When it comes to choosing the right laptop, everyone seeks three necessities: a sleek profile, high performance, and most importantly, portability. A weighty — or worse, bulky — portable computer can take a heavy toll on the body and make daily commuting a pain in the ass; yet everyone from business buffs to college grads wants a machine powerful enough to meet computing needs. We’re fortunate to bask in a beautiful balance of both virtues thanks to the latest leaps in laptop engineering.
Apple helped redefine the modern look and feel of the portable computer with the MacBook Air. Since its inception, the industry has welcomed a new category originally coined by IBM: the ultrabook. Every major computer hardware manufacturer and software developer has embraced this latest revolution of mobile PCs, each one introducing a variety of game-changing laptops that match the power of a mid-level desktop and make a standard textbook look like a lumbering hulk. From convertibles to high-end subnotebooks, we sifted through the market to find the best laptops weighing in at under four pounds. Just remember, they’ll probably make you look fat in comparison.
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MacBook Air (13-inch)
Best Overall Laptop: Trendsetter to the movement, Apple’s lightweight champion accomplishes what was at one point thought inconceivable — it adopts and slenderizes the beautiful stylings of the MacBook Pro while matching its horsepower. New Intel processors bring strong benchmarks to the forefront, and the inclusion of new 3.0 USB ports and the ridiculously fast Thunderbolt port bring high-speed data transfer to the fold. Improved battery life (more than seven hours) is reassuring to those who need a travel laptop. And even without the company’s patented Retina Display at the helm, the assigned 13.3-inch panel generates the same color reproduction and wide viewing angles as the previous Air model. FaceTime sessions and Netflix streaming look amazing, to say the least.
Toshiba Kirabook (Touch Version)
Best High-End PC Laptop: When it comes to style and visual presence, Toshiba’s new premium ultrabook can be viewed as the Windows equivalent of Apple’s paper-thin machine. Enclosed in AZ91 pressed magnesium alloy, the Kirabook stands as the lightest and thinnest high-res laptop out; it sports a stunning 13.3-inch Concore Glass, PixelPure display that generates 2560 x 1440 resolution and an absurd 221ppi. We’re talking about a screen capable of remitting 3.7 million pixels. Its built-in Harman Kardon speakers enhance the multimedia experience by bumping clear and loud audio. Toshiba’s top model packs some serious heat: an Intel Core i7 CPU, HD Graphics 4000 chip, Windows 8 Pro, 256GB SSD, and 8GB of RAM. Preinstalled Adobe software (Photoshop Elements 11 and Premiere Elements 11) sweetens this deal. To top it off, the company has a dedicated 24-hour call center that handles all inquires from software troubleshooting to broken hardware. Not being on hold for an hour is worth some serious dough in our book.
Asus Zenbook Prime Touch
Best Touchscreen Laptop: Wiki the term ultrabook and you’ll stumble upon a photo of Asus’s flagship product. Back in black, the Zenbook Prime gets the touchscreen treatment and a new matte finish to go along with its sexy and slim profile. The new 13.3-inch HD IPS panel has sharp touch response and visual output, producing deep contrasts and great viewing angles. The keyboard feels superb due to a spacious key layout that makes typing an exercise in relaxation. Prime Touch rids wireless signal worries, mainly because of its stellar wi-fi reception. But what about that ever-present concern in super-thin ultrabooks, battery life? You can breath easy knowing the non-removable 50Whr battery squeezes out 7 to 8 hours of power during mid to heavy use. Needless to say, this is the suitable replacement for the first-gen Zenbook Prime.
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch
Best Laptop for Enterprise Use: Since the mid to late 90s, the ThinkPad series has been revered as a tour de force in laptop ergonomics thanks to a near indestructible build. Lenovo carried on that tough-guy tradition with the release of the X1 Carbon, which took home a number of Editor’s Choice awards last holiday season. So what did the PC manufacturer do for an encore? Release a touchscreen version of its popular Windows 8 laptop. The Carbon Touch is what we like to consider an input trifecta, retaining the immaculate keyboard of its successor and IBM’s signature TrackPoint mouse, plus introducing a vibrant 14-inch (1600 x 900) touch panel that is responsive in execution and looks great in action. Both Core i5 and i7 configurations demonstrate speedy boot times and solid benchmarks. Security features like vPro management software, TPM encryption and a fingerprint reader should suffice for the Gordon Gekkos of the business world.
HP Envy x2
Best Laptop for Battery Life: Those seeking a best-of-both-worlds device in the form of a laptop/tablet hybrid, but on the cheap, should consider HP’s latest offering. The aptly named Envy x2 has emerged as one of the top multifaceted convertibles by catering to both computing platforms and sporting the fashion of a premium netbook. The biggest attraction here, though, is the dockable keyboard, which dons an SD Card slot, audio jack, USB ports, HDMI slots and an attached battery pack that boosts overall vitality to a solid 12 hours. One would expect excessive overheating to occur with so much juice being pumped out of the dock and tablet, but the x2 manages to stay cool throughout the day. Setting it comfortably on your lap for long stretches without burning through a pair of Levi’s is, needless to say, a refreshing experience.
Samsung ATIV Book 9 with Full HD
Best Laptop for Stylin’ and Profilin’: The machine formerly known as the Series 9 goes under a new alias these days: the ATIV Book 9. Samsung made the call to rebrand its entire Windows PC line and integrated an all-new 13.3-inch Full HD (1920 x 1080) display with 170 degree viewing angle and SuperBright Plus technology into the industry-favorite notebook. Aesthetically pleasing, the vibrant output of the panel only compliments the machine’s mesmerizing form factor. The ATIV Book is clearly a feat in laptop construction, but most impressive of all is that the seamless customized frame manages to condense key hardware components without compromising performance. Samsung’s Fast Solutions technology, which instantly wakes the machine from sleep mode and provides boot-up times of less than 10 seconds, is a nice touch.
Microsoft Surface Pro
Best Overall Hybrid: No laptop, tablet, or smartphone embodies the Windows 8 ethos better than Microsoft’s slate. The Surface Pro builds on the core elements and versatility of the RT version by improving on multi-touch technology and performance as a whole. Microsoft continues to make strides in the hardware department: its innovative Type Covers are living proof, supporting accurate touch feedback. Navigation on the startup screen runs smoother, and zoom-scaling adjustments make it easier to manage Desktop Mode and the Windows start menu. The combination of an Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge CPU with HD Graphics 4000 and 128GB SSD allows the hybrid to work on the same level as most custom ultrabooks. With stronger specs comes the compromise of bigger dimensions — the Pro certainly takes on extra weight and thickness. Fortunately, the built-in kickstand remains intact and allows owners get their La-Z-Boy on when kicking it in the crib or on the road.
Dell XPS 13
Best Laptop for the Corporate Road Warrior: The XPS 13 gained notoriety for its compact and sturdy design marked by a solid carbon fiber chassis and incredibly thin bezels. Now the American PC staple has gone on to update its first-ever ultrabook with notable specs, including a gorgeous 13-inch LED IPS display and Intel Core i7 processor. Its 1080p display exhibits bright and crisp visuals along with some of the most efficient viewing angles seen on a laptop. Keyboard quality remains stellar with responsive tactile feedback, and battery life gets a lift — providing two to three more hours of life, depending how far you push the OS. Granted, this next-gen model of the XPS 13 doesn’t come touchscreen enabled, but it’s the minor upgrades made under the hood and the performance value that make it a standout for the corporate crowd.
Best Laptop for Web-Centric Users: An ultrabook developed primarily for Internet use might not sound so enticing, but for those heavily committed to Web browsing and cloud computing (we know you’re out there), Google’s fancy computer should hit the spot. Backed by great hardware, the Pixel is spearheaded by a phenomenal 13-inch, 2560 x 1700 resolution display that delivers 239ppi and makes viewing multimedia truly exciting. One of the more promising attributes found on the Pixel is the trackpad, which is built to sustain heavy wear and tear and provides fluid feedback. On top of offering two models (LTE and wi-fi) and 1TB of free online storage for three years, Google provides the luxury of installing a secondary operating system — So if Chrome isn’t cutting the mustard, you can download Android, Linux, or any other third-party OS.
Acer Aspire S7
Best Laptop for Instant Portability: Breaking free from its cheaply built design pedigree, Acer finally assembles a machine worthy of its “explore beyond limits” credo with the Aspire S7. It’s a rarity to discover a portable PC of the featherweight kind that is sliver thin and sturdy but also promotes dynamic performance. Those virtues can be credited to the S7’s effective processing power and speedy solid-state drive. The multi-touch technology present on the 11.6-inch IPS panel (1920 x 1080) is impressive to say the least, pairing nicely with its superb HD video and image quality. A firm palm rest adds comfort and durability to the typing experience, although the EL-backlit flattop keyboard does take some getting used to at first. Bundled in the package is a svelte leather slipcase, wireless mouse with optical sensor, mini HDMI to 15pin VGA adapter and an external battery for extra power.