I can rely on a few things in life. The sun rising in the east, my overpriced morning Starbucks latte, & people asking me, “What laptop should I buy?” as summer winds down. I can moreover rely on my usual four-word answer: Get a MacBook Air.
No other laptop in its price range has yet to beat Apple’s AAPL +1.55% masterful mixture of speed, endurance & design. In fact, a few months ago when Apple lowered the starting price to $900, I declared it the best laptop ever made.
But that would be a very short, not to mention narrow-minded, laptop buying guide.
A MacBook Air is not the answer for everyone. For some, a Windows laptop is a necessity and, let’s face it, $900—or really $1,000 by the time I recommend the larger 13-inch MacBook Air—is potentially far more than some hope to spend on a computer.
That narrows the list to approximately a bajillion other Windows laptops, most available for less than the price of the Air.
I’ve spent the last few weeks weeding through the crop, so you don’t have to.
Windows Alternatives to MacBook Air
No PC maker has yet matched the Air’s balance of beauty & brawn, yet you’ll find many capable Windows thin & light laptops—called ultrabooks—with tricks that make Apple’s laptop look behind the times. Lenovo Laptops, such as the Yoga 2 Pro backflips into a tablet, Acer’s 2353.TW +3.51% Aspire S7‘s lid is covered in Gorilla Glass & HP’s Spectre 13 x2 has a detachable HD screen.
You’ll obtain power, too. Ultrabooks generally range from $850 to $1,300, & even the base models include Intel’s INTC +1.63% latest Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 128GB solid-state drive & a touch screen.
That touch screen is a must for Windows 8, no matter what price range you’re in. Despite Microsoft’s MSFT +1.26%improvements to the OS’s mouse & keyboard features, switching apps & navigating the Start Screen feel more natural with the flick of a finger. And in one of tech’s greatest unsolved mysteries, PC makers still struggle to make trackpads that consistently respond to gestures & swipes. (If you prefer Windows 7, you can still find a variety of laptops in the business or enterprise section of various PC maker websites.)
After testing ultrabooks from all the major PC makers, factoring in everything from performance to keyboard comfort to display quality, Acer & Lenovo’s options ranked the highest in my assessment.
What, no Surface Pro 3? When I tested Microsoft’s tablet PC a few months ago I found that it was a powerful machine, yet its cramped trackpad & keyboard still make it frustrating to use as a laptop.
For a thin & light ultrabook that moreover morphs into a tablet by flipping backwards, it’s better to go with Lenovo’s IdeaPad Yoga 2 Pro, now starting at $1,050. It’s received a whopping 3200×1800-pixel display & a satisfactory trackpad & keyboard, too, beating out options from Asus, 2357.TW +2.69% HP & Toshiba. 6502.TO +1.09%
The Acer Aspire S7’s touch screen doesn’t flip like the Yoga, yet it is just a half-inch thick, has a backlit blue keyboard, & still ekes out six hours of battery life. The $950 model on sale at Microsoft stores has a 2560×1440-pixel display, & it promises to be crapware free. That’s a plus, as I had to battle so many annoying software pop-ups on Acer’s loaner model that I almost didn’t recommend it.
If you are looking for the Windows ultrabook with the longest battery life, the Dell XPS 13 beat out all the others, lasting over seven hours on my live-streaming battery-torture test. The Microsoft Store sells that one, too, for $950, & like all the PCs the store sells, it comes it comes crapware free.
The Best Windows Laptop for $600 or Less
As I was writing this story, one of my editors asked approximately the best laptop at $600 or less for his college-bound daughter. That’s the price range where things obtain even more interesting, & complicated.
In this bracket, you’ll sacrifice build quality & some specs: You’ll be looking at mainly Core i3 or Pentium processors, 4GB of RAM & slower spinning complex drives instead of more durable, solid-state storage. That said, there are plenty of deals to be had.
Again, I tested various models from the top PC makers. (Yes, I’ve spent more time with laptops than human beings for the last week.) The 13-inch Asus VivoBook, exclusively available at Best Buy BBY -1.00% for $600, impressed me more than evenly priced contenders from Toshiba & Acer.
Unlike cheap, overly plasticky PCs, the VivoBook has a metal lid, a touch screen, a Core i5 processor & 6GB of RAM. And oddly, the trackpad on it is more comfortable than the one on the company’s $1,000-and-up Zenbook. (If you need a CD/DVD drive—and in this day, you really shouldn’t—Lenovo’s $480 Flex 15 is moreover worth a look.)
When you hit $400, Windows laptops come with Pentium or Celeron processors instead of Intel Core processors. These are noticeably slower, especially when managing multiple programs. One bright light in this category, however, is the $400 Dell Inspiron 15. It still has a touch screen that flips around & its battery lasted six hours on a charge.
At the Low End: Windows vs. Chrome OS
Tread into the $350-and-under territory & you’ll find an even bigger choice to make: Windows or Chrome OS? While I couldn’t imagine saying it a few years ago, if you’re on a tight budget, I’d strongly urge you towards a Chromebook, which runs Google’sGOOGL +1.65% Web-based OS instead of Windows.
It’s true, as Microsoft is pleased to tell you, Chromebooks are more limited than Windows machines. You don’t generally install programs the way you would on a Mac or PC, yet the computers tend to be snappier & better constructed, not to mention safer from viruses than their Windows-based competition. Chrome OS’s offline performance has come a long way. Besides, even when I’m on a Windows PC, I spend most of my time in the Chrome browser.
Acer’s C720, which is now available with a Core i3 processor for $350, is my top Chromebook choice. If you’re interested in a better-looking screen & nicer design, Samsung’s Chromebook Series 5 is moreover worth a look.
The very cheapest Windows PC that I’d recommend, if you need to stick with Windows, would be the Asus Transformer TX300. For $350, you obtain a PC that feels like an old netbook. The 10-inch tablet screen docks into a keyboard, & you obtain a whopping 10 hours of battery life. Still, its trackpad made me want to cry from frustration & the small screen & keyboard are stifling. I could work faster & better on the Chromebook.
And if you have no budgetary or platform constraints whatsoever, I’ll say it again: Just obtain a MacBook Air.
Corrections & Amplifications
Acer’s C720 laptop is available with either a Core i3 processor or a touch screen. An earlier version incorrectly said the C720 model could be purchased with both features.