. If you want to do more with media and perhaps some gaming, you’ll need a discrete graphics card, like the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070. These cards require more power and cooling, and as such are generally only seen in bulkier gaming laptops or desktop-replacement notebooks. There are an increasing number of exceptions that are both portable and gaming ready, however, like the Razer Blade, but by and large the most travel-friendly systems are not suited to gaming. Don’t expect the integrated graphics to suffice for playing much more than a few less-demanding games on lower detail settings.
Space Is Everything
Speedy hardware is all well and good, but you also need somewhere to keep all your digital stuff. For most ultraportables, this means a solid-state drive (SSD). These compact, flash-based storage devices are lighter and less prone to data loss from damage because they don’t have any moving parts, which is ideal for systems doing a lot of traveling. Some SSDs use a connection standard called M.2, which is smaller than traditional SATA connections—and smaller connectors allow smaller designs—but both are serviceable. Some (but not all) of these M.2-connected drives use a PCI Express (PCIe) connection for faster data transfer (and thus faster overall performance).
256GB of SSD storage is very common on the high-end ultraportables. While it would be nice to have a bit more room than that, SSD capacity is still pretty pricey, so the cost can jump up fast if you opt for a larger 512GB or 1TB option if the manufacturer offers it. 256GB will do the job for many users, though, especially since you won’t likely be storing large game installations or media projects on this type of computer.
While SSDs are the most common for ultraportables, you will see two other storage options used on less-expensive systems. A few use an embedded MultiMediaCard (eMMC), a form of solid-state storage that is often identified as an SSD in product specs but is actually a memory card (like an SD card). As such, it’s a little slower and a lot smaller in capacity (32 to 64GB) than a standard SSD. You’ll generally only find this type of storage on the cheapest laptops around.
Finally, some systems still use good-old-fashioned spinning hard drives. These drives are less expensive than SSDs, and they offer substantially more room for your files—you will often see hard drives with capacities of 500GB or more. You won’t get the same speedy performance as you do with an SSD, but there’s something to be said for lots of storage space.
See How We Test Laptops
Picking Your Pixels
As for a more visible portion of the laptop, the screen, ultraportables are available with a wide range of display options. These include an increasingly varied array of resolutions, from standard high definition (1,366 by 768) to full HD (1,920 by 1,080) and even Ultra HD or 4K (3,840 by 2,160). Lower-resolution screens are most frequently found in entry-level systems simply because they’re the least expensive option. They work well enough for reading and typing text, and YouTube usually defaults to something lower than full HD anyway, so less discerning users can get by just fine.
Full HD (often referred to as 1080p) screens are expected on midrange systems, and are still used in a smaller number of premium ultraportables. It’s becoming standard enough that even some cheaper options now offer HD displays, a far cry from where we were when the technology debuted. These displays offer support for 1080p video and are better equipped for multitasking, since you can fit more readable text and two side-by-side windows onto a 13-inch screen. This is a sharp, true HD resolution, generally ideal for most daily uses.
Ultra HD is currently the resolution of choice for the most high-end ultraportables. As 4K screens have four times the resolution of a full HD display, you can fit a lot onto them. The sheer number of pixels requires more power, however, and 4K-equipped systems usually see a significant drop in battery life compared with similar full HD systems. There’s also the question of content. Although 4K TVs and displays are becoming increasingly common, there still aren’t a lot of places to stream 4K video (this is slowly improving on some streaming services), and gaming in 4K is definitely more than most ultraportables can adequately support. At the present, these displays are best suited to uses like photo and video editing, but they do look stunning.
Many premiuim laptops are now using QHD or QHD+ screens, which are resolutions that fall between HD and 4K. They represent a nice middle ground between expensive, power-draining 4K resolutions and sharp, better-than-HD picture quality, so you should be happy to see QHD or QHD+ on a laptop you’re considering buying.
The other feature to watch for is touch. While touch-capable displays were uncommon just a few years ago, they’re now pretty ubiquitous in ultraportable systems, even in the entry-level and business categories. Windows 10 includes some baked-in gesture controls and touch-friendly features, which helps promote its use. Touch technology is also often more useful on a bus or train where you may not have a mouse, making it a good match for ultraportables. Even if you don’t regularly use touch in your day-to-day computing and don’t plan to incorporate it, it may be worth having just so you don’t regret the decision down the road.
Two Laptops in One
More and more ultraportables are being released as what we call convertible hybrids, or 2-in-1s. These “mash-ups” let you enjoy both laptop and tablet functionality, thanks to hinges and swiveling joints that let you bend the display back around to use without a keyboard, though the systems don’t come apart the way detachable-hybrid slates do. More and more manufacturers are adopting this design, including adding convertability to new models of exisiting laptop lines.
These convertible devices are laptops first, but they aren’t limited to the traditional clamshell design. Because they feature specialized hinges and touch screens, you can also prop them up like a tent, or turn the keyboard facedown so the screen is better positioned for watching a movie or giving a presentation. The one point of concern is that every extra-flexible hinge or rotating joint also presents a new point of failure for the display, and while they are relatively rare, screen issues occur with convertible designs more than with standalone laptops. While convertibles are a category in their own right, the ability to convert form naturally lends itself to making a good travel laptop, so you’ll see that some our highest-rated ultraportable laptops are convertibles.
The Big Value: Chromebooks
Depending on what you do with your computer, you might find a chromebook to be one of the best values in ultraportables. A chromebook is a bare-bones laptop that runs Google’s Chrome OS, and thus limits you to using web apps and, as of models released in 2017, Android apps as well.
This means that you won’t have access to traditional Windows software, so if that’s central to how you work and play, a chromebook isn’t for you. But if you use a web-based email client like Gmail or Outlook.com for communications, Google Drive for doing your work, and spend most of your time watching videos on YouTube or playing web games, and you don’t expect your needs to change anytime soon, chances are you’ll get along just fine with a chromebook. And considering that computers of this type are extraordinarily affordable right down the line (with most costing $300 or less), you could outfit your family with three or even four for about what you’d pay for a high-end ultraportable.
With thinner, lighter, and more powerful ultraportables available now than ever before, there’s something in the category to suit anyone’s needs. No matter your preferences for brand, display, or feature set, there’s a variety of options to choose from across a range of form factors and prices. Below are 10 of the top ultraportables we’ve tested. We refresh the list often to include the newest products, but because of the large number of laptops we review every year, not every top-rated product makes the cut. Be sure to also check our overall laptop favorites, as well as our top picks for work and play, and if you’re on a budget, the best low-cost laptops.
Featured Ultraportable Laptop Reviews:
Acer Swift 1 Review
Bottom Line: How much laptop can you get for $329? Acer’s Swift 1 is a surprisingly strong answer, a little short on storage but with a slim build and a 1080p IPS display.
Dell XPS 13 (9360) Review
Bottom Line: The XPS 13, Dell’s venerable ultraportable with the bezel-free screen, gets Intel’s new quad-core CPU, with electrifying results in both speed and battery life.
Lenovo Yoga 920 Review
Bottom Line: With a top-notch design and build, the Lenovo Yoga 920 is an excellent convertible laptop that delivers long battery life and speedy performance thanks to its 8th-generation Core i7 CPU.
Lenovo IdeaPad Miix 320 Review
Bottom Line: With a low price and long battery life, the Lenovo IdeaPad Miix 320 is a very well-integrated detachable hybrid that serves equally well as a laptop and a tablet.
Acer Chromebook Spin 11 Review
Bottom Line: The Acer Chromebook Spin 11 is an 11.6-inch convertible that offers keyboard, touch, and stylus input, runs Chrome OS and Android apps, and shrugs off knocks, drops, and water spills. It’s t…
HP Spectre 13 (2017) Review
Bottom Line: The HP Spectre 13 is powerful and thin, with a gorgeous white and gold design, making it both a status symbol and a very capable ultraportable laptop.
Microsoft Surface Laptop Review
Bottom Line: Microsoft’s Surface Laptop with Windows 10 S is aimed at students looking for a sleek alternative to the aging Apple MacBook Air. It’s stylish and powerful, but you’ll want to nab the free W…