Ultrabook reviews, guides and comparisons

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

By Andrei Girbea - @ andreigirbea , updated on August 16, 2016

Getting the right laptop that meets both your requirements and budget is not an easy task these days, as you have to choose between dozens of options. I can help though. I’ve been using ultra-portable laptops and ultrabooks for well over 10 years now and I’ve reviewed several hundreds of models during this time, which qualifies me in offering tips and recommendations when it comes to choosing such a device.

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

Having the answers, you can proceed reading this long article, which offers my recommendations based on your potential answers to the questions above. There’s a quick Table of Contents below that will help you get started. I kept things as simple as possible, only offering 3-4 suggestions in each category, but you’ll find links towards more detailed articles on each subtopic, in case you’re interested in a wider range of options.

This article is often updated, as I add new ultraportables and retire those that become obsolete. On top of that, if you need more guidance or have any questions, there’s a comments section at the end of the post where you can get in touch with me, I reply to every comment.

Table of contents – best 2016 ultrabooks

This article in split in the following subsections:

Besides these, you’ll find a detailed list of all the available Skylake ultraportables over here, one of the lightest ultrabooks in this article (many under 2.5 lbs, some under 2 lbs), a list of ultraportables with at least one Thunderbolt 3 port over here, a list of business ultrabooks with 3G/4G modems and one of ultrabooks with optical units here.

Last but not least, all our reviews are available in the dedicated section, and our comparisons and heads-ons in this category.

The best 2-in-1 convertibles

Hybrids are devices that can be used as classic notebooks, as tablets, or in a few other modes in-between those. All offer a touchscreen and the good ones are mostly available in two form factors, either a notebook with a 360-degrees convertible display or a tablet with attachable keyboard folios or docks. You’ll find my top recommendations below, and you can also read my detailed guide on 2-in-1 ultrabooks over here.

HP Spectre x360 – the best ultraportable

My first pick for a premium 2-in-1 is the HP Spectre x360 13-inch, as this one gets the best features and user reviews out of the contenders for the title (the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Spin or Lenovo Yoga 900 are some of the main competitors).

The Spectre x360 comes on top because it doesn’t have any major flaws. Yes, it’s a little heavy (3.2 lbs) and it lacks a Thunderbolt 3 port, but otherwise you’ll hardly find anything to complain about it. The build quality is top-notch, the aesthetics are flawless, especially on the Ash Copper variant, the 13-inch high-resolution screen is excellent and includes an active digitizer and pen support, the keyboard and trackpad are really good, the hardware inside is an Intel Skylake Core U platform with up to 8 GB of RAM and NVMe storage, and the 55 Wh battery is enough to keep this running for 7-10 hours on a charge.

Regarding the hardware, HP doesn’t offer the Spectre x360 with 16 GB of RAM at the time of this update, which can be a deal-breaker for some. Also, it only equips configurations with M.2 SATA SSDs, but those can be replaced with PCIe or NVMe compatible drives.

More details on the HP Spectre x360 are available in our detailed review.

The 13-inch Spectre x360 starts at around $900, while a good configuration with a Core i5 CPU, 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage goes for $1000. You might even get the Core i7 processor in this budget if you hunt down deals, follow this link for more details and potential discounts.

The HP Spectre x360 is the best premium 2-in-1 out there

The HP Spectre x360 is the best premium 2-in-1 out there

HP also offers a larger variant of the Spectre x360, with a 15.6-inch QHD or UHD display. This one shares most traits with the 13-inch model, but packs a larger 64.5 Wh battery, a set of four speakers flanking the keyboard and pushing sound upwards, is heavier (4.1 lbs) and more expensive, with a mid-level configuration going for around $1150.

The Spectre X360s are available with 13.3 or 15.6 inch displays

The HP Spectre X360s are available with either 13.3 or 15.6 inch displays

Asus Zenbook UX360CA – the best 2-in-1 for average consumers

If you want a sleek 2-in-1 laptop for daily use and don’t have $1000 to spend on the Spectre X360, this Zenbook should be on your list.

It gets a metallic construction, is thin and light (2.9 lbs), packs a good screen, keyboard and capable hardware. However, the keyboard lacks backlighning and the hardware is an Intel Core M platform, which mean it’s fanless and it’s only going to be fast enough for casual activities and daily chores like browsing, watching movies, listening to music, editing documents, etc. Multitasking, demanding software and games on the other hand are not something this unit will be able to crunch through.

As long as you’re fine with these particularities of the Core M hardware and the non-backlit keyboard, then the Zenbook UX360CA is something to consider. A Core m3 configuration with 8 GB of RAM and 512 GB of SSD storage sells for around $800, while versions with a smaller 256 GB SSD go for $700, but are not as widely available. Follow the link bellow for more details and potential discounts.

The Zenbook Flip UX360CA is sleek, fanless and has an excellent price tag for what you're getting

The Zenbook Flip UX360CA is sleek, fanless and has an excellent price tag for what you’re getting

Microsoft Surface Book – the most complete hybrid

The Surface Book is called the “ultimate hybrid” by many established venues and I personally consider it to be the most complete hybrid out there, but it’s only a suggestion for those on a unlimited budget, as it can get TERRIBLY expensive.

The Surface Book is a detachable, a tablet with a 13.5-inch screen and Intel Skylake Core U hardware. The tablet part is very thin and light (1.6 lbs), get’s a 13.5-inch 3:2 high-resolution touchscreen with pen support, and tucks the processor, memory, storage and a small battery (enough for 2-4 hours of use) behind the display.

The Surface Book’s uniqueness is its dock, which adds an extra battery (combined, the two will offer around 10 hours of daily use), an excellent backlit keyboard and glass touchpad, ports and an optional Nvidia dedicated GPU. The slate perfectly latches to this dock for the notebook experience, and then can be unlatched when you want to use it as an independent slate. The build quality of both parts is excellent, but the downside of this approach is the rather heavy weight: 3.5 lbs for the two.

Overall, the Surface Book works great both as a laptop and as a tablet, while most other 2-in-1s don’t excel on both ends. The price is going to make it a tough buy for many though, as the base version starts at $1349  for a Core i5 processor with 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB of SSD storage. The Nvidia GPU costs $350 extra, while memory and storage bumps are expensive as well.

Still, I noticed that most configurations are discounted online, so you should follow this link for up-to-date prices and configurations if you’re interested in this hybrid.

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

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

Best Budget: HP Pavilion x360 11

HP’s Pavilion x360 11 is a much more affordable option than the other mentioned above, selling for around $300 to $400.

It’s a convertible with an 11-inch IPS touchscreen, a fairly well built plastic body and a decent non-backlit keyboard. It’s motorized by Intel Celeron or Pentium platforms with 4 GB of RAM and various types of storage, and gets a 32 Wh battery. These specs make it capable of dealing well with everyday activities and multimedia content, as long as you keep multitasking at bay.

Overall, HP’s Pavilion 13 is a good computer for school or a decent inexpensive travel companion. The IPS screen and the good build quality recommend it over competitors like the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 or the Acer Chromebook R11, which you can also check out if you’d rather spend even less on a convertible and don’t mind ending up with a TN screen.

The Pavillion x360 11 gets an IPS screen and a larger battery, but can only be configured with Celeron and Pentium processors

The Pavillion x360 11 gets an IPS screen and a larger battery, but can only be configured with Celeron and Pentium processors

Honorary mentions:

  • Samsung ATIV Book 9 Spin review configurations and prices – a 13-inch premium convertible with excellent build quality and user reviews, an option for those looking for a top-tier configuration;
  • Lenovo Yoga 710 14configurations and prices – a mid-priced ultraportable with solid specs, dedicated Nvidia GT 940MX graphics and a 14-inch screen tucked inside a fairly compact and light body, that can rival with most other 13-inch ultrabooks in the same niche.
  • Microsoft Surface Pro 4configurations and prices – a premium 12-inch Windows tablet with Core m and Core i hardware. Provides a great tablet experience and pen support for inking and drawing, but it’s not as good as a laptop;
  • HP Spectre X2 – review configurations and prices – a more affordable alternative of the Surface Pro 4, with a more versatile keyboard and fanless hardware;
  • Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga configurations and prices – an ultra-sleek convertible with a 14-inch display and Wacom AES digitizer. Only weighs 3 lbs, but is pricey and tends to run hot under load.

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

The best traditional ultraportables

Hybrids are versatile and touchscreens can be useful, there’s no doubt about it, but 2-in-1s tend to be expensive and heavy. If you just want a regular ultraportable with a traditional clamshell form-factor then these below are the options for you.

Dell XPS 13 – the compact option

The XPS 13 has been my ultraportable of choice for more than a year now and I don’t plan on replacing it. Check out my initial review, my 15-month follow-up and my impressions of the more recent XPS 13 9350 for my in-depth experience with this series.

The compact body and unique design is what got me to buy the XPS 13 in the first place, and there’s still no another computer with such a tiny bezel available these days. The build quality, the feel, the excellent display, the performance, the speakers and a few others are the reasons why I still use it. There are aspects that could be improved, like the keyboard and trackpad, and there are some things you just have to accept, like the fact that the case gets hot quickly and the webcam is oddly positioned, but overall I feel this laptop is unbeatable for those who value portability.

The XPS 13 9350 is the latest model at the time of this update, with Skylake hardware, options for Intel HD 520 or Iris 540 graphics, up to 16 GB of RAM, NVMe storage, a 56 Wh battery and a Thunderbolt 3 port, as the main features. The screen choices are FHD matte or touch panels, as well as an awesome QHD+ touch panel, which is darn expensive and has a significant impact on battery life, so for me it’s just not worth having on a clamshell notebook.

In fact, I recommend buying the configuration that comes with the Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, 128 GB SSD and the matte FHD display, available for $999 on Dell’s website and less in other webstores. The CPU is fast enough for daily use and more, yet the laptop won’t get as hot as with the Core i7 processor, 8 GB of RAM should be enough for most use scenarios, and the SSD is easily upgradeable. The exception is the Core i7-6560U configuration, something those interested in gaming might want to consider.

Follow this link for up-to-date details on the available XPS 13 configurations and potential discounts.

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

Lenovo ThinkPad T460s  – the classic

I have to admit I’ve been a ThinkPad user for many yeas and I’m still a very big fan. The 14-inch ThinkPad T series is for me the definition of a great classic ultraportable, and the ThinkPad T460s is the most notable member of the line’s current generation.

It offers a 14-inch IPS FHD or QHD matte screen, an excellent backlit keyboard, a responsive trackpad with mechanical click buttons and a TrackPoint, solid IO and powerful hardware, all tucked inside a sturdily built, simple looking and compact body, that weighs just 3 lbs (1.35 kg). The laptop is motorized by Intel Skylake Core U processors, can take up to 20 GB of RAM, supports NVMe storage and gets two internal batteries with a total capacity of 49 Wh.

The ThinkPad T460S is available in multiple configurations and can be custom ordered as well, but I for one recommend getting the base version that sells for around $900, with a Core i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM,  128 GB of storage and the FHD screen. The RAM and the SSD are easily upgradeable, so there’s little reason to get them at a premium from Lenovo. 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

Apple MacBook Pros  – the multimedia all-rounders

The Macbook Pros are excellent computers with powerful specs, solid build quality, excellent keyboards, large batteries and good displays. However, the models available at the time of this update haven’t been updated since 2015 and while they are still solid buys, lack Skylake hardware or some of the features available on the newer units. Updated versions are imminent though and we’ll update this section as well once they are launched.

In the meantime, you can follow this link for more details on the 13-inch model, and this one for the larger 15-incher.

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

Best budget: Asus Zenbook UX305UA and UX306UA

If you’re after a powerful and sleek ultrabook, but only have around $750 to spend, the Zenbook UX305UA should be on your list.

This one gets a 13-inch matte IPS display, Skylake Core U hardware, 8 GB of RAM, M.2 SATA SSD storage and a 56 Wh battery. It’s also well built and light, weighing 2.85 lbs, but on the other hand it only gets a non-backlit keyboard. Still, a Core i5 configuration with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of SSD storage sells for around $750, so I’d reckon many of you will accept the lack of backlightning for everything else that’s included in this bundle.

Our full review of the Zenbook UX305UA is available here, and this link shows you where to find the best deals on this computer.

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

The Zenbook UX306UA is the updated version of the UX305UA. It gets a thinner and lighter body (2.65 lbs), a new backlit keyboard, an improved trackpad and a slightly larger 57 Wh battery, while keeping the same hardware specs. The downsides are the increased body temperatures and fan noise, as well as the limited IO, all “benefits” of the slimmer case.

Overall though, the Zenbook UX306UA is quite a step-up from the UX305UA and it’s not going to sell for a lot more either. Follow this link for up-to-date info on configurations and prices, and this one for our impressions of this series.

Honorary mentions:

  • Dell XPS 15 – reviewconfigurations and prices – a compact multimedia 15-incher with the same narrow bezel as the XPS 13, but more powerful hardware and dedicated Nvidia graphics;
  • Razer Blade Stealth – review configurations and prices – a compact notebook with a 12.5-inch screen, excellent build quality, solid specs and compatibility with the Razer Core through the Thunderbolt 3 port. Scores only average reviews with buyers though, that’s why it’s only present in this section;
  • Acer Aspire S13 – reviewconfigurations and prices – and good 13-inch notebook with solid specs and an affordable price tag, a decent alternative to the Zenbook mentioned above;
  • Lenovo ThinkPad X260 – configurations and prices – a compact business ultraportable with a 12.5-inch screen, an excellent keyboard, solid IO and a large battery;
  • Dell Latitude 14 7000 – configurations and prices – Dell’s alternative for the ThinkPad T460S, another excellent business laptop with a 14-inch screen and solid features, but usually more expensive than Lenovo’s version;

The best gaming ultraportables

This section is reserved for the most powerful thin-and-light notebooks with high end dedicated graphics chips (Nvidia GTX 970M or higher), which are actually able to run the latest games well. Due to the configurations with quad-core processors, plenty of RAM and multiple storage options, the units in this section are quite capable workstations as well and pretty good good options for programmers, graphic artists, engineers and other professionals that require a significant amount of processing power.

A more detailed list of full-size gaming laptops with Nvidia 970M and 980M graphics is available here, and a detailed article on laptop with Nvidia 1060, 1070 and 1080 graphics will be available on the site in the near future.

Razer Blade 14

If you have around $2000 to spend on a portable gaming laptop, the Razer Blade is your best bet. It’s a compact 14-inch laptop that weighs 4.2 lbs and gets a Core i7-6700HQ processor, 16 GB of RAM, NVMe storage and Nvidia GTX 970M (GTX 1060 on the newer versions) graphics, plus a 70 Wh battery and a 3200 x 1800 px touchscreen with an IGZO IPS panel. Not much else you can ask from such a device.

The performance is solid, with little throttling, albeit the case does get hot in certain spots under heavy load, the RGB keyboard and glass trackpad are very good as well, and the construction and overall build quality are up there next to the Macbooks or the Surface Book. The GTX 970M chip is capable of pushing most titles with high levels of details, but the Blade 14 will get an updated Nvidia GTX 1060 graphics chip in Q3 2016.

One extra feature of the Blade is the Thunderbolt 3 port and the fact that it’s directly compatible with the Razer Core, in case you need more graphics power. Our review of the Razer Blade 14 tells you all about its traits and quirks, while our review of the Razer Core lets you know what to expect from this one and how it works when hooked to the Blade.

As I mentioned earlier, the Blade 14 starts at $2000, which is actually more affordable than the previous Blades and imo a fair price to pay for what this notebook offers. So if you have that kind of money to spend, the Razer Blade 14 is a good buy. Follow this link for the latest configurations and potential discounts.

The Razer Blade 14 is the ultraportable to get these days, if within your budget

The Razer Blade 14 is the ultraportable to get these days, if within your budget

MSI GS40 / GS43 Phantom

The MSI GS40 Phantom is a simpler and more affordable alternative for the Razer Blade 14. It’s also a compact and light 14-incher, but gets a more gaming-oriented design, with flashy elements and logos, while the build quality is only average, as the laptop doesn’t feel as solid and well made as the Blade. The keyboard is another aspect that MSI could improve on this thing. Now, you shouldn’t conclude that the GS40 is crappy built, no, just that it’s just a more average computer compared to the eliteness of the Razer.

Hardware wise though, the MSI GS40 is solid, with a Skylake Core i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, Nvidia GTX 970M graphics and various types of storage, plus a 61 Wh battery. MSI went with a mate FHD IPS screen, which is a very good option for such a gaming laptop. Performance is in fact stellar on the GS40, with no throttling and while the bottom of the case gets how under load, it actually runs a bit cooler than other thin and light options with similar specs.

As a side note, the GS40 also gets a Thunderbolt 3 and reports show that it works really well with the Razer Core too.

Overall, the MSI GS40 is a solid option for those of you looking for a gaming ultraportable around the $1500 to $1700 mark, so around $500 cheaper than the Blade. You’ll find more about it from our detailed review, and you can follow this link for details on the latest configurations and up-to-date prices.

The GS43 Phantom is the updated version of the GS40, with Skylake hardware, Nvidia GTX 1060 graphics and a slightly redesigned chassis.

The MSI GS40 is a more affordable alternative for those looking for a 14-incher with Nvidia 970M graphics

The MSI GS40 is a more affordable alternative for those looking for a 14-incher with Nvidia 970M graphics

Asus ROG Strix GL502VS and GL502VM

Unlike the two options above, the Asus ROG Strix GL502s are thin (~0.95″) and fairly light (~5.6 lbs) full-size laptops with 15.6-inch screens. The GL502VY is the premium option of the two, with Nvidia GTX 1070 8 GB graphics and G-Sync support, while the GL502VM is the more affordable option with Nvidia GTX 1060 6 GB graphics. Some previous versions are also available, the GL502VT (Nvidia 970M graphics) and GL502VY (Nvidia 980M graphics), but given how the Pascal chips are so much faster than the Maswell counterparts, I’d only look at the newer models if interested in solid gaming performance.

The two share the same design lines, decent build quality, excellent keyboard and solid IO (no Thunderbolt 3 port though). They also include the same Core i7-6700HQ processor, dual-storage options and 64 Wh battery, but the GL502VS gets up to 32 GB of RAM (2xDIMMs), while the GL502VM is limited to only 24 GB of RAM (8 GB soldered and one extra DIMM).

The screen options are different too, although they might seem the same on a first glance, as both are FHD IPS panels. However, the GL502VS gets a wider-gamut display with G-Sync support, while the GL502VM lacks G-Sync.

As expected, the GL502VS fares better in games and, surprisingly, runs a little cooler, but at the same time noisier. The GTX 1060 equipped GL502VM does well in most titles too and its cooling system is less aggressive, which leads to higher back-case temperatures.

The Asus ROG Strix GL502VM is also the more affordable version of the two, starting at around $1300 (more details and potential discounts available here). The GL502VS on the other hand goes for $1900 an up, and you’ll find more details about it and up-to-date prices by following this link.

A 17-inch version of the GL502VT is also available, in case you want a bigger screen, and you can find our full review of the ROG Strix GL702VT over here.

The Asus Gl502VT and GL502VY share the same aesthetics, but are different in many ways under the hood

The Asus GL502VT and GL502VY share the same aesthetics, but are different in many ways under the hood

Budget and compact: Asus Zenbook UX303UB and UX310UQ

The Zenbook UX303UB is a 13-inch ultraportable with Nvidia GT 940M dedicated graphics. It’s not as powerful as the options above and it’s not very cheap either, but it’s much more compact and portable.

It goes for around $1200 at the time of this update, but it’s sells for less on various deals, so you might want to keep a close eye on it. For that kind of money you’re getting a metallic construction, a decent backlit keyboard, a QHD+ touchscreen or a FHD matte panel in some regions, a Core i7-6500U processor, 12 GB of RAM, a 512 GB SSD, Nvidia 940M graphics and a 50 Wh battery.

We reviewed a previous version here on the site, similar to the UX303UB in all ways except for the fact that the newer model gets upgraded hardware and an improved screen.

The Zenbook UX310UQ is the updated version of the UX303UB, with a slightly thinner and lighter body, Skylake hardware and Nvidia GT 940MX graphics. It’s not yet available in stores at the time of this update, but you can follow this link for details on configurations and prices when you’re reading this post.

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

The Zenbook UX303UB offers solid specs  and dedicated graphics in a portable 13-inch body

Honorary mentions:

  • Gigabyte P34Wreviewconfigurations and prices – a 14-inch notebook with Nvidia 970M graphics, quad-core Skylake processors and an unrivaled price, but not the best build quality;
  • Alienware R13 – configurations and prices – not necessarily light and portable, but compact, as this is a 13-inch laptop with Skylake Core U processor and Nvidia 960M graphics;
  • Gigabyte P35Xreviewconfigurations and prices – a thin and compact 15-inch notebook with Nvidia GTX 980M graphics and a fair price;
  • Dell Precision 15 5510review – a powerful and compact 15-inch workstation with a narrow screen-bezel, an UHD wide gamut panel, Skylake Core HQ and Xeon processors and Nvidia Quadro graphics.

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

The best all-round (multimedia) laptops

An all-round laptop is the choice you make when you want a computer that’s well built, gets fast hardware, a good keyboard and a good screen, and can tackle all sorts of daily use demands, from editing documents to browsing, to video content and games.

Below you’ll find my favorite portable all-round laptops, or multimedia laptops as they are also called. I’ve included units with large IPS screens, fast processors and mid-range dedicated graphics, and also a few affordable options for the budget oriented buyers among you.

Acer Aspire V15 and V17 Nitro – the balanced choices

Acer’s Aspire Nitros Black Edition strike that difficult balance between features, specs, looks, build quality and price, that’s why they sit at the top of this section.

Acer offers two series, the V15 Nitro with a 15.6-inch screen and a larger V17 Nitro with a 17.3-inch display, and they share most of their traits, including the aesthetic lines, the black rubbery case finishing, the chiclet keyboard and most of the hardware specs.

The two are motorized by Intel HQ processors and Nvidia GTX 960M 4GB graphics, with up to 32 GB of RAM and various types of storage, bundle a similar 52 Wh battery and can be paired with either FHD or UHD matte non-touch displays. The batteries are a little small, thus these Nitros won’t last as long on a charge as other options, but that aside there are very few reasons to complain, as you’ll find out from our detailed reviews of both the V15 Nitro and the V17 Nitro.

The 15-inch version starts at around $900 for a Core i5 configuration with SSD storage and the FHD screen (check this link for up-to-date prices), while the 17-inch model is about $50 more expensive, making the V17 Nitro an excellent choice for those who want a large screen notebook. Follow this link for more details.

The Acer Aspire Nitros strike a fine balance between portability, features and hardware specs, and sell for the right prices as well

The Acer Aspire Nitros strike a fine balance between portability, features and hardware specs, and sell for the right prices as well

Dell XPS 15 – the premium option

The XPS 15 is one of the most compact and lightest (4.4 lbs) 15-inch laptops available these days, but it’s also rather expensive, so it’s only an offer for those who value its premium aesthetics and build quality, its narrow screen bezel and top features.

This laptop is available in a few different versions, all offering Core i3, i5 or i7 HQ processors, up to 32 GB of RAM and Nvidia GTX 960M 2GB graphics. Users have the choice between a FHD matte screen or the an UHD touchscreen, and either an 84 Wh battery or a smaller 56 Wh battery plus a 2.5″ storage bay.

Overall the XPS 15 is a solid notebook, albeit there are still some issues buyers might run into, as noted in our review. As an extra note, this laptop gets a Thunderbolt 3 port and works fairly well with the Razer Core.

The base versions of the XPS 15 starts at $999 on Dell’s website, for the non-touch screen, a Core i3 processor, no dedicated graphics, 8 GB of RAM, a regular HDD and the 56 Wh battery. The laptop gets really expensive once you speck it up though, so expect to pay around $1700-$2000 for the Core i7 processor, GTX 960M graphics, the UHD display, 16 GB of RAM, SSD storage and the 84 Wh battery. That’s pricey, but the XPS 15 is not an ordinary notebook and there’s no surprise Dell charges premium for it.

Be aware that you’ll find most configurations discounted online, so dig for deals if interested in one of these.

The XPS is a compact, premium and pricey 15-inch laptop

The XPS is a compact, premium and pricey 15-inch laptop

Dell Inspiron 7559 – the best-buy option

The Inspiron 7559 is a more down-to-earth laptop with an excellent price for what it has to offer. It doesn’t get the same choice in materials, the build quality or the narrow bezel of the XPS 15, but for a mid-range device it’s actually built well and doesn’t look bad either.

Roughly $850 will get you a Core i5 HQ processor, 8 GB of RAM, a 256 GB SSD, Nvidia GTX 960M 4GB graphics, a FHD IPS matte screen and a 74 Wh battery, a configuration that can handle well daily tasks, demanding chores and gaming. On the other hand, compared to other similarly configured 15-inchers, the Inspiron 15 7559 is heavier (5.8 lbs), bulkier and gets a mushy keyboard, but its also more affordable and that’s why it’s so popular.

Follow this link for more details, user reviews and updated prices at the time you’re reading this post.

The Inspiron 7559 is a best-buy option, with excellent features and a fair price

The Inspiron 7559 is a best-buy option, with excellent features and a fair price

Best budget: Acer Aspire E15

The Aspire E15 is a 15-inch notebook that sells for around $500 to $600. It gets an all plastic body available in dark-gray or white that weighs 4.8 lbs (2.2 kg), and its keyboard is not backlit, but most other features are solid for the price.

The hardware includes Core U Skylake processors, 8 GB of RAM, a 256 GB SSD and an extra 1 TB HDD for mass storage, Nvidia GT 940MX graphics, a 42 Wh battery and an IPS matte FHD screen. That’s going to be fast enough for daily chores and will be able to handle some gaming as well, with low to medium details. If you opt for a version without SSD storage you’ll actually find the Aspire E15 for under $500, but the SSD greatly boosts the performance so you should keep it.

Follow this link for more details on the available configurations and their prices.

The Acer Aspire E15 is made of plastic, but offers excellent features for the price

The Acer Aspire E15 is made of plastic, but offers excellent features for the price

Honorary mentions:

  • Asus K501UW and K501UX – configurations and prices – this one offers Skylake Core U hardware, an IPS screen and Nvidia GTX 950M or 960M graphics for under $850, making it a solid all-rounder of those of you that value battery life or can’t quite touch the options above;
  • Asus ROG GL552VW – reviewconfigurations and prices – the ROG GL552VW offers solid specs and has an excellent price, but it’s rather chunky and heavy, so not the most portable or durable built option out there;
  • Lenovo Yoga 710 14 – configurations and prices – the Yoga 710 14 is a 2-in-1 convertible with capable hardware, a good IPS screen and Nvidia GT 940MX graphics. You will pay premium for the form factor, but if you want a portable all-round hybrid with a fair price, this is the one.

A larger list of full-size portable laptops is available over here, if you’re interested in more options.

The best fanless ultraportables

If you want an absolutely quiet computer without a fan or a spinning hard-drive inside, these options right here are the ones for you. Just keep in mind that passively cooled platforms are not going to offer the same amount of power as those cooled by a fan, so you should only get one of these for daily activities and limited multitasking.

I’ve listed my favorite options below, and a complete list of fanless ultraportables is available in this article in case you’re interested in more options.

Asus Zenbook UX360CA – the best-buy convertible

The Zenbook UX360CA gets another nomination after it was also featured as one of the best 2-in-1s, since it is built on fanless Core M hardware. We’re not going to get in-depth again, scroll up to see why we like the UX360CA that much.

In few words though, this is a sleek convertible with a 13-inch screen, good hardware specs and a 54 Wh battery. It’s also very well priced, with the base version starting at $699 and including a Core m3 processor with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of SSD storage, well enough for daily use.

Follow this link for more details, user reviews and the latest prices.

asus-zenbook-ux360-1HP Spectre 12 X2 – the affordable detachable

The Specter X2 is a detachable, a tablet with a keyboard dock. It offers good specs and performance in a thin and sleek aluminum body, as you can see in the pictures below. It also includes a 12-inch screen with pen support, Skylake Core M hardware, a 42 Wh battery, decent IO and a keyboard dock with backlit keys, all weighing around 2.7 lbs.

The higher specked versions of the X2 are rather expensive ($800 and up), but a Core m3 model with 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of SSD storage goes for under $600 these days (you’ll find out where by following this link). The keyboard dock in included on all models, while a pen is included only on certain configurations, but the device gets an active digitizer so it’s going to work with most pens, there’s no specific need to buy the HP one.

The Spectre X2 is my favorite option in this category of 2-in-1s

The Spectre X2 is my favorite option in this category of 2-in-1s

Apple Macbook 12 – the ultralight option

The Macbook is one of the lightest and slimmest traditional clamshell laptops out there. It weighs 2.02 lbs (0.92 kg) and it’s just .5″ (13 mm) thick, but despite these it’s also extremely well built and packs some good hardware.

Its case is entirely made out of aluminum, the keyboard is backlit and the screen gets a high-resolution IPS panel, without touch. As for the internals, the Macbook is powered by Intel Core m hardware with 8 GB of RAM and 256 or 512 GB of SSD storage, with a 41 Wh battery that’s going to provide around 8 hours of real daily use. Not bad at all.

The Macbook is expensive though, the base version sells for $1299 and includes a Core m5 processor with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage space. You’re paying premium for the overall quality and the brand, of course, but given the specs, the Macbook is not actually much more expensive than other premium Core m options. Potential buyers have to be aware that this laptop gets an unusual keyboard with very limited travel and a single USB-C port, so you might have to spend extra on adapters or a dock.

Follow this link for more details, user reviews and potential discounts.

This is the Apple Macbook 12

This is the Apple Macbook 12

Best budget: Acer Chromebook R11

The R11 is a Chromebook, so it’s not running Windows but ChromeOS, a simple and secure software meant to offer a solid experience in Internet based activities like browsing, editing documents, streaming multimedia content and music, etc.

The Chromebook R11 is a best-buy in its class. It sells for around $270 and this kind of money will get your a white notebook with a convertible 11-inch IPS touchscreen, an Intel Celeron N3150 processor, 2 GB of RAM, 32 GB of storage and a 35 Wh battery, which are solid specs for a mini-laptop in this price range. No wonder the Chromebook R11 is one of the best selling computers in the US and also one of the most appreciated, scoring good reviews with most buyers.

Follow this link for more details, user reviews and potential discounts.

The Chromebook R11 is the best value option in its class

The Chromebook R11 is the best value option in its class

Honorary mentions:

  • Toshiba Portege Z20t – configurations and prices – the Portege is a business 2-in-1 detachable (tablet + dock) with a solid case, excellent keyboard, Core M hardware and two batteries with a total capacity of 72 Wh. It’s rather heavy though, at 3.5 lbs for both parts, and it’s also really expensive, that’s why this is not an option for everyone and only gets an honorary mention here.
  • Microsoft Surface Pro 4 – configurations and prices – onlt the base version of the Surface Pro 4 is available in a fanless version, with a Core m3 processor, 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage, for $899, not including the Keyboard Folio. Expensive, but otherwise a solid slate with an excellent screen, pen support, battery life and build quality.
  • HP Pavillion x360 11 – configurations and prices – The Pavilion x360 11 is one of the best-buy compact 2-in-1s with Windows available these days and one of the very few to feature an IPS screen in the $250 to $400 price range. Should be on your list if you’re on a tight budget.
  • Chromebooks – these are solid picks in the sub $300 price range, excellent for Web work and light activities. Most Chromebook are fanless and you’ll find a large selection in this post, as well as details about the best available options.

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

Laptops with digitizer and pen support

This section is short and we’ll develop it in the near future, as we’re working on a dedicated-article on this particular topic, which will also include details about the types of digitizers and pens available these days.

For now, a couple of good options with an active digitizer are the:

  • 2-in-1 tablets (detachables): Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book, Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro S, Asus Transformer 3 and 3 Pro, HP Spectre X2 and Elite X2, Dell Latitude 13 7000, Toshiba Portege Z20t, HP Pavilion 12 x2, Huawei Matebook, Acer Aspire Switch Alpha 12;
  • 2-in-1 convertibles (360-degress rotating screen): HP Spectre x360 13 and 15, Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga, Yoga 260 and 460, Lenovo ThinkPad P40.

Out of these, the HP Pavilion 12 x2, Huawei Matebook, Lenovo ThinkPad P40 and X1 Yoga get a newer generations Wacom AES digitizer.

Stay tuned for the update.

The best affordable laptops under $500

When looking at affordable laptops you have a few options to consider:

  • Chromebooks – ChromeOS notebooks great for web-based activities, with prices starting at as low as $150 and screen sizes ranging between 10 to 15.6 inches. Great for casual tasks as long as you’re connected to the Internet, not that good for offline use. A detailed list of the best available Chromebooks is available in this post.
  • Compact mini laptops – Windows computer with small 11 to 13-inch screens and lower-end hardware specs. Some options sell for under $300, but if you want a faster platform, larger battery or an IPS screen you’ll have to spend a little more.
  • Full-size laptop – you can find traditional notebooks with 15-inch screens in this budget and even compelling hardware specs, like Core i3 and i5 processors, 4-8 GB of RAM and decent storage, including SSDs in some cases. These cut some corners on the build quality and choice of materials, getting all plastic cases. Most also get a small battery, a non-backlit keybiard and a TN screen, but if you dig carefully you’ll even find IPS panels in this price range.

There’s a large collection of popular laptops that sell for under $500 over here, with users reviews and extra details. And if you’re interested in my personal selection of top-affordable ultraportables, then this article is for you, with solid options going for under $600 or premium options in the $600 to $1000 range.

Portable laptops based on screen size

This topic is covered in the following separated articles:

But i’ll add a few words on what to expect from each class.

The offer for ultra-compact computers with 10-inch screens, follow-ups of the netbooks popular a few years ago, is limited to a few 2-in-1s like the Asus Transformer Pad or the Acer Aspire Switch 10 families. They get a touchscreen, are built on low-power hardware and are only good enough for basic tasks, but will last for a long while on a charge.

11-inchers on the other hand are available in greater numbers and diversities, from the most affordable Chromebooks selling for around $150, to higher end options with advanced features. However, most premium ultra-portables get a 12 to 13.3-inch screen, and that’s the segment where you’ll find the most and the better options if you want a computer that looks good, is built well, performs properly, lasts for 6+ hours on a charge and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. In fact, most of the devices featured in the various sections of this post get a 12 to 13-inch screen.

If you need faster hardware for professional use or gaming, you’ll have to step up to larger devices. There are a few 14-inchers out there, albeit this niche is mostly populated with business options, toughly built, packed with enterprise oriented features and pricey. 15 and 17-inchers on the other hand are mostly oriented towards regular consumers, with only a few workstations as exceptions.

There are plenty of thin (under 1-inch) full-size notebooks out there and their weight has gone down in the last years as well. Just keep in mind that powerful hardware and a sleek case don’t always make for a happy couple, and make sure to read reviews if you don’t want to end up with a computer that gets very hot, noisy or even throttles under load.

Wrap-up – what’s the best ultrabook?

None of the laptops listed here are perfect, but if you’ll take a look back at the ultra-portables launched in these last years, you’ll see the current generations have come a long way.

The hardware got faster and more efficient, which was expected, but alongside came new form factors and features, plus improvements on all the fundamentals that make a laptop great: build quality, keyboards, touchpads, screens, connectivity and battery life, among them. As a result, there are now many good options to choose from.

As for what’s 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 the 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 check out these 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 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 updates and launches.

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.

675 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/

  2. lishwanth

    July 8, 2016 at 11:38 am

    Which laptop is best in all aspects topend version of dell xps 13 or top end version of hp spectre????

  3. Justin

    July 10, 2016 at 7:19 pm

    You have a fantastic taste in laptops. There are so many hideous designs out there. My metrics are, thin bezel, big trackpad, and a keyboard that goes edge to edge, with a non touch screen that is as least 14 inches. There are surprisingly few like this! I finally went with the LG Gram 14, a beautifully designed and powerful ultrabook.

  4. Lud

    July 18, 2016 at 12:06 pm

    hallo Andrei,

    many thanks, you wrote interesting reviews.

    At now a new 3:2 (fine displays :) for working, with active pens and touch screen, but glare :( so great “make-up mirror”s )
    as the Microsoft “Surface Pro 4”- comperior- not a clone . is coming on the market: the
    Acer “Aspire Switch Alpha 12” fanless with special cooling, and a fine 12-inch-IPS

    Perhaps it will be possible to use the Acer Graphics Dock with GTX 960M per USB-C :) if thunderbold will be integrates in the USB-C port ;) .

    Last year you test the ACER “SWITCH 12 SW5-271” with trackpoint ( built-in mouse stick ) – without trackpad ! http://www.ultrabookreview.com/7177-acer-switch-12-review/

    A better FineTrack will be a positiv second input for the Switch Alpha 12 – perhaps ACER will sold these with lights in the future:
    — We love the favorably 5° curve FineTouch (TM) keyboard with the green FineTrack (TM) + two FineTrack buttons with integrated Bio-Protection fingerprint reader supporting FingerNav 4-way control functions,
    as a dual navigation control the touchpad with 4-way scroll button – center between two touchpad buttons FineTouchpad plus two mouse keys and the center button :) for 4-way-window scroll. :)

    … these in our Acer TravelMate 6492 with the FineTrack is a fantastic beautiful and powerfull fine business input device. :)

    Do you ever have tested these FineTrack?

    We think these build in TravelMates 2006/2007 was better as the Pointing sticks in ThinkPad.

  5. Steve

    July 26, 2016 at 5:43 am

    Are you going to review the Lenovo x1 yoga anytime soon?

    • Andrei Girbea

      July 26, 2016 at 2:53 pm

      To be frank, probably not. I have very poor contacts with Lenovo lately and I don’t plan on buying that product just for reviewing it.

  6. Francesco

    August 11, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    Hi Andrei,
    First of all words of appreciation for what you do everyday. This website has been my main reference point for ultrabook and laptop in general and there’s just no competition, Good job!
    It must be 5 or 6 months i am looking for the “my perfect” ultrabook.
    Rather then making a long introduction, i’ll just cut to the chase and tell you what are my needs.
    FORMAT: 15″, with all ultrabooks have (low weight, practicality exc)
    SCREEN: FHD, don’t need no fancy 4K
    VGA: Very important, has to be dedicated…Nvidia 950 or better. 950 should be enough to play some moba like HoTs, Smite and some other non demanding games
    KEYBOARD: Not backlit? Deal braker!
    BUDGET: around 1000€

    And that would be all…Models I found interesting are Asus N55 series and Acer Nitro V5…should be the best all around and with everything i ask from them.

    Only catch is…the eye catch…I’d really love some eye catch and premium feel, something you can get out from Zenbooks, Yogas or S7, S13.

    Are there any chances to group all those needs in 1 fine piece of hardware?

    Thank you for your advice and again, good job on this fantastic website.

    • Andrei Girbea

      August 15, 2016 at 2:08 pm

      Hi and sry for the late reply. The Acer V15 Nitro Black looks pretty good imo and the Asus GL552VW isn’t very bad either. Should be around your budget. If you can wait a few weeks, maybe a bit longer, Asus will have a Zenbook UX510 in stores which might squeeze into your budget, but that one comes with dual-core Core i5 and i7 processors, so it’s not as fast as the quad-cores.

  7. Tommaso

    August 21, 2016 at 5:31 pm

    Excellent reviews, complete, concise and clear. Not too technical but enough to answer all questions.

    What is the usebility threshold between core i and core m? Could you give a few practical examples of multitasking better suited to core i? And every day use that core m cannot handle very well? Can core m occasionally be used with gimp or ps to retouch photos, for example removing background? And more examples in real, tangible use, please?

    Thank you,

    Tommaso

    • Andrei Girbea

      August 22, 2016 at 6:07 pm

      I’d say Core M (let’s take the m5, mid level unit, for reference) is OK for browsing with up to 10 tabs, all sorts of video content including 4K, text editing, music. Multitasking is OK, but it depends on what’s your threshold for accepting lag and occasional hiccups.

      Core i (again, i5 for reference) can do all the above, and multitask smoother and between more apps. It can also handle software that requires more processing power, like Photoshop, Premiere, programing software, etc. Core I processors are bundle much faster graphics and would be better suited for games and other applications that actually benefit from the GPU.

  8. Tommaso

    August 25, 2016 at 2:28 am

    Hello Andrei,

    I am shopping for a laptop around 14″ and before I post more specific questions about models, I was wondering if you would comment about my number one requirement in my list: “hardware reliability”.

    2 main areas:

    A)Programmed hardware failures:
    Lot’s of talk about pre-programmed life cycle and engineered “expiry dates”. It is rumored that all laptop brands refrain to develop, engineer and manufacture the most reliable hardware and, in fact, programme hardware failures in order to keep us consumers buying replacements. I find this hard to believe given the importance that track record and reputation play in long term business economic performances.

    B) Statistic data:
    Can you point to valid and usable statistic data for hardware reliability analysis with reference to (1) model and (2) brand? I searched a bit and only came across 5 separate hardware reliability studies that were (allegedly) supported by statistical data (I am not interested in the least in opinions and personal anecdotes not factually supported). All 5 concurred that Apple products were best (by a long way) and 4 out of 5 placed Asus second with a good margin on the 3rd. From 3rd down all brands were within few points percentage of each other.
    I know how hard it is to find accurate information on this topic so I would really appreciate if you could comment to this post of mine with facts and sources.

    Again, thank you for the good reviews.

    Tommaso

    • Andrei Girbea

      August 25, 2016 at 8:56 am

      A. Computers, like all other things, will fail in the end. Going for a business-grade computer usually ensures that certain standards are met amd should results in a more reliable device.

      B. There are very few such studies and they are not very relevant imo. For instance, Apple only makes premium computers, so it’s expected to have higher reliability and customer service scores. Someone like Asus makes a vast range of computers, from cheap to premium models, so their scores are an average of all these models (the lower-end variants drag down the higher-end ones).

      Like I said, my advice is to go with a higher-tier device, no matter the OEM, and consider the Warranty and post-sale services offered when deciding for a final product. Also read reviews for hidden flaws. For instance, some Asus Zenbooks have a known hinge issue, which tends to shatter after a while.

      FOr example, this is one of the reasons I went with a ThinkPad a while ago. In my country, ThinkPads come with 3years warranty by default and 7-day service (someone comes and picks up the product and they’ll fix it in 7 days). Things might be different where you live, but Lenovo, HP, Dell and others usualyl offer such services for their business lines.

  9. Tommaso

    August 25, 2016 at 2:33 am

    Hello Andrei,

    I appreciate your reviews and I want to contribute.

    In the “say thanks” page you mention that you benefit from us buying from the stores that you link/list. I guess that this means that we have to actually click those links, right? If I just go to one of those websites (without clicking on your links) how can that benefit you?

    Tommaso

    • Andrei Girbea

      August 25, 2016 at 8:57 am

      It would only benefit me if you’d buy after clicking one of those links. If the store is not in the list, then it’s not going to help me, but don’t worry about it. recommending the website to others is good enough for me :)

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