Ultrabook reviews, guides and comparisons

Best ultrabooks and ultraportable laptops of 2016 – buying guide and tips

By Andrei Girbea - @ andreigirbea , updated on June 18, 2016

I never liked lugging around heavy computers, but my work requires me to have some sort of notebook nearby most of the time. That’s why I’ve been using ultraportable laptops for well over 10 years now and I’ve tested hundreds of different models during this time.

Portable laptops are pretty much everywhere these days and many of the available models are fairly affordable. But the average buyer is going to have a hard time picking the right device for what she or he needs, as there are tens of good options out there. If you’re here, you’re probably one of these confused buyers and this post will help, as it is a list of my favorite ultrabooks and thin-and-light laptops available in stores these days.

Before starting your search for the “holy grail”, you’ll have to answer yourself a few quick questions, like “What do I need it for?”, “How much do I want to spend?”,”Do I want a full-size notebook or I’d rather have something more compact?” or “What matters most for me on a laptop: the design, the build quality, the screen, the keyboard, maybe some specific features?”. These will greatly help narrow down your options.

I’ve split this post into a few different sections, tailored on your potential answers to the questions above. You’ll find them in the Table of Contents below. Go through the suggestions, pick a handful that seem just about right, check out our reviews for those options and in the end make up your mind on a final pick. If you need personal guidance or have any questions, there’s a comments section at the end of each post, where you can get in touch with me or the other editors.

One final thing before we start: you might notice that certain parts of these posts are periodically marked as “being updated”, and that’s because I constantly update my recommendations, adding new models and retiring those that have become obsolete.

Table of contents – best 2016 ultrabooks

First of all, we’ll sort our suggestions by screen size, and this way we have:

There are top-tier and budget options mentioned in each case, but if you know you have limited funds at your disposal, you should start your research with this list of good ultrabooks you can get for under $800 (and many even under $600).

And if you have specific needs from your computer, you’ll find what you want in these lists:

Last but not least, if you don’t feel like doing all the hard work yourself, I’ll try to do it for you. The rest of this post offers a simplified version of the detailed articles liked above, with top-three suggestions for those chapters, a best budget option and a few honorary mentions in those cases where picking just three suggestions was close to impossible. Just make sure to go through all of them in order to find the section that interests you.

Latest Gen Skylake ultrabooks

Most of the suggestions included in this post are built on Skylake hardware, as most OEMs have updated their top lines to Skylake or launched new models when the platform was released. Still, if you’re interested in a complete list of Skylake ultraportables, I’ve compiled one here.

Before we move on to the suggestions though, here’s why you should get one of these latest generation Skylake devices, and not a Broadwell model or anything older.

Core i Skylake processors are 5-15% faster than their Broadwell counterparts. The new platform also bundles improved integrated graphics with DX12 support, runs more efficiently (which translates in cooler bodies and longer battery life), works with DDR4 RAM (thus most devices are available with up to 16 GB of memory) or PCIe 3rd gen storage, and last but not least, is more capable of dealing with multimedia content, thanks to the integrated hardware video decoder, which once again translates in better runtimes and the ability to handle 4K or H.265 clips smoothly.

Core m Skylake processors are a major upgrade of the previous Core m platform as well, delivering increased performance and efficiency. You’ll find more about the Skylake platform in this detailed analysis.

The Best Hybrid Ultraportables (2-in-1s)

On a first look hybrids might seem like regular laptops, but with their 360-degrees convertible or detachable displays, they can can act as tablets, stands and anything else in between. in other words, they are versatile in a multitude of cases, but keep in mind you’ll usually have to pay extra to get this kind of flexibility.

Lenovo Yoga 900 – the best ultraportable

My first pick for a premium and ultraportable 2-in-1 is a tied match between the HP Spectre x360 and the newer Lenovo Yoga 900. The former has been the best buy in this category for a while now, but recently I feel the Yoga 900 is the better option.

Both are premium built machines with 360-degree convertible touchscreens and high-resolution IPS panels. Both are motorized by Intel Skylake Core i5 and i7 processors, both are fan cooled and both ran mostly cool in daily use, but can get a bit toasty once your start pushing them.

However, the Lenovo is the slimmer and especially the lighter of the two (2.85 lbs vs 3.25 lbs), which makes a huge difference for tablet mode and portability. It also packs a larger battery (66 Wh vs 55 Wh) and is available in more color options (Silver, Orange and Gold, vs Silver and Ash Gray for the Spectre). On top of all these, the Lenovo is cheaper than the HP for similar specs.

The Spectre tends to come on top in the keyboard and touchpad experience departments, but the Yoga’s doesn’t trail it by much, that’s why my choice finally goes towards the Lenovo.

That’s the short story. You’ll find more about the Yoga 900 in this post, you can check out the latest prices and potential discounts here or you can find out how it fares against the HP Spectre x360 in this post.

This is the Lenovo Yoga 900

The Lenovo Yoga 900 earns my recommendation as the Best all-round convertible of the moment

Microsoft Surface Book – the multi-purpose hybrid

The Surface Book is called the “ultimate hybrid” by many established venues and is one of my favorite hybrids as well, but it’s not my first suggestion for the average users, as it can get TERRIBLY expensive.

So why add it in here then? Well, because it is the most versatile convertible you could get right now.

The Surface Book is a detachable, a tablet with a 13.5-inch screen and Intel Skylake hardware. The tablet part is very thin and light (1.6 lbs). It includes the processor, memory, storage, the screen with pen support and a small battery that can keep it running for about 3-4 hours.

The Surface Book also comes with a dock, which adds up an extra battery (combined, the two will offer around 10-12 hours of daily use), an excellent backlit keyboard and glass touchpad, ports and an optional Nvidia dedicated GPU. That’s not a very fast chip, so don’t expect to run the latest games on the Surface, but is a significant bump over the Intel HD 520 integrated graphics available on most other 13-inchers.

The Surface Book is the best hybrid of the moment, but it's also terribly expensive

The Surface Book is the best hybrid of the moment, but it’s also terribly expensive

In fewer words, the Surface Book is the best hybrid out there. It’s beautiful and well built, it’s light and functional as a tablet, it’s powerful and versatile as a laptop, although rather heavy at 3.5 lbs.

But is it really worth the high price tag? Well, if you’re looking at the Surface Book from a price for what you’re getting point of view, then no. But if you’re on an unlimited budget and just want the best multipurpose ultraportable of the moment, then this is what you’re looking for.

There’s no argue Microsoft charges premium for their device. The base model starts at $1499 and that’s only for a Core i5 configuration with 8 GB of RAM, 128 GB of storage and no dedicated graphics. You can buy the HP Spectre x360 or the Lenovo Yoga 900 for under $1000 with similar specs. If you want the Nvidia chip you’ll have to pay at least $1899 for it. That’s… insane.

Anyway, follow this link for more details on the Microsoft Surface Book and potential discounts at the time you’re reading this post.

Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 460 – the business option

My recommendation for a business/rugged convertible was another close fight, this time between the Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 460, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, the Toshiba Portege Z20t and the HP EliteBook Revolve 810.

The HP is a compact 11-incher with beefy specs, but it’s also extremely expensive and only bundles a 44 Wh battery. The X1 Carbon is a 2.9 lbs 14-incher with an excellent keyboard and screen, but looses points due to the lack of an Active Digitizer and the high price.

The Portege is actually a detachable built on Core M hardware, so not as powerful as the other options. It’s a more versatile tablet though, supports Active pens and includes a keyboard dock with ports an a secondary battery, for a total capacity of 72 Wh (enough for 12 hours of daily use, maybe even more). It starts at $1399 and is my recommendation for those who value a long-lasting battery over performance.

And that leaves us with the ThinkPad Yoga 460, which is the better options for those in need of a powerful, durable and fairly compact machine.

It offers pretty much everything you’d want from such a computer: a sturdy carbon-fiber body, an excellent backlit keyboard, a 360-degrees convertible display with digitizer and Pen Support, a silo for that pen, Skylake hardware, Nvidia 940M dedicated graphics and a 53 Wh battery.

However, it’s a 14-incher and weighs 3.9 lbs, so if you want something very light with a small footprint, it’s not for you. Otherwise, definitely check it up.

The base version sells for around $900, but the higher specked models go for more. Follow this link for extra details and the latest prices.

The Lenovo Yoga 460 is a thin-and-light convertible with Nvidia 940M graphics and the latest Core U processors inside

The Lenovo Yoga 460 is a thin-and-light convertible with Nvidia 940M graphics and the latest Core U processors inside

Best Budget: Dell Inspiron 11 3000

Dell’s Inspiron 11 3000 is a much more affordable option than all the other mentioned above, selling for between $350 and $500.

It’s a convertible with an 11-inch IPS touchscreen, a fairly well built plastic body and a decent keyboard. It’s motorized by Intel Celeron, Pentium or Core i3 platforms, with up to 8 GB of RAM and various types of storage, and bundles a 43 Wh battery.

These specs make it capable of dealing well with everyday activities and multimedia content, especially if you get the Core i3 configuration. The Celeron and Pentium options are a bit slower, but last longer on a charge and are fanless, thus quieter.

Overall, Dell’s Inspiron 11 3000 is a good computer for school or a good and inexpensive travel companion. The IPS screen, large battery and solid build quality recommend it over the competition. Follow this link for more details and potential discounts.

The Dell Inspiron 11 3000 is a great pick for your money

The Dell Inspiron 11 3000 is the 2-in-1 for those of you on a limited budget

Honorary mentions:

  • HP Spectre X360review – another 13-inch premium convertible, a worthy alternative for the Yoga 900;
  • Microsoft Surface Pro 4 – a premium 12-inch Windows tablet with Core m and Core i hardware. Provides a great tablet experience, but it’s not as good as a laptop and rather expensive;
  • Microsoft Surface 3review – a mid-priced Windows tablet with pen support, fanless hardware, long battery life and a Keyboard Folio;
  • Dell Inspiron 13 7000review – an all-round 13-inch convertible laptop with Skylake hardware and a fair price.

Follow this link for a more thorough list of recommended 2-in-1 laptops and hybrids.

The Best Regular Ultraportables

There’s no argue hybrids can be versatile computers, but they are also expensive. If you just want a regular ultraportable and don’t care much about convertible displays, then this is the right section for you.

Dell XPS 13 – the compact option

Dell’s XPS 13 is 13-inch laptop in an extremely compact shell. In fact, it’s design is unique, as there’s no another computer with such a tiny bezel available these days. It’s also a well built and beautiful machine that only weighs 2.6 lbs, and these are some of the reasons why the XPS 13 has been my ultraportable of choice in the last months. Check out my initial review and my 12-month follow-up for my in-depth experience with this device.

However, you should be interested in the latest XPS 13, the 9350 model, which is in many ways identical to the unit I own. Same design, same display, same keyboard and trackpad that will take some time to get used to. However, the XPS 13 9350 is built on Skylake hardware, supports up to 16 GB of RAM and 1 TB of storage, includes a 56 Wh battery and a microUSB 3.1 slot.  On the other hand, it’s also a tad heavier then the previous version, weighing 2.7 lbs.

The base models start at $799, but the best-buy is the Core i5 configuration with 8 GB of RAM and a 128 GB SSD, is listed at $999, although you might find it discounted online. The SSD is easily upgradeable on this computer and it’s cheaper to buy a large capacity one yourself than buying it from Dell, that’s why I recommend this 128 GB model.

One more thing, the versions mentioned before are paired with a matte non-touch IPS display, but you can also opt for a great QHD+ touchscreen if you want to, and if you’re willing to pay $300 extra for it (that’s how much it costs at the time of this update, it should get cheaper down the line).

Dell's XPS 13 catches a lot of attention with its unrivaled design and compact footprint

Dell’s XPS 13 catches attention with its unrivaled design and compact footprint

Apple MacBook Pro 13 – the multimedia allrounder

It’s hard to find another device like the Macbook Pro 13 with Retina Display out there. This is a 13-incher, a heavy and rather expensive one, as it weighs 3.5 lbs and the base version starts at $1299, for a Core i5 configuration with 8 GB of RAM and a 128 GB SSD. But there’s more than meets the eye about it.

The Macbook Pro 13 is built on 28W Intel Core U platforms, while the vast majority of Windows machines in its segment are built on 15W platforms. It also supports 16 GB of RAM and PCIe storage. These make it more powerful the most of the available 13-inchers, and despite that, this computer is actually capable of delivering 8-10 hours of daily use on a charge, as it packs a 75 Wh battery. That’s part of the reason why it is so heavy. The other is its top-quality aluminum unibody.

The package is completed by an excellent keyboard, a glass touchpad like you can’t find on a Windows laptop, and a very good high-resolution screen, which is however glossy, despite the fact that it does not support touch, and this leads to unnecessary glare in strong lit environments. But that’s the only details you can complain about on the Macbook Pro 13. Well, that and the fact that for the time being, there’s no Skylake version of the MBP, which is scheduled for early 2016.

Now, this computer is designed for users who’ll actually put its hardware to good work, for video editors, photographers on the go and other professionals. Of course, anyone can buy it, but for the average consumer it might not be worth paying extra for such a device, when a standard 15W Core i5 configuration is more than capable of dealing with everyday activities. Still, if you don’t mind the high price tag and the heavy body, the Macbook Pro 13 is unlike any other ultraportable on the market.

And you can actually find it discounted quite often, you just have to look for deals.

But the more compact Macbook Pro 13 is absolutely stunning as well

The Macbook Pro 13 is the solution for professionals, with its powerful hardware and long battery life

Lenovo ThinkPad T450s  – the classic

I have to admit I’ve been a ThinkPad user for many yeas and I’m still a big fan. The 14-inch ThinkPad series has been the definition of a great classic ultraportable for a while, and the T450s is their latest release at the time of this update.

It bundles an IPS FHD matte screen, an excellent backlit keyboard, a responsive trackpad with mechanical click buttons and a TrackPoint, plus powerful hardware, all tucked inside a sturdily built, simple looking and compact body, that weighs between 3.5 and 4.3 lbs, based on your final configuration.

And that’s because ThinkPads are highly configurable, and this particular model can get either a 48 Wh or a 96 Wh mix of batteries, up to 20 GB of RAM, SSD storage, an internal 4G modem and Core i5 and i7 processors. However, the T450s is only available with Broadwell hardware for the time being, as the Skylake update, the T460s, will only be revealed in Q1 2016. This can be a deal breaker these days, when most of the rivals are available with Skylake CPUs.

If it’s not though, then you should know that you can get one of these T450s for around $900, with the IPS display, the 48 Wh battery, 4 GB of RAM and a simple HDD. That’s a pretty poor configuration, but it’s the one I’d aim for because the RAM and the Storage are easily upgrade-able on this machine. $200 extra will buy you a 256 GB SSD and another 8 GB of RAM, and you’ll end up with an excellent computer for the price of roughly $1100.

Follow this link for more details and potential discounts on various configurations.

The Lenovo T450s is a classic, and you can get it for a great price these days

The Lenovo T450s is a classic, and you can get it for a great price these days

Budget: Asus Zenbook UX305UA

The Zenbook UX305UA needs to be on your list if you’re after a powerful and sleek ultrabook, but your budget is rather limited.

The UX305UA model comes with Skylake hardware and it’s the upgraded version of the Zenbook UX305LA, with whom it shares the same design and characteristics. Asus basically took the old unit, put the new hardware inside, slightly altered its name and released it into the wild. We already reviewed the UX305LA here on the site and you can read all about it in here.

In a few words though, this Zenbook is well built, thin and light (2.8 lbs). It bundles Core i5 and i7 hardware, SSD storage, a 56 Wh battery and a very good 3200 x 1800 px IPS display with a matte finishing. There’s no touchscreen option available though and Asus did cut some corners in order to meet the lower price point: you’d have to live with miniaturized ports and a non-backlit keyboard.

The latter might sound like a deal-breaker, but the Zenbook UX305LA model, with a Core i5 Broadwell processor, 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD sells right now for under $800 (follow this link for more details), and there’s no other similar laptop you could buy for this kind of money. So perhaps that non-backlit keyboard doesn’t sound that bad afterall…

The Zenbook UX305UA Skylake model is not yet available in stores at the time of this update (Early November 2015), but will be released in the weeks to come.

The Zenbook UX305LA is a good machine, but faces tough competition from Dell's XPS 13 2015

The Zenbook UX305LA might not be as compact as the Dells XPS 13, but it does bundle similar hardware and it’s a lot more affordable

Honorary mentions:

  • Toshiba KIRA 13 – one of the lightest 13 inchers on the market (2.45 lbs), the Kira looks and feels nice, performs well and lasts for a long while on a charge. It’s rather expensive though;
  • Apple Macbook Air 13 –  a well built, powerful and long lasting 13 incher with a great keyboard, but with a rather poor screen by today’s standards.

The Best Powerful Ultraportables (gaming, workstations)

This section is reserved for the most powerful thin-and-light notebooks. The dedicated graphics chips make them ideal gaming machines, but the capable processors and the vast amount of memory also make them fairly good workstations, for programmers, graphic artists and all the other professionals that require a significant amount of processing power.

Razer Blade 14

Our detailed review of the Razer Blade 14 is available over here.

MSI GS60 Ghost Pro

 

Apple Macbook Pro 15

The Macbook Pro 1

Budget: Asus Zenbook UX303UB

The Zenbook UX303UB is a 13-inch ultraportable with dedicated graphics. It’s not exactly a budget option, but you won’t find a similar configuration within the same budget.

This device goes for around $1250 right now, and I’ve seen it occasionally selling for as low as $999, on various deals, so you might want to keep a close eye on it. But even $1250 is an excellent price for the included configuration: a Core i7-6500U processor, 12 GB of RAM, a 512 GB SSD, Nvidia 940M graphics and a 3200 x 1800 px IPS matte display.

There are a few catches though. First of all, the screen’s color accuracy is crappy. It’s probably not going to bother you that much in daily use or in games, but don’t get it for any activity that would require an accurate panel. Then, the UX303UB is a rather old concept, as it is based on the original Zenbook UX303LN series released 2 years ago (and reviewed by us here). It doesn’t look bad by any means, but the keyboard and trackpad leave something to be desired when judged by today’s standards. And third, I’ve seen a few reports of the hinge breaking in time, so you will want to treat this laptop really well if you end up getting one, and get extended warranty if available.

Int he end, it’s up to you to decide if these are enough to steer you towards something else or the UX303UB’s price/features ratio is just too good to look away.

The keyboard and trackpad we're already used with on Zenbooks

The Zenbook UX303UB offers beefier specs for the money than any other 13-incher out there

Honorary mentions:

  • Gigabyte P34Wreview – a 14-inch notebook with Nvidia 970M graphics, quad-core Skylake processors and an unrivaled price;
  • MSI GS40 Phantomreview – MSI’s alternative to the Gigabyte P34W above, packing similar hardware in a more compact body, plus the characteristic Steelseries available on all the MSI gaming laptops;
  • Gigabyte P35Xreview – a light and compact 15-inch notebook with Nvidia 980M graphics and a fair price;
  • Dell Precision 15 5510impressions – a powerful and compact 15-inch workstation with a narrow screen-bezel, an UHD wide gamut panel, Skylake Core HQ and Xeon hardware, plus Nvidia Quadro graphics. The base version start at $1399, but the higher specked version can easily go beyond $3000.

Follow this link for a more thorough selection of gaming ultraportables and check out this post for a list of the most powerful notebooks you can get these days.

The Best Fanless ultraportables

Toshiba Portege Z20t

Asus Zenbook UX305FA

HP Spectre 12 X2

Budget: Toshiba Chromebook CB35

Honorary mentions:

  • Microsoft Surface 3
  • HP Stream 11
  • Apple Macbook 12

Follow this list for a more detailed list of fanless ultraportables you could consider.

Recommended Mini laptops (10-12 inch screens)

Lenovo ThinkPad X250

HP Elitebook 820

Apple MacBook 12

Budget: Acer Chromebook CB3

Follow this link for more suggestion of great 10-11 inch subnotebooks, or this article for a list of great 12-inch mini laptos.

Recommended mid-size laptops (13-14 inch screens)

Apple Macbook Pro 13

Lenovo Yoga 900

Lenovo ThinkPad T450s

Budget: Asus Zenbook UX305UA

Check out this post for a more detailed list of great 13-inchers, and this one for more suggestions of 14-inch ultraportables.

Recommended full-size laptops (15+ inch screens)

Dell XPS 15

Apple Macbook Pro 15

Asus G501JW

Budget: Acer Aspire V15 Nitro

Follow this post for a longer listed of recommended 15-inch portable laptops.

The premium ultrabooks

In here you’ll find the premium ultrabooks built on Intel’s latest hardware. While this platform is not significantly faster than the previous Intel Broadwell, Skylake powered machines tend to run more efficient and offer more capable graphics. On top of that, the newer laptops improve and fix most of their predecessors’ issues, as manufacturers learned from their mistakes and from our feedback.

Asus Zenbook UX303 series

Pros: solid built, nicely finished, good screens, plenty on configurations available, good connectivity, Nvidia 840M graphics on the UX303LN, excellent price, upgrade friendly
Cons: average battery life, potential screen issues (color reproduction and scaling), the UX303LN gets warm under load, heavier than other 13 inchers

With the UX303 series Asus went for a simple all-aluminum design and a slightly bulkier body (0.8″ thick, 3.3 lbs heavy) than you’d expect from a 13 inch ultrabook. But that leaves room for more ports (3 USBs on these laptops, HDMI, miniDP and a card-reader, plus VGA and LAN with the included adapters), allows more space for powerful hardware inside and helps drastically lower the price tags over last year’s UX301/UX302 lines.

As a result, the Zenbook UX303LN packs the Intel Core i5-4210U/i7-4510U processors, up to 12 GB of RAM, Nvidia 840M graphics and up to 512 GB of SSD storage, which is easily upgradeable BTW, and so is the memory. That makes this Zenbook the most graphics capable 13 inch ultrabook launched to-date, able to handle even the latest games on 19 x 10 resolutions with medium details. My detailed review will tell you more about that and all the things you need to know about this laptop.

The UX303LN is not just about power though, it also packs a good keyboard a trackpad, several screen options (among them, a non-glare IPS FHD panel) and a large enough battery. Of course, given the beefy hardware, the battery life only averages about 5-6 hours of daily use for the top-configured UX303LN, but lower end models will do better. At the same time, the UX303LN does get warm under load (not hot though, or too noisy for that matter), but this was expected when squeezing the Nvidia 840M chip into a metal-made 13 incher.

Now, you would probably expect all these to come expensive, but in fact the UX303LN will sell for between $800 to $1300. The available configurations are listed over here, and if you’re looking for some discounts and up-to-date prices, you should definitely follow this link.

The Zenbook UX302LA is the lower end version of the LN described above. The two are identical, with two exceptions: the LA does not get the Nvidia 840M graphics chip, instead relies solely on the Intel HD 4400 chip integrated within the Haswell CPUs, and the LA gets different screen options than the LN. I’ve compared the two lines in this post, if you’re interested.

The lack of the Nvidia chip will cripple this laptop’s gaming abilities, but will have a positive impact on running temperatures and autonomy, which are in fact the main reasons why you might pick the UX302LA over the LN. These, and the price.

As expected, the UX303LA is cheaper than the LN, but actually not as much cheaper as I was expecting. The UX303LA has list prices of $650 to $1150 and you might find these discounted if you’ll follow this link. As a general rule though, the UX303LA retails for 50 to 100 USD (or EUR) less than a similarly configured UX303LN, at least at launch, so unless you really don’t need the graphics or want a particular configuration that’s only available for the LA, I’d say there’s little reason to pick this model over then LN. In time though, once the UX303LA will get cheaper (and it will fairly quickly), this will change. So make sure to check the latest prices before taking any final decisions.

The Zenbook UX303 family has at least two members: the UX303LA and the UX303LN

The Zenbook UX303 family has at least two members: the UX303LA and the UX303LN

Apple Macbook Air 2015 – more details in here

Pros: solid and good looking, powerful hardware, extra-long battery life, very good keyboard and trackpad, cool and quiet, good price
Cons: sub-par screen quality

The Air is not an ultrabook per-se, but is nonetheless one of the best 13 inch ultra-portables of the moment, if not the best. Unlike ultrabooks, it does not run Windows, but Apple’s operating system. That means that some specialized software might not work on it, but unless you’re a gamer or software engineer, that shouldn’t worry you much. And even so, there are solutions to running Windows-only programs on a Mac.

Those out of the way, the Macbook Air is highly appreciated by both reviewers and consumers. We won’t get in depth here (I did in this other post, if you’re interested), but there are several major reasons for that.

First of all, the MBA is sturdy, simple and looks good, with its aluminum unibody. It’s not as slim or as light as some of the modern ultrabooks and it might not use fancy materials like carbon-fiber or Gorilla Glass for its case, but it is designed to be practical and reliable. The Air also packs an awesome keyboard and trackpad, better than what you’ll be getting with most Windows ultrabooks right now. And it also bundles powerful hardware. The 2014 version packs the latest Intel Haswell processors with Intel HD 5000 Iris graphics, plus very fast SSD storage and Wireless connectivity. On top of that, the 2014 13-inch Macbook Air can actually last for 10 to 13 hours of everyday use on a charge, again, something no ultrabook can match.

The Air has one massive downside though: the sub-par screen, a 13.3 incher with 1440 x 900 px resolution and a non-touch TN panel, while most premium ultrabooks offer Full HD IPS panels, or better. I don’t necessarily mind not having a touch-display on the Air and not even the low resolution, but the viewing angles, contrast and colors are hard to get used to when you’ve seen what more capable panels can offers these days.

For you though, that might not matter as much when you’ll hear that the Apple Macbook Air starts at $1099, and you can actually find it discounted online. You should get the base version with the i5-4260U processor, Iris 5000 graphics, 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB SSD for under $1000, while beefier configurations sell for a few hundreds more.

Anyway, the MacBook Air is definitely worth at least a look, but it’s up to you whether it is the right laptop for what you need or not. And if you want to read a more in-depth comparison on how the MBA stacks against ultrabooks in general, this article over here will surely come in handy.

The Macbook Air is the most popular ultra-portable of the moment, and for good reasons

The Macbook Air is the most popular ultra-portable of the moment, and for good reasons

Dell XPS 13 2015 edition

Pros: compact for a 13 incher, solid built, good keyboard, trackpad and screen, option for the Intel Core-i7 4650U CPU, fast, big battery proper priced
Cons: no card-reader and HDMI, warm and loud under load, on the expensive side

Update: In the meantime Dell have released the XPS 13 2015 with Broadwell U hardware and a brand new design. You can check out my detailed review over here.

There are a few reasons why the Dell XPS 13 is one of the best ultrabooks in this class. First, it is solid built with its carbon-fiber and aluminum body and has a more compact footprint than any of its 13 inch rivals.

Then, it packs an above-average display. It’s a touchscreen, thus glossy, with a bright and popping FHD IPS panel, covered by a layer of Gorilla Glass. There’s no higher than 1920 x 1080 px resolution option on the XPS 13, but that’s actually just right on a 13 incher and keeps you safe from those pesky Windows scaling issues that are a given with higher-res panels.

Next on the list are the comfortable backlit keyboard and the accurate and responsive trackpad, some of the better found on any Windows based ultra-portable.

Hardware wise, the 2014 edition of the Dell XPS 13 is available in several different Haswell configurations (up to 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB SSDs), including the Core-i7 4650U processor for the top-tier model, a processor that bundles Intel’s Iris 5000 graphics and is not widely spread on ultrabooks (but also available on the Macbook Air). So if you want a slightly beefier graphics chips on your thin-and-light machine, you can get it with the XPS 13.

Last but not least, the Dell XPS 13 comes with a big 55Wh battery and while I was actually expecting better, this translates in roughly 7 to 8 hours of daily use on a charge.

On the cons side, the XPS 13 tends to run hotter and noisier than most other ultrabooks and lacks a card-reader or an HDMI slot. The latter should not be a problem, as you do get a miniDP connector on this laptop, but the former definitely is.

On top of that, the XPS 13 is rather expensive. The base version offers a Core i5-4210U processor, 8 GB of RAM and a 128 GB SSD, with a list price of $1199. Dell does offer occasional discounts though, so you can get this for under $1100 ( see this link for potential discounts ), but even so, you will find similar configs for less. The top tier version, with the  i7-4560U processor, 8 GB of RAM and the 256 GB SSD sells for roughly $1400, again, with discounts, available via the link above.

Dell's XPS 13 is compact and beautiful, but lacks some vital ports

Dell’s XPS 13 is compact and beautiful, but lacks a card reader and gets warm and noisy whens stressed

Acer Aspire S7-393 – more details in here

Pros: beautiful, thin and light, solid build quality, good performance, Fast RAID storage, good battery life, runs cool and quiet
Cons: Odd keyboard layout, other similar laptops cost less, poor speakers

Update: There’s also the newer Acer Aspire S7-393 available right now, with Broadwell U hardware and a faster Wi-Fi AC wireless module. Check out my detailed review for more details.

The Aspire S7-392 is Acer’s best built machine I’ve seen in many years. It comes in two options, a more widespread white one with an aluminum case and a glass lid cover, and a silver, fully metallic one.

The S7 packs a decent keyboard and trackpad, a fair selection of ports (2 USBs, HDMI, card-reader and Acer Converter Port – gives access to miniDP, VGA or LAN with adapters ) , Intel Haswell hardware, fast RAID 0 SSD storage and a Full HD IPS touchscreen (with an option for a 2560×1440 px screen on some markets). It’s worth noting that the keyboard layout is unusual, as the top row of Functional keys is actually missing, and you’ll need some time to get used to it.

All these features are crammed inside a 0.5 of an inch thick body that weighs less than 2.9 pounds and there was room for a 47 Wh battery as well, which keeps the S7 running for an average of 6-7 hours on a charge, with everyday use. Keep in mind that the older Aspire S7-391 versions built on Ivy Bridge models packed a smaller battery that could only go for about 4 hours on each charge.

The Aspire S7-392 has a start price of of roughly $1300 these days, which makes it one of the most expensive 13 inchers in this list. For that you get the Core i5-4200U processor, 8 GB of memory and a 128 GB SSD, but other 13 inchers offer more for the money. If you really like it though, and there’s little reason not to, you’ll probably find the S7-392 cheaper online these days. Last time I’ve checked, I’ve spotted a Core i7-4500U / 8 GB/ 256 GB SSD configuration for under $1300 via this link.

An awesome looking, but pricey, Acer Aspire S7

The awesome looking, but pricey, Acer Aspire S7

Toshiba KIRABook 13 2015 – more details in here

Pros: sleek and nicely built, good specs, good port selection, decent keyboard, trackpad and battery life
Cons: buggy wi-fi, loud fan, expensive, somewhat dated design

The Haswell version of the Toshiba KIRABook is another 13 inch ultrabook you could consider, although there’s nothing that actually makes it stand out from the crowd. In fact, you could well characterize this machine as average.

It is sturdy built and fairly beautiful, it packs a decent keyboard and trackpad (although the keys are a bit shallow and the touch-surface does get jumpy from time to time), a proper selection of ports around the sides (3 USBs, card-reader, full-size HDMI) and a 2560 x 1440 px IPS touchscreen. It is available with Core i5 and i7 processors, plus up to 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of SSD storage, and will last for about 6 hours on a charge, which is decent, but again, short of impressive.

On top of that, the KIRABook has a list price of $1499, and for that kind of money, I’d recommend looking the other way. However, you can get a Core i5-4200U/ 8 GB RAM / 256 GB SSD configuration for around $1150 online these days, which is not bad at all. See the link for more details, and keep in mind that a Core i7 version is available as well, but not as nicely priced as the i5 model.

There nothing special about the Toshiba Kirabook 13, but it's nonetheless a good laptop with an excellent price

There nothing special about the Toshiba Kirabook 13, but it’s nonetheless a good laptop with an excellent price

Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus NP940 – more about it in here

Pros: sexy design and solid build quality, sharp and bright touchscreen, good performance, runs quiet
Cons: rather shallow keyboard and occasional glitches with the trackpad, miniaturized ports, expensive when compared to competition, potential scaling issues

This is Samsung’s top-ultrabook right now and succeeds the highly appreciated Series 9 Ultra NP900. It maintains the good looks and slender silhouette, while bundling up-to-date Haswell hardware and a high resolution 3200 x 1800 px IPS touchscreen.

The ATIV Book 9 Plus is on the pricey side though, with a list tag of $1399 an up, and that puts it above most other 13.3 inch ultrabooks of the moment. But if you want a sleek device, the Book 9 Plus might be worth every penny. The slender, light and yet durable body makes it highly portable, the hardware inside takes care of anything you might throw at it and the screen is gorgeous and sharp. However, keep in mind that these high-density panels will encounter some Windows induced scaling issues.

This Samsung ultrabook is not without quirks though, as the keyboard is fairly shallow, the battery lasts for only about 5-6 hours of daily use on a charge (that’s not bad, but other ultrabooks can definitely go for longer) and last but not least, most of the ports included on the sides are miniaturized, as there was no room for their full-size versions. And that’s annoying, especially since the common extension adapters are missing from the pack and you’ll have to pay extra for them.

Even so, none of the things mentioned above are real deal-breakers, that’s why the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus is one of the top 13 inch ultrabooks money can buy. I do feel that you’re overpaying for the brand and the looks here, as most similar 13 inchers are better priced (BTW, I’ve compared the Book 9 Plus with its direct rivals over here) and actually have less aspects on the Cons side, but you might feel otherwise.

Like I said above, the base version of the Book 9 Plus has a list price of roughly $1400 and you will find this discounted online, but even so, the Core i5-4200U/4GB/128GB SSD config is hard to find for less than $1200 these days. Check out this link for more discounts and up-to-date prices. And in case this is not enough for your needs, performance wise, the higher end configuration with the i5-4500U/8GB RAM/256 GB SSD sells for North of $1600 (with a list price of roughly $1800).

The best affordable 13.3 inch ultrabooks

If you’re after a good 13-inch ultraportable but can’t afford to go over $1000, you should look at the options in this chapter. Also, have a look at my list of best ultrabooks under $800 (with many under $600 these days).

Keep in mind that with cheaper ultrabooks you’ll make concessions on weight and build quality, screen quality, hardware and some other features. That doesn’t meant that you won’t find good and affordable ultrabooks, you will, but you’ll also have to adjust your expectations to your budget if you actually want to get along fine with what you end up choosing.

Asus Transformer Book Flip TP300LA and TP300LP

This is Asus’s version of a convertible 2-in-1 laptop, built around the same form-factor as the Lenovo Yoga. In fact, the two series are similar in many ways.

The Transformer Flip TP300 is somewhat heavier (3.85 pounds) than the Yoga and bulkier as well, and that makes it more uncomfortable to use in tablet mode. But on the other hand metal is a big part of its case, while the Lenovo is mostly built from plastic.

The Flip TP300 packs a 13.3 inch FHD IPS screen (with HD TN panels available on the base configurations), a decent keyboard and trackpad, a fair selection of ports and capable hardware, that leaves room for upgrades. You’ll find out more about this series from my detailed review posted on the site a while ago.

Asus does offer two models within the TP300 line, the TP300LP with Nvidia 820M dedicated graphics, and the TP300LA, without. The latter sells for between $700 and $1000, while the LP model is about 50 bucks more expensive than a similarly configured LA, but both can be found cheaper online.

All in all, the Transformer Book Flip TP300 is worth considering if you really want a convertible laptop with Haswell hardware and an affordable price tag, even cheaper than the Lenovo Yoga 2 13. But if the form-factor is not a major factor in your decision, you will find other good 13 inchers that offer similar features for less.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 series

A fair match for the Asus and Lenovo 2-in-1s mentioned above, the Dell Inspiron 13 7347 is also a convertible built on the exact same form factor. It also packs Haswell hardware and an IPS FHD touchscreen. And it’s also a bit heavier than the average 13 inch ultrabook, tipping the scales at roughly 3.7 pounds.

This one has an awesome looking case on its side, the solid build quality and the comfortable keyboard, as well as the fast Wi-Fi and rich IO. And it’s rather affordable, with the Core i3 versions going for about $600 and the i5 models with 8 GB of RAM for $750 on Dell’s website, but you might find them even cheaper online. On the other hand, the Inspiron 13 7000 will only last for about 4-5 hours of daily use on a charge and bundles an unreliable trackpad. You can find more about it from my detailed review available here on the site or from the video below.

Asus Vivobook Q301LA/LP – simple and cheap

The Vivobook Q301LA (or S301LA as it is called on some markets) is just one of them. In fact, the Q301LA is more or less a TP300LA in a clam-shell body.

The entire thing is built on an aluminum body that houses a decent keyboard and trackpad, pretty much all the needed ports on the sides (except for VGA, you’ll need and adapter for those) and Haswell hardware. Besides that, some versions do bundle an AMD Radeon Mobility 8530G on top of all the other features, and these are sold as the Q301LP, or the Vivobooks V301LP in the United States.

However, as shown in my detailed review of this series, you will have to settle for a small battery (which translates in about 5 hours of daily use) and a 1366 x 768 px TN touchscreen if you end up choosing this device. Other from that, there’s little to complain about here.

Now, you will pay about $650 (or even less) for a Core i5-4200U, 4 GB of RAM, 500 GB HDD configuration of the Q301LA, which is about $100 less than a similar Transformer Book Flip TP300LA and more than $200 cheaper than the Yoga 2 13. So if you’re on a tight budget, the Vivobook Q301LA is definitely worth at least a look.

Wrap-up – what’s the best ultrabook?

None of the ultrabooks listed here are perfect, but if you’ll take a look back at the ultra-portables launched in these last years, you’ll see that they’ve come a long way.

Yes, it was obvious the hardware would get faster and more efficient, but alongside came new form factors and features, plus improvements on all the fundamentals that make a laptop usable: build quality, keyboard, touchpad, screen, connectivity and battery life, among them. Ultrabooks are now way thinner and way lighter than regular laptops were in the past. Besides that, we’ve seen more and more hybrid and convertible ultrabooks, plus smaller or larger 14/15 inch machines with a thin form factor. And even thin and highly-portable gaming notebooks.

As for the best ultrabook for you, that’s in the end for each one of you guys reading this post to decide. You know exactly what you want from your laptop and you know what you value more on such a device. That’s why you should choose between all these devices listed here, based on your budget and personal criteria. I’ve told you what you should know about all the ultrabooks that are worth considering, but the final decision rests with you.

And if by any chance you haven’t found what you needed in this massive post, you should probably check out my other lists mentioned below:

Last but not least, you can check out the reviews posted here on the site and our thorough comparisons, or leave a comment if you need any help with your decision, have any questions or just want to add something to this article.

Keep in mind that I’m updating the list at least each two or three weeks, if not more often, in order to keep it as accurate as possible. And I also post news, reviews and guides here on the site, so you should subscribe if you want to stay in touch with the latest ultrabook goodies.

And if you actually found this 10000 words post useful, don’t forget that buying a product after following the links spread throughout it is the best way to show your gratitude and the only way for me to keep this up-to-date.

Keep in touch.

Andrei Girbea, aka Mike, Editor-in-Chief and a huge fan of mobile computers. Since 2007, I've only owned smaller than 12.5" laptops and I've been testing tens, if not hundreds of mini laptops. You'll find mostly reviews and guides written by me here on the site.

662 Comments

  1. Cat

    June 29, 2016 at 2:48 pm

    Hi Andrei,

    Do you know what is the status with the Zenbook UX305UA? I can’t find it for sell. I am also looking at the Dell XPS 13, Acer Aspire S13 S5-371-75ML, as well as the ThinkPad 13 for my boss. He travels a lot and needs a light weight laptop. All he does on the laptop is Outlook, Word, Excel, and surf the internet. No movies. Which of the above is good for him? His eyes are also going. Is there a lightweight 14 or 15 inches that will work for him? Thank you!

    • Andrei Girbea

      June 30, 2016 at 8:14 am

      The UX305UA should be available in most regions, including the US. Out of those three, I’d have the XPS 13 as the top pick if the budget would be a constrain. Otherwise, I’d probably go with the THinkPad 13. There are plenty of 14 and 15 inchers available, there’s a post here: http://www.ultrabookreview.com/2404-14-15-inch-ultrabooks/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *