2016 Gift Guide: Best, Most Lustworthy Laptops
With the tablet on the wane, the trusty ol’ laptop continues to chug along. Expect the laptop form factor—so productive and so efficient—to be around for a while. As Apple’s Phil Schiller said recently, “As far as our eyes can see, there will still be a place for this basic laptop architecture.” Translation: Seriously, we gave up trying to do spreadsheets on a tablet years ago.
While the basic laptop form factor remains largely unchanged, the 2-in-1 laptop/tablets have gotten a toehold in the market, so long as they’re thin and light enough. Basically, thin, light and powerful are the three keys to the most desirable laptops, which of course come with a higher price tag.
You can call them ultrabooks, you can call them MacBooks, you can call them convertibles. The laptops in this year’s holiday gift guide are the ones you’ll be putting on your wish list.
HP Spectre x360
The 2016 13.3-inch HP Spectre X360 is a waif-like 2-in-1 laptop/tablet, measuring only 0.54 inches thick and weighing 2.8 pounds. The bezels are just 3.4mm on each side of the display (aka the “Micro Edge” display). It has a machined aluminum body, glass trackpad, over 10 hours of battery life and a stainless steel geared hinge that offers 360 degrees of movement for the display.
The non-convertible alternative is the 13.3-inch HP Spectre ultrabook, which is a paper-thin 0.4 inches and only 2.45 pounds.
- 2016 HP Spectre x360 (13.3″): starts at $1050 (HP Store)
- HP Spectre (13.3″): starts at $1250 (HP Store)
- Pros: 360-degree hinge. Micro bezel. Kaby Lake processors.
- Cons: No Quad HD resolution option yet.
Dell XPS 13
The 2016 Dell XPS 13 with 7th generation Intel Kaby Lake processor lasts 14 hours on a single charge (2 hours more than last year) and now sports a “Rose Gold” color option. Like the MacBook, it’s one of the more consistently impressive laptops on the market and appears on our list annually. For an ultrabook, it also starts at a more budget-friendly $800, and you can frequently find good deals on the XPS 13 at Costco and Amazon.
Made from machined aluminum, carbon fiber and Corning Gorilla Glass, the XPS 13 weighs just 2.7 pounds and is about 0.6 inches thin. Like the Spectre x360, the XPS 13 fits its 13.3-inch display (“InfinityEdge”) in a smaller footprint, i.e. a typical 11-inch laptop lid.
Its bigger sibling is the XPS 15, which weighs about 4.4 pounds and is still just 0.66 inches thin, but no Kaby Lake processors yet.
- XPS 13 (13.3″) Kaby Lake: starts at $800 (Dell Home)
- XPS 15 (15.6″) Skylake: starts at $1000 (Dell Home)
- Pros: Sharp-looking and compact. Kaby Lake processors. Upgrade option for 4K display.
- Cons: Only if you don’t like Windows PCs.
Microsoft Surface Book i7 with Performance Base
Just days before Apple’s MacBook refresh, Microsoft unveiled a 2016 upgrade on its Surface Book, the powerful and svelte 2-in-1 laptop/tablet. Fresh off the success of last year’s debut model, it now sports an updated quad-core Intel Core i7 processor—still Skylake, not Kaby Lake however—and beefed-up Nvidia 965M graphics. Battery life is now an outstanding 16 hours on a single charge.
Though ever so slightly larger, the 2016 Surface Book looks the same as the first generation model, with its matte silver magnesium chassis and “dynamic fulcrum hinge”—plus a smaller gap between the lid and keyboard when the hinge is closed. The 13.5-inch Surface Book weighs 3.63 pounds and is 0.9 inches thick. The detached tablet by itself is around 1.6 pounds.
This kind of MacBook-type quality (or branding) doesn’t come cheap. The low-end model will set you back $2399. Similar alternatives are the step-down models from last year that now start around $1349 (down from $1500).
The Surface Book i7 with Performance Base ships on November 10th.
- 2016 Surface Book w/ Performance Base: starts at $2399 (Microsoft Store)
- 2015 Surface Book: starts at $1349 (Microsoft Store)
- Pros: Incredible 16-hour battery life. Innovative design. Surface Pen.
- Cons: Super expensive. Still Skylake processor. Not immediately available.
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon
The ThinkPad series has been the perennial go-to Windows laptop for business professionals, and the ThinkPad X1 Carbon has proven to be one of the most durable ultrabooks on the market. In addition to the military grade, MIL-STD 810G tested, carbon fiber reinforced plastic lid and super magnesium body, it has a spill-resistant keyboard and security features that make it suitable for corporate IT use.
The 4th generation 14-inch ThinkPad Carbon X1 (2016) is just 2.6 pounds and 0.65 inches thick, so it adds a slightly larger screen size over the 13-inch ultrabook without additional bulk. You get 9 hours of battery life—not as good as the XPS, Surface Book and MacBook Pro—but it’s still very good, and you can “rapid charge” to 80% capacity in an hour.
- 2016 ThinkPad Carbon X1: starts at $1269 (Lenovo Store)
- Pros: Excellent, spill-resistant keyboard. The classic bright red TrackPoint center button.
- Cons: Battery life not as good as other top ultrabooks. No Ethernet. No Kaby Lake processors.
MacBook Pro with Touch Bar
The most hyped part of the 2016 MacBook Pro announcement was the new multi-touch OLED Touch Bar, a touch sensitive bar that replaces the function keys. Buried under all that hype was the welcome introduction of Touch ID, which allows users fingerprint access to their Mac, a feature that’s been on some Windows laptops for a while now.
The arrival of this year’s thinner and lighter MacBook Pro, together with last year’s 12-inch MacBook (Retina), has pretty much signaled the end of the once-innovative and widely copied MacBook Air ultrabook. The 11.6-inch model has been discontinued, and the 13.3-inch is probably on its last legs.
As usual, you will pay a hefty premium to lay your hands on the new Apple toy. The entry-level 2016 model with Touch Bar is $500 more than last year’s model, although you can buy one without the Touch Bar for $300 less.
Don’t expect these new models to ship until last November, early December.
- 2016 MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar: starts at $1799 (Apple Store)
- 2016 MacBook Pro 13 (no Touch Bar): starts at $1499 (Apple Store)
- 2016 MacBook Pro 15 with Touch Bar: starts at $2399 (Apple Store)
- Pros: Huge trackpad. Four Thunderbolt 3 ports. New enclosure, just 0.59” thick and 3 lbs. (13”) and 0.61” 4lbs 15” and 10 hours battery life.
- Cons: Way, waaay expensive. New keyboard is same as the small 2015 MacBook Retina. Touch Bar not for everyone.