Whether you’re a student, a professional or just want to stay connected and productive, a laptop is one of the most important tools of the trade. But some are better than others, with wide differences in keyboards, battery life, displays and design. If you’re looking for a powerful laptop that easily fits in your bag and doesn’t break your back, you want an ultrabook.
The “ultrabook” moniker was originally coined by Intel in 2012 and used to refer to a set of premium, super-thin laptops that met the chipmaker’s predefined standards. However, just as many folks refer to tissues as Kleenexes or web searching as Googling, the term ultrabook commonly refers to any premium ultraportable laptop, whether it carries Intel’s seal of approval or not.
Of course, there's always new tech coming down the pipe. Intel has announced its 11th Gen Core "Tiger Lake" processors with Iris Xe graphics and Thunderbolt 4, with laptops shipping in time for the holiday season. And its likely that an AMD Ryzen refresh won't be far behind, bringing USB 4 to laptops. That's in addition to the possibility of Apple's first Arm-powered MacBook coming this fall.
Quick Ultrabook / Premium Laptop Shopping Tips
- Get a good keyboard: Whether you’re using an ultrabook to browse the web, send emails, code, write or do other productivity work, the keyboard is one of your primary ways of interacting. Get something with responsive keys that aren’t mushy. Low-travel is ok if the keys have the right feel to them, but the last thing you want to do is “bottom out” while typing.
- Consider what you need in a screen: At a minimum, your laptop should have a 1920 x 1080 screen. Some laptops offer 4K options, though it’s sometimes harder to see the difference at 13-inches or below. While 4K may be more detailed, 1080p screens give you much longer battery life.
- Some laptops can be upgraded: While CPUs and GPUs are almost always soldered down, some laptops let you replace the RAM and storage, so you can buy cheaper now and add more memory and a bigger hard drive or SSD down the road. But the thinnest laptops may not have that option.
- Battery life is important: Aim for something that lasts for 8 hours or longer on a charge (gaming is an exception). For productivity, many laptops easily surpass this number. But be wary of manufacturer claims, which don’t always use strenuous tests. Some laptops are starting to add fast charging, which is a nice bonus.
Best Ultrabooks and Premium Laptops 2021
The HP Spectre x360 14 is everything a modern ultrabook should be. This laptop has an attractive design, but isn't about form over function. It has both Thunderbolt 4 over USB Type-C, as well as a microSD card reader, all in a thin chassis.
But what really wows is the display. The 3:2 aspect ratio is tall and shows more of your work or web pages, and is also more natural for tablet mode. The OLED model we reviewed also offered vivid colors, though you would likely get longer battery life with the non-OLED, lower resolution panel.
The other big plus is the Spectre x360's keyboard, which is clicky and comfortable. Sure, it's no desktop mechanical keyboard, but for a laptop, it's very responsive and feels great to use.
The Dell XPS 13 has long been celebrated for both its form and function. The laptop is tiny, but packs a punch with Intel's Tiger Lake processors and adds some extra screen real estate with a tall, 16:10 display (many laptops have a 16:9 screen).
We also like the XPS 13's keyboard, with a snappy press and slightly larger keycaps than previous designs. The screen is bright, and we shouldn't take its thin bezels for granted, as Dell continues to lead on that front.
Admittedly, the XPS 13 is short on ports, opting for a pair of Thunderbolt 4 ports for booth charging and accessories. Its performance, portability and long battery life are likely to make up for that for those on the go.
While some people may still want the power, large display and port selection of the 16-inch MacBook Pro, Apple has proved with the 13-inch version that its own home-grown M1 chip is capable of the needs of plenty of people. This is Apple's first step in breaking away from Intel, and it is extremely impressive.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro runs cool and quiet, while the chip is faster than its competition in most cases. It's also efficient and ran for more than 16 and a half hours on our battery test.
Many apps run natively on the Arm processor and those that don't use Apple's Rosetta 2 software for emulation. Even then, users will barely know that emulation is being used at all. Everything just works.
The big difference between the Pro and the Air, which also uses M1, is that the Pro has a fan. Those who aren't doing intensive work may be able to save a bit and get a very similar machine by going with the Air, and they will get function keys instead of the MacBook Pro's Touch Bar.
The MSI GE66 Raider is a gaming laptop, and it’s saying it loud with a massive RGB light bar. It’s new look is aggressive, but it’s not just talk, with options going up to an Intel Core i9-10980HK and Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Super Max-Q.
For those looking for esports-level performance in games like League of Legends or Overwatch, there’s an option for a 300 Hz display.
And while it’s not the slimmest laptop around (or even MSI’s thinnest), it does feel remarkably portable considering the power inside, and we can’t help but appreciate high-end build quality.
Read: MSI GE66 Raider review
Lenovo’s ThinkPads have always been favorites, and the ThinkPad X1 Carbon (Gen 8) continues that trend with a slim design, excellent keyboard and an excellent selection of ports to keep you connected to all of your peripherals.
If you get the 1080p option, you can count on all-day battery life (the 4K model we tested didn’t fare as well, but that’s often the tradeoff for higher resolution among ultrabooks).
Of course, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon also attracts one other audience: fans of the TrackPoint nub in the center of the keyboard.
Asus has begun to refine the dual screen laptop. Sure, there's a more powerful version, but for a laptop with two screens, this one is fairly light, and ran for over 10 and a half hours on a charge.
Windows 10 doesn't yet natively support dual screen software, Asus's ScreenPad Plus launcher has improved since launch, with easy flicks and drags to move apps around the display. For Adobe apps, there's custom dial-based software.
The keyboard and mouse placement are the big compromises, as there isn't a wrist rest and they can feel cramped. But if you want two-screens, this is as good as it gets for now.
Read: Asus ZenBook Duo 14 UX482 review
If you’re going for a big screen, the Dell XPS 17 shines. The display on the laptop is bright and colorful, especially on the 4K+ option that we tested, and with minimal bezels around it, your work (or play) is all that’s in focus.
With up to an Intel Core i7 and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 Max-Q, there’s plenty of power here. While it’s not on our list of best gaming laptops, you can definitely play video games on it, including intensive games that use ray tracing.
All of that comes in an attractive design similar to the XPS 13 and XPS 15, though the trackpad takes advantage of the extra space. It’s a luxurious amount of room to navigate and perform gestures.
|HP Spectre x360 14||Up to Intel Core i7-1165G7||Intel Iris Xe (integrated)||Up to 16GB LPDDR4-3733||Up to 2TB M.2 PCIe NVMe SSD||13.5-inch touchscreen, up to 3000 x 2000 resolution, OLED|
|Dell XPS 13 (9310)||Up to Intel Core i7-1165G7||Intel Iris Xe (integrated)||Up to 16GB LPDDR4x-4276||Up to 512GB M.2 PCIe NVMe SSD||13.4-inch touchscreen, 1920 x 1200 resolution|
|MacBook Pro (16-inch)||Up to Intel Core i9-9980HK||Up to AMD Radeon Pro 5500M||Up to 64GB DDR4||Up to 8TB SSD||16 inches, 3072 x 1920|
|Asus ROG Zephyrus G14||Up to AMD Ryzen 4900HS||Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 with ROG Boost||Up to 16GB DDR4-3200 (8GB on-board, 8GB SODIMM)||1TB PCIe 3.0 M.2 NVMe||14 inches, 1920 x 1080, 120 Hz|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (Gen 8)||Up to Intel Core i7-10610U||Intel UHD Graphics||Up to 16GB LPDDR3||Up to 1TB PCIe NVMe SSD||14 inches, up to 4K with Dolby Vision and HDR400|
|Asus ZenBook Duo UX481||Up to Intel Core i7-10510U||Nvidia GeForce MX250||Up to 16GB DDR3||1TB PCIe NVMe SSD||14 inch 1080p (1920 x1080) touchscreen, 12.6 inch (1920 x 515) ScreenPad Plus|
|Dell XPS 17||Up to Intel Core i7-10875H||Up to Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 Max-Q||Up to 32GB DDR4||1TB PCIe NVMe SSD||17.0 inches, 16:10, up to 3840 x 2200, touch|