The Top 3 Laptops in Each of 5 Key Categories

After analyzing over one thousand laptops based on internal specs, expert reviews, and aesthetic/external elements, we've come up with the top three choices in each of five key categories.

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You’ve read the doomsday predictions proclaiming the death of the laptop. You’ve seen the shipment figures. You may have even wandered over to Google Trends and noted the slow, steady, undeniable decline in searches for “laptop.”

All of this gloomy news calls for some perspective. The laptop market is doing just fine (for now). Tablets have proven to be more than a fad, but they’ve got a ways to go before replacing laptops altogether, particularly among tech professionals. “The tablet is still a far cry from becoming a primary machine,” said Aaron Skonnard, CEO and co-founder of Pluralsight, a training platform for developers and IT admins. “Some administrators use them for monitoring, but quickly abandon them when it’s time to do any serious system work.”

Even writers and stay-at-home-video-editors occasionally need more processing power and keyboard-enabled tools to be truly productive. Sorry tablets: even your best accessories just aren’t good enough yet.

That said, the proliferation of smartphones and the convenience of cloud data storage have changed many customers’ laptop needs. In 2005, a laptop was your most important personal device. Now? It’s often just a tool for accomplishing complicated projects—or playing top-tier games—that your smartphone can’t handle. Today, consumers don’t necessarily need an all-in-one laptop: they just need a machine that does a specific set of tasks well. After analyzing over one thousand laptops based on internal specs (processor speed, battery life, storage, etc.), expert reviews (Laptop Magazine, PC Magazine, PC World), and aesthetic/external elements (weight, pixel density, connectivity, etc.),  we’ve come up with the top three choices in each of five key categories.

Budget

If you’re a mobile-first gadget fan or Angry Birds champ, why bother spending thousands on a larger, bulkier product? Your budget laptop will be waiting under your bed when you need to draft that abnormally long email or knock out a bit of extra work from home.

What to watch out for: Don’t expect a flashy design or smooth operation 100% of the time. Despite what manufacturers promise, the cheapest laptops typically aren’t much to look at, tend to freeze up on occasion, and require the occasional reboot. While these three recommendations are among the more reliable budget-based options, expect to see a performance dip within a year or so.

Gaming

Most gamers already know what they want, but for the aspiring laptop game player, these three options are all smart choices. Outside of top processing power and a solid graphics card, the best gaming laptops allow for frequent customization and easy upgrades. Modern, top-selling PC games run best if you can regularly update the components under your laptop’s hood.

But are laptops really ready for today’s top computer games? “We have reached a point where gaming laptops are just as powerful as desktops,” said Harjit Chana, CMO of Digital Storm, which builds high-powered gaming PCs. “The Digital Storm Behemoth, our flagship 17-inch unit…supports two of the world’s fastest graphics cards and supports the world’s fastest mobile processor. [The laptop] leaves many desktops in the dust.”

What to watch out for: Don’t assume “high-performance” is synonymous with “gaming-friendly.” For example, the popular, powerful Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display may sport high performance, but it’s not designed for tear-downs, exchanged parts, or tinkering. Apple’s gone out of its way to seal the computer with proprietary screws, and even warns the over-curious against further tampering if they happen to break their way in…a nightmare for gamers.

Mini / Portable

Perhaps you’re a travel writer or tech blogger. Between trips overseas, conferences, and air travel, it’s tough to beat slim, light, and snug. All three of these computers offer solid performance for the size, while boasting an average weight of ~2.5 lbs.

“Apple’s latest MacBook Air is easily the best portable laptop on the market today,” said Ben Bowers, co-founder and managing editor at Gear Patrol. He praised the 13-inch Air’s “fourth-gen Haswell processors” and “outlet-ignoring battery life” (the 11-inch model gets roughly 9 hours, the 13-inch model gets 12). “Its 1366 x 768 resolution LED is admittedly getting long in the tooth, but at least your eyes will tire well before your battery does.”

What to watch out for: Don’t assume all mini laptops hover near the same price point. Unlike budget (always cheap) and gaming (nearly always expensive), mini-buyers have the luxury of a larger price range. As usual, Apple’s lightweight laptops cost more than most, but might be worth the price for their sterling battery life and reliable performance. On the flip side, a Samsung Chromebook Series 3 provides a super cheap, feather-light alternative, perfect for the world traveler on a budget.

Desktop-replacement / High-performance

Even if laptops continue to sell well against tablets, desktops have shown early signs of extinction (see charts two and three here). Consumers—and even some freelance professionals—have discovered that today’s high-powered laptops can do just about everything they need, whether it’s complicated video editing, sound mixing, or PC gaming. So-called desktop-replacement laptops provide the solution: you can enjoy a workhorse machine, take up less space, and move the device around with (some) ease.

“With up to a 2.7GHz quad-core Intel i7 processor, speedy 802.11n Wi-Fi, 16GB of RAM, and 768GB of SSD storage, editing anything besides the Lord of the Rings Trilogy should feel as buttery smooth as the laptop’s svelte 0.75-inch waist,” said Bowers, regarding the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display.

What to watch out for: It’s a common mistake to assume that a desktop-replacement laptop offers the best in every category. If you’ve got the money, the logic goes, why not grab a high-powered product that you can pack up at a moment’s notice? In reality, desktop-replacement laptops are hardly “portable devices.” With typical weights from 6 – 10 lbs, and screen sizes often exceeding 17-inches, these computers are a pain to fit into carry-on bags, and a bummer to haul around for more than a few minutes at a time. If you don’t need the desktop-worthy performance, look elsewhere.

Overall

Perhaps you don’t care about categories. Maybe you’re a tech geek, and you want the best machine money can buy, regardless of whether it will fit into your briefcase or cost two months-worth of rent. So, which laptops achieved the highest scores overall? With low weights, solid performance specs, crisp displays, and universal praise from the experts, Apple’s two Retina Display MacBook Pros and recent MacBook Air emerged as the gold-, silver-, and bronze-medal winners among our pool of 1,000+ laptops.

Apple averse? Consider the HP Folio 13-1029wm or Dell Latitude 6430u, both well-rounded machines at reasonable prices. They were the two highest-scoring non-Apple products in our overall rankings. You can find the full list of laptop scores here.

This article was written for TIME by Ben Taylor of FindTheBest.

3 comments
IntangibleGuy
IntangibleGuy

Thanks for the rationale. Concluding from all the drivel proclaimed on many websites one might fall for the delusion of the imminent death of everything except smartphones and tablets.

I've always considered a 5" screen as slightly unusable for Excel ... sigh.

tototo
tototo

Gaming below 17.3 inch??? Oh yeah enjoy the graphics with a porthole!

And what?! Is Apple MacBook Pro 15-Inch with Retina Display (mid-2012) better than Lenovo ThinkPad W530 even if it's -50% for the price and +50% for the spec?

Can't trust Findthebest.