The Best Ultraportable Laptops of 2018

Best Ultraportables

The Quest for Ultimate Power and Portability

The evolution of laptops has always been driven by the push for thinner, lighter, and more power-efficient designs, but in recent years these demands have coalesced into what may be the perfect expression of laptop design: the ultraportable.

What exactly defines this category? In general, ultraportables weigh 3 pounds or less, have screens 14 inches or smaller, use processors more powerful than the Intel Atom, and offer enough battery life to survive most of a workday off-plug. These systems are now faster than ever, are well-suited to travel, and come with a variety of features and display resolutions wide enough to fit anyone’s needs. You may have seen laptops of this breed referred to as ultrabooks or streambooks, but those are primarily attempts to attach some branding to the same basic template of ultraportables. The design always comes back to the same foundational elements: thin, light, and long lasting.

How Much Should You Spend?

Although all ultraportable laptops may look sleek, there are a few key differentiators between models. The first to consider is price. There’s a huge difference between a system that costs $ 300 and one that costs $ 1,300, even if they boast the same brand name, and similar looks and features.

At the low end are entry-level systems, which generally run $ 500 or less (sometimes less than $ 200). For many casual users, this is the only price range worth looking at, but there are some caveats to keep in mind. The processing power, display resolution, and storage capacities are usually lower on inexpensive ultraportables, as they’re built for basic web browsing, word processing, and media viewing purposes, and construction materials can be on the flimsy side.

Entry-level ultraportables make solid systems for younger family members to use for homework or watching movies around the house, since they are both highly portable and relatively inexpensive. Value is a big factor in this category, as plenty of budget ultraportables can entice you with a low price. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself let down by a system that’s only a bargain because its manufacturer cut too many corners. That said, the spec floor has risen in this category. As faster base parts become less expensive and more common, cheaper systems with decent build quality are more capable of completing day-to-day tasks. They’ve become fairly competent if you’re looking to perform simple tasks like web browsing and word processing on the go.

Midrange systems are better, but by definition they also cost more, ranging from about $ 500 to $ 1,250. Materials and specs that were once exclusive to high-end ultraportables are now the norm in midrange systems, including features such as full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) or even QHD (2,560-by-1,440) resolutions, touch displays, metal chassis, and more. Battery life and storage have improved as well, making it easier to get better bang for your buck in this price range. You’ll still have to compromise in one or two areas such as storage capacity, port options, and resolution compared with the high-end systems, but for most shoppers, this price range represents the best mix of price and performance.

At the top of the price ladder are premium systems, which we categorize as anything costing $ 1,250 or more. With these high-end systems come choice materials, cutting-edge components and features, and top performance that will speed up photo editing and other productivity tasks. Here, you’ll also see 3K- or 4K-resolution displays, quality sound hardware (often from familiar brands like Bang & Olufsen), spacious and speedy storage, and other exciting features, all while the system’s form factor remains slim and compact. This pricing tier yields the best overall user experience, the most features and port options, and the fastest internal hardware, but not every premium system is created equal, and when you’re spending this much money, do you really want second best? If you have the budget, and will be spending a lot of time on your laptop, it may very well pay to invest in quality.

Choose Your Power Wisely

For smooth performance and a good user experience, you’ll want to be choosy about your processor. Even in a less-expensive system, the average processor is more capable than ever of handling routine tasks, but if you need speed, select carefully. At the top of the heap are Intel’s Core i5 and Core i7 processors, which can be found in midrange and premium models. Most ultraportables out right now use Intel’s 8th Generation Core CPUs (code-named “Kaby Lake-R”), typically paired with 8GB of memory, though some premium systems boast up to 16GB of RAM. The ones in ultraportables will usually be classified as U-series CPUs, which are designed for lean laptop designs.

A few middle-of-the-pack models will opt for processors in Intel’s power-saving Y series. These chips, from the Core families, are identified by the “Y” in their model number and are capable but ultra-low-powered, intended to bridge the gap between U-series chips and the Intel Atom processors you find in inexpensive Windows tablets. With 8th Generation Core, you’ll find Core i5 and i7 Y chips, as well as one that holds the previous gen’s “Core m3” designation; Intel has been downplaying Core M of late. (In earlier generations, Core m3, m5, and m7 were synonymous with extremely low-power CPUs and the Y series.)

The design of a Y-series CPU allows for processing power that approaches that of Core i5 chips, but with lower power consumption and no need for cooling fans. This results in slimmer laptop designs, quieter operation (in some designs, no fans mean no fan noise), and longer battery life, often extending past 8 hours. Y-series systems are a good choice if you want the most portable ultraportable. They aren’t usually less expensive, though, and you may find yourself paying more than you would for a machine that’s more powerful (but also slightly thicker and heavier). Many of the faster, higher-end ultraportables will opt for the U-series chips regardless, which also focus on power saving. You’ll have to find the right balance of physical design and performance to fit your needs.

Aside from Intel’s near-ubiquitous CPUs, you will see a few less-expensive systems featuring processors from other manufacturers, primarily AMD and in a couple of cases, Qualcomm. While AMD chips support the same range of uses as Intel chips, from web browsing to video editing and gaming, they aren’t remotely as common in ultraportables. If you aren’t sure about the model used in the system you’re considering, take a look at our reviews (particularly the results of our benchmark tests) to see how it will fare in real-world conditions.

Finally, at the low end are Intel’s Atom and Celeron processors. These budget processors are both inexpensive and energy-efficient, but power users may find themselves frustrated by slow performance, and lesser RAM allotments (as low as 2GB) concurrent with extreme-budget designs. You will definitely feel a difference in speed, but you can probably make do if you’re a casual user and not multitasking much.

Pay Attention to Graphics

Also important: the graphics processor. Ultraportable systems rely almost exclusively on integrated graphics, such as Intel’s HD Graphics 620. This level of horsepower is usually enough for streaming media and maybe editing the odd photo, but not for substantial gaming.

If you want to do more with media and perhaps some gaming, you’ll need a discrete graphics chip, like the mobile version of the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070. These cards require more power and cooling, and as such are generally only seen in bulkier gaming laptops or desktop-replacement notebooks. There are an increasing number of exceptions that are both portable and gaming ready, however, like the Razer Blade, but by and large the most travel-friendly systems are not suited to gaming. Don’t expect the integrated graphics to suffice for playing much more than a few less-demanding games on lower detail settings.

The Best Ultraportable Laptops of 2016 - 10/2016 Update (New Razer Blade Stealth)

Space Is Everything

Speedy hardware is all well and good, but you also need somewhere to keep all your digital stuff. For almost all ultraportables now, this means a solid-state drive (SSD). These compact, flash-based storage devices are lighter and less prone to data loss from damage because they don’t have any moving parts, which is ideal for systems doing a lot of traveling. Increasingly, SSDs use a connection standard called M.2, which is smaller than traditional SATA connections—and smaller connectors allow smaller designs—but both are serviceable. Some (but not all) of these M.2-connected drives use a PCI Express (PCIe) bus connection for faster data transfer, and thus faster overall performance. (See our in-depth primer for more on M.2 and the best M.2 SSDs.)

A 256GB capacity for SSD storage is very common on midrange and high-end ultraportables. While it would be nice to have a bit more room than that, boosting SSD capacity still tends to be pretty pricey, so the cost can jump up fast if you opt for a larger 512GB or 1TB option if the manufacturer offers it. A 256GB drive will do the job for many users, though, especially since you likely won’t be storing large game installations or media projects on this type of computer.

While SSDs are the most common storage format for ultraportables, you will see two other storage options used on less-expensive systems. A few use an embedded MultiMediaCard (eMMC), a form of solid-state storage sometimes identified as an SSD in product specs but actually flash memory like the kind used on memory cards. As such, it’s a little slower and a lot smaller in capacity (32GB to 64GB) than a standard SSD. You’ll generally only find this type of storage on the cheapest laptops around.

Finally, some systems still use good, old-fashioned spinning hard drives. These drives are less expensive than SSDs, and they offer substantially more room for your files for the money—you will often see hard drives with capacities of 500GB or more. You won’t get the same speedy performance as you do with an SSD, but there’s something to be said for lots of storage space. Some laptops pair a small SSD with a larger hard drive, but that’s less common for ultraportables. And increasingly, given thin designs, most laptop makers are phasing out hard drives altogether in their slimmest designs.

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Picking Your Pixels

As for a more visible portion of the laptop, the screen, ultraportables are available with a wide range of display options. These include an increasingly varied array of resolutions, from standard high definition (1,366 by 768) in budget models to full HD (1,920 by 1,080) and even Ultra HD or 4K (3,840 by 2,160). Lower-resolution screens are most frequently found in entry-level systems simply because they’re the least-expensive option. They work well enough for reading and typing text, and YouTube usually defaults to something lower than full HD anyway, so less discerning users can get by just fine.

Full HD (often referred to as 1080p) screens are expected on midrange systems, and they are still used in a smaller number of premium ultraportables. The 1080p display is becoming standard enough that even some cheaper options now offer them, a far cry from the situation just a few years ago, when 1,366 by 768 was the norm. These displays offer support for 1080p video and are better equipped for multitasking, since you can fit more readable text and two side-by-side windows onto a 13-inch screen. This is a sharp, true HD resolution, generally ideal for most daily uses.

Ultra HD is currently the resolution of choice for the highest-end ultraportables. As 4K screens have four times the resolution of a full HD display, you can fit a lot onto them. The sheer number of pixels requires more power, however, and 4K-equipped systems usually see a significant drop in battery life compared with similar full HD systems. There’s also the question of content. Although 4K TVs and displays are becoming increasingly common, there still aren’t a lot of places to stream 4K video (this is slowly improving on some streaming services), and gaming in 4K is definitely more than any ultraportable can support. At present, these displays are best suited to uses like photo and video editing, but they do look stunning.

Many premium laptops are now using QHD or QHD+ screens, which are resolutions that fall between HD and 4K. They represent a nice middle ground between expensive, power-draining 4K resolutions and sharp, better-than-HD picture quality, so you should be happy to see QHD or QHD+ on a laptop you’re considering buying.

The other feature to watch for is touch. While touch-capable displays were uncommon just a few years ago, they’re now much more a thing in ultraportables, even in the entry-level and business categories. Windows 10 includes some baked-in gesture controls and touch-friendly features, which helps promote its use. Touch technology is also often more useful on a bus or train where you may not have a mouse, making it a good match for ultraportables. Even if you don’t regularly use touch in your day-to-day computing and don’t plan to incorporate it, it may be worth having just so you don’t regret the decision not to get it down the road.

Two Laptops in One: Convertibles and Detachables

More and more ultraportables are being released as what we call “convertible hybrids,” or 2-in-1s. Some 2-in-1s rotate around the hinge, while others have a separate keyboard base that detaches from the screen. In the former case, these mash-up machines let you enjoy both laptop and tablet functionality, thanks to hinges and swiveling joints that let you bend the display back around to use without a keyboard. These systems don’t come apart the way the latter detachable kind do. More and more manufacturers are adopting the rotating non-detachable design.

The Best Ultraportable Laptops of 2016 - 10/2016 Update (HP Spectre x360)

Rotating-hinge convertible devices are laptops first, but they aren’t limited to traditional clamshell designs. Because they feature specialized hinges and touch screens, you can also prop them up like a tent, or turn the keyboard facedown so the screen is better positioned for watching a movie or giving a presentation. The one point of concern is that every extra-flexible hinge or rotating joint also presents a new point of failure for the display, and while they are relatively rare, screen issues occur with convertible designs more than with standalone laptops. While convertibles are a category in their own right, the ability to convert form naturally lends itself to making a good travel laptop, so you’ll see that some our highest-rated ultraportable laptops are convertibles. (See our guide to the best 2-in-1 convertible laptops and detachables.)

A Value Option: Chromebooks

Depending on what you do with your computer, you might find a Chromebook to be one of the best values in ultraportables. A Chromebook is a bare-bones laptop that runs Google’s Chrome OS, and thus limits you to using web apps and, as of models released last year, Android apps too.

This means that you won’t have access to traditional Windows software, so if that’s central to how you work and play, a Chromebook isn’t for you. But if you use a web-based email client such as Gmail or for communications, rely on Google Drive for doing your work, and spend most of your time watching videos on YouTube or playing web games, and you don’t expect your needs to change, chances are you’ll get along just fine with a Chromebook. And considering that computers of this type are extraordinarily affordable right down the line (with many costing $ 300 or less), you could outfit your family with several for what you’d pay for a high-end ultraportable.

Ready for Our Recommendations?

With ultraportables available now that are thinner, lighter, and more powerful than ever, there’s something in the category to suit anyone’s needs. No matter your preferences for brand, display, or feature set, you have a variety of options to choose among across a range of designs and prices.

Below are 10 of the top ultraportables we’ve tested. We refresh the list often to include the newest products, but because of the large number of laptops we review every year, not every top-rated product makes the cut. Be sure to also check our overall laptop favorites, as well as our top picks for work and play, and if you’re on a budget, the best low-cost laptops.

Best Ultraportable Laptops Featured in This Roundup:

  • Dell XPS 13 (9370)

    Pros: Elegant, compact design. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports plus USB-C.

    Cons: No HDMI or USB Type-A ports. 4K display means shorter battery life than its predecessor. Webcam looks up your nose.

    Bottom Line: A new rose gold and white color scheme-well worth an extra $ 50-makes the Dell XPS 13 a stunning fashion statement, and it’s backed by strong performance and a svelte but sturdy build.

    Read Review

  • Huawei MateBook X Pro

    Pros: Superb audio quality. Comfortable, oversized touchpad. Thin, sleek design. Screen aspect ratio makes editing documents easier. USB-C and USB 3.0 ports.

    Cons: Awkward webcam placement.

    Bottom Line: With a sleek aluminum body, ample computing power, and superb audio quality, in some ways, the Huawei MateBook X Pro is a better ultraportable than the Apple MacBook Pro that inspired it.

    Read Review

  • Lenovo Yoga C930

    Pros: Integrated stylus. Thin and light. Stylish metal design with multiple color options. Optional 4K display. Webcam privacy filter. Dolby Vision (HDR) support. Excellent battery life.

    Cons: No SD-card reader. Ships with some bloatware.

    Bottom Line: With a revamped hinge, an integrated stylus, and a sleek design, Lenovo’s Yoga C930 2-in-1 convertible laptop is even better than its winning predecessor.

    Read Review

  • Lenovo Yoga 730 (13-Inch)

    Pros: Thin and light. Comfortable keyboard and touchpad. Two Thunderbolt ports. Quick charging. Good everyday computing performance.

    Cons: Slightly bulky in Tablet mode. Screen bounces in Laptop mode. No SD card slot.

    Bottom Line: The Lenovo Yoga 730 convertible laptop is a small but worthy iteration on its already-excellent predecessor, with better computing performance and a subtle redesign.

    Read Review

  • LG gram 15 (15Z980)

    Pros: Exceptionally lightweight design. Long battery life. Solid performance. Ample storage and ports. Vivid 1080p touch display.

    Cons: Conventional looks. Odd numeric keypad layout.

    Bottom Line: The LG gram 15 is a super-lightweight laptop that offers excellent battery life and powerful performance in a featherweight package.

    Read Review

  • Razer Blade Stealth (13.3" QHD+, Early 2018)

    Pros: Gorgeous 13.3-inch QHD+ touch display. Speedy new Core i7 processor. Slick design and solid construction. USB-C with Thunderbolt 3. Customizable LED keyboard. Runs quietly.

    Cons: Battery life not as long as some competitors’. Can’t charge and use USB-C port at the same time.

    Bottom Line: The refreshed Razer Blade Stealth is mostly the same as the previous model of this ultraportable laptop that we love, but now delivers a fresher, faster processor for $ 100 more.

    Read Review

  • Apple MacBook Air (2018)

    Pros: Retina Display offers vivid colors. Very comfortable Force Touch trackpad. Secure boot capability. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports. Excellent battery life.

    Cons: No CPU configuration options. Y-series, not U-series, CPU. No touch screen. No USB Type-A ports or dedicated video output. Shallow key travel. Expensive as configured. Occasional fan noise.

    Bottom Line: Though no speedster, the refreshed MacBook Air finally gets a Retina Display and updated components, making it a sleek ultraportable laptop worthy of its pioneering predecessor’s name.

    Read Review

  • Asus ZenBook S (UX391UA)

    Pros: Super-slim design with keyboard-tilt hinge. Sunny 4K touch screen. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports plus USB-C.

    Cons: Battery life could be better. Soft speakers. No memory-card slot. HDMI and USB Type-A require use of (bundled) dongles.

    Bottom Line: From its chic dark-blue design to its comfortable tilted keyboard and crisp 4K display, the Asus ZenBook S represents a good deal on a good-looking ultrabook.

    Read Review

  • HP Spectre 13 (2017)

    Pros: Gorgeous white and gold styling. Extremely thin and light. Full HD touch screen. Excellent keyboard.

    Cons: Diminutive, unresponsive touchpad.

    Bottom Line: The HP Spectre 13 is powerful and thin, with a gorgeous white and gold design, making it both a status symbol and a very capable ultraportable laptop.

    Read Review

  • Acer Swift 7 (2018)

    Pros: Thinnest laptop in the land. Attractive all-metal design. Bright, touch-enabled display. 4G LTE support. Good battery life.

    Cons: Pricey. Low-wattage Y-series CPU is slower than the competition. Display is only 1080p. 256GB of storage is a little light, given price.

    Bottom Line: Acer’s Swift 7 is the slimmest ultraportable you can buy, a trait that pairs well with its 4G LTE service. You’ll pay a major premium, though, for those features.

    Read Review

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