Best Windows laptop 2021: Top notebooks compared

If you’re looking for a new laptop, Windows is likely to be your first choice of operating system simply because of its dominant market share. Windows accounted for 75.4% of the desktop (and laptop) market in September 2021, according to StatCounter, with MacOS a distant second on 15.9%, and Chrome OS (2.57%) and Linux (2.35%) in single-figure territory. Windows 10 was the leading Windows version in September at 79.8%, followed by Windows 7 (14.8%), Windows 8.1 (3.37%) and Windows 8 (1.16%).

Windows 11 began rolling out on October 5, and its progress in the OS marketplace will, of course, be closely tracked. Support for Windows 10 expires on October 14 2025.

See: Windows 11 hands on: Microsoft’s biggest minor upgrade ever is all about new hardware

Windows dominates the PC operating system market thanks to its long-time availability on a wide range of OEM (and more recently, Microsoft) hardware, which has resulted in a huge variety of software written for the platform. That’s not to say it’s necessarily the ‘best’ operating system, but you’re probably going to need a good reason to overlook it in favour of MacOS, Chrome OS or Linux.

You might, for example, choose MacOS to run creative software on premium hardware or because your company already embraces Apple’s ecosystem. Linux might get the nod for its free, open-source and increasingly usable nature or because it’s less of a target for cybercriminals than Windows. And Chrome OS-based Chromebooks offer an affordable and increasingly popular platform for web-based productivity apps and virtual desktops.

So, given that you’re in the market for a Windows 10 or 11 laptop, which one should you buy? As ever, that depends on what you want to do with it and how much budget is at your disposal.

Here are ZDNet’s current picks for a variety of use cases.

Best for knowledge workers


OS  Windows 11 (Home, Pro), Windows 10 (Home) | CPU  Intel Core i3-1115G4, Core i5-1135G7, Core i7-1185G7, Core i7-1195G7 | GPU  Intel UHD Graphics (Core i3), Intel Iris Xe Graphics | RAM  8GB, 16GB, 32GB | Storage  256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB | Screen  13.4in. InfinityEdge, 1920 x 1200 (169ppi, non-touch/touch), 3840 x 2400 (338ppi, touch), 500 nits | Wireless  Bluetooth 5.1, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) | Ports and slots  2x USB-C/Thunderbolt 4, MicroSD | Camera  HD (720p) RGB and IR | Audio  2 mics, stereo speakers, 3.5mm headphone/mic jack | Battery  52Wh (14h 11m FHD+, 8h 12m 4K+/UHD+) | Dimensions  295.7 x 198.7 x 14.8mm | Weight  1.2kg (non-touch), 1.27kg (touch) | Price  from $970 (Core i3), $1,070 (Core i5), $1,970 (Core i7)

Knowledge workers spend a lot of time staring at the screen and pounding the keyboard, mostly running a mix of productivity and collaboration apps. As well as a decent screen and keyboard, knowledge workers need solid all-round performance, a spare connection for an external monitor, if required, and a good webcam/mic/speaker combo for handling video calls (this will be particularly important if the user is also working remotely). Many devices could perform these duties, but the Dell XPS 13 currently leads the field, in our opinion.

Powered by 11th-generation Intel Core i3, 15 or i7 processors with integrated Intel (UHD or Iris Xe) Graphics, the 13.4-inch XPS 13 is compact and lightweight, yet durable. The minimal-bezel InfinityEdge display is available in FHD+ (non-touch/touch) or 4K+/UHD+ (touch) resolutions with 16:10 aspect ratio, while the keyboard is quiet, responsive and comfortable to type on at speed. All-day battery life should be achievable from the 52Wh battery, depending on the workload mix and screen resolution/brightness setting. It’s not cheap, especially if you add copious options (such as a Thunderbolt Dock), but it will serve you very well.

Dell offers a variant of the XPS 13 with an OLED touch display featuring ‘3.5K’ resolution (3456 x 2160 pixels, 304ppi), 100% DCI-P3 colour gamut coverage, DisplayHDR 500 and Dolby Vision certification, and 400 nits maximum brightness.

Read the review: Dell XPS 13 review

Here are some other highly-regarded contenders for knowledge/remote workers, in order of increasing screen size: 

Best for mobile professionals


OS  Windows 10 (Home, Pro) | CPU  Intel Core i3-1115G4, Core i5-1135G7, Core i5-1145G7 vPro (G2 only); Core i7-1165G7, Core i7-1185G7 vPro (G2 and Max) | GPU  Intel UHD Graphics (Core i3), Iris Xe Graphics | RAM  8GB, 16GB, 32GB | Storage  128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB | Screen  13.3in. IPS, 1920 x 1080 touch screen, 400 nits; 1920 x 1080 touch screen + HP Sure View, 1000 nits (only option on Max); 3840 x 2160 touch screen, 550 nits | Wireless  Bluetooth 5.0, 802.11ax (WiFi 6), 4G LTE (option), 5G (option) | Ports and slots  2x USB-C/Thunderbolt 4, USB 3.2, HDMI 2.0, Nano SIM (for optional WWAN) | Cameras  HD (720p) + IR (G2), 5MP + IR (Max) | Audio  3 mics (G2), 4 mics (Max), 4 stereo speakers, 3.5mm headphone/mic jack | Battery  38Wh, 56Wh | Dimensions  304 x 198 x 16mm | Weight  0.98kg (G2), 1.13kg (Max) | Price  G2 from $2,572 (i3-1115G4), $2,770 (i5-1135G7), $2,984 (i5-1145G7), $3,124 (i7-1165G7), $3,421 (i7-1185G7); Max from $2,409 (i7-1165G7), $2,622 (i7-1185G7)

Mobile professionals ask a lot of laptop designers: a usable and performant combination of lightweight, flexible configuration, sturdy build, connectivity, security, battery life and design credibility. It’s a tall order to shoehorn all of that into one product, but HP gives it an exemplary go with the 13.3-inch Elite Dragonfly. We were extremely impressed with the first-generation Elite Dragonfly, and at CES 2021, HP announced the Elite Dragonfly G2 and Elite Dragonfly Max, based on Intel’s latest 11th-generation processors, which are both now available.

The Elite Dragonfly G2 ticks most of the boxes for mobile pros who don’t mind paying for a premium device: prices for the (just) sub-1kg G2 start at $2,572 for an entry-level Core i3 model, but can rise to over $5,000 if you max out on the options. It has an elegant sub-1kg chassis with MIL-STD 801G robustness and a 360-degree FHD (non-touch/touch) or UHD (touch) screen. The spill-resistant, backlit keyboard has a good, firm action and is not too loud, while the glass multi-touch touchpad works smoothly, as do the integrated mouse buttons. Options include mobile broadband (4G LTE or 5G), a Wacom AES 2.0 Pen and integrated Tile tracking, and there’s an electronic privacy slider for the HD (720p) IR webcam. Video calls are well served by the combination of the webcam, 3-mic array and 4-speaker system, and both standard (38Wh) and long-life (56Wh) batteries are available — the latter to serve the power-hungry 4K (UHD) screen.

Read the review: HP Elite Dragonfly G2 review

The Elite Dragonfly Max is only available with Core i7 processors and lacks the 4K screen option. It also has four rather than three mics (2 world-facing, 2 user-facing) and a 5MP IR camera with a manual rather than electronic privacy shutter. The G2 and Max both have two USB-C/Thunderbolt 4 ports, a USB 3.2 port and an HDMI port.

Even though mobile professionals have been considerably less mobile during the coronavirus pandemic, ultraportables and convertibles remain a growth area in the PC market, and there are many devices out there. If the Elite Dragonfly G2 doesn’t do it for you, here are four more highly regarded contenders, in order of increasing screen size:

Best for power users and creators


Images: Dell

OS  Windows 11 (Home, Pro), Windows 10 (Home, Pro) | CPU  Intel Core i5-11400H, Core i7-11800H, Core i9-11900H | GPU   Intel UHD Graphics, Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050, RTX 3050 Ti | RAM  8GB, 16GB, 32GB, 64GB | Storage  256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB, 4TB, 8TB | Screen  15.6in. FHD+ (1920 x 1200) non-touch, 500 nits; 3.5K (3456 x 2160) OLED touch, 400 nits; UHD+ (3840 x 2400) touch, 500 nits | Wireless  Bluetooth 5.1, Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) | Ports and slots  USB-C, 2x USB-C/Thunderbolt 4, SD card reader | Camera 720p HD | Audio   dual array mics, stereo woofers/tweeters, 3.5mm audio in/out | Battery  56Wh (standard), 86Wh (extended) | Dimensions  345mm x 230mm x 18mm | Weight  from 1.81kg | Price  from $1,300 (Core i5), $1,900 (Core i7), $1,950 (Core i9)

Laptops designed for power users and creators are always going to command premium prices because they need high-end features such as serious processing power, powerful discrete graphics, copious memory and storage, a high-quality screen and robust industrial design.

Dell’s 2020 XPS 15, which featured a redesigned chassis, “set a new high bar for 15.6-inch laptops”, according to ZDNet’s review. The 2021 (9510) model retains that sturdy build quality, adding 11th-generation Intel Core processors, Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 graphics, and an OLED display option. Starting at $1,300, the XPS 15 remains a top-quality high-end laptop for users who need to run demanding workloads.

That entry-level $1,300 price buys you a Core i5 processor with integrated UHD Graphics, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB PCIe SSD and an FHD+ (1920 x 1200) non-touch display with 500 nits maximum brightness. There are multiple configuration options, topping out at $4,600 for a Core i9 processor, GeForce RTX 3050 Ti graphics with 4GB of dedicated video memory, 64GB of RAM, 8TB of SSD storage (2x 4TB) and a UHD+ (3840 x 2400) touch display with 500 nits maximum brightness.

There are plenty of other Windows laptops that can handle video editing and other creative workloads. Here are some more leading 15-inch contenders:

Read more: Best laptop for graphic design in 2021

Best for workstation users


OS: Windows 10 (Pro) | CPU: Intel Core i7-10750H, Xeon W-10855M vPro | GPU: Nvidia Quadro T1000 with Max-Q (4GB), Quadro T2000 with Max-Q (4GB) | RAM: 16GB, 64GB | Storage: 512GB, 1TB | Screen: 15.6in. IPS FHD (1920 x 1080), 500 nits; OLED 4K (3840 x 2160), 400 nits, touch screen | Wireless: Bluetooth 5.1, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) | Ports and slots: 2x USB-A 3.2, 2x USB-C Thunderbolt 3, HDMI 2.0, SD Card Reader | Cameras: 720p camera with ThinkShutter; hybrid IR and 720p HD camera with ThinkShutter (option) | Audio: 2x far-field mics, 2x 2W stereo speakers (Dolby Atmos-certified), 3.5mm combo audio jack | Battery: 80Wh (15.9-17.1h), Rapid Charge (80% in 1h) | Dimensions: 18.4mm x 361.8mm x 245.7mm | Weight: 1.7kg | Price: $1,649 (Core i7-10750H), $2,849 (Xeon W-10855M)

Many people require more compute, graphics, memory and storage than even a power user/creator laptop provides. These demanding professionals include 3D designers, architects, engineers, scientists, video editors, VR developers and more, and what they need is a full-blown mobile workstation.

As well as Core i7/i9/Xeon or Ryzen 9 CPUs, Nvidia Quadro or Radeon Pro GPUs, at least 16GB of RAM (32GB or more preferable) and multiple terabytes of storage, workstation-class laptops need high-quality IPS or OLED screens with high resolution (4K preferable) and good colour space support (sRGB, Adobe RGB, DCI-P3). They also need certifications from ISVs (Independent Software Vendors) such as Adobe, Autodesk, Avid and others, to signify that specific configurations are optimised for mission-critical apps.

The leading mobile workstation vendors are Dell, HP and Lenovo, but your search for a suitable solution may also encompass recent entrants from the gaming market such as Gigabyte, MSI and Razer. We’ve chosen a top-end model from a tier-1 vendor, in the shape of Lenovo’s “ultra-premium and luxury in a workstation” ThinkPad P1 Gen 3.

This 15.6-inch clamshell device is a typically black-clad, robust (MIL-STD 810G) ThinkPad with the usual excellent keyboard and signature red TrackPoint. In the US, an entry-level model with an Intel Core i7-10750H processor, 8GB of RAM, 512GB of SSD storage, an FHD (1920 x 1080, 141.2ppi) 500 nits IPS screen and Nvidia Quadro T1000 graphics costs $1,649. That won’t cut the mission-critical mustard, though, so buyers may be drawn to the $2,849 model with a Xeon W-10855M processor, 64GB RAM, a 1TB PCIe SSD, a 4K (3840 x 2160, 282.4ppi) 400 nits OLED touch screen and Nvidia Quadro T2000 graphics.

Read the review: Lenovo ThinkPad P1

These are ‘clearance’ prices because the ThinkPad P1 line has now been refreshed with a Gen 4 model. This increases the screen size to 16 inches (but drops the OLED option), runs on 11th generation Core and Xeon processors and offers wide range of Nvidia GPU options (T1200; RTX A2000, A3000, A4000, A5000; GeForce RTX 3070, 3080). The ThinkPad P1 Gen 4 currently starts at $1,859 for a Core i7 variant, rising to $4,929 for a configuration with a Core i9 processor.

If a 15.6-inch or 16-inch screen isn’t large enough for you, here’s a couple of 17.3-inch mobile workstations to consider:

Best for budget-limited users


OS  Windows 10 (Home) | CPU  AMD Ryzen 5 4500U, Ryzen 7 4700U, Ryzen 5700U | GPU  AMD Radeon Graphics (integrated) | RAM  8GB, 16GB | Storage  256GB, 512GB, 1TB | Screen  14in. IPS, 1920 x 1080 (157ppi) | Wireless  Bluetooth 5.0, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) | Ports and slots  USB-C, USB 3.2, USB 2.0, HDMI | Camera  HD (720p) | Audio  1 mic, stereo speakers, 3.5mm headphone/mic combo | Battery  48Wh (11h) | Dimensions  323 x 218 x 18mm | Weight  1.2kg | Price  from $630 (Ryzen 5 4500U), $700 (Ryzen 7 5700U), $800 (Ryzen 7 4700U)

Not everyone can afford the laptop they might like to have (students and employees of small businesses spring to mind), but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for a substandard device. The top-tier manufacturers all have ‘affordable’ ranges, and there’s any number of unashamedly budget brands, many of which offer excellent-value devices. Our choice, Acer’s AMD-powered Swift 3, is from a top-tier vendor and gets the nod thanks to its excellent combination of sub-$1,000 price and solid performance without making too many trade-offs on features, build quality or support options. (Note: Chromebooks, another rich seam of budget laptops, are covered elsewhere in this article.)

Key to the Swift 3’s value proposition is AMD’s Ryzen 4000 mobile processor series, which delivers excellent price/performance compared to Intel’s equivalent chips. (Note: at CES 2021 AMD announced the latest Ryzen 5000 mobile processors with significant claimed improvements in performance and power consumption.) Not only is the CPU, 8GB or 16GB of RAM and up to 1TB of storage well up to scratch, but wireless connectivity — Bluetooth 5.0 and 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) wi-fi — is bang up to date, which is impressive in this price band. The 14-inch FHD screen is perfectly adequate, although some may find that its matte finish and moderate brightness make it somewhat lacklustre. The Swift 3’s build quality is good, there’s a good selection of ports, the keyboard is backlit, and you can expect to get a full day’s (not too demanding) work done on battery power (Acer claims 11 hours). It’s not too heavy either, at 1.2kg. Starting at $630 (with a Ryzen 5 4500U processor), the Swift 3 is excellent value.

Read the review: Acer Swift 3 review CNET

As noted earlier, there’s any number of affordable laptops out there, and you can easily find usable Windows 10 devices for under $250 if that’s your budget limit. If you’ve got a bit more to spend, here’s two more good-value laptops from top vendors:

Read more: Best budget laptop for under $350: Top expert picks.

Best for field workers


OS  Windows 11 (Pro), Windows 10 (Pro) | CPU  Core i3-7130U, Core i5-8350U, Core i7-8650U | GPU  Intel HD 620 Graphics | RAM  8GB, 16GB, 32GB | Storage  128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB | Screen  14in. WVA, 1920 x 1080 (non-touch, non-touch/outdoor-readable, touch/outdoor-readable) | Wireless  Bluetooth 4.2, 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5), 4G LTE (option) | Ports and slots  3x USB 3.0, USB-C, RS-232 serial, RJ-45 Ethernet, HDMI, SD card slot, SIM slot, SmartCard reader (option) | Cameras  FHD web or IR camera with privacy shutter (option) | Audio  2 mics, speaker, 3.5mm headphone/mic combo jack | Battery  51Wh, optional 2nd 51Wh hot-swap battery | Dimensions  347mm x 244mm x 32.8mm (ex. bumpers and handle) | Weight  from 2.22kg (1 battery, no handle) | Price  from $2,264 (Core i3), $2,346 (Core i5), $2,625 (Core i7)

Laptops must often brave the elements, which can include bright sunshine, rain, a dust storm, baking heat, serious vibration, and drops from a variety of heights onto different surfaces. No wonder that ‘rugged’ laptops come in many shades — ‘extreme’ or ‘fully’ rugged, ‘semi’ or ‘business’ rugged, for example. Two main classifications are used to assess the ruggedness of laptops and other equipment: the US military’s MIL-STD 810 series (commonly 810G, or the latest 810H); and the IP or Ingress Protection code. There are numerous MIL-STD 810 tests, and most laptops will only undergo a subset, so check the specs carefully to see which they are. The IP code reports two numbers, the first concerning resistance to solids (5 denotes ‘dust protected’, for example, while 6 means a device is ‘dust tight’) and the second to liquids (1 = ‘dripping water’, 9K = ‘powerful high-temperature water jets’).

Our choice in this tough-laptop category, Dell’s 14-inch Latitude 5420 Rugged Business Laptop, isn’t the most bulletproof portable computer on the market by any means, but it offers a good mix of price, performance, features and robustness for business users. Like all rugged laptops, the Latitude 5420 is bulkier and heavier than mainstream devices, thanks to extra protection for the screen and keyboard sections. Still, it weighs a reasonable (for its class) 2.22kg with one battery and no (optional) handle. You can specify a second hot-swappable 51Wh battery to ensure greater longevity in the field. The 14-inch FHD screen comes in touch, non-touch and outdoor-readable versions, and there’s plenty of configurable wired and wireless connectivity, including Ethernet and (optional) 4G LTE broadband. If you need a portable computer that can take a few knocks, this is an excellent choice that’s already available with Windows 11.

Read the review: Dell Latitude 5240 Rugged review

Dell has the widest range of rugged laptops among the top-tier laptop-makers, but there are a number of specialist vendors, including Getac, Xplore, DT Research and Panasonic. The latter’s Toughbooks are probably the best-known specialist brand. Here are some notable examples:

Read more: Best rugged laptop in 2021

Best for early adopters


OS  Windows 10 (Home, Pro) | CPU  Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2 5G Compute Platform | GPU  Qualcomm Adreno GPU | RAM  up to 16GB | Storage  up to 512GB | Screen  13.5in. 1920 x 1280 Edge-to-Edge Glass, 10-point multi-touch | Wireless  Bluetooth LE 5.0, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6), 4G LTE and 5G mobile broadband | Ports and slots  2x USB-C 3.2, Nano SIM | Camera  HD IR + hybrid Y2.2mm HD webcam | Audio  2x front-facing mics, 4x stereo speakers, 3.5mm headphone/mic combo jack | Battery  up to 24.5h of local video playback | Dimensions  299mm x 230mm x 15.9mm | Weight  1.3kg | Price  from $1,419

A subset of the laptop-buying population will always be hankering after the latest form factors and platforms, and CES is the place to get a first look at what’s in store for the coming year. Despite being online-only due to the coronavirus pandemic, CES 2021 didn’t disappoint, offering up a healthy crop of cutting-edge industrial designs and configurations.

We’ve picked out HP’s Elite Folio, a 13.5-inch 2-in-1 device, because it shows how Windows laptops are developing in response to Apple’s Arm-based M1 MacBooks. The Elite Folio runs Windows on Arm on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2 5G platform, which includes both 4G LTE and 5G modems, along with Wi-Fi 6. The message is that this ultraportable (1.3kg) 2-in-1 is ‘always on, always connected’, with claimed battery life of up to 24.5 hours of ‘local video playback’. With optional Sure View privacy for the touch screen, an Elite Slim Active Pen (with on-device storage and charging), a well-specified audio-video subsystem and fanless operation, this is a sought-after laptop for the well-heeled mobile professional.

The Elite Folio’s Arm-based processor certainly delivers on battery life (ZDNet’s review recorded battery life of around 15 hours with mixed-use workloads), but there is a trade-off in that Windows 10 on Arm (WoA) can currently only run 32-bit Windows apps. Intel x64 emulation is coming to WoA, however, and is available now via the Windows Insider Program. ARM64-native apps are appearing too, and include Microsoft’s Teams and Edge, and Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom.

Read review: HP Elite Folio review

There are plenty of other innovative laptop form factors out there that might catch the eye of the early adopter. Here’s a selection:

Read more: Best CES 2021 laptops: Top notebooks, 2-in-1s, and ultraportables

Best for Surface users


OS  Windows 10 (Home, Pro) | CPU  Intel Core i5-1135G7, Core i7-1185G7, AMD Ryzen 5 4680U (13.5in.) • Core i7-1185G7, AMD Ryzen 7 4980U | GPU  Intel Iris Xe Graphics, AMD Radeon Graphics | RAM  8GB, 16GB, 32GB | Storage  256GB, 512GB, 1TB | Screen  13.5in. PixelSense, 2256 x 1504 (201ppi) • 15in. PixelSense, 2496 x 1664 (201ppi), 10pt multi-touch | Wireless  Bluetooth 5.0, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) | Ports and slots: USB-C, USB-A, Surface Connect | Cameras  Windows Hello, 720p HD f2.0 | Audio  2 far-field Studio Mics, Omnisonic speakers with Dolby Audio, 3.5mm headphone jack | Battery  47.4Wh (19h AMD, 17h Intel, 13.5-inch • 17.5h AMD, 16.5h Intel, 15-inch) | Dimensions  308 x 223 x 14.5mm (13.5in.), 339.5 x 244 x 14.7mm (15in.) | Weight  13.5-inch: 1.26kg (Alcantara), 1.29kg (metal) • 15-inch: 1.54kg | Price  from $999.99 (13.5-inch) • from $1,299.99 (15-inch)

Microsoft’s Surface devices made their debut in 2012 with a 10.6-inch tablet sporting an optional attachable keyboard, running the ill-fated Windows RT on an ARM-based Nvidia Tegra SoC. Since then, the brand has established itself as a design and technology showcase for the Windows platform, evolving into a profitable business for Microsoft and picking up a hard core of devotees. Today Microsoft offers no fewer than 10 Surface laptops of various descriptions, most of them in consumer and business guises: Surface Pro 8 (13in. tablet/laptop), Surface Pro 7/7+ (12.3in. tablet/laptop), Surface Pro X (13in. Arm-based tablet/laptop), Surface Go 3 (10.5in. tablet/laptop), Surface Go 2 (10.5in. tablet/laptop), Surface Laptop Studio (14.4-in. convertible laptop), Surface Book 3 (13.5in./15in. detachable laptop/tablet), Surface Laptop 4 (13.5in./15in. laptop), and Surface Laptop Go (12.4in. laptop).

See: The best Surface PC: Every Surface device is Windows 11-ready

Laptop users seeking a Surface device for mainstream productivity tasks are probably best directed to the Surface Laptop 4, which comes in 13.5-inch or 15-inch sizes, powered by either 11th-generation Intel Core processors with Iris Xe graphics or AMD Ryzen 4000-series processors with Radeon graphics. With an elegant aluminium chassis and available in a range of colours and finishes, both Surface Laptop 4 models have 201ppi PixelSense touch screens with 3:2 aspect ratios.

The main disappointment for ZDNet’s reviewers with the Surface Laptop 3 was battery life: Microsoft claimed up to 11.5 hours of ‘typical usage’, but our tests came in at more like 6 hours. Microsoft clearly aimed to address this with the Surface Laptop 4, claiming up to 19h and 17h respectively for the 13.5-inch AMD- and Intel-based models; for the 15-inch model, Microsoft claims up to 17.5h (AMD) and 16.5h (Intel). In our review of the 13.5-inch AMD-powered model, we saw around 14 hours of life under mixed-use workloads. That’s below the 19h claim, but impressive nonetheless.

Read review: Surface Laptop 4 (13.5-inch, AMD) review 

Prices for the 13.5-inch Surface Laptop 4 start at $999.99 with an AMD Ryzen 5 4680U processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD storage, rising to $2,299.99 with an Intel Core i7-1185G7, 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD. The 15-inch model starts at $1,299.99 with a Ryzen 7 4980U, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, rising to $2,399.99 with a Core i7-1185G7, 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD.

Best for tablet/laptop users


OS  Windows 10 Pro | CPU  Intel Core i3-1115G4, Core i5-1135G7, Core i7-1165G7 | GPU  Intel UHD Graphics (Core i3), Iris Xe Graphics (Core i5, i7) | RAM  8GB, 16GB, 32GB | Storage  128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB | Screen  12.3in. PixelSense, 2736 x 1824 (267ppi), 10pt multi-touch | Wireless  Bluetooth 5.0, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6), mobile broadband (LTE) | Ports and slots  USB-C, USB-A, Surface Connect, Surface Type Cover port, MicroSD card reader, Nano SIM | Cameras  5MP Windows Hello (front), 8MP (rear) | Audio 2 far-field Studio Mics, 1.6W stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos, 3.5mm headphone jack | Battery  50.4Wh (15h Wi-Fi, 13.5h Wi-Fi + LTE) | Dimensions  292mm x 201mm x 8.5mm | Weight  770g (i3 & i5, Wi-Fi), 796g (i5, Wi-Fi + LTE), 784g (i7, Wi-Fi); tablet only | Price  from $899.99 (i3), $999.99 (i5), $1,599.99 (i7); Type Cover for Business $97.47, $119.99 (Signature model); Surface Pen $99.99

The Surface Pro is a tablet with an attachable Type Cover keyboard (not included in the base price) that transforms it into a laptop of sorts. It’s not a laptop you can use comfortably — or at all — on your lap, thanks to the kickstand that keeps the screen section upright, but it’s light and flexible and an excellent choice if you do a lot of touchscreen tasks — sketching, handwritten note-taking and annotation, for example — as well as mainstream knowledge work. Note that, as with the Type Cover, the Surface Pen is another extra-cost option.

There are two variants of the 12.3-inch Surface Pro: the consumer-focused Surface Pro 7, which is based on 10th-generation Intel Core processors, and the business-oriented Surface Pro 7+, which runs on the latest 11th-generation Core CPUs and also offers LTE mobile broadband. We’re looking at the latter here.

The Surface Pro 7+ starts at $899.99 for a Wi-Fi-only version with a Core i3 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. A Core i5 configuration with 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, Wi-Fi and LTE will cost you $1,449.99, while the top-end model with a Core i7, 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD costs a hefty $2,779.99. The Surface Pro 7+ has a slightly bigger battery than its consumer stablemate, resulting in claimed battery life of 15 hours with Wi-Fi only and 13.5h with Wi-Fi and LTE. Another key differentiator is security and manageability: the Pro 7+ has a removable SSD, Windows Autopilot support and comes with key security features turned on by default.

Read more: Surface Pro 7+ for Business: Here’s what makes it different.

Microsoft has recently released the Surface Pro 8, with upgrades including a 13-inch display, better battery life (up to 16h claimed), an improved Type Cover keyboard, two USB-C/Thunderbolt 4 ports and a slimmer stylus with haptic feedback and wireless charging. The consumer model is available now, starting at $1,099.99 (11th-gen Core i5, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD), with the ‘for business’ version reportedly due in 2022.

Read more: Six reasons I’m replacing my Surface Pro 7 with a Surface Pro 8

The original raison d’etre of the Surface brand was for Microsoft to showcase new form factors and technologies that its OEM partners could use as inspiration for their designs. That has certainly worked with the Surface Pro-style ‘tablet-first’ 2-in-1, and you’ll find plenty of variations on the theme from the likes of Lenovo, HP, Dell and others.

Read more: The best Surface PC: Every Surface device is Windows 11-ready.

Best for large-screen users


OS  Windows 10 Home | CPU  Intel Core i5-1035G7, Core i7-1165G7 | GPU   Intel Iris Plus Graphics (10th-gen i5), Iris Xe Graphics (11th-gen i7), Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650Ti (4GB, 1 i7 model) | RAM  8GB, 16GB | Storage  256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB | Screen  17-inch IPS 2560 x 1600 (177.6ppi) | Wireless  Bluetooth 5.1, Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) | Ports and slots  2x USB-C Thunderbolt (3 or 4), 2x USB-A, HDMI, MicroSD card slot  | Camera  HD webcam | Audio  2W or 1.5W stereo speakers, 3.5mm audio jack | Battery  2-cell 80Wh (up to 19.5h) | Dimensions  381mm x 274mm x 19.8mm | Weight  1.35kg (1.95kg with dGPU) | Price  $1,199.99 (10th-gen Core i5); from $1,499.99 to $1,899.99 (11th-gen Core i7)

Many laptop users would like a large screen — for more expansive knowledge work (multiple document windows, large spreadsheets), video viewing or gaming, for example — but are wary of the weight of a typical 17-inch device. If you fall into that category, the LG Gram 17 may be the laptop for you, as it weighs an astonishing 1.35kg (although the model with discrete Nvidia graphics comes in at 1.95kg). Moreover, despite its slim, lightweight magnesium alloy chassis, the LG Gram 17 is robust to MIL-STD 810G standard.

The screen is a 17-inch IPS panel with a 16:10 resolution of 2560 by 1600 pixels (177.6ppi). Variants are available with support for 99% of the DCI-P3 colour gamut or, for less demanding use cases, 96% of sRGB. The large-footprint chassis provides plenty of room for the backlit keyboard, a separate number pad and a large 16:10 touchpad.

On LG’s US website, all available models bar one run on Intel’s 11th-generation Core i7-1165G7, starting at $1,499 for a configuration with discrete Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650Ti graphics with 4GB of dedicated video memory, 16GB of RAM and 512GB of M.2 SSD storage. The top-end $1,899.99 configuration has 16GB of RAM and 2TB (2x 1TB) of SSD storage.

Read the review: LG Gram 17 (2021)

Why should you buy a laptop and not a desktop or a tablet?

These days, a ‘computer’, for most people, is a laptop of some kind. The desktop form factor — particularly in the shape of all-in-one (AIO) devices — is by no means finished, but laptops span the range from thin, light and ultraportable to bulky, powerful and deskbound, and cover a lot of use cases (as seen above). If screen real estate with smaller laptops is a problem, you can always attach an external monitor, and there are plenty of hybrid 2-in-1 devices that straddle the divide between laptop and tablet.

Which operating system should you choose: Windows, MacOS, Chrome OS, or Linux?

Every computing platform has its committed supporters, but most people end up using a particular operating system because key applications run on it, or because it’s chosen for them by their employer, or because of budgetary issues — Windows spans the range from budget to premium, but Chrome OS is largely confined to the affordable end of the market, while Apple’s macOS laptops are mostly premium devices.

Windows 11 is rolling out on new PCs, and as a free upgrade on eligible Windows 10 systems, from October 5 2021. All of the Windows devices listed here qualify for Windows 11, so if you buy one with Windows 10 installed you’ll be able to upgrade to version 11 in due course if you wish. If you don’t, note that Windows 10 support ends on October 14 2025, after which there will be no more security patches or feature updates.

See: Windows 11 hands on: Microsoft’s biggest minor upgrade ever is all about new hardware

Laptop vendors: Should you stick to the ‘usual suspects’ or seek out lesser-known brands?

Generally speaking, the leading PC vendors have the broadest range of offerings and the best-documented track records in terms of product development and customer relations. So in the absence of a specialised use case or budgetary constraint, you’re usually going to be looking at the likes of Lenovo, HP, Dell, Apple, and Acer — which currently lead the PC market in terms of shipments — plus a handful of other well-known brands.

How did we choose these Windows 10 laptops?

Our selection process

I have been writing, commissioning and editing reviews of laptops (and many other types of tech product) since the 1990s. The selection process for this ‘Best’ list is based on a combination of personal usage and experience, involvement in the ZDNet reviews process, and analysis of other reviews and roundups.

Which Windows 10 laptop is right for you?

The key question when buying a laptop — as with any product — is: ‘What do you want to do with it?’ Once you’ve established the use case, you’ll have a focus for your research and should quickly get a feel for the key features to look out for. For example, if you’re a mobile knowledge worker, you’ll want a usable and performant combination of lightweight, flexible configuration, sturdy build, connectivity, security, battery life, and design credibility. But if you’re a largely deskbound graphic designer or creator who occasionally needs to visit a client with a laptop in tow, your priorities will be different.

Once you have a long list of potential candidates, your budget will likely trim it down at the top end, while your cautionary instincts should kick in at the bottom end (if something appears too good to be true, it probably is). However, armed with a well-researched shortlist, you should have a good chance of ending up with a laptop that will satisfy your requirements.

Maria J. Danford

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