The best laptops for 2021

We’ve tested and reviewed well over 400 laptops over the years, searching for the best of the best. And when it comes to picking the best laptop overall for 2021, there was a clear winner: The Dell XPS 13. Best Laptops Award

With fantastic performance, a display with modern-looking and thin bezels, a well-built keyboard and touchpad, and great battery life, the Dell XPS 13 performs well in terms of every important aspect of a laptop. That could all change at CES 2021, where a slew of new laptops are expected to get announced and updated.

But if you’re looking for the best Chromebook, gaming laptops, or 2-in-1, we’ve made choices for these as well. You can also take a look at our list of the best laptop deals for potential savings.

The best laptops at a glance:

The best laptop: Dell XPS 13

Why you should buy this: It’s portable, fast, attractive, and reasonably priced.

Who it’s for: Everyone except gamers.

Why we picked the Dell XPS 13:

No laptop in the past few years has been more influential than the XPS 13. It started this race to thinner bezels back in 2015, which has now spread to every gadget that has a screen.

In its latest iteration, Dell’s taken things even further. The 2020 XPS 13 made the screen larger using a 16:10 aspect ratio, all while shrinking the bottom bezel. The result is a larger screen without needing a larger overall laptop.

This year’s Dell XPS 13 also gets a larger keyboard and touchpad, making use of every possible surface of the device. Of course, it’s just as powerful and long-lasting as before, not sacrificing function over form. It’s no longer a cheap laptop, but as far as I’m concerned, the XPS has earned its spot as a premium brand. It all adds up to what is undoubtedly the best laptop you can buy — and Dell has just updated the machine (the XPS 13 9310) with Intel’s latest Tiger Lake CPUs, making it faster and more intelligent.

Read our in-depth Dell XPS 13 9310 review

The best laptop for students: Apple MacBook Air M1

Macbook Air
Riley Young/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: Those who want something shiny to bring to school.

Who it’s for: Students and Apple fans.

Why we picked the MacBook Air:

It might not look any different, but the most recent MacBook Air is a huge departure from the Macs of recent years. Like the new MacBook Pro and Mac mini, this new MacBook Air runs on Apple’s own silicon, the M1 chip. Despite being the same cost, this M1 chip brings a few major advantages to the MacBook Air, that make it the perfect laptop for students.

The two big improvements the M1 brings are in battery life and performance. The old MacBook Air was hamstrung by a slow, dual-core processor that was used to keep the system completely fanless. Apple accomplishes the same task with the M1 but doesn’t have to sacrifice as much on speed.

The battery life, though, is really what makes this the ultimate student laptop. You’ll enjoy all-day battery life (or multiple days if your use is sparing) — perfect for classrooms, coffee shops, libraries, and other locations where an outlet is hard to find.

Indeed, $999 isn’t cheap, but the $100 discount for students makes it the perfect gift for a student going off to college.

Read our in-depth MacBook Air review

The best budget laptop: Acer Swift 3

Why you should buy this: Performance that beats out premium Intel laptops at a budget price.

Who it’s for: Anyone who cares more about performance and functionality than style.

Why we picked the Acer Swift 3:

Usually, when you spend around $650 for a laptop, one of the first things you give up is performance. That’s not the case with the Acer Swift 3 AMD version, which equips a Ryze 7 4700U CPU. That’s an eight-core processor that churns through demanding tasks and laughs at mere productivity work. You can do real video editing work on this laptop, and that’s amazing for the price.

You also get 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, which is also great value. We’re not that excited about the display, but something had to give. Build quality, though, is fine, even if this isn’t the prettiest laptop around.

Read our in-depth Acer Swift 3 review

The best Chromebook: Google Pixelbook Go

Google Pixelbook Go screen

Why you should buy this: You want an inexpensive but well-built Chromebook.

Who it’s for: Students, people who need only basic functionality, anyone who wants a cheap laptop to use as a second PC.

Why we picked the Google Pixelbook Go:

Chromebooks are best-known as cheap alternatives to Windows PCs, and there are plenty of good options for under $500. The Pixelbook Go, though, makes a serious case for a Chromebook with a bit more finesse. It’s beautifully designed, rigidly built, and a joy to use.

Thanks to its ultra-light 2.3-pound weight and fantastic battery life, it’s a great option for students and people taking their work on the go.

With a starting price of $649, the Google Pixelbook Go is not a significant cut from the $999 original Pixelbook. You do, of course, face the usual limitations with Chrome OS. It’s designed around Google’s Chrome web browser, meaning you can’t download your normal Windows applications. It’s wonderfully simple and intuitive to use, however, and with the inclusion of the Google Play Store, you can fill some of the gaps in software with Android apps.

Read our in-depth Google Pixelbook Go review

The best 2-in-1 laptop: Microsoft Surface Pro 7

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 front

Why you should buy this: You want a great laptop and a good tablet.

Who it’s for: Anyone who needs versatility on top of performance.

Why we picked the Surface Pro 7:

The Surface Pro line has earned its dedicated following over the years with its excellent detachable keyboard and full Windows 10 performance. It’s the familiar PC experience you’re used to, with the added interest of 2-in-1 capability, Surface Pen stylus compatibility, and a tablet mode. It’s a supremely well-built device, complete with a beautiful, high-resolution display and rock-solid kickstand.

The latest model, the Surface Pro 7, doesn’t make any substantial changes to the formula, but it does offer a couple of key upgrades. You now get a USB-C port rather than a mini-DisplayPort, as well as upgrade performance with 10th-generation Ice Lake processors from Intel. That means snappier performance and improved integrated graphics.

Do we wish the Microsoft Surface Pro 7 had the slimmer chassis and smaller bezels of the new Surface Pro X? Of course. But the Surface Pro 7 is cheaper, faster, and more universal in terms of app support.

Read our in-depth Surface Pro 7 review

The best business laptop: HP Elite Dragonfly

Why you should buy this: This is a business laptop unlike any other.

Who it’s for: Business pros who want a laptop that won’t embarrass them.

Why we picked the HP Elite Dragonfly:

Business laptops have a certain stigma around them. It’s often assumed that they need to be clunky, ugly, and full of bloatware. Not so.

The Elite Dragonfly has everything your IT department will need (and you’ll appreciate), without getting in the way of a supremely beautiful and modern laptop. The ideal person for the Dragonfly is someone who takes their work on the go with them, whether that’s in long flights or subways. That’s where the Dragonfly really comes alive as a highly portable laptop that might actually fit on your pull-down tray.

On top of all that, the HP Elite Dragonfly is one of the first 5G-enabled laptops, which could come in handy as the faster connectivity standard rolls out.

Read our in-depth HP Elite Dragonfly review

The best gaming laptop: Razer Blade 15

Why you should buy this: It provides a fantastic gaming experience on the go.

Who it’s for: People who want a fantastic laptop that can also game.

Why we picked the Razer Blade 15:

From the exterior, you might not even know the Razer Blade is a gaming laptop. It’s as light and thin as a MacBook Pro, with thin bezels, a world-class keyboard and touchpad, as well as a bright, vivid, 15-inch display. Even if it weren’t a gaming laptop, the Razer Blade would probably still be a contender for one of the best 15-inch laptops. The fact that it can play games at respectable frame rates makes it a bit of a miracle.

Now with new RTX Super graphics, maxing out at the RTX 2080 Super, and a 300Hz refresh rate display, the Razer Blade is a killer gaming machine. The Razer Blade made short work of just about everything we threw at it — as long as you stay away from 4K, of course. Razer redesigned its thermal system to ensure that despite some throttling, the Blade can play nearly any game with settings maxed. That includes heavy loads like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Battlefield V.

Simply put, the Razer Blade 15 is the most elegant, beautiful gaming laptop you’ve ever seen. If you need something a bit more affordable, the new AMD-powered Asus ROG Zephyrus G14 is an excellent choice.

Read our in-depth Razer Blade 15 review

The best laptop for video editing: Dell XPS 17

Why you should buy this: You want a portable PC that can churn through your video editing projects.

Who it’s for: Video editors who want powerful components and a big, beautiful display.

Why we picked the Dell XPS 17:

When you’re editing video, you want plenty of space to view both the results and your favorite application’s interface. But, if you’re using a laptop rather than a desktop PC, then you want to be able to do your editing on the go. That’s where larger laptops come in — they’re both powerful and, thanks to today’s thin-bezel movement, highly portable.

The biggest and most powerful of the bunch is the Dell XPS 17. Despite having a 17-inch screen, the overall size of the laptop is not much bigger than your average 15-inch laptop. That’s thanks to the tiny bezels, of course. It even comes with four powerful Thunderbolt 3 ports and a full-size SD card slot for convenient transfers directly from your camera.

But the performance is what really counts. Between the eight-core, Core i9 processor and an Nvidia RTX 2060, the Dell XPS 17 is the most powerful editing laptop I’ve ever tested, blowing through video exports in Adobe Premiere like nobody’s business. The gorgeous 4K display is the final piece of the puzzle, which is bright, beautiful, and has nearly perfect color reproduction. You can trust your color edits with this one.

Read our in-depth Dell XPS 17 review

The best laptop for photo editing: Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch

Why you should buy this: You want the most extensive software support in a laptop and a picture-perfect display.

Who it’s for: Photo editors who want a display that will give them real-world results.

Why we picked the Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch:

Apple’s MacBook line has been a favorite among photo editors forever. The company has built up such a huge following by ensuring that the best software runs on MacOS, and by offering some of the best and most accurate displays you can buy.

The MacBook Pro maintains that focus on creative professionals, especially if you opt for the new 16-inch model. It offers plenty of power in a very thin and light form factor, up to 8th-gen Intel Core i7 CPUs, 16GB of RAM, and 2TB of fast storage. And, its display is great for editing photos thanks to a 16:10 aspect ratio providing more vertical space and wide color gamut (100% of sRGB and 91% of AdobeRBG) with the most accurate colors you can get.

The 16-inch MacBook Pro has a similarly-great display with new Intel 9th-gen CPUs and provides the larger screen that some photographers will appreciate. It also features an improved keyboard and powerhouse performance.

Windows laptops are catching up, but the Apple MacBook Pro 16 retains its place at the top of the photo editing laptop market. It’s not the least expensive photo editing platform around, but it’s still the best.

Read our in-depth Apple MacBook Pro 16 review

How we test

You’ve read our laptop reviews. You’ve read our conclusions. And now you’re wondering how we came to them.

Good question. Reviews often lack context, which is evident in the wildly different scores some laptops receive from different publications. Conflicting opinions can actually make buying a laptop more difficult if the review’s criteria aren’t made clear.

Allow us to lift the veil. Here we’ll explain the benchmarks we use for objective testing and the perspective from which we approach subjective topics. We don’t expect everyone to agree with our opinions, but we hope that sharing our process will leave you better equipped to decide what laptop best fits your needs.

Research and buying tips

What’s the best laptop brand?

Picking just one laptop brand as the best is a bit of a challenge lately. There are so many great laptops available today, and they come from several manufacturers. Hold our feet to the fire, though, and we’ll have to pick Dell as the overall best. Dell seems invested in applying the latest materials to improve the performance of its laptops, and it’s constantly coming up with new innovative designs.

HP is no slouch either. It, too, utilizes some unique materials and makes some customer-friendly design decisions, such as resisting the thin-and-light trend to pack in more battery capacity.

In terms of customer service and reliability, Apple carries the torch for its convenience. Its issues with its recent keyboards have been fixed, making MacBooks highly durable. Its customer service is top-notch.

You may also want to look at our guides for laptop deals, Chromebook deals, and MacBook sales for Cyber Monday.

What’s a 2-in-1 laptop?

A 2-in-1 laptop is one that isn’t limited to the traditional clamshell configuration. Instead, a 2-in-1 can convert from a clamshell into some form of tablet PC that allows for natural inking and media consumption.

The concept isn’t brand-new — Microsoft sold a “Tablet PC� version of Windows as far back as 2001 that supported pen input, but it never caught on. As electronics have gotten more powerful and fit into smaller chassis, and capacitive touch and active pen technology has improved, the modern 2-in-1 has emerged. Microsoft kicked off the form factor with its Surface line in 2012, and most manufacturers followed with their versions.

Today, you can pick from among a variety of different kinds of 2-in-1s. The most popular types are the tablet with a detachable keyboard, epitomized by the Microsoft Surface Pro 7, and the 360-degree convertible where the display flips around to turn into a (usually larger) slate.

The main advantage of the tablet 2-in-1 is portability — tablets are extremely thin, light, and easy to carry around — while they also work the best for drawing and taking notes on the pen-enabled display. The 360-degree convertible 2-in-1, on the other hand, isn’t quite as handy as a tablet but it tends to work better in clamshell laptop mode — especially when using it on the lap, where it’s more stable than most detachable tablets.

What processor should I buy?

The most popular CPUs for laptops today are Intel’s eighth-generation Whiskey Lake processors that include low-power Y-series and fast and efficient U-series. For most productivity Windows 10 users, we recommend a minimum of the Core i5-8265U, which is a highly capable processor that can handle most productivity tasks without slowing down. It’s also efficient, meaning you’ll enjoy great battery life. If you skip back to older generations of Intel processors, you’ll find slower clock speeds and fewer cores at your disposal, meaning you may run into bottlenecks while multitasking or running multi-threaded applications.

Chromebook running on Google’s more efficient Chrome OS can utilize slower processors and still perform well, such as an Intel Core i3 or even a Pentium processor. Not many Chromebooks bother with the fastest Core i7 CPU.

If you’re looking for a gaming or content creation laptop, we recommend either last year’s eighth-generation or the most current ninth-gen, ultra-power H-series CPUs. You’ll find these in laptops ranging from the MacBook Pro 15 to the Razer Blade.

How much RAM do I need?

The sweet spot for memory for both laptops and desktops is 8GB. You can check out our story “How much RAM do I need� for the details. But generally speaking, 8GB will suffice whether you’re running Windows, MacOS, or even the more lightweight Chrome OS. And, it will provide plenty of headroom for multitasking and more demanding applications. If you’re doing high-end photo or video editing, then we recommend 16GB (or more).

Should I buy a laptop or a tablet?

As we mentioned above, you can get a tablet that can morph into a laptop just by attaching a keyboard. And so if you really want the power of Windows 10 in a form factor that’s easier to carry around, then you can select a tablet 2-in-1. We don’t recommend these devices as tablets in themselves, as the Windows 10 tablet mode is still fairly limited. If you want the utmost in simplicity and an even smaller device, then a pure tablet like the iPad can be great for web browsing, triaging email, consuming media, and other tasks that don’t require the full power of a “real� PC.

So, where doesn’t a tablet work? If you’re a hardcore gamer, need a laptop that can churn through video and huge photos, or do a lot of multitasking. Tablets are very thin and tend to use slower CPUs and integrated graphics that won’t accelerate creative applications or power modern games. Meanwhile, the software on these devices isn’t as full-featured as a desktop operating system like Windows 10 or MacOS.

Should my laptop have USB-C?

The short answer is: Yes, you should try to pick up a laptop with at least one USB-C port. This is the latest in connectivity that ensures that you can connect to legacy devices (via adapters) while being covered for future devices as well. USB-C can provide for data transfer, power, and display connections, and USB-C hubs can greatly extend how many peripherals you can easily connect to your laptop.

The good thing is that laptops, even budget models, increasingly include USB-C. The longer answer is that not only do you want USB-C, but you want ports that support the even more powerful Thunderbolt 3 standard. Thunderbolt 3 provides up to 40 gigabits per second (Gb/s) over a single connection, and it can support multiple 4K displays and external GPU enclosures that can greatly improve graphics performance. Lately, even laptops under $1,000 sport Thunderbolt 3 ports.

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