This year, laptops continued to trend toward thin, metallic, increasingly versatile builds and a decreasing number of ports. Many of their specs fall within a narrow range, but there are a few notable variations. Join New Atlas as we round up and compare eight of 2016's best high-end laptops.
In this comparison, we put the following machines head to head:
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- 12-inch Apple MacBook
- 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro, both the entry-level model and the Touch Bar version. The two share many of the same specs, but there are a few differences we've noted.
- 13-inch Microsoft Surface Book, both the entry level model and the Performance Base edition.
- Lenovo Yoga 910
- Razer Blade Stealth
- 13-inch Dell Inspiron 7000
- HP Spectre laptop (not to be confused with the HP Spectre x360)
- Asus ZenBook 3
These are all full-sized laptops. You won't need an especially big bag to carry them, but you won't be able to fit them in a purse, either.
The 12-inch MacBook and the Asus ZenBook are the most compact overall, with the ZenBook being the thinner of the two at less than 12 millimeters (half an inch) thick. Still, the super-svelte HP Spectre is even thinner, at only 10.4 millimeters.
The Dell Inspiron and Microsoft Surface Book round out the larger side of things.
Again, Dell and Microsoft are the heftiest – the base model Surface Book starts at 1.52 kg (3.4 lb), but the Performance Base edition starts at 1.65. The heavy Surface and Inspiron are nearly twice the weight of the whisper-thin ZenBook and MacBook.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a high-end laptop without a metal unibody, though each manufacturer puts its own spin on things.
The MacBooks' aluminum bodies are simplistic, emblazoned with the Apple logo. Microsoft takes a similar approach, but with harder corners and a magnesium alloy. The Razer Blade Stealth is a striking matte black, and it includes Razer's Chroma backlighting so you can light the keyboard and logo in any color you choose. The Asus ZenBook has a unique radial pattern on its brushed aluminum chassis.
Hinges are the differentiators on the Yoga 910, Dell Inspiron and HP Spectre. Yoga 910 has Lenovo's now-familiar Watchband Hinge, and the Dell Inspiron has a comparatively simple 360-degree hinge with only two large visible components (see "Convertible," below). The HP Spectre's Piston hinge helps it keep a slim profile with jewelry-esque appeal.
In this selection, Apple and Asus are the most adventurous with their color schemes; perhaps they want you to think of these petite laptops as accessories as much as technology. The other manufactures don't offer as many options, but Razer's matte black and HP's separate neutrals (which are different earth-toned grays) are standouts.
This lineup ranges from 12 - 13.9 inches across the diagonal, but keep in mind that they have different aspect ratios (ratio between the width and height of the screen).
That means the 13.9-inch Yoga 910 is actually 2-percent smaller, by area, than the 13.5-inch Surface Book, and the 12-inch MacBook (with a 16:10 aspect ratio) is able to offer a little more real estate than the 13.3-inch Inspiron and Spectre (which are both 16:9).
This crop of laptops starts at 1,920 x 1,080 HD resolution and goes all the way to 4K. The Yoga 910 and Razer Blade Stealth offer two options.
Mobile technology is growing increasingly flexible and fluid. Just as phablets are phones with tablet qualities, several of this year's top laptops are convertible 2-in-1s that take on some tablet properties.
The Yoga 910 and Dell Inspiron have 360-degree hinges that allow you to position the machines in a number of ways: with the screen folded back as a tablet, propped up in a tabletop position, or as a normal laptop, whereas the Surface Book can entirely detach from its keyboard.
All of these are laptops first (they run full desktop software) but some other 2-in-1s are closer to tablets and run on mobile operating systems.
Of course, the 2-in-1s all have touchscreens, but the Razer Blade Stealth also has this touchy-feely tech, in every model except the most entry-level configuration.
The Apple offerings have solid-state glass trackpads that don't actually move when you press them but instead provide click-mimicking haptic feedback. Apple dubs this bit of technology "Force Touch," and a different iteration of it shows up in the home buttons on the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus.
Apple released a "Touch Bar" option for this years' MacBook Pros. The Touch Bar is a touch-sensitive strip above the keyboard that replaces the traditional F1-F12 function keys. It populates with different gesture-enabled shortcuts depending on your preferences and the app in use. Read more about it in our review of the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar.
The Yoga 910, ZenBook 3, and MacBook Pro with Touch Bar have fingerprint sensors for additional security and easy log-ins.
The Surface Book and Dell Inspiron's webcams work with Windows Hello to let you log in using only your face. With Microsoft's facial recognition technology, even your evil twin won't have access.
The Surface Book supports active stylus input for pressure-sensitive, precise activities like drawing, sketching and handwriting. It ships with the Surface Pen.
Not every manufacturer published clock speeds, but with the exception of the 12-inch MacBook, each of these devices is available with either the Intel core i5 or i7 processor.
In this case, asterisks denote a custom configuration. These options are only available directly from Apple and not off-the-shelf from other retailers.
The Windows machines have integrated Intel HD Graphics 620, with the exception of the Surface Book, which has external NVIDIA graphics card options.
The ZenBook is the only machine to pack in four speakers; the rest are rocking stereo. All of these laptops have headphone jacks.
The Surface Book's camera is integrated into its tablet portion, so it takes a cue from mobile technology and integrates both front and rear-facing cameras. All of the other machines have a front-facing webcam.
There are only two tiers of RAM in this crop, either 8 or 16 GB. The 16 GB version of the MacBook Pro is a custom configuration.
Internal storage runs the gamut from 128 GB to 1 TB. The 512 GB and 1 TB are custom configurations on the non-Touch Bar MacBook Pro. On the Touch Bar version, only the 1 TB size is non-standard. The entry-level Stealth, with the i5 processor, is only available in a 128 GB size.
A few machines (Surface Book, Yoga 910, Razer Blade Stealth, Dell Inspiron) still make room for older, larger USB-A ports, but others opt for smaller, reversible USB-C ports exclusively. The Thunderbolt 3 ports found on these machines are USB-C compatible.
SD card slot
The Surface Book and Dell Inspiron carve out space for full-size SD card slots.
You'll need an adapter for Thunderbolt/USB-C-based video output, but it is supported.
To charge up a Thunderbolt/USB-C machine, you'll need to occupy one of those precious few ports.
Battery life varies drastically according to usage and system efficiency, so a higher watt-hour spec does not necessarily translate into greater staying power.
Manufacturers' estimates should be taken with a grain of salt, but for comparison's sake, Apple estimates "up to 10 hours wireless web" for the MacBook and MacBook Pros. The Yoga 910, Stealth and ZenBook offer up to nine hours, while HP splits hairs and estimates "up to nine hours and 45 minutes."
Since the Surface Book's tablet portion can be used independently of its keyboard, there is an 18W-h battery in the tablet portion and a 52W-h battery in the keyboard, for a combined 70W-h. When used together, the base model Surface Book is estimated to get up to 12 hours of battery life, while the Performance Base edition ups that promise to 16 hours.
In typical Apple fashion, the MacBook and MacBook Pros receive the latest macOS updates (until the machines are no longer supported). Right now, they run macOS Sierra.
The rest of the machines run Windows 10 Home or Pro.
Each OS has its own virtual assistant. macOS has Siri and Windows 10 includes Cortana.
With the exception of the entry-level Surface Book, which was introduced last year, these are purely 2016 offerings.
Starting prices for these machines range from a more doable $749 (Dell Inspiron) to an investment-worthy $2,399 (Surface Book with Performance Base). If you want upgrades or custom configurations, those surcharges add up quickly, so do some careful consideration if price is of utmost concern.
Each machine has a unique feature that could be its main selling point. MacBooks will be the only thing to please die-hard Apple fans, and the Touch Bar could have allure for those that want to wallow in all of Apple's offerings. The Yoga, Inspiron and Surface Book are all 2-in-1s, but only the Surface is entirely detachable and supports an active stylus. Meanwhile, the Stealth is probably the most visually striking option, while the HP Spectre and ZenBook 3 are both remarkably thin.
For a closer look, check out our impressions and full-length reviews:
- 13-inch MacBook Pro without Touch Bar
- 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar
- Microsoft Surface Book
- Lenovo Yoga 910