Getting a new laptop can mean plotting a course through some treacherous waters. On one side you have the towering problem of price - it’s perfectly possible to spend over £2,000 on a laptop and still not be happy with it - and on the other side the fear that you might get something that doesn’t perform the way you expect it to.
With the advent of Windows 11, a new computer may be on the minds of many people, especially if your current model is getting a bit long in the tooth. Luckily, laptops are in a great place right now, with advances in processor technology and battery capacity meaning we can make them work harder for longer.
This, then, is our guide to the best laptop brands out there, not the laptops themselves. If you see one of these being offered to you at a good price, then you’ll have a good idea what you’re getting.
Recommended product: Macbook Air
Instantly recognisable thanks to their one-piece aluminium design and apple logo on the lid, Apple’s laptops (known as Macbooks or just Macs) are unlike any others on this list.
Two things set them apart. The first is the operating system, MacOS, which has grown up as a rival to Windows, and looks slightly different to Microsoft’s OS, but works in much the same way. Second is the underlying architecture, which has recently undergone a split away from Intel chips to ARM-based processors of Apple’s own design. The downside to this: Windows, which used to run on Macs just fine, is slightly harder to get going. The upside: considerable gains in battery life (easily managing 11 hours on a charge), laptops like the Macbook Air that can run without cooling fans, and enough power to do almost anything you want.
Macbooks currently come in two flavours: the Macbook Air, and the Macbook Pro. Both have 13.3in screens, but the differences come in the form of a fan on the Pro model, which allows it to work harder, and an even larger battery.
Recommended product: Spectre x360 or Envy
With its roots reaching back to a Silicon Valley garage in 1939, HP should know a thing or two about laptops. And it does, with its Spectre x360 range of 2-in-1 machines (laptops that fold back on themselves to become a tablet) offering impeccable industrial design and quality of life-enhancing features such as Bang & Olufsen speakers alongside 11th-generation Intel processors and 13-inch 4K touchscreens.
If you’re looking for something a bit more wallet friendly, check out the Envy range. Decidedly chunkier in design than the Spectre, and with no 4K screen option, it’s clear where savings have been made. Yet it still manages to fold back as a touchscreen-enabled 13in 2-in-1, and with an AMD Ryzen 5 CPU pounding away at its core, you won’t be left lacking for processing power.
Recommended product: XPS 13
Everyone’s heard of Dell as the supplier of rather uninteresting business PCs, right? Well, when its laptop division lets itself go, it really knows how to produce an excellent product. The XPS 13 is a good example: thin and light, with the option of a 4K touchscreen.
The XPS 13 is built on the Intel Evo platform, a combination of 11th0gen Intel processors (with their Xe built-in graphics chips) and a combination of features including nine hours of battery life, Wi-Fi 6, and the incredibly fast Thunderbolt 4 ports to make connecting external displays and hard drives easy. The XPS 13 is also a great looking laptop, with an edge-to-edge keyboard and a razor-thin bezel around the screen.
Recommended product: X15
A subsidiary of Dell, Alienware is the antithesis to its parent’s businesslike approach. Unveiled at the Computex show in Taipei this year, the new X-series are its thinnest and most powerful yet.
They come in 15in and 17in magnesium chassis, with the 15in model heralded as the most powerful laptop you can buy that’s under 16in. Of course, these are gaming laptops, but that just means they are strong in all areas except perhaps battery life, but improvements are being made here too. A gaming laptop is also useful for media creation and video editing.
Alongside some of the best CPUs Intel has to offer, you get a strong graphics processor in the form of an Nvidia 30-series GPU with up to 16GB of VRAM, all the better to push the QHD 240Hz (or HD 360Hz) screens. You also get plenty of RAM, and fast flash storage too.
The thinness of the case is achieved through a new cooling system that increases the size of the fan blades compared to previous Alienware models, places a vapour chamber cooler on the CPU, and uses bigger, heavier, heatpipes to move heat away from the essential components.
Recommended product: Blade 14
Another gaming brand, which means you can rely on there being fast components and a strong graphics processor inside, this Singapore-American company also owns the THX quality assurance system for cinema audio systems.
Razer's laptops include the Blade 14, a powerhouse gaming laptop with a 14in screen that can be configured as HD 144Hz, or QHD 165Hz. Higher resolutions and refresh rates are preferred by gamers, and many professionals too, but require much greater graphics processing capabilities to maintain. Luckily, the Blade 14 has a choice of Nvidia 30-series GPUs to do just that.
The Blade 14 is expensive, but its thin and light build means it’s a capable machine that’s not too much bother to carry with you. The battery life of around 6-7 hours is all that lets it down, but in the context of gaming laptops that’s actually pretty good.
Recommended product: Surface Laptop 4
Microsoft’s Surface brand has been around for a while, but really hit its stride with the launch of the Surface Laptop 4 - a machine designed around Windows 10. It has an absolutely fantastic keyboard, so is an easy recommendation for anyone who finds themselves typing a lot, while the touchscreen (with an unusual 3:2 aspect ratio that’s taller than the standard 16:9, and therefore easier to view documents on) and Ryzen 5 processor make doing any kind of work a breeze. It’s not a particularly powerful laptop, but a smooth and easy one to get on with, which counts for a lot if you’re using it every day.
Elsewhere in the Surface range you’ll find the Surface Book, whose screen detaches and works as a separate tablet, though at the cost of battery life, and the Surface Pro 7 tablet, which has been upgraded over its predecessors yet still retains the thick bezels and comparatively slow USB 3 connectivity.
Microsoft’s laptops are great choices for the home worker, or for when commuting becomes a thing again, but they lack the excitement of other manufacturers.
Recommended product: Gram 17 or Gram 16
This prolific electronics manufacturer’s laptops tend to go under the radar, but there are some gems in its lineup if you can get past the bombast of Dell and HP. With a battery life of up to 12 hours on a charge, the Gram 17 features the same 11th-gen Intel CPUs and speedy Thunderbolt 4 ports as many of its competitors. You get up to 16GB of RAM and a fast SSD too, but it’s the stunning WQXGA IPS LCD screen and exceptionally light build that really impress.
It’s not the most stylish laptop, admittedly, but what you’re getting here is power and portability, especially important since a 17in screen is large for a laptop. If size is a problem, there’s an LG Gram 16 too, which squeezes the same specs into a more easily carried frame, but cuts the battery life down to a bit over nine hours, just enough to retain its Intel Evo certification.
Recommended product: Matebook X Pro
Huawei’s Matebook range hit the big time a couple of years ago with the Matebook Pro X, an excellent device that was strong in almost all areas and became a bit of a sleeper hit. The Pro X’s legacy was then carried on by the Matebook 13, another brilliant all-rounder that’s cheaper than many rivals, and only slightly let down by some corner cutting.
For 2021, however, there’s a new Matebook X Pro, and it’s stylish enough that its few shortcomings are easily overlooked. You get the expected 11th-gen Intel CPU and up to 16GB of RAM, plus some fast flash storage. The 14in screen is touch-enabled and runs at a decent 3,000x2,000 resolution (in the 3:2 aspect ratio that makes for a better working environment). There are some nice touches too, such as the fingerprint reader integrated into the power button. Unfortunately, there are also a few let-downs: having the webcam integrated into the keyboard is absolutely the wrong place to put it, and the Huawei Share software that’s supposed to send files back and forth from a nearby mobile phone only works with a Huawei model.
The manufacturer has also taken the opportunity to raise the price, so what was a decent laptop that undercut the competition no longer looks quite so attractive. Which is a shame.
Recommended product: Swift 3 or Chromebook
This Taiwanese laptop maker has a great budget lineup, with models such as the Swift 3 showing that you don’t need to spend over £1,000 to get yourself a great portable computer.
With a 10th-generation Intel Core processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD, you get a lot for your money with a Swift 3. Many other laptops in this price range will attempt to skimp on at least one of these - a weaker CPU leading to a sluggish user experience, 4GB of RAM to limit your multitasking, or a smaller SSD so you can’t store as much data. Instead, Acer gives you everything you need, with no corners cut inside the casing.
On the outside, the minimalist silver aluminium chassis may lack a little something on the design front, but remember this is a budget model. The keyboard is extremely nice, having clearly taken some cues from Apple, and a fingerprint scanner is great to see at this price point. The downward-firing speakers really aren’t great though.
Acer is also notable for its Chromebooks - cheap laptops that run a barebones operating system based on Google’s Chrome web browser. The Acer Chromebook Spin 713, for example, is a thin and light two-in-one that features a touchscreen display, two Thunderbolt 4 ports, and an 11th-gen Intel processor. There’s a lot to love here, and as is typical for Acer, it’s very reasonably priced.
Recommended product: Zenbook 13 or Zenbook Duo
Notable for its Zenbook range, Asus is the world’s fifth-largest PC vendor, and it produces good-looking machines too. The Zenbook 13 got a facelift for 2021, and its HD OLED screen is one of the best in terms of brightness and colour reproduction.
Inside, you get a choice of AMD Ryzen 5000 or Intel CPU and up to 32GB of RAM, as well as an enormous battery that can keep going significantly longer than others, with up to 16 hours of life in it. Storage can be specced at up to a 1TB SSD, and there’s Thunderbolt 4 if you choose one with an Intel processor (AMD models have to make do with USB 3.2, which is plenty fast enough for most uses). Annoyingly, however, Asus has taken a leaf out of the smartphone manufacturers’ book, and removed the headphone socket, meaning you’ll need to use Bluetooth or USB.
Asus also makes the nutty Zenbook Duo, a laptop with two screens. What this means in practice is that the keyboard and touchpad have been shuffled around to make space at the top of the laptop’s lower section for a short touchscreen that runs the full width of the case.
Recommended product: Chromebook
Yes, that Google. The company perhaps better known for its web searching skills also makes Chromebooks, along with the Chrome OS that they run.
Its current model, the Pixelbook Go, is a particularly good example of hardware and software in harmony. Were this a Windows model, we’d criticise it for its weak processor and a lack of storage. Under Chrome OS, however, it shines, qualifying as a ‘Plus’ Chromebook (the middle tier in Google’s hierarchy) that excels at web browsing, video calls, and media consumption.
Recommended product: Chromebook or Thinkpad
Current owner of the Thinkpad brand, having bought it from IBM in 2005, Lenovo makes a lot of laptops. The Thinkpad X1 Nano is a superb business laptop that’s passed its Intel Evo certification, meaning it can keep going all day on a single charge. You get Intel’s 11th generation processors along with decent amounts of RAM and flash storage, LTE connectivity, and the trademark red Thinkpad nub in the middle of the keyboard too. Prices can rise steeply when you start adding optional extras, and you’ll be reliant on adapters with just two USB Type-C ports (one used for charging) and a headphone jack, but this exceptionally light and powerful laptop should have no problem with the kind of office productivity tasks it was designed for.
Lenovo also makes Chromebooks. Excellent value for money, the specs tend to be low, but this doesn’t matter as it’s only ever going to run a web browser. With a lot of work and storage offloaded to the cloud, the devices can concentrate on being portable (its footprint is smaller than an A4 sheet of paper), cheap, and long-lasting.