Whether you’re a student, a professional or just want to stay connected and productive, a laptop is one of the most important tools of the trade. But some are better than others, with wide differences in keyboards, battery life, displays and design. If you’re looking for a powerful laptop that easily fits in your bag and doesn’t break your back, you want an ultrabook.
The “ultrabook” moniker was originally coined by Intel in 2012 and used to refer to a set of premium, super-thin laptops that met the chipmaker’s predefined standards. However, just as many folks refer to tissues as Kleenexes or web searching as Googling, the term ultrabook commonly refers to any premium ultraportable laptop, whether it carries Intel’s seal of approval or not.
Of course, there’s always new tech coming down the pipe. Intel has 45-watt “Tiger Lake H” processors coming down the pipe, though those are gaming focused, and there are already rumors in the air about a successor to Apple’s M1 processor. AMD recently released its Ryzen 5000-series laptop processors, and Intel’s latest are Tiger Lake H35 and U series chips.
- Get a good keyboard: Whether you’re using an ultrabook to browse the web, send emails, code, write or do other productivity work, the keyboard is one of your primary ways of interacting. Get something with responsive keys that aren’t mushy. Low-travel is ok if the keys have the right feel to them, but the last thing you want to do is “bottom out” while typing.
- Consider what you need in a screen: At a minimum, your laptop should have a 1920 x 1080 screen. Some laptops offer 4K options, though it’s sometimes harder to see the difference at 13-inches or below. While 4K may be more detailed, 1080p screens give you much longer battery life.
- Some laptops can be upgraded: While CPUs and GPUs are almost always soldered down, some laptops let you replace the RAM and storage, so you can buy cheaper now and add more memory and a bigger hard drive or SSD down the road. But the thinnest laptops may not have that option.
- Battery life is important: Aim for something that lasts for 8 hours or longer on a charge (gaming is an exception). For productivity, many laptops easily surpass this number. But be wary of manufacturer claims, which don’t always use strenuous tests. Some laptops are starting to add fast charging, which is a nice bonus.
Best Ultrabooks and Premium Laptops 2021
The HP Spectre x360 14 is everything a modern ultrabook should be. This laptop has an attractive design, but isn’t about form over function. It has both Thunderbolt 4 over USB Type-C, as well as a microSD card reader, all in a thin chassis.
But what really wows is the display. The 3:2 aspect ratio is tall and shows more of your work or web pages, and is also more natural for tablet mode. The OLED model we reviewed also offered vivid colors, though you would likely get longer battery life with the non-OLED, lower resolution panel.
The other big plus is the Spectre x360’s keyboard, which is clicky and comfortable. Sure, it’s no desktop mechanical keyboard, but for a laptop, it’s very responsive and feels great to use.
The Dell XPS 13 has long been celebrated for both its form and function. The laptop is tiny, but packs a punch with Intel’s Tiger Lake processors and adds some extra screen real estate with a tall, 16:10 display (many laptops have a 16:9 screen).
We also like the XPS 13’s keyboard, with a snappy press and slightly larger keycaps than previous designs. The screen is bright, and we shouldn’t take its thin bezels for granted, as Dell continues to lead on that front.
Admittedly, the XPS 13 is short on ports, opting for a pair of Thunderbolt 4 ports for booth charging and accessories. Its performance, portability and long battery life are likely to make up for that for those on the go.
While some people may still want the power, large display and port selection of the 16-inch MacBook Pro, Apple has proved with the 13-inch version that its own home-grown M1 chip is capable of the needs of plenty of people. This is Apple’s first step in breaking away from Intel, and it is extremely impressive.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro runs cool and quiet, while the chip is faster than its competition in most cases. It’s also efficient and ran for more than 16 and a half hours on our battery test.
Many apps run natively on the Arm processor and those that don’t use Apple’s Rosetta 2 software for emulation. Even then, users will barely know that emulation is being used at all. Everything just works.
The big difference between the Pro and the Air, which also uses M1, is that the Pro has a fan. Those who aren’t doing intensive work may be able to save a bit and get a very similar machine by going with the Air, and they will get function keys instead of the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar.
The 15-inch version of the Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 with the AMD Ryzen Microsoft Surface Edition is a portable productivity powerhouse with long battery life. If you’re looking for a good mid-size screen, it’s worth a look.
The custom AMD processor proved powerful in our benchmarks, and was optimized to bring about more than 12 hours of battery life on our test. While it’s based on Zen 2 cores, the processor has some tricks from the more recent 5000 series that helped it impress.
This design has been in use in some form for a while now, and the port selection seems meager, but if you like the magnetic Surface Connector, you’ll be glad to know it’s still here.
Microsoft’s 3:2 display is great for work as it shows more of your text, webpage, or vertical space on a spreadsheet. What this laptop lacks (its slow SSD speeds) it absolutely makes up with a display and comfortable keyboard that make it a joy to use.
The MSI GE66 Raider is a gaming laptop, and it’s saying it loud with a massive RGB light bar. It’s new look is aggressive, but it’s not just talk, with options going up to an Intel Core i9-10980HK and Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Super Max-Q.
For those looking for esports-level performance in games like League of Legends or Overwatch, there’s an option for a 300 Hz display.
And while it’s not the slimmest laptop around (or even MSI’s thinnest), it does feel remarkably portable considering the power inside, and we can’t help but appreciate high-end build quality.
Read: MSI GE66 Raider review
Lenovo’s ThinkPads have always been favorites, and the ThinkPad X1 Carbon (Gen 8) continues that trend with a slim design, excellent keyboard and an excellent selection of ports to keep you connected to all of your peripherals.
If you get the 1080p option, you can count on all-day battery life (the 4K model we tested didn’t fare as well, but that’s often the tradeoff for higher resolution among ultrabooks).
Of course, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon also attracts one other audience: fans of the TrackPoint nub in the center of the keyboard.
If you value ultraportability over all else, the ThinkPad X1 Nano takes much of what is great about the X1 Carbon and puts it in a smaller form factor. You get long battery life and an excellent keyboard, as well as a few other pluses. This laptop has a 2160 x 1350 display with a 3:2 aspect ratio, showing more of your work than some other ThinkPads.
The trade-off on this 1.99-pound laptop is that it’s lacking in ports, which some professionals may miss. It has two Thunderbolt 4 ports and a 3.5 mm headphone jack, but no USB Type-A or HDMI outputs.
But in terms of other usability, you lose nothing. It’s still an excellent ThinkPad experience (including the TrackPoint nub, if that’s your thing), but easier to carry around.
Asus has begun to refine the dual screen laptop. Sure, there’s a more powerful version, but for a laptop with two screens, this one is fairly light, and ran for over 10 and a half hours on a charge.
Windows 10 doesn’t yet natively support dual screen software, Asus’s ScreenPad Plus launcher has improved since launch, with easy flicks and drags to move apps around the display. For Adobe apps, there’s custom dial-based software.
The keyboard and mouse placement are the big compromises, as there isn’t a wrist rest and they can feel cramped. But if you want two-screens, this is as good as it gets for now.
If you’re going for a big screen, the Dell XPS 17 shines. The display on the laptop is bright and colorful, especially on the 4K+ option that we tested, and with minimal bezels around it, your work (or play) is all that’s in focus.
With up to an Intel Core i7 and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 Max-Q, there’s plenty of power here. While it’s not on our list of best gaming laptops, you can definitely play video games on it, including intensive games that use ray tracing.
All of that comes in an attractive design similar to the XPS 13 and XPS 15, though the trackpad takes advantage of the extra space. It’s a luxurious amount of room to navigate and perform gestures.
|HP Spectre x360 14||Up to Intel Core i7-1165G7||Intel Iris Xe (integrated)||Up to 16GB LPDDR4-3733||Up to 2TB M.2 PCIe NVMe SSD||13.5-inch touchscreen, up to 3000 x 2000 resolution, OLED|
|Dell XPS 13 (9310)||Up to Intel Core i7-1165G7||Intel Iris Xe (integrated)||Up to 16GB LPDDR4x-4276||Up to 512GB M.2 PCIe NVMe SSD||13.4-inch touchscreen, 1920 x 1200 resolution|
|MacBook Pro (16-inch)||Apple M1||8-core GPU on SOC||Up to 16GB LPDDR4X-4266||Up to 2TB SSD||13 inches, 2560 x 1600|
|Microsoft Surface Laptop 4||Up to AMD Ryzen 7 4980U or Intel Core i7-1185G||AMD Radeon or Intel Iris Xe (integrated)||Up to 32GB LPDDR4x||Up to 1TB SSD||15-inch, 3:2 , 2496 x 1664 touchscreen|
|MSI GE66 Raider||Intel Core i9-10980HK||Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Super Max-Q||Up to 32GB DDR4-3200||1TB PCIe 3.0 M.2 NVMe||15.6 inches, 1920 x 1080, 300 Hz|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (Gen 8)||Up to Intel Core i7-10610U||Intel UHD Graphics||Up to 16GB LPDDR3||Up to 1TB PCIe NVMe SSD||14 inches, up to 4K with Dolby Vision and HDR400|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano||Up to Intel Core i7-1160G7||Intel Iris Xe Graphics||Up to 16GB LPDDR4x-4266||Up to 1TB PCIe NVMe SSD||Up to 13-inch 2160 x 1350 touchscreen display with Dolby Vision|
|Asus ZenBook Duo UX481||Up to Intel Core i7-10510U||Nvidia GeForce MX250||Up to 16GB DDR3||1TB PCIe NVMe SSD||14 inch 1080p (1920 x1080) touchscreen, 12.6 inch (1920 x 515) ScreenPad Plus|
|Dell XPS 17||Up to Intel Core i7-10875H||Up to Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 Max-Q||Up to 32GB DDR4||1TB PCIe NVMe SSD||17.0 inches, 16:10, up to 3840 x 2200, touch|