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A decade ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find a laptop weighing less than three pounds with a profile slimmer than a paperback book. Now every manufacturer has at least one, making even some of the most jaded tech reviewers exclaim “how did they do this?”
But, even with the ubiquity of ultraportable laptops, some continue to stand out for their ability to balance sleek designs with powerful performance. As with any else, though, the best ultraportable laptops still demand some sacrifices. We’re here to help you decide which ones are worth making.
What to expect
The first thing to remember is that the term “ultraportable” is subjective. There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules governing the weight and thickness. We at Engadget define an ultraportable laptop as one that weighs less than three pounds and measures less than 0.75 inch thick at its widest point. Usually that means you’re talking about 13-inch and 14-inch laptops, though occasionally a 15-inch device hits the mark too.
Most ultraportables have high-end design touches like ultra-slim bezels, gem-cut edges, and premium materials because they tend to sit at the top of the line. Companies spend a lot of time and money engineering them to be as thin and light as possible without sacrificing too much on power and battery life. They tend to be made from metal, carbon fiber or a mix of the two, and their enclosures are usually just thick enough to include the latest Intel or Ryzen processors, large batteries and enough RAM and storage for most people’s needs.
What you won’t find in most ultraportables are high-powered GPUs or loads of ports. Most have integrated graphics chips (think: Intel UHD) because anything more powerful would take up space and pose heat-management problems. When it comes to ports, the edges of these laptops simply don’t have a lot of free space. You’re almost guaranteed to get a couple Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C ports on the newest notebooks, but some have already abandoned the USB-A standard, which is a shame.
Also, due to the flagship caliber of most ultraportables, you can expect to pay top dollar for these. Most start at $1,000, gradually increasing in price as you bump up the specs. However, there are a few we’d recommend that often come in below the $1,000 mark, either thanks to slightly lower starting prices or frequent sales. We’ve included a “budget” pick in this guide, but just know that “budget” in this case doesn’t mean cheap; it means relatively affordable.
One other thing that’s important to consider is battery life. Manufacturers have gotten better at eking out more juice from their devices. We recommend buying one rated for at least eight to 10 hours.
You can take all of that advice and wade through the plethora of product pages on the Internet to find the best ultraportable laptop for you. But if you don’t have that kind of time or patience, we’ve compiled a list of the devices that we consider to be the best options available right now.
Best overall: Dell XPS 13
Dell didn’t overhaul the XPS 13 for 2021, because why fix what isn’t broken? Instead, the company brought in more optional add-ons so customers could make its flagship laptop as personalized as possible — as long as they have the cash to do so.
The XPS 13 has been one of our favorite laptops for years thanks to its slim, attractive design, powerful performance and solid battery life. In 2020, we saw Dell remove the excessive chin bezel below the screen, letting the 13.4-inch display extend from corner to corner. It now has a 16:10 aspect ratio, which is better than before but not quite as good as a 3:2 ratio. We prefer taller screens because they reduce the amount of scrolling necessary to browse web pages and review documents comfortably. The XPS 13’s display continues to support HDR and Dolby Vision, so you’ll get top-notch video quality whenever you stream. New for 2021 is the optional 3,456 x 2,160 OLED display, which you can add to the XPS 13 for about $300 extra.
The XPS 13 remains just as thin and light as it has been for the past couple of years. It weighs only 2.64 pounds and measures just over a half-inch thick at its widest point. We also like its spacious trackpad and comfortable, scissor-switch keyboard. It may not be the flashiest ultraportable on our list, but honestly we kinda dig the XPS’ subtle design. It looks and feels like a flagship device, but it never feels ostentatious.
Those set on the XPS 13 in 2021 will find Tiger Lake processors powering the laptop, and the option to trick it out with up to 32GB of RAM and 2TB of storage. Notably, the base model includes 8GB of RAM much better than the 4GB minimum on past models. Four gigs is rarely enough for a daily driver (unless you’re looking at a Chromebook), and it’s reassuring to see Dell finally came around on that. If you’re going to upgrade anything when ordering directly from Dell, we recommend springing for the Core i5 processor instead of sticking with the base Core i3.
Best for Apple fans: MacBook Air M1
Apple continues to make the MacBook Air a compelling option for most people thanks to the M1 chipset in the latest model. And that’s really the star of the show here — the MacBook Air M1 is blazing fast, running native apps like Safari and GarageBand without breaking a sweat. The laptop wakes almost instantly when you open its lid, sites load swiftly and scrolling is seamless. And because M1 is ARM-based, you’ll be able to run iOS apps on the Air, too.
While the MacBook Air M1 looks familiar on the outside, a big difference under the hood is that there’s no fan. Although you sacrifice a bit in the way of heat management, it means the laptop runs more quietly than before. And just because its appearance hasn’t changed, doesn’t mean it looks dated. It still has an attractive 2.8-pound unibody enclosure, a gorgeous 13.3-inch Retina Display, a TouchID fingerprint sensor and a comfortable keyboard with springy buttons (no problematic butterfly keys to be found here).
Along with the M1 processor, the latest MacBook Air comes most readily with 8GB of RAM and either 256GB or 512GB of storage. If you order directly from Apple, you can increase the RAM to 16GB and get as much as 2TB of internal storage. A fully specced-out model will set you back $1,800, but most people will find that their needs are met by the 256GB base model.
Best convertible: HP Spectre x360 13
The Spectre x360 13 is the culmination of years of improvements on HP’s part. It combines most of the things we’d want in a laptop, including a versatile convertible design. Old-school 2-in-1s had a tendency to be wobbly and unstable, but this is anything but. Its metallic hinges provide a sturdy structure for the machine when in laptop mode and spin smoothly whenever you need to work in tent or tablet mode.
The model we reviewed in 2019 had a 1080p touchscreen, but HP gives you the option to outfit the Spectre x360 13 with a 4K AMOLED panel — a good choice for creatives and streaming aficionados (just be prepared for shorter battery life). By no means is a 4K display necessary on a 13-inch machine, but companies have been adding them as options on flagships to satisfy all the display nerds out there. Regardless of the screen you choose, the laptop’s 90-percent screen-to-body ratio will provide an immersive experience when you’re watching movies on Netflix. The keyboard is also quite comfortable and we particularly like that HP made the buttons as large as possible, stretching them all the way to the edges of the chassis.
In addition, HP included an IR camera for Windows Hello, a Precision touchpad and a few more ports than you’d expect to see on an ultraportable of this size. Its edges hold two USB-C ports for charging and data, a USB-A port and a microSD slot. The machine’s 14.5-hour battery life makes it even more versatile, as it lasts an entire work or school day with juice left to spare.
The worst thing we can say about the Spectre x360 13 is that its webcam produces grainy video and HP includes a bit more bloatware than other OEMs. Also, the machine’s jewelry-like design may not be to some shoppers’ tastes, but it’s not garish enough for us to knock it either. It also helps that the base model now includes an 11th-gen Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and an FHD touchscreen for just over $1,000. What’s more, HP is one of the few companies to include a stylus with its flagship convertible at no extra cost, meaning you can use it as a digital notebook straight out of the box.
Best budget option: HP Pavilion Aero 13
In order to appeal to Gen-Z users, HP made its Pavilion Aero 13 laptop as thin and light as possible while keeping it at a relatively affordable price. Starting at $749, the laptop weighs only 2.2 pounds and takes some design notes from the company’s Spectre and Elitebook lines. That makes it a pretty attractive machine, and that’s not something we take for granted at this price range.
While its keyboard is not backlit by default, it is comfortable to type on even if the layout is slightly more cramped than usual thanks to the page up/down key column on the right side. You also get a big trackpad and a 13.3-inch 1,920 x 1,200 display on the base model, plus the option to upgrade to a 2,560 x 1,600 display if you like. We also appreciate the port variety on this machine: two USB-A ports, one HDMI connector, one USB-C port and a 3.5mm audio jack. HP has generally done a good job keeping as many connectors as possible on even its flagship laptops, and it’s nice to see that its budget notebooks received the same treatment.
We reviewed the top-tier model that costs $999, but the base model isn’t anything to scoff at. It includes a Ryzen 5 5600U processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, which is impressive when you consider other flagship laptops with similar RAM and storage amounts cost $250 more to start. While it does force some sacrifices, the Pavilion Aero 13 is not one to overlook if you want a good value laptop.