Best Windows laptops for MacBook Pro refugees – ExtremeTech
Recently, interest is growing among long-time MacBook Pro users in what their Windows options might be, if they wanted to switch. Many of them are feeling neglected, judging by how many have started asking me for suggestions on Windows laptops. Now, I don’t regularly use a Mac, so I’m not qualified to venture an opinion on whether someone should switch. But for those desiring to do so, I’ve picked out some of the better Windows alternatives that would be worth a look.
Dell XPS 13 and XPS 15
Possibly the first Windows laptops to truly echo the elegant design of the MacBook Pro, Dell’s XPS family has long featured solid build quality, excellent displays, and top-of-the-line performance. Dell continues to push hard on the technology in the XPS series, with updates each year to the processor, screen, and internals. These are Dell’s premium machines, so they pack a lot of performance into their sleek packages.
When it comes to the trade-offs Apple made in the recent MacBook Pro models, Dell has done the opposite in several cases. For example, Dell allows you to cram 32GB of RAM into the XPS 15, along with a beefy GPU up to an Nvidia 960M — at the cost of the battery life Apple wasn’t willing to sacrifice. Similarly, the machine has a state-of-the-art multi-touch screen, that Apple has eschewed, and a variety of ports. I’ve owned several generations of the XPS 15, and each one gets better. They are not cheap, but then again neither are MacBooks. You also get Dell’s Premium support, which has actually been very good when I’ve needed to get something fixed quickly.
Speaking of touch screens, I wasn’t convinced initially, but I have come to be quite dependent on them. Not as a replacement for keyboard, mouse, or touchpad, but as an added convenience. They are especially handy when I sitting back and simply reading long-form documents. The good news is that even if you aren’t looking to buy a new laptop, you may be able to get the benefits of touch. I’ve been using the new Airbar USB-attached peripheral that makes any Windows laptop screen into a touch screen on one of my older machines, and it works really well (I’m always a little surprised when something I see in a whizzy demo actually works well in practice). It is an inexpensive way to make an older laptop feel a little newer.
Razer Blade and Blade Stealth (2016)
Razer is best known for its awesome gaming laptops. But recently, it has become a favorite of techie road warriors. The Blade and Blade Stealth offer impressive performance in form factors that belie their gaming laptop heritage. The higher-end Blade actually fits a relatively-high-end GPU, the Nvidia 1060, into a .7-inch thick, 4.25 pound chassis. Its 14-inch screen can be ordered either with 1080p or a 3200 x 1800 touch-friendly version. All configurations offer 16GB, with SSDs ranging from 256GB to 1TB.
The lighter-weight Stealth doesn’t have a discrete GPU, but it does feature Intel’s latest Kaby Lake CPU. It’s smaller 12.5-inch display can be ordered either in 2560 x 1440 or full 4K. Similar to its bigger sibling, SSDs range from 128GB to 1TB. Both models offer a gaming-friendly, customizable, per-key backlit keyboard. One wrinkle is that you can get the Stealth with Razer’s Core external GPU case (for an extra $399), which you can load up with a high-end GPU to give you maximum performance when you’re docked.
Lenovo IdeaPad Y910
If you’re looking for something smaller and lighter, Lenovo combines tight design with spunky performance in the IdeaPad Y910. Its “watchband” hinge — composed of a stunning 814 pieces — makes for easy positioning all the way from a traditional laptop shape, through media kiosk, to lay-flat touchscreen only. You give up some ports compared with some of its competitors, but you get a thin machine that looks and feels good. I’ve been working with one for several weeks, and have really enjoyed it. It fits nicely in between my workhorse Dell XPS 15 — that’s too heavy for me to want to carry it to most meetings — and my Surface Pro 3 — which is great, but the keyboard is tiring for all-day use, and it is lacking performance for some of the image processing I need to do while working.
The 13.9-inch screen is placed unusually, with almost no bezel (5 mm) around the top and side, but a large one at the bottom. The advantage of this is putting your display closer to eye level. The disadvantage is that the webcam is essentially pointing up your nose. Personally, I don’t use webcams that much, so I prefer the slightly higher placement of the display. The keyboard is exceptionally easy to use for a small laptop, although the short-travel on the keys compared with a larger machine like my Dell XPS 15 leads to a bit more fatigue over time. There is an integrated fingerprint reader (I have found that fingerprint readers become addictive very quickly!), and a smooth trackpad. As with many high-end laptops, the Y910 has moved to PCIe-based SSDs for improved performance.
For ports, the Y910 has a headphone jack, USB 3.0, USB-C for charging, and another USB-C to connect an external monitor. Microsoft’s wireless display technology is also supported. The 4K screen (there is also a 1080p version) is delightfully crisp, and fairly bright. I didn’t have much luck trying to get it to play sample 4K video footage at full resolution without stuttering, but that isn’t an uncommon problem.
Speakers are from JBL and the system includes Dolby Audio Premium. Indeed, when I played Netflix’s surround sound test footage, I could hear the change in apparent location of the center and surround speakers compared with the main channels. The Y910 didn’t show a big performance improvement in the PCMark Work Conventional benchmark over its predecessor. Its 2622 was about the same as the Y900S, and below that of the class-leading 3,286 of the Spectre x360. Its 7th-generation Core i7 CPU provides improved battery life, though.
HP Spectre x360 and x360 15t
If you don’t need higher-resolution than 1080p, HP’s Spectre x360 is an excellent choice in 13-inch laptops. Named an Editors’ Choice by our sister publication PCMag, it is one of the best offerings in HP’s high-end Spectre line. You can get it with the latest-generation of Intel i7 CPU, and up to 16GB of RAM. It is a definite step up over Lenovo’s older Y900, but whether you’ll like it better than the new Lenovo Y910 is a matter of personal and brand preference.
The x360 keeps up the trend of aluminum top and bottom chassis pieces. Its geared hinges also do a good job of helping it remain stable in a variety of orientations. At 1/2-inch thick, and 2.8 pounds, it is easy to tote around. The foldback hinge allows you to use it in a full-on tablet mode but, like the Y910, it is pretty heavy to hold that way for long. The glass-covered touchpad should make a lot of Mac users who expect excellence from their touchpads quite happy. Typists will like that the keyboard is backlit. The webcam is compatible with the facial-recognition login feature of Windows Hello. As with an increasing number of new laptops, connecting an external monitor requires a USB-C adapter or cable.
If you need more than 1080p for your display, or simply want a larger screen, then the 15t version of the x360 might work for you.
Microsoft Surface Book (2016)
Microsoft’s Surface Book pushes the definition of convertible laptop a step further than anything else on the market. It is a full-fledged laptop when used normally, but can be turned into a high-end tablet by removing the keyboard. That gives is a leg up over the Y910 and x360 for anyone who otherwise would need to carry both a laptop and a tablet. Like other products in the Surface line, the Surface Book includes full active-stylus support for its display. Just about the only thing not to like about the new Surface Book is the price. The new version is also a little heavier than the original, at 3.63 pounds. Along with that weight you do get an SD slot, two USB 3.0 ports, and a Mini DisplayPort connector.
It used to be that choosing a Windows laptop meant giving up on style for the sake of performance and application compatibility. It also used to be that most Windows laptops had fairly similar features, and much of the differentiation was based on build quality and value. Now, there is a vibrant ecosystem of wildly varying designs, ranging from 2-in-1 tablet-laptop hybrids, all the way up to gaming powerhouses. Many of them are stylish. Even models targeted at the enterprise have picked up a lot of elements of style, as companies increasingly allow their employees to either purchase or specify their own machines — so design counts. The good news is that anyone moving over from a MacBook Pro will have plenty of choices. Perhaps the only downside is that with less and less places to actually try out a variety of machines, it may be harder to choose between them.