Windows 10 Laptops: In Search of Great Hardware to Match Great Software – Wall Street Journal
Listen really closely, and you can hear the cries of Windows laptop users.
Windows 10 is truly great, but it doesn’t put an end to the affliction caused by inferior screens, carpal-tunnel-inducing trackpads, Tupperware-like plastic, short-lived batteries, crippling preloaded software…. I could go on.
So where the heck is the great laptop to get rid of these remaining frustrations once and for all? That highly portable machine that Windows 10 seems tailor-made for—one that has a great design, keyboard and trackpad, performance and battery life.
A tall order, sure, but my MacBook Air seems to do it all—even when running Windows 10. Yes, Apple’s MacBooks handle Windows 10 better than most current laptops made by HP, Acer,
Asus, Lenovo and the rest. Of course, buying an Apple laptop to run Windows isn’t practical—or affordable.
So, in preparation for the coming school year, I spent the past few weeks testing 16 different Windows 10 machines across three distinct price categories. And somehow lived to tell the tale.
Hardware to complement Windows 10 is clearly being held back for Intel
’s upcoming processor refresh and the holiday shopping season. Laptop makers need more time with the operating system—recovering from the zig-zag of Windows 8 to Windows 10 requires more retooling and new features require improved hardware.
Yet amongst the Jenga stack of laptops, I did find a few that come close to greatness, ones I can recommend to those in need of a laptop right now.
Multimedia Mavens: $1,400 and Up
Best suited for gamers and multimedia fanatics, there is no shortage of Windows laptops over $1,400 with high-end dedicated graphics options and even 4K displays (screens with four times the resolution of 1080p HD).
Images and video looked incredible on the $1,800 15-inch Asus Zenbook Pro UX501 that I tested. With 16GB of RAM and 512GB of solid-state storage, it was by far the fastest machine of the bunch. But all that power and those pixels require you to plug in an AC adapter the size of a Rice-A-Roni box every four hours. They may be the best argument yet for investing in a desktop setup.
The Best Bets: $800 to $1,200
The best blend of performance and portability comes in the $800-to-$1,200 range. There you’ll find Windows alternatives to Apple’s best-in-class MacBook Air and MacBook Pro Retina, with thin and light designs, high-resolution screens and the latest Intel Core i5 or i7 processors.
Of the six laptops I tested in this category, the best one hands-down was Dell’s $800-and-up XPS 13. It is still the closest I’ve seen to a perfect Windows laptop.
It has the design (a 13.3-inch screen crammed into a frame the size of most 11-inch laptops), the display (a 3200×1800-pixel ultra-high-res option), the keyboard (backlit with well-spaced keys) and the power (solid-state storage and Core i5 and i7 processors). Others in the category, like Lenovo’s pricier Yoga Pro 3, have Intel’s lower-powered Core M processor, which feels slower.
Three things could be better, though. The trackpad, while very usable, still isn’t up to snuff—even the MacBook Air’s is more responsive to Windows 10 gestures and swipes. The fans inside can make the machine sound like it’s getting ready for liftoff. And you need to get the lower-resolution 1080p model for ideal battery life.
The high-resolution option lasted five hours on our taxing Web surfing test with brightness set around 75%; the 1080p model lasted just about nine hours. Only the HP Spectre x360 lasted longer. Dell plans to update the XPS this fall with Intel’s new Skylake processors, which promise more juice. It will also release a larger-screen 15-inch XPS.
The HP Spectre x360, the runner-up in the category, is worth a look if you’re after a super thin and light laptop that backflips into a tablet and has just above nine and a half hours of battery life. However, this style of device, popularized with Windows 8, still feels more like an awkward novelty.
The Second Bests: $600 to $800
By the time you configure the Dell XPS 13 with my recommended 256GB drive, you’re looking at a $1,100 laptop. The good news is that between $600 and $800, there are still some really strong options. You’ll make some sacrifices in the extras (backlit keyboard or touchscreens) but you can still get an Intel Core M, i3 or i5 processor, an HD display and decent build quality and design.
The Asus Zenbook UX305 is my top pick for those looking for a basic Windows laptop. What you get for $700 is unbeatable. At 2.6 pounds, it’s lighter than the 13-inch MacBook Air and thinner than the Dell, and it has a really nice, nonglossy 13-inch 1080p display. While the keyboard isn’t backlit, it’s surprisingly good, and so is the trackpad. The battery lasts nearly seven hours on a charge and the 256GB solid-state drive and a hefty amount of memory give the Core M processor a speed boost.
If you want a touchscreen and some of those fun tablet tricks, Dell’s Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 is impressive for its price. Starting at $600 with a Core i3 processor, the machine feels more well built than competition from Acer, HP and Toshiba. The keyboard is backlit and the trackpad, surprisingly, was even consistently more responsive than the XPS 13.
You’ll have to live with the 1366×768-pixel resolution screen, some extra heft and only five hours of battery life, though.
The Ones to Avoid: $500 and Below
People who don’t have loads of cash can get a Windows computer for less than $500, but do try to avoid these low-rent machines if you can. The specs seem OK, but it’ll be a while before I’m emotionally and physically recovered from testing five of them.
The $450 Toshiba Radius 14 sounds too good to be true on Best Buy’s website. A Core i3 processor! A 14-inch flippable touchscreen! Harman Kardon speakers! But get the hunk of plastic out of the box and you can see exactly where the savings came from. Looking at the screen is like staring into a faded mirror, the keyboard flexes like a diving board and upon boot-up, it’s tough to make out Windows under all Toshiba’s preloaded bloatware.
Essential Windows 10 Laptop Buying Tips:
Make sure Windows 10 is installed. Many Windows 8 laptops are still on sale on store shelves or through online retailers. While it is a free upgrade when you get the machine out of the box, buying with Windows 10 already pre-installed ensures the manufacturer has all the right hardware drivers loaded.
Try to buy though the Microsoft Store. Microsoft may not offer the best deals or some of the Best Buy exclusives mentioned in this article, but if you can buy Microsoft’s bloatware-free Signature Edition laptops. They have no preloaded third-party apps cluttering the desktop or slowing down performance.
Go for more than 128GB of storage. Most buy too much laptop when it comes to processors and RAM, but make sure to look at that on-board storage option. The 128GB solid-state drive will fill up quicker than you think. If you can spend the extra cash, go for 256GB.
The $400 Acer Aspire R11 I tested was even worse. The trackpad feels like dragging your finger over a New York City subway seat, and on my first day of testing, the Print Screen key fell off.
If you’re looking for a sub-$400 laptop, skip Windows entirely. Since Google’s browser-based Chrome OS requires less processing power, laptop makers are able to put more into design and build quality. I suggest Toshiba’s $279 Chromebook 2 or Dell’s $300 Chromebook 11.
If you remember only one thing, let it be this: If you’re in a rush to buy a laptop, get one you can live with and spend at least $600, and ideally between $800 and $1,200.
But if you can hold off, do. I’m expecting a new Microsoft Surface and more laptops by the holidays, all made especially for Windows 10. That means webcams that can support Microsoft’s new facial recognition, trackpads that work better with the new gestures and microphones that let Cortana hear you better. It’s time for Microsoft and its laptop-making partners to stop handing out tissues and end the tears once and for all.
Write to Joanna Stern at firstname.lastname@example.org