Best laptops of 2018
Buying a new laptop is an important and often confusing process. MARIE BLACK reveals the best laptops you can buy
If you’re looking to buy a laptop, we can help. Here at Tech Advisor, we’ve tried and tested a huge range of laptops to determine which are the best on the market. Here, you’ll find our pick of the top models you can buy right now, and offer a verdict on each.
How to choose the best laptop for you
Sometimes you just can’t beat a bigger screen, a keyboard and Windows for getting stuff done, and then your only choice is a laptop. There are many different kinds, including hybrids that can be either laptop or tablet, high-end gaming laptops, cheap and cheerful budget models, and even those running macOS rather than Windows 10.
How much should you spend on a laptop?
Sometimes the best does come at a steep price, but equally you can get a lot of laptop for under £500 or even £300 – provided you need only complete basic tasks such as web browsing, writing emails and creating the odd document.
Around £500 or above can get you a nice laptop, but it’s likely to have an entry-level set of specifications. We’re talking a relatively basic processor, minimal SSD storage and a relatively lowquality screen. It might also be on the heavy side.
Pay £700 or more and you should get a blazing fast processor, plenty of RAM, hordes of storage and a gorgeous display. You should also expect excellent build quality and premium materials. Many these days are above £1,000.
What to look out for
We show you our favourite laptops and offer advice on how much to spend, but if you’re still undecided we might be able to help break down your options further. Here we talk about screen size, storage, processors, and more to help you make your decision.
Laptop screens range from around 11- to 17in. A smaller panel might be harder to work on and offer fewer ports, but it will be more portable. A 17in laptop, on the other hand, is a desktop replacement laptop and not deigned to be moved around often. You’ll likely get a full-size keyboard and potentially an optical drive. Generally, 13in is the sweet spot for portability and usability. While many laptops have a resolution of 1,366x768, Full HD, Quad HD and even 4K laptops are available. A touchscreen will add to the cost and generally isn’t needed on a laptop. Also look out for a matte, non-reflective screen.
How much storage you need depends on what you want to use a laptop for. As a general rule of thumb, we recommend you get as much as possible without wasting money on the upgrade.
An SSD will help your laptop run faster, but offers less space for your files (consider supplementing it with a portable USB drive). You can also use cloud storage – but only when you have an Internet connection.
Memory (RAM) is where programs and files are stored only while you’re using them, and more is always better – up to a point. Consider 4GB a minimum, unless it’s a Chromebook, with 8- to 16GB the ideal.
Unless you’re going to run complex and demanding software or gaming, you don’t need a top-spec processor. If you’re happy to splash out you’re probably
looking at the latest generation (8th) Intel Core i7 chip. Entry-level spec models are likely to offer a Core i3 or even a Celeron, Pentium or AMD processor instead. A Core i5 is a good mid-range choice, so check how much extra it is to upgrade before making a final decision.
The letters after the model name are important: Y and U mean they are ultra-low-power chips, which won’t be great for demanding tasks but should translate to longer battery life. H means highperformance graphics, while Q means quad-core.
Buying an ultrabook or ultraportable laptop
Buying an ultraportable laptop is really no different than any laptop, except that your priorities are likely to be different. You might want an ultraportable laptop that’s light and will last a long time away from the mains.
However, other people want an ultrabook that’s powerful and can handle demanding applications without breaking your back when you carry it around. Both types are available.
Some compromises are inevitable if you want a thin and light laptop, though. There’s less space for a battery, so it’s typical to find shorter runtimes.
Thin laptops tend to have shallow key travel, so if you need to do a lot of typing read our reviews to find out whether a keyboard is a joy or a pain to use.
Warranty and other considerations
We recommend all the laptops here: there isn’t a duff one among them. None is perfect though, and what will best suit your needs might not be the device ranked at number one.
Battery life and warranty vary between laptops. The latter may differ depending on where you buy the laptop from, too. John Lewis, for example, tends to offer a longer warranty than its rivals. After-sales service is something you should consider for everything you buy. Check whether the company has a UK-based support line, and forums (including our own) are an ideal place to ascertain whether a manufacturer is good or bad at carrying out work under warranty.
When you’ve bought a new laptop, be sure to take a few minutes to configure it, so you can track your laptop should it ever be stolen or lost.
1. Dell XPS 13 9370 (2018)
Price: £1,199 from fave.co/2xO6h8L Dell‘s XPS line has always been good, but this year it is now certainly great. The 2018 XPS 13 is the best laptop the firm has ever made, and boy has it made a few. Comparing it to the MacBook is lazy – the XPS 13 is more powerful by some distance than Apple’s laptop, the 12in rival of a similar price. In fact, the Core i7 XPS 13 we tested is the smoothest, fastest XPS ever and worthy of your consideration if you have the money to spend on a high-end laptop.
Barely had the press release been flung to every corner of the earth before the XPS 13 was bestowed with a CES Innovation Award. Just like last year. It seems Dell has cut a niche for building a high-end Windows laptop that looks good on an executive’s desk as well
as performing well in all conditions. And to be fair it does look the part. Whether or not you like the rose gold and white model is a matter of taste, but at least it stands out from the crowd compared to the uniform black version that is by now very familiar with its carbon fibre finish on the inside and slick silver exterior.
The casing is now 23 percent smaller, which is always good so long as it doesn’t affect performance, and the XPS 13 still feels as close to the premium build of MacBooks that a Windows machine has come, albeit with a more practical, less space-age design.
With simple lines, that just-about-subtle-enough carbon fibre effect on the inside and a sleek, completely flush 4mm bezel round the screen, it’s a good-looking piece of kit. The white model has a UV coating on it too, and Dell claims you can wipe
permanent marker off either one should you have a frantic boardroom accident.
The bottom of the laptop (yes it matters) looks much nicer than previous years, with Dell getting rid of all the legal text and other odd stickers to give a sleeker feel to the machine. When you’re spending this much, that stuff matters, so well done Dell, for leaving just the fan grates and the XPS logo.
The keyboard has a superb clacky yet springy feel to it, while maintaining the slimmer profile of the base – there are no low travel butterfly keys you might find on a new MacBook or MacBook Pro. Add to that a fingerprint sensor in the power key and you have a mighty fine design, refined for 2018 needs.
Less fun is the webcam placement, now under the Dell logo on the bottom of the screen. Even if it is a space saver, it’s still annoying, but Dell told us it’s working to fitting one into the top bezel on future models. Although it’s easier to stick a piece of tape over it where it is now, and you probably should.
And at 1.21kg with those slim bezels, the laptop is as compact and portable as you could hope for.
This is an excellently made ultrabook, niggles aside. Most of the Tech Advisor staff when asked would select this as their preferred Windows laptop. So how do the specs hold up?
Processor, RAM and storage
Dell has added these 8th-gen Intel Core i5-8250U and i7-8550U processors to the XPS 13, depending on your needs and budget, while all models have the Intel UHD Graphics 620 GPU. Note that Coffee Lake chips are
reserved for desktop only – here the silicon is 8th-gen, but is technically a refreshed Kaby Lake architecture.
Other options for you are a minimum of 128GB and a maximum of 1TB storage and 4-, 8-, or 16GB RAM. Our high end 16GB RAM model performed outstandingly, but you can expect slower multitasking speeds in the 4- and 8GB versions.
You can choose between a non-touch 1,920x1,080 FHD or a touchscreen 3,840x2,160 4K Ultra HD. Again, we were given the high-end touchscreen version and it looks incredible. The insanely high resolution looks amazing on a 13in panel and colour reproduction is a pleasant level of saturated. Brightness is also outstanding, and there’s very little occasion you’ll want to have it on 100 percent. Under halfway is usually fine.
Touchscreen input is still odd on Windows 10, but here the experience is the best it can be. Unlike on cheaper laptops with the same feature you don’t have to prod the screen really hard, and it’s a good thing seeing as the XPS’s lid is so thin. With minimum wobble from interaction, we found ourselves using it more, as much down to the quality of the hardware build as the software interaction.
While the 4K touchscreen looks truly phenomenal, it’s not necessary for many. Touchscreen on full Windows 10 is still a hindrance to productivity in some cases where using the trackpad or a mouse is simply easier, and the non-touchscreen version is still HD and fully adequate for all work and play uses and still bears a great resolution.
Keyboard and trackpad
The keyboard is brilliant, with a great level of physical resistance for longer typing sessions. Keys are well spaced with a textured finish and a two-level backlight.
The trackpad is smaller than we are used to on a MacBook, but aside from Apple’s masterful control input, it’s the best Windows trackpad we’ve ever used – responsive, smooth and accurate.
Its central position is preferable as the carbon fibre texture either side proves a comfortable palm rest. The cursor doesn’t randomly shake or fire off in the wrong direction in problems that plague other laptops.
For connectivity needs, the Dell has two Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports and a further USB-C 3.1 socket. All
share responsibilities for PowerShare, DC-In and DisplayPort. Dell has removed the SD card slot and all USB-A slots. We are going to all have to get used to USB-C as it turns up on the phones in our pockets and the laptops on our desks. One day it will hopefully be standardized well enough that we’ll all only need one charger for all our gadgets.
Unlike Apple, Dell puts a USB-A adaptor in the box, acknowledging the annoying transition.
There is a microSD card reader built in though, so if you have an Android phone with expandable storage or digital camera this might come in useful to transfer media. Otherwise, it’s a new standard to adjust to in 2018.
The 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-8550U CPU is overkill for most people, as most likely is the 16GB LPDDR3 2133MHz RAM. 8GB RAM should be enough for you even if you stick with the i7 model.
If you’re looking for the most powerful Dell ultrabook, note that the U-series processor used here is potentially less powerful than the quad-core HQ CPU used in the last generation of XPS 15. That said, speed increases thanks to 8th-gen are decent and reflected in our benchmarking.
The following results are encouraging for the new XPS 13. Its score in Geekbench 4, which measures raw processing power (CPU, GPU and RAM) was only just shy of the 2017 15in MacBook Pro.
The XPS notably outperformed the HP Spectre x360’s i7 set up, though aside from the lower Surface
Pro results, all these scores are comparable. The performance between the Dell XPS 13 and the latest 8th-gen Lenovo Yoga 920 is also very similar.
The PCMark 10 score for the XPS is also decent, with good results for Cinebench against the Surface Book 2, but considerably lower in 3DMark, meaning the XPS 13 is still not quite the machine you want to opt for if you want to indulge in very high-end graphical PC gaming. But for most gaming needs it’s not far off the competition.
Dell claims the 52Wh battery can run in some conditions for up to 19 hours. Bear in mind that Dell has cut this down from 60Wh from the previous generation. This is to save on weight and component space, while the next-gen processors should make the smaller capacity more efficient.
It certainly excels in battery life and charges remarkably fast with the supplied charger, but in our standard video test it didn’t hit 19 hours.
With a 720p video looping and with screen brightness at 120cd/m2 (40 percent in this case) the XPS 13 managed 10 hours, 51 minutes. This is highly respectable, but less than the 12 hours, 30 minutes of the previous generation model.
The latest HP Spectre x360 13 lasted 10 hours, 32 minutes with a 60Wh battery, so the latest XPS 13 wins in this regard with a lower capacity battery.
By far the best performing laptop we’ve tested for battery life is the Lenovo Yoga 920. It managed 16 hours, 45 minutes in the same test, which is utterly
amazing. It also costs less pound for pound when you compare similarly specified models to the XPS. It’ll come down to which design you prefer and if battery life matters that much to you (and it generally should).
Part of the reason for the difference is the Dell’s 52Wh battery in comparison to 70Wh, and its 4K resolution display. We are still at the stage where most mainstream streamed content is not 4K, but the XPS will have used more power even when playing 720p video. Unless you need 4K, you can spend less on the lower end XPS 13, though we haven’t received this model to see the presumed improvement in battery life.
A laptop that can go a full nine-hour work day away from the plug is a luxury, but Dell is still near the top of the pack, despite the XPS 13’s drop in battery longevity here.
With a headphone jack present, you’re able to plug in whenever. But the speakers are pretty decent too, with Waves MaxxAudio improving the clarity of streamed and downloaded video content. Paired with the 4K screen of our review unit, it makes for a very enjoyable Netflix experience. Like practically any laptop speaker though, it has its downsides, and we haven’t reached the point where a laptop speaker should keep the party going. There’s little to no distortion here though, so even the highest volumes are acceptable if needed.
In our time with the XPS 13 (2018), there’s not a lot to report other than you, of course, get Windows 10
Home. Business purchasers can opt for Windows 10 Pro. Having said this, Windows 10 has never looked – or performed – better on a Dell XPS. The combination of 4K display, fluid processing power and best-in-class keyboard and trackpad interaction mean this is the best compact laptop Windows 10 experience going. Even if you buy the entry-level Core i5 model, you’re getting the benefits, minus the 4K. As mentioned before, touchscreen interaction is a surprisingly good one here, but it’s not necessary. It’s down to the clean feel afforded by the trackpad and the excellent use of RAM to mean the XPS 13’s software feels truly part of the machine in a way only the truly best laptops do. It’s as good as you’ll find on a Microsoft Surface product.
If you need a compact, high performance Windows laptop, the Dell XPS 13 (2018) is the best laptop
you can buy alongside the HP Envy 13 (2018). It is competitively priced, and even the high-end touchscreen Core i7 model at £1,649 is at least £300 cheaper than the same spec 13in MacBook Pro.
In fact, for value for money, it is a better purchase than the Microsoft Surface Laptop as you get Windows 10 Home rather than Windows 10S, as well as saving at least £500.
For all but the most hardcore gamers (for whom this laptop is not the target audience) and those who really do want USB-A connectivity, there is not a better Windows laptop on the market. Henry Burrell
• 13.3in UltraSharp 4K Ultra HD (3840x2160) InfinityEdge touch display or 13.3in FHD (1920x1080) InfinityEdge display • Windows 10 Home or Pro • 8th Generation Intel Quad Core i5-8250U processor or Intel Quad Core i7-8550U processor • Intel UHD Graphics 620 • LPDDR3 4- to 8GB Dual Channel SDRAM at 1866MHz or 16GB Dual Channel SDRAM at 2133MHz • 128GB SATA, 256GB PCIe, 512GB PCIe, 1TB PCIe SSD • 52Wh battery (built in) • 2x Thunderbolt 3 with PowerShare, DC-In & DisplayPort • 1x USB-C 3.1 with PowerShareDC-In and DisplayPort • MicroSD card reader • 4 Digital Array Microphones • Full size, backlit chiclet keyboard 1.3mm travel
• Optional Windows Hello compliant fingerprint reader in power button • Bluetooth 4.1 • Miracast capable • 7.8-11.6302x199mm • 1.21kg
2. HP Envy 13 (2018)
Price: £849 inc VAT from fave.co/2NzBre8 Read our review on page 28.
3. Microsoft Surface Laptop
Price: £999 inc VAT from fave.co/2BTZ1O1 Our Surface Laptop review looks at Microsoft’s notebook in two ways: as a stylish ultrabook, designed and priced to compete with Apple’s MacBook Air for university students’ favour. But it’s also a machine purpose-built for Windows 10 S, which restricts users to Windows Store apps. We’ve therefore reviewed the Surface Laptop using its native Windows 10 S.
After using the Surface Laptop for several days as a Windows 10 S machine though, we can already say it does a great job of addressing exactly what students need. For other users intrigued by it though, we recommend looking a bit further afield, or at least bail out of Windows 10 S early on.
An ultrabook with style
The Surface Laptop follows in the formidable footsteps of the Surface Pro, Surface Book, and Surface Studio – all category-defining products with prices to match. It’s a striking ultrabook with prices that are attainable, if not exactly affordable. For now, it in four configurations: £949: 128GB SSD, Intel Core i5, 4GB RAM £1,249: 256GB SSD, Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM £1,549: 256GB SSD, Intel Core i7, 8GB RAM £2,149: 512GB SSD, Intel Core i7, 16GB RAM
Microsoft also separately ships a Surface Arc Mouse (priced £79 from fave.co/2MHiMxt), which is colour-coordinated to match the Surface Laptop. The Surface Pen (priced £99 from fave.co/2rkBIqM) and Surface Dial (priced £89 from fave.co/2rTQHVx) will work with the Laptop, but they’re not required.
We reviewed the £1,249 model, which we’d consider to be the price/performance sweet spot, assuming a university student with generous parents. Though gamers want 16GB of RAM, 8GB is sufficient for web browsing and some basic apps, and 256GB of storage is finally becoming more of the norm.
Just as important as what’s inside is the Surface Laptop’s outside, which is dressed to kill MacBook Airs. Lifting the tinted aluminium veneer of the lid to reveal the softer Alcantara fabric of the keyboard tray beneath evokes the elegance of a jewellery box. Microsoft also streamlined the exterior by eliminating the volume control rocker switch and power button, moving them to the keyboard.
The Surface Laptop is very thin, just 14.47mm at most, compared to the MacBook Air’s 17mm profile. At 308x223.2mm, it’s also a little smaller than the MacBook Air. Grab the Surface Laptop by its keyboard, and its 1.25kg weight will feel impressively light. There’s one catch: the base £949 Core i5 model ships only in the silvery ‘platinum’ colour. The only configuration to offer the three other colour options (graphite gold, burgundy, cobalt blue) is the model we tested. While Microsoft should eventually offer the extra colours across the entire product line, it hasn’t yet – a situation that’s sure to frustrate some consumers.
A surprising lack of ports
Thin ultrabooks have to give up something, and the Surface Laptop’s configuration is no different. Most of it is good: our unit houses a 2.5GHz Core i5-7200U, part of the 7th-generation Kaby Lake family. Each of the Core i5 options includes an Intel HD 620 graphics core, while the Core i7 version includes the powerful (for integrated graphics, that is) Iris Plus 640 core which we tested on the new Surface Pro. For essays and web browsing, an HD 620 core will be just fine.
One of the hallmarks of the Surface line-up is the display, and we enjoy the bright PixelSense 10-point touchscreens. The 13.5in (2,256x1,504, 201ppi) version, aligned in Microsoft’s standard 3:2 ratio, lives up to the name. The IPS panel pumps out 365 lumens, enough even for outdoor use. Some competing devices offer 4K displays. Keep in mind though, that pushing more pixels requires more power, and one of the strengths of the Surface Laptop is its excellent battery life.
On the right side of the Laptop is Microsoft’s Surface connector, maintaining compatibility with older chargers as well as optional peripherals such as the Surface Dock. The other ports – USB 3.0 Type A, Mini DisplayPort, headphone – appear on the left side of the chassis. There is no miniSD or other removable storage slot, recognition that photos and other files are more often stored online or on USB sticks. We can agree with that rationale, though the single USB-A port looks lonely, and the lack of USB-C is the opposite of future-proofing.
The Surface Laptop reclines about as far as the Surface Book, about 50 degrees or so off the
horizontal. Unlike the Surface Book, however, there’s no accordion hinge. Instead, an barely-visible hinge smoothly moves the display back and forth. The screen tends to wobble a bit when inking or when the keyboard moves sharply.
You can sum up the Surface Laptop’s keyboard simply: aside from one small modification, Microsoft bundled the Surface Pro’s backlit keyboard with the Surface Book’s touchpad. The space allocated to the keyboard
on both devices is the same – 4x 10.75in – and the touchpad dimensions on both the Book and the Laptop are identical. That said, the Surface Laptop’s typing experience falls slightly short of the Surface Book’s. We prefer the fluidity of the Surface Book’s keys. There’s also a bit of structural give in the Laptop’s keyboard that isn’t present on the Book. To test it, we placed a small screw between the R, T, F, and G keys. On the Laptop, we noticed a bit of bowing that wasn’t present on the Surface Book, which expresses itself as a slightly mushy feel that’s independent of the keys.
The Surface Laptop’s touchpad feels great, slightly oilier than the Book’s aluminium surface. Clicking and gestures worked as expected.
A pair of ‘omnisonic’ speakers are buried beneath the keyboard. The volume reaches satisfactory levels, slightly vibrating the keys as you type upon them. Naturally, there’s not a lot of bass, and we’d recommend using headphones.
Windows 10 S
In a bid to make the Surface Laptop as manageable as Chromebooks powered by Google’s Chrome OS, Microsoft designed the Surface Laptop and other education-minded PCs around Windows 10 S, an optimized version of Windows 10. Windows 10 S restricts Surface Laptop users to apps found within the Windows Store, and adds a few manageability features found in Windows 10 Pro to help administrators keep tabs on the devices.
Windows 10 S provides an extra layer of security, Microsoft says, as well as quicker boot times than
Windows 10 Pro. Holes have already been poked through these claims: the operating system was breached by a researcher using Word macros, which are only blocked if you have an Office 365 subscription. And in our tests, the Surface Laptop took 19 seconds to cold-boot to the desktop, compared to 14 seconds for a Surface Book running Windows 10 Pro. Our Surface Laptop did, however, come with device encryption enabled, helping protect files from unauthorized access. That’s a feature normally associated with Windows 10 Pro.
Restricting Windows 10 S users to the Windows Store understandably concerns some users. For
one, you’re subject to the whims of Microsoft: as longtime users know, Microsoft’s Store has ranged from abysmal to where it is now, an adequate to decent experience.
Unfortunately, not every app within the Store can be used by Windows 10 S, including some Win32 applications that Microsoft has begun publishing. If you do try to use a prohibited app, you’ll know it: a pop-up window will appear, with a link to the Windows 10 Pro upgrade at the bottom.
Microsoft recently made its Office apps accessible through the Store in preview, and they worked
smoothly, without any bugs that we could find. The Surface Laptop ships with a year’s subscription to Office 365 Personal, good for a single device like the Laptop.
The biggest app hurdle that Windows 10 S users will likely encounter, though, is something rather prosaic: their choice of browser. Because browsers such as Chrome, Firefox and Opera aren’t found within the Store, you’ll be forced to use Edge. Exporting bookmarks from another browser and importing them into Edge is simply a pain – and forget about saved passwords. Worse, Edge Favourites we’d saved in a Windows 10 Pro machine refused to carry over to Windows 10 S. Windows 10 S also returns search results from Bing alone, though nothing prevents you from bookmarking Google.co.uk.
That web-based approach works well for some apps that haven’t made it into the Store. We’ve never been a fan of using a dedicated Windows app for Twitter, for example, though we use Slack’s app. With Edge, we could put both services into a tab and snap them to a corner of our screen.
We were a little shocked to discover that apps we didn’t consider to be apps were also blocked, namely the Command Line. It doesn’t appear within Windows 10 S, and commands that would normally launch Command Line or PowerShell simply don’t work – or, if they do, a Command Line window will blink into existence and then ‘pop’, or crash.
For those users who want a little more, Windows 10 S does provide an escape hatch: a built-in upgrade path to Windows 10 Pro.
Because we couldn’t run many of our conventional benchmarks on Windows 10 S, we selected browserbased tests that could stress the Surface Laptop.
We compared it to machines including the Surface Book and the recent Surface Pro. Recall that Microsoft also claims the Core i5 Surface Laptop is 50 percent faster than the Core i7 MacBook Air. We didn’t have a recent MacBook Air to test, so we compared it to the 15in MacBook Pro, as well as a Core m3-based MacBook. The Surface Laptop was slower than all of them, at least where these browserbased benchmarks were concerned.
Just for fun, we also ran a built-in benchmark from Rise of the Tomb Raider, an game that’s available via the Windows Store. Thirty frames per second is considered to be the minimum for gameplay; the Surface Laptop’s 4fps is not remotely playable.
One of the areas in which Microsoft’s system absolutely shines, however, is battery life. We were a little sceptical at Microsoft’s claims of 13.5 hours for the Surface Pro proved to be only eight hours. We’re beginning to think that this may have been the fault of the Iris Plus chip, for the battery inside the Surface Laptop with Intel’s HD 620 lasted a whopping 12 hours,
45 minutes, continually stressed as we looped a 4K video. That stamina is what a student needs as they go from class to class and then to the library.
Oddly, the Surface Laptop feels like progress forward and back, all at once. Microsoft originally designed the Surface line-up to hustle its hardware partners faster into the future, implicitly stripping Apple of its design cachet and encouraging consumers to buy new PCs. Now, the Surface Laptop has stepped down a rung, challenging some of the cheaper, more mainstream product lines of its hardware partners to keep up. Laptops such as HP’s latest Spectre x360 already do, but other vendors could use a push.
• 13.5in (2256x1504, 201ppi) PixelSense Display, • Windows 10 S • Includes 1 year of Office 365 Personal • 7th Gen Intel Core i5 or i7 • 4-, 8- or 16GB RAM • 128-, 256- or 512GB SSD • Intel HD 620 (i5)/Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640 (i7) • 720p HD camera (front-facing) • Stereo microphones • 3.5mm headphone jack • USB 3.0 • Mini DisplayPort • Surface Connect • 802.11ac Wi-Fi wireless networking • Bluetooth 4.0 LE • 308x223.2x14.47mm • i5, 1.25kg; i7, 1.28kg
4. Dell XPS 15 9560 Price: £1,279 inc VAT from fave.co/2QX9LyQ
The Dell XPS 15 9560 is one of the best laptops in the world if you want a computer that can do just about everything, rather than one that weighs as much as a multi-pack of crisps. It has a powerful processor, a decent graphics chipset, surprisingly good battery life and an excellent screen. It’s also far smaller than the average 15in laptop. While we’d pick a 13in model to use on the road every day, this is one of the most portable 15in systems money can buy. There’s very little to dislike about this excellent laptop.
Design Dell’s latest offering looks and feels much like its predecessor, the XPS 15 9550. Its changes are all about the insides: upgrading the CPU to a 7th Generation Kaby Lake model, and the graphics to one of Nvidia’s great new 10-series cards.
The firm is still ahead of the competition here, though, thanks to the InfinityEdge screen. Its tiny bezels make this laptop unusually small for one with a 15in display. It’s 357mm wide when, for example, the 15in Asus ZenBook UX501 is 383mm wide. This makes the Dell that much easier to fit in a bag. Its dimensions are similar to those of the 15in MacBook Pro.
At 2kg, it’s perhaps a little heavy to carry with you all the time. However, it is certainly among the best options if you need a laptop with a powerful quad-core processor and a 15in screen.
The lid and underside of the XPS 15 are aluminium, but the insides around the keyboard are soft-touch carbon-fibre reinforced plastic. There’s a carbon fibrelike finish on the top to tell you it’s not plain plastic. This reinforcement ensure that the keyboard surround is very stiff, managing the unusual feat of making something that at first appears to be basic plastic seem high end. As with just about all of Dell’s more expensive laptops, the XPS 15 is exceptionally sturdy.
For all its forward-thinking design moves, there’s still more than a hint of that classic Dell pragmatism to the XPS 15, though. When the company designs a style laptop, you can tell it still wants it to look at home in a board meeting.
The XPS 15’s connections attempt to cover most bases too. There are two USB 3.0 ports as well as a newer USB-C shape 3.1 connector. For video there’s a full-size
HDMI, and on the right side is a full-size SD card slot. There’s no ethernet connector, but the USB-C could be ‘turned into’ one with the right adaptor, and Dell also makes a docking station for its laptops should you need true desktop-like connectivity. It costs around £155.
The XPS 15 also has a Kensington security slot and a little 5-LED display next to it, which displays the battery level when the button alongside is pressed.
Keyboard and touchpad
Some 15in laptops fit in a numberpad as well as the standard array of keys, but to do so with the Dell XPS 15 would be a serious stretch. Instead, it just has the standard layout, with larger, for example, Shift keys than you often see in a laptop.
All that space to the left and right of the keyboard may look a bit funny, but in use it’s a great setup. It means you’re always working at the centre of the laptop, not off to the side. The trackpad is right in the centre of the XPS 15, whereas on some 15- and 17in machines it’s located to one side. Although a subtle difference, it increases how intuitive the XPS 15 feels.
The quality of the keyboard is great, too. While key travel is ‘normal’ for a laptop rather than super-deep, the keys have a meaty feel provided by a decent less of resistance. There’s also a backlight that can be adjusted to two different levels
We’ve read a few criticisms about trackpads of previous Dell XPS 15 models, but this one is great. There’s no floaty feel, it’s not prone to misfiring right button clicks or phantom cursor lunges and the click action is spot on. There’s some resistance, but not so
much that quick double-taps are laboured. The surface of the trackpad is excellent too, made of textured glass with a super-soft finish.
Dell sent us the top-end version of the XPS 15, the one with an ultra-high resolution 4K (3,840x2,160) screen. This is like four 1080p screens stacked together.
It’s a very sharp display, but it’s the colour that impresses the most once you get over how small the screen surrounds are. It covers 99.9 percent of the sRGB colour standard, 96.9 percent of Adobe RGB and 91.4 percent of DCI P3. This is a professional quality screen in terms of colour. Films and games look fantastic, although the tone is a little cool/blueish.
We would also like to see slightly better contrast. While the 800:1 contrast is good, you can tell the blacks
are less than perfect in a room with mid-level lighting. Some of Dell’s older laptops manage over 1000:1, which would be ideal for a high-end IPS LCD like this.
To reiterate: we’re only complaining because the price is quite high and the screen is otherwise beautiful.
The 4K version is also a touchscreen (the 1080p models aren’t). In a laptop like this we don’t think it’s a must-have, but it’s a nice extra if you’re accustomed to using a tablet.
Our review unit has a quad-core Intel Core i7-7700HQ CPU and a borderline ridiculous (for most people) 32GB DDR4 RAM. However, for the most part the performance is going to be similar to the 16GB standard setup, as nothing we’re doing is going to be bottlenecked by 16GB, or even 8GB, of RAM.
This system is far more powerful than almost any other style-leaning laptop out there, because it uses a quad-core HQ CPU rather than the dual-core U-series ones seen in slim and light laptops. It has desktopreplacement style power, and that extends to the entry-level £1,279 Core i5 spec version, too.
In PCMark 8, it scores 2810 points and, the real telling score, 14,049 in Geekbench 4. That’s twice the score of the HP Spectre 13 (6894), which has an Intel Core i7 but the dual-core variety.
This is one of the smallest laptops ready to become a real workstation, if you upgrade the RAM to your requirements. However, it also uses a bit of system throttling to keep the fans quiet. For a laptop with a quad-core processor it’s eerily quiet most of the time,
and its P Mark score isn’t the best we’ve seen from a HQ i7 system.
The Dell XPS 15’s versatility doesn’t end there. On its release it was the first we’d seen with the new entry-level Nvidia GTX 1050 discrete graphics card. We were hoping this would usher in a new selection of affordable gaming laptops, but even though the 9560 isn’t cheap, the 1050 still lets you play games demanding games at decent frame rates.
At 1080p with the graphics maxed-out, Thief runs at 42.4fps. Alien: Isolation averages 60fps at 1080p. You won’t hit 60fps with very demanding games and this laptop isn’t perfect for VR or 4K gaming beyond casual titles that won’t benefit hugely from the pixels anyway. It is, however, a perfectly good gaming laptop. And a surprisingly decent given it’s only 17mm thick.
If you’re wondering how well those games run at 4K, the results are less-than-favourable. Thief averages 13.4fps, Alien: Isolation 21fps. Hardcore gamers should consider a laptop with a GTX 1060/1070/1080 instead, depending on your budget.
Given the processor power, we’d expect the Dell XPS 15 to last four- to five hours. That’s the standard for a very powerful performance laptop. The Dell XPS 15 sails through that, though. Playing a 720p video on loop at 120cd/m2 brightness, it lasts six hours, 24 minutes. Part of this is down to the use of a decent-sized 56Wh battery, but there’s far more to it.
Dell clearly uses much more dynamic (and invasive) power management than most, scaling back the CPU’s
power to suit the situation. This is also why it is so eerily quiet most of the time. We’ve noticed no obvious drawback, surprisingly. You don’t want to feel that shifting of gears or that any management of CPU clock speed is holding the laptop back, and we haven’t.
The Dell’s speakers are decent too, although they do not have much greater volume than some 13in laptops. Their tone is warmer than a MacBook’s, but with less pronounced treble.
The Dell XPS 15 is an amazingly flexible laptop, despite looking like an ordinary high-end one on the surface. It’s very powerful, but has unusually good battery life for its class. Also, it’s smaller than almost all other
15in laptops. Plus, the 4K display means it’s suited for professional design work. It’s also good-looking, and while not ultra-portable is not that heavy given the components inside. It makes the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar seem a bit frivolous in comparison, not to mention extremely expensive. Andrew Williams
• 15.6in (3840 x 2160) 4K 282ppi IPS LCD glossy • Windows 10 Home 64-bit • 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ (3.8GHz boost) 4 cores, 8 threads • Nvidia GTX 1050 GPU with 4GB RAM • Up to 32GB 2,400MHz DDR4 RAM • Up to 1TB SSD • 802.11b/g/n/ac single-band 2x2 MIMO • Bluetooth 4.1 • 1x USB-C 3.1 • 2x USB 3.0 • HDMI • Kensington security slot • SDXC card slot • Stereo speakers • HD webcam • Single mic • 3.5mm headset jack • UK tiled keyboard with numberpad • Two-button trackpad • 57Wh lithium-ion battery, removable • 357x235x17mm • 2kg • One year on-site warranty
5. Lenovo IdeaPad 720S Price: £899 inc VAT from fave.co/2ft5LYM
The Lenovo IdeaPad 720S is a laptop with it all. It looks great, feels expensive, is powerful enough for most people’s needs and is even much better at gaming than virtually all style laptops twice the price.
Those desperate to be negative could call it a jack of all trades. And, sure enough, you can find lighter, longer-lasting models if you look. However, at the price this is a jaw-droppingly versatile machine that is extremely likeable and a fantastic buy if you like to unwind with a game or two on occasion.
While a lovely laptop even without its extra gaming credibility, the Lenovo’s discrete GPU is a key reason to buy. You don’t often see laptops this slim that can handle games reasonably well.
Looks are subjective, but we think the 720S is a stunner in this class. Lenovo has a knack for making simple but attractive premium laptops. This is a great example of one. It’s all-aluminium apart from the keyboard keys and the glass over the screen, and unlike Asus and Acer rivals, Lenovo hasn’t embellished the 720S with any extra textures. Everything has a relaxed anodized finish. Some may find it boring, but we see new laptops all the time and to our eyes it’s clean, and has enough Lenovo flavour to avoid looking generic. Look at the shape of the keys: Lenovo’s have an almost cutesy roundness that’s different from a Dell, Apple or Asus laptop. The 720S is also one of the first slightly more affordable laptops to have a very slim screen surround. While we know £899 is still a significant outlay for anyone, this is an alternative to laptops that cost well over £1,000. With just a 4mm between
the end of the display and the edge of the laptop, the Lenovo fits a 14in screen into the footprint of a traditional 13in slim laptop, like the older generation HP Envy 13. It’s rapidly becoming the norm for higher end portable laptops, although the Acer Swift 3 still has a thicker surround.
Svelte display design aside though, the 720S doesn’t try to compete with the thinnest and lightest laptops around. It’s 16mm thick and weighs 1.55kg (our review model is 1,492g according to our scales). That’s a couple of hundreds grammes heavier than some, but light enough for every day portable use. And, let’s not forget, it also has a discrete graphics chipset to weigh it down.
Build quality is excellent for a sub-£1,000 laptop, too. The screen doesn’t flex and the keyboard area is extremely rigid, similar to that of a MacBook. There are even some neat aesthetic touches we don’t expect in a laptop that keeps an eye on the budget. For example, the cut-outs for the connections on the sides are all bevelled rather than square-cut, exposing tiny slivers of bright, non-anodized aluminium. It demonstrates real attention to detail.
Ports and connections
The 720S also has connectors commonly being removed from today’s most fashionable laptops. As well as a Thunderbolt 3.0-compatible USB-C port there are two full-size USB 3.0 sockets, a full-size HDMI and an SD card slot.
Your experience may vary, but it’s everything we look for in a portable laptop used daily for work.
Other light laptops are starting to use USB-C to function as both power connector and data socket, but the 720S still has a separate cylindrical power plug.
Keyboard and touchpad
We’ve already mentioned that the keyboard looks a little different from the crowd thanks to their curvy keys. However, the typing experience is familiar.
The keys are slightly shallow, but have decent definition and reasonable resistance. Those
desperate for a meatier feel should look at the Lenovo ThinkPad 13, although we’re confident most will get on with the 720S’s just fine.
It also has a backlight. Press the Fn key and the space bar and the under-key LEDs cycle between two intensity levels, providing a soft white/blue glow for late-night typing.
We’re also rather impressed by the trackpad. This is one of the more affordable laptops we’ve seen recently to use a textured glass pad rather than a plastic one. It offers a smoother glide. The ThinkPad X1 Carbon’s is softer and smoother still, but that laptop also costs £800 more.
Next to the pad sits an indented fingerprint scanner. It lets you login to windows securely with a quick press, and is among the more reliable we’ve used.
Laptop finger scanners are often a little flaky, requiring a few attempts to work. However, the Lenovo seems to work every time.
Like the Acer Swift 3, one feature the 720S lacks is an ultra-high resolution screen. 1080p resolution across 14 inches makes pixilation fairly obvious if you look for it. However, most rivals charge more for a true highresolution panel, including the Dell XPS 13. The HP Envy 13 has even dropped from 3,200x1,800 resolution to 1080p in its latest iteration. Strangely, it was easier to get a sub-£1,000 high-res laptop a year or two ago. This isn’t a touchscreen, despite having a tablet-like glossy, glass-topped finish. This is a laptop without even a hint of hybrid to it.
Colour and contrast are good, however. The 720S covers a respectable, if not truly impressive, 80.9 percent of the sRGB colour standard, 57.6 percent of Adobe RGB and 60.3 percent of DCI P3. It’s not deep enough for design pros, but thanks to very good contrast it’ll do the trick for the rest of us.
Contrast is 1023:1, which is enough to make blacks look convincing even in a low-lit room.
Given the glossy surface though, we’d have liked to see slightly higher brightness. The 720S reaches a respectable 305cd/m2 at max backlight, but others get closer to 340- to 350cd/m2. This will be useful on a sunny day. However, it is still significantly brighter than the new Acer Swift 3.
The Lenovo has a 7th generation Intel Core i5-7200U processor with 8GB of DDR4 RAM. For an extra £100 you can upgrade to the i7-7500U model.
For the kind of uses that suit this portable laptops best, though, many may not notice that much difference between the two.
This a quick and responsive laptop. Day-to-day this is improved by the responsive and reliable finger scanner, and fast all-SSD storage. The 256GB drive reads at 1,558MB/s and writes at 595MB/s. While not the absolute fastest by current SSD standard, it’s enough to make the laptop feel much quicker than any hard drive model. There’s enough power and RAM to let you use applications such as Photoshop, and to browse away with far too many windows open without the 720S slowing to a crawl.
We did notice, however, that benchmark results are slightly lower than some laptops we’ve reviewed with the same CPU. For example, it scores 6,940 in Geekbench 4, whereas the Acer Swift 5 managed 7,424. Geekbench 4 results vary a little between attempts, but a consistent slight lowering of performance suggests some throttling. This will be in order to keep temperatures at manageable levels.
The fan system is reasonably quiet even under stress, and in our experience its revolutions per minute (speed) doesn’t jump about too much. This helps it avoid becoming too intrusive. However, like most slim laptops the fan has a relatively small diameter, so does become high-pitch under pressure.
This is among a new wave of laptop with real, if modest, gaming abilities. As well as a Core i5
processor, the 720S has an Nvidia GT940MX GPU with 2GB RAM.
It makes playing modern games for more enjoyable than most other slim laptops, with up to double the frame rates of a machine using an integrated graphics chipset. For example, Alien: Isolation runs at an average of 64fps at 720p, low settings rather than around 30fps.
This gives you much more headroom to make the game look better. At 1080p, maxed settings it runs at an average 26.4fps. That’s below the ideal minimum of 30fps, but shows that if you tweak the settings a little you’ll be able play comfortably in Full HD.
A more demanding game such as Deus Ex: Human Revolution shows that the GT940MX isn’t a replacement for a higher-end rig, though. At 720p resolution, low graphics, the game is playable at an average 29.2fps. However, at 1080p ultra it plays at a very slow 10.3fps.
Given the laptop is 16mm thick, 1.55kg and not ridiculously expensive, we think this sort of gaming performance is great.
However, there’s just one issue: the GT 940M is now an older chipset, and Nvidia has already released a next-generation follow-up, the MX150. We haven’t reviewed a laptop with this graphics processor yet, but early indications suggest a worthwhile 33 percent boost. HP already uses the MX150 in its 2017 model Envy 13, which is £100 more expensive than the 720S but otherwise looks very appealing.
That’s something to think about if you’re intending on playing games.
The 720S has a four-cell 56Wh battery, a nonremovable unit of solid if ‘normal’ capacity. It had us worrying the use of discrete graphics might lead to uninspiring battery life. We needn’t have worried.
When playing back a 720p video on loop, the Lenovo IdeaPad 720S lasts 12 hours, five minutes, a very respectable upper-ranking result. As long as you keep the exertion level reasonably low, you’ll easily get a full day’s work out of a charge.
Unusually, this is when the laptop is used at 79 percent screen brightness, too. This isn’t something to get excited about, though. The Lenovo IdeaPad 720S uses a rather odd brightness curve that only reaches our test level of 120cd/m2 at that point. It’s the sort of brightness you might use indoors.
The speakers are solid too, if a little too reliant on their Dolby Atmos processing. This maximizes the
impression of volume using dynamic compression: so the solo guitar into to a song might sound very loud, only to drop in volume as the rest of the band come in. Actual volume isn’t close to that of a MacBook, but there is at least enough richness to the sound to avoid a thin, ugly tone.
The Lenovo IdeaPad 720S is a laptop that proves you can sometimes get more if you pay less. Its more versatile than a lot of £1,000-plus portable laptops because it has a separate graphics card, making it a passable gaming machine. That it adds this without ruining battery life or portability is excellent. It is one of the most versatile portables around.
The one regret is that the laptop doesn’t have Nvidia’s latest GeForce MX150 graphics, using the older 940MX kind instead. However, maybe we shouldn’t complain too much if such a move would have added substantially to the price.
• 14in (1920x1080) 1080p 157ppi IPS LCD glossy • 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7200U (3.1GHz boost) two cores, four threads • Windows 10 Home (64-bit) • Nvidia GeForce GT 940MX 2GB GDDR5 • 8GB 2,133MHz DDR4 RAM • 256GB SSD • 802.11b/g/n/ac single-band 2x2 MIMO • Bluetooth 4.1 • 1x USB-C 3.1
• 2x USB 3.0 • HDMI • Kensington Security Slot • SDXC card slot • Stereo speakers • HD webcam • Single mic • 3.5mm headset jack • UK tiled keyboard with numberpad • Two-button trackpad • 56Wh lithium-ion battery, removable • 320.7x222.8x15.9mm • 1.55kg (1,492g measured) • 1-year on-site warranty
If you are going to be using your laptop out of the office, then portability will be an important consideration
We recommend you look at a laptop’s battery life if you are going to be away from mains power for extended periods of time
The Dell has a fantastic keyboard
The XPS 13 comes with Windows 10 Pro
The Surface laptop is available in four different colours
Microsoft’s Surface Arc Mice are colour-coordinated to match its laptops
A pair of ‘omnisonic’ speakers are buried beneath the keyboard
You can move apps around like any other file, but you simply can’t run them unless they’re Microsoft-approved
Many common apps aren’t in the Microsoft Store. Fortunately, Microsoft Office is one of the exceptions, though you’ll need to use the built-in ‘Get Office’ app to find it
The Surface Laptop is a stylish machine
Dell’s XPS 15 9560 is a great allround laptop
The Dell offers a decent selection of ports
We were impressed by the XPS 15’s keyboard and trackpad
This is a fantasticlooking laptop
The IdeaPad 720S is a powerful and stylish laptop
The 720S fits a 14in screen into the footprint of a 13in laptop
We were impressed by the Lenovo’s trackpad
This a quick and responsive laptop
The Lenovo’s battery lasts over 12 hours, which will be more than enough for most people
The IdeaPad is one of the most versatile portables on the market