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The Best Ultraportable Laptops for 2020

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Need a featherweight laptop that lasts all day on a single battery charge? Thin, light, and power-efficient, these ultraportables are our top performers in testing.
The evolution of laptops has always been driven by the push for thinner, lighter, and more power-efficient designs, and whatever the year, these demands coalesce into the perfect expressions of leading-edge laptop design: ultraportables. What exactly defines this category? In general, ultraportables weigh 3 pounds or less, have screens 14 inches or smaller, and offer enough battery life to survive most of a workday off-plug. These systems are now faster than ever, are well-suited to travel, and come with a variety of features and display resolutions wide enough to fit anyone’s needs. You may have seen laptops of this breed referred to over the years as „ultrabooks“ or „streambooks,“ but those were primarily attempts to attach some branding to the same basic template of „ultralight laptop.“ The design always comes back to the same foundational elements: thin, light, and long-running. How Much Should You Spend on an Ultraportable? Although ultraportable laptops as a class may look sleek, quite a few key differentiators distinguish models from one another. The first to consider is price. There’s a huge difference between a system that costs $400 and one that costs $1,300, even if they boast the same brand name, and similar looks and features. At the low end are entry-level systems that generally run $500 or less. For many casual users, this is the only price range worth looking at, but there are some caveats to keep in mind. The processing power, display resolution, and storage capacities are usually lower on inexpensive ultraportables, as they’re built for basic web browsing, word processing, and media viewing purposes, and the construction can be on the flimsy side. The weight for these models also ranges up to 4 pounds. The Best Ultraportable Laptop Deals This Week*Apple MacBook Pro 2017 Intel Core i5 13-Inch Laptop With 128GB SSD (Apple Refurbished) — $899.99 (List Price $1,099; Save $199.01)Dell XPS 15 7590 Intel Core i9-9980HK 15.6-Inch 4K UHD Laptop — $2,547.99 (List Price $2,707.98; Save $159.99)ASUS ZenBook 15 Intel i5-8265U 1080p 15.6-Inch Laptop With 512GB SSD — $849 (List Price $1,199; Save $350) *Deals are selected by our partner, TechBargains Entry-level ultraportables make solid systems for younger family members to use for homework or watching movies around the house, since they are both highly portable and relatively inexpensive. Value is a big factor in this category, as plenty of budget ultraportables can entice you with a low price. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself let down by a system that’s only a bargain because its manufacturer cut too many corners. That said, the spec floor has risen in this category. As faster base parts become less expensive and more common, cheaper systems with decent build quality are more capable of completing day-to-day tasks. Your average $500 laptop has become quite adequate for simple tasks such as web browsing and word processing on the go. Midrange systems are better, but by definition they also cost more, ranging from about $500 to $1,250. Materials and specs that were once exclusive to high-end ultraportables are now the norm in midrange systems, including features such as full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) or even QHD (2,560-by-1,440-pixel) resolutions, touch displays, and metal chassis. Battery life and storage have improved, as well, making it easier to get better bang for your buck in this price range. You’ll still have to compromise in one or two areas (such as storage capacity, port options, and resolution) compared with the high-end systems, but for most shoppers, this price range represents the best mix of price and performance. At the top of the price ladder are premium systems, which we categorize as anything costing $1,250 or more. With these high-end systems come choice materials, cutting-edge components and features, and top performance that will speed up photo editing and other productivity tasks. Here, you’ll also see 3K- or 4K-resolution displays, quality sound hardware (often from familiar brands like Bang & Olufsen), spacious and speedy storage, and other exciting features, all while the system’s form factor remains slim and compact. Many premium business laptops also fall into this class, due to specialized remote-management and corporate features. This pricing tier yields the best overall user experience, the most features and port options, and the fastest internal hardware, but not every premium system is created equal. And when you’re spending this much money, do you really want second best? If you have the budget, and will be spending a lot of time on your laptop, it may very well pay to invest in quality. Choose Your Power Wisely: Processors in Ultraportables For smooth performance and a good user experience, you’ll want to be choosy about your processor. Even in a less-expensive system, the average processor is more capable than ever of handling routine tasks, but if you need speed, select carefully. At the top of the heap are Intel’s Core i5 and Core i7 processors, which can be found in midrange and premium models. Most ultraportables from 2019 use Intel’s 9th Generation Core CPUs, while the newer releases have moved to Intel’s latest 10th Generation Core processors, divided into „Ice Lake“ and „Comet Lake“ varieties. Some 8th Generation ultraportables are still out there, but most have shifted to 9th, if not 10th Generation chips here in the middle of 2020. The CPU is typically paired with 8GB of memory, though some premium systems boast 16GB of RAM. The processors in ultraportables will usually be classified as U-series CPUs, which are designed for lean laptop designs. A few middle-of-the-pack models will opt for processors in Intel’s power-saving Y series. These chips, from the Core families, are identified by the „Y“ in their model number and are capable but ultra-low-powered, intended to bridge the gap between U-series chips and the Intel Atom processors you find in inexpensive Windows tablets and extreme budget laptops. With 8th Generation Core, you’ll find Core i5 and i7 Y-series chips, as well as one that still holds the previous generation’s „Core m3“ designation; Intel has been downplaying Core M of late. (In earlier generations, Core m3, m5, and m7 were synonymous with extremely low-power CPUs and the Y series.) The design of a Y-series CPU allows for processing power that approaches that of Core i5 chips, but with lower power consumption and often no need for cooling fans. This results in slimmer laptop designs, quieter operation (in some designs, no fans means no fan noise), and longer battery life, often extending past 8 hours. Y-series systems are a good choice if you want the most portable ultraportable. They aren’t usually less expensive, though, and you may find yourself paying more than you would for a machine that’s more powerful, but also slightly thicker and heavier. Many of the faster, higher-end ultraportables will opt for the U-series chips regardless, which also focus on power saving. You’ll have to look at some machines in person to find the right balance of physical design and performance to fit your needs. Aside from Intel’s near-ubiquitous CPUs, you will see a few less-expensive systems featuring processors from other manufacturers, primarily AMD and in a couple of cases, Qualcomm. While AMD chips support the same range of uses as Intel chips, from web browsing to video editing and gaming, they aren’t remotely as common in ultraportables. This is starting to change thanks to positive early returns from AMD’s Ryzen CPUs in other categories as well as in the first couple ultraportables we tested with these chips, the HP Envy x360 13 (2020) and the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 5 14. If you aren’t sure about the model used in the system you’re considering, take a look at our reviews (particularly the results of our benchmark tests) to see how it will fare in real-world conditions. Like Intel’s Cores, AMD’s Ryzen chips now come in U-series designs (for ultraportables) and H-series ones (for thicker, more powerful laptops). Finally, at the low end are Intel’s Pentium and Celeron processors. These budget processors are inexpensive and energy-efficient, but power users may find themselves frustrated by slow performance, and lesser RAM allotments (as low as 4GB) concurrent with extreme-budget designs.

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