The Best Windows Laptop You Can Buy Right Now – Wall Street Journal
When historians look back at 2015, they’ll surely declare it the moment when Windows—and Windows laptops—became great.
OK fine, maybe the academics will be concerned with other world events, but this year really was a major turning point in computer history. First, at the end of July, Microsoft
released Windows 10, the best version of the operating system since Windows XP. It didn’t only right the wrongs of Windows 8. Improved multitasking and faster search seriously upped efficiency without impacting familiarity.
Then something even more momentous happened. After years of trailing Apple’s MacBooks in design, ergonomics and battery life, PC makers like Dell, HP and even Microsoft itself stepped up their hardware game. You can now buy an excellent Windows laptop—one that actually lasts a full day on a charge, and one you don’t want to punch in the trackpad.
A wave of models with the latest Intel
processors arriving for the holiday season mean it’s finally time to buy a Windows machine, but which one? After testing 20 computers, evaluating everything from battery life and overall performance to trackpad and keyboard quality, these are my top picks.
For years I said Apple’s MacBook Air was the best laptop you could buy—no matter if you were a Mac or Windows user. It provided hours more battery life, and its trackpad was far superior, even with Windows installed. That isn’t true anymore. The newest version of the Dell XPS 13 beats Apple’s once-ruling Air.
Though it has a smaller footprint and higher resolution screen, the XPS 13 now lasts just as long on a charge as the Air. On our battery test, which loops a series of websites, the $800 non-touch, 1080p base model lasted 10.5 hours. The higher-resolution QHD display will knock off at least two hours, and explains why the others I tested in this category—the HP Spectre x360, Lenovo Yoga 900 and Asus
Zenbook UX303U—barely hit the seven-hour mark.
It’s the trackpad though that is a real breakthrough. With a new, more sensitive, textured glass pad that relies on Windows 10’s improved trackpad software, Dell has fixed the worst thing about Windows laptops. The result? Two-finger scrolling and other gestures are finally as responsive as my MacBook Air.
With a skinny screen frame, the 2.7-pound XPS is more compact than the others. However, unlike many similarly priced options, it doesn’t have a back-flipping screen. If you’re looking for a more versatile laptop that can flip its keyboard out of the way, HP’s Spectre x360, which starts at $900, is very well made and at least lasted longer on a charge than other 2-in-1s.
The XPS 13 provides enough horsepower for juggling multiple apps and light video or photo editing. But those who care less about portability and more about graphics and raw power should step up to the Surface Book or Dell’s XPS 15.
Microsoft’s first laptop proves that Windows laptops can be as well made as Apple’s. While the bendy-straw-like hinge may not appeal to all, its magnesium build, beautiful 3000×2000-pixel screen, firm keyboard, responsive trackpad and 9.5 hours of battery life will. Plus, it is one of the few options that allows you to log in to the system by just scanning your face.
While I experienced terrible hardware and software failures when the Surface Book first came out, a new loaner model verifies that Microsoft has rectified the problems. Save for a system sleep issue, it has been a dependable machine. (Microsoft says a fix is coming soon. In the meantime putting it in “Hibernate” helps.) My biggest complaint is that for its $1,500 starting price, you’re paying a premium for the detachable touch screen. Odds are, you’ll rarely use it as a tablet, though, since that lasts only two hours on a charge.
If you want power and a bigger screen, get the Dell XPS 15. Like the XPS 13, it has a great trackpad, keyboard and design, but has a 15.6-inch screen and can be configured with the most powerful of parts. My $2,099 test unit had a 4K display, Nvidia
graphics, 8GB of RAM and a Core i7 processor. That left it gasping for a charger after 4.5 hours, however. The basic $1,000 non-touch, 1080p model should last much longer.
Dell has had quite the comeback, but it hasn’t been without its slip-ups. Last month, Dell confirmed that a vulnerability in systems could allow hackers to snoop on users’ encrypted Internet traffic. Along with Microsoft, Dell pushed out a security fix, and the company assures me that all shipping systems have now been patched.
It weighs just 2.6 pounds and has a 1080p screen and responsive trackpad. Despite the underpowered Core M processor, it was peppy enough to keep up with my normal workload (heavy Microsoft Office and Web browser use) thanks to 8GB of RAM and a 256GB solid state drive. It’s available now for $600 from Microsoft Stores, but typically goes for $700.
If your price range is under $700, also look at the Dell Inspiron 13 7000. It even has a flippable touch screen. There is some bend in the plastic frame, but, hey, you don’t get a Porsche when you pay for a Honda. A Core i3 model with 4GB of RAM runs for about $600.
Best for the Cheapskate: Toshiba Chromebook 2
If you want something under $400, the best Windows laptop you can buy is a…Chromebook. Really, the $400-and-under Windows laptops I tested can leave you in search of antidepressants.
The keyboard on the $200 Lenovo IdeaPad 100S flexes more than Arnold Schwarzenegger and often decides to take a time-out when you’re scrolling down a webpage. The $250 Asus EeeBook X205TA felt better but the cramped keyboard and trackpad can induce carpal tunnel just from looking at them.
If you want a cheap laptop for basic surfing and email, one that runs Google’s Chrome OS is your best bet. They require less power than Windows—money isn’t spent on internals, leaving more budget for designs and screens. With seven hours of battery life, a vibrant screen and comfortable keyboard, the $230 13-inch Toshiba Chromebook 2 is my top pick.
Uh, didn’t you forget all the tablets with keyboards, like the Surface? Aren’t those the future? Shouldn’t I be investing in the future?
Here’s my advice in this category. Close your eyes and really think about how you plan to use the device. If you plan to use the keyboard 90% of the time, you’re better off buying a great, portable laptop with a touch screen. Someone told me that Dell XPS 13 is great! You should only consider one of these if you plan to pull off the keyboard and often use the tablet alone to take notes, watch videos or surf the Web.
Of the lot I tested, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 is the best. Compared with HP’s Spectre x2 and Dell’s XPS 12, it’s the lightest, and it includes a stylus in the box and has that sturdy kickstand. The Surface Pro also lasted nearly six hours in my battery test, longer than the other two. That isn’t really saying much, though, when the iPad Air 2 and iPad Pro last closer to 10.
That poor battery life along with a major dearth of touch-friendly apps hold Windows tablets back from being great tablets, like the iPad. For that, there’s always 2016.
Write to Joanna Stern at email@example.com