July 19, 2024


Unlimited Technology

Best Windows laptop of 2021: Get the right PC for you | CNN

From highly portable ultrabooks to heavy-duty workstations, Windows laptops offer a bevy of choices to pick from. That’s why we’re here to help you find one that’s worth buying.

After testing some of the most popular models out there, the Dell XPS 13 emerged as our clear favorite, thanks to its attractive and slim design, best-in-class display and ability to juggle the dozens of tasks we regularly threw at the laptop at once.

Best Windows laptop

The Dell XPS 13 packs a gorgeous, lightweight, slim and highly portable design for working anywhere, a nearly borderless display that makes content pop and a powerful 11th Gen Intel processor that can burn through most workloads with ease.

Best 2-in-1 laptop

The Surface Pro 8 delivers fast performance, a vivid display and an excellent keyboard within a versatile, detachable design.

Mike Andronico/CNN

Dell XPS 13

Key specs

  • Display: 13.4-inch display at 1920 x 1200 (tested) / 3.5K OLED / 4K
  • Processor: 11th Gen Intel Core i3 / Core i5 / Core i7 (tested)
  • RAM: 8GB (tested) / 16GB / 32GB
  • Storage: 256GB / 512GB (tested) / 1TB solid state drive
  • Size and weight: 11.6 x 7.8 x 0.6 inches, 2.64 pound

The Dell XPS 13 has long been our best laptop pick for Windows users, thanks to its fast overall performance and slick design, and the latest model makes it even better with the most immersive and stunning PC display we’ve seen yet. The model we tested, with a 13.4-inch HD display, looked beautiful in everyday use, with thick, inky blacks that made it easy to sift through work documents and plenty of color and detail when we stared at Henry Cavill’s chiseled face and shiny gray hair while streaming “The Witcher.”

The Dell XPS 13’s eye-popping InfinityEdge display has virtually no bezel to get in the way, and is packed into an equally sleek case that weighs just under 3 pounds and is a mere 0.5 inches slim. If portability is a priority, this laptop should be at the top of your list, as it’s super portable. And despite its svelte size, the XPS 13 is a beast under the hood. Powered by Intel’s latest 11th-generation Tiger Lake processors, the newest XPS 13 can tear through everyday tasks.

We regularly had 30 or more browser tabs open at once (including Twitch streams and web-based photo editors) alongside a number of apps, including Spotify and Discord, and never noticed any slowdown as we jumped between them. We then exported a 4K video on top of all of that, and Dell’s laptop still didn’t buckle, responding instantly any time we did a three-finger swipe to switch between apps while completing the task in about seven minutes.

The XPS 13’s keyboard felt fantastic in our testing, offering plenty of travel complete with a comfortable soft-touch coating on both the keys and wrist rest. We spent hours hammering away at work documents and never felt any discomfort, thanks to the keys’ smooth and bouncy feedback. It doesn’t offer quite as much travel as the Surface Laptop 4, which also has a softer Alcantara coating on the inside for your wrist. But having used various iterations of the XPS 13 for years now, we still think it holds up as one of the better keyboards you can find on a laptop.

And with optional touch functionality, the XPS 13 is as versatile as mainstream laptops get. The XPS 13’s touch display proved fast and responsible in our testing, whether we pinched to zoom into webpages or bounced between tabs or applications with the tap of a finger. If you want a true convertible tablet experience, the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 features a 360-degree hinge that allows you to use the notebook as a tablet and prop the display up in stand mode. But the standard XPS 13’s touch screen still gets the job done for basic tasks.

Dell’s stunningly slim design does come at the expense of an equally slim port selection, as you get just two USB-C ports, a microSD card slot and a headphone jack. The inclusion of a microSD port gives it a slight edge in expandability over the MacBook Air, and Dell deserves credit for including a USB-C to USB-A adapter for your older accessories. But if you’re a power user who uses a variety of peripherals and monitors at once, you’ll probably need to spring for a dongle or USB-C dock.

The Dell XPS 13 starts at $949.99, which gets you an 11th-gen Intel Core i3 processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of solid-state drive (SSD) storage and a 13.4-inch, 1920 x 1200 non-touch display. We reviewed a slightly higher-end $1,322 model, which packs a faster Core i7 processor, a bigger 512GB SSD and a touch screen. Dell’s notebook comes in silver and black by default, but we recommend springing the extra $50 for the gorgeous Arctic White variation. It looks stunning.

We’d recommend opting for at least the $1,069.99 configuration or higher, as you’ll get a dependable Core i5 processor that can juggle tons of Chrome tabs and everyday productivity apps without a problem. If you want as much headroom as possible for getting serious creative work done, such as graphic design or video editing, you should consider a Core i7 option. And if you’re willing to spring for a more immersive display, you can configure the laptop with a 4K display starting at $1,349, and there’s a 3.5K OLED option that starts at $1,587.59.

We’ve tested both the 1080p and 3.5K OLED versions of the XPS 13’s display, and think the former offers more than enough color and detail for most folks — especially at this small 13-inch screen size, where we don’t feel the additional resolution of 4K makes much of a difference. However, the benefits of the OLED screen are pretty noticeable, with deep blacks and bold colors that make movies look more vibrant, as well as great contrast that makes apps really shine in dark mode. As such, those who do lots of visual work or want a laptop that can be their main device for streaming entertainment may want to consider making the splurge for OLED. Also, we found the touch screen to be a nice bonus rather than an absolute necessity, so you won’t miss much if you go for the starting non-touch model.

No matter how you configure it, however, the XPS 13’s beautifully svelte design, zippy performance and stunningly immersive screen make it the best Windows laptop you can buy.

Best 2-in-1 laptop: Microsoft Surface Pro 8 (starting at $1,099; microsoft.com, adorama.com and bestbuy.com)

Mike Andronico/CNN

Microsoft Surface Pro 8

Key specs

  • Display: 13-inch display at 2880 x 1920
  • Processor: 11th Gen Intel Core i5 1135G7 / Intel Core i7-1185G7 (tested)
  • RAM: 8GB / 16GB (tested) / 32GB
  • Storage: 128GB / 256GB (tested) / 512GB / 1TB
  • Size and Weight: 11.3 x 8.2 x 0.37 inches, 1.96 pounds

The Surface Pro 8 is the best overall 2-in-1 laptop we’ve tested, offering excellent performance, portability and versatility for the price. This PC can be a powerhouse laptop with a great keyboard when you need it to, and if you detach the keyboard it becomes a sleek and highly portable tablet when you just want to browse the web or take notes.

The Pro 8 will look familiar to anyone who’s used a Surface device before, but there are enough noteworthy changes here to warrant an upgrade — even for folks coming from the Surface Pro 7.
Microsoft’s latest 2-in-1 now sports two Thunderbolt 4 USB-C ports, which brings it up to speed with our other top picks like the Dell XPS 13 and MacBook Pro in terms of its ability to connect to multiple 4K displays and quickly transfer data from external drives. We wish there were more connectivity options overall — two USB-C ports aside, all you get is a headphone jack and Microsoft’s proprietary Surface Connect port for charging — but we’re glad to see the Surface Pro finally adopt this useful standard.

Speaking of useful upgrades, the Surface Pro 8 sports a much-improved display over previous iterations, with lots of screen space to work with and thinner bezels that make it easier to get immersed in whatever you’re doing. The laptop’s 13-inch, 2880 x 1920 display made all kinds of content pop, from the sharp contrast between black and white on everyday work documents to the stunning greens and oranges we noticed while watching an 8K nature video on YouTube.

The Pro 8 also bumps the maximum display refresh rate up to 120Hz, which effectively means it’s twice as smooth as many competing laptops — including the latest MacBooks. The benefits of 120Hz may look subtle to some, but we definitely noticed the improved fluidity when scrolling through webpages, watching high-frame-rate video and even just moving our cursor around.

This extra-smooth screen is also useful for drawing and note-taking, especially since the Pro 8 is one of the few machines to support Microsoft’s $129 Surface Slim Pen 2. Between the Slim Pen 2’s advanced haptics (which offers different vibrations for things such as pens and markers) and the Pro 8’s highly responsive display, making some messy doodles in Microsoft Whiteboard felt as nearly natural as writing on paper.

The tablet portion of the PC feels as lightweight as ever at just under 2 pounds, and its 0.37-inch slim frame looks especially attractive in our black Graphite unit (there’s also a silver option available). Its rear-facing kickstand feels sturdy and easy to adjust, and you can bend it as far back as 165 degrees for everything from drawing to movie bingeing.

But while the Surface Pro 8 is a capable tablet, it really comes to life when you snap it to one of Microsoft’s Signature Keyboards. The bad news is that these continue to be sold separately for $179, and are all but an essential purchase if you want to use the Pro 8 to its full potential. The good news is that Microsoft’s keyboards are still some of the best we’ve ever used.

The Signature Keyboard’s keys are snappy and deep, and the built-in touchpad offers a satisfying click. When you combine that with its comfortable upward incline and soft Alcantara fabric coating, you’ve got a keyboard that’s made us happy to use the Pro 8 as our main work device for days on end.

In terms of performance, the Surface Pro 8 can handle pretty much any workload you throw at it. We never had to deal with any slowdowns or crashes while using Microsoft’s machine, even while jumping between upward of 10 apps and a few dozen memory-hungry Chrome tabs. This is thanks to our unit’s 11th Gen Intel Core i7 processor and 16GB of RAM, which put up benchmark scores that are comparable to rivals such as the Dell XPS 13 and Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360.

The Pro 8 even matched the higher-end Surface Laptop Studio on general processing tests, though the latter turned in much better graphics performance, thanks to its discrete Nvidia RTX 3050 Ti GPU. The Pro 8 doesn’t quite reach the sheer CPU power of Apple’s M1-powered MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, but it’ll give you more than enough speed for a typical day of Slack, video calls, drawing and note-taking as well as some light video or photo editing.

Microsoft’s detachable could be better when it comes to battery life, lasting a just OK seven hours and five minutes on our continuous 4K video playback test. That’s better than the sixish hours we got out of the Dell XPS 13 OLED and the cheaper Surface Go 3, but it’s behind the more premium Surface Laptop Studio (8:14) and a fraction of what we got from the MacBook Air (14:12) and MacBook Pro (16:30). The Pro 8 will still get you through most of a workday or a long flight, but you’ll want to keep that charger handy.

Battery life aside, we think that the Surface Pro 8’s excellent display, keyboard, performance and overall versatility make it the best 2-in-1 laptop you can buy. Whereas the affordable Surface Go 3 is too slow and the expensive Surface Laptop Studio is overkill for noncreative types, the Pro 8 is just right.

While there are a number of factors to consider when choosing the right Windows 10 laptop, we advise that you start by figuring out how much display you need. Windows laptops are available in display resolutions ranging from 1080p to 4K (3840 x 2160), and in screen sizes from 13 to 17 inches. Many of these machines also offer optional touch displays.

We think a 13 to 15 inch laptop at 1080p (“Full HD” resolution) is the sweet spot for most people, as you’ll get very good clarity and a decent amount of real estate within a machine that’s still fairly portable and reasonably priced. This class of machine (known as an “ultrabook”) makes relatively few compromises and works well for most users.

Recommended specs

  • Display: 13 inches to 15 inches at 1920 x 1080
  • Processor: 11th Gen Intel Core i5 or i7 or AMD Ryzen 5 5000
  • RAM: 8GB or more
  • Storage: 512GB or larger solid-state drive
  • Ports: At least two USB-C connections

A higher screen resolution means you can see more detail when using apps and watching movies, or get more screen real estate for apps (assuming you are willing to look at very small text), but it can also drive the price of a laptop up considerably. So a 4K display (or alternative display technology options like OLED, also available in very high screen resolutions) makes the most sense if you do a lot of graphics work or use your laptop as your main entertainment screen for movies and TV, (though you’ll get the most benefit if you choose a 15” or larger display). Also think about how you’ll be using your laptop — a slim 13-inch notebook is ideal for working on the road, while a 17-inch machine isn’t quite as portable, but will get you more screen space (and possibly more power) for working at your desk.

Many of these machines also offer optional touch displays, but we generally feel that you can skip this to save some cash. Unless you’re looking to carry only one device and are specifically looking for a 2-in-1 laptop that doubles as a tablet, we think a dedicated tablet does a better job at touch, and touch doesn’t add that much functionality to a laptop.

Many modern Windows laptops are slim on connectivity options, usually packing only a handful of USB-C ports in addition to a microSD card reader and a headphone jack. If you want a laptop that can connect to USB-A gadgets (and chances are you have a lot of those) as well as traditional HDMI cables for external displays, you’ll want to check out some of the thicker, business-class notebooks out there from manufacturers like Acer, HP and Lenovo. Alternatively, you can pick up a USB-C hub to augment your laptop’s connectivity options.

Laptops come with a swath of processor options, but we consider the latest 11th Gen Intel Core i5 or the AMD Ryzen 5 5000 series to offer a good amount of performance for everyday multitasking for the price. And to back that processing power up, we recommend opting for at least 8GB of RAM to keep all of your apps running smoothly. If you’re someone who does heavy creative work such as video and photo editing, it’s worth considering Core i7/Ryzen 7 as well as 16GB to 32GB of RAM. And if you’re a gamer, you’ll need a laptop with discrete graphics, starting with at least an Nvidia GTX 1660 Ti or AMD RX 5600 XT.

Finally, consider your budget. Laptops that are $500 or less generally offer the bare minimum when it comes to specs, pumping out enough performance for checking email, browsing the web and composing documents. The $1,000 to $1,500 is our recommended middle ground, as you’ll find a variety of slim machines that can pump out respectable performance and battery life for a reasonable price. Notebooks $1,500 or more are generally on the higher-end of things, with high-res displays and powerful components built for serious work and gaming.

As with every CNN Underscored review, we rigorously test devices both quantitatively and qualitatively. For laptops, we made the decision to benchmark first to get a standard for quantitative performance. If you’ve read our stand-alone laptop, tablet or mobile phone reviews, these tests will be familiar.

On Windows laptops, we performed GeekBench 5 and PCMark 10 tests. These run the laptops through a series of workflows and application processes, many of which you’d find yourselves (and we found ourselves) completing on a daily basis. For Mac laptops, PCMark 10 is not available, so GeekBench 5 was performed.

Regardless of operating system, we put each laptop through our standard battery test, which involves charging the laptop to 100%, setting brightness to 50% and engaging airplane mode to ensure connectivity is off. We then loop a 4K video file with the sound set to 15% until the battery dies and the machine turns off. These tests are monitored in person as well as via two cameras to ensure accuracy.

The combination of battery and benchmark testing gives us a quantitative feel for the devices and a hard number for each that can be used for comparisons. We then used each laptop as our daily driver for work, play and entertainment tasks, testing the battery to see if it could last through a full day of tasks, watching a movie to get a feel for the display and, of course, running a bunch of different applications.

Our testing categories were as follows:


  • Build quality: We looked at what the laptop was physically made of and how it felt in our hands, on a desk and in our laps.
  • Portability: Thickness and weight of each laptop was top of mind here, along with the overall size and bezels. We also tested if it could fit in a range of bags.
  • Looks: We took note of the overall design, if it was sleek or stealthy.

Battery life

  • Total battery life: The CNN Underscored battery test, explained above, was used to determine a quantitative battery life number.
  • Stress test: We noted whether intense photo or video editing reduced battery life and how the laptop performed when playing a game.


  • Benchmarking: Using GeekBench 5 and PCMark 10, explained above, we established a baseline for performance.
  • Processors and GPU: We observed how the internal hardware performed and if most models across similar price points had the same specs. Can these handle a full productivity load? Can we get the laptop to bottleneck?
  • RAM: We considered how much RAM or memory comes standard and if it’s enough for core tasks.
  • Storage: We noted whether the laptop opts for a solid-state drive (SSD) or a traditional hard drive (HD).
  • Ports: We looked at how many ports the laptop features, any legacy options available and if a dongle comes in the box.


  • Overall: We observed how the speakers performed in core use cases, including movies, music and system sounds.
  • Compression: We made note if the laptop speakers added any extra compression to core sounds or tracks.
  • Bass: Did the laptop generate bass, or was it mostly missing?


  • Overall: We tested the display with various test images, applications (including word processing for pixelation), videos, VoIP, photo editing, gaming and even video editing.
  • We additionally took a closer look at vibrancy, bezels, clarity and resolution.


  • Overall: To get a feel for a keyboard, you really need to type a ton — and that’s exactly what we did.
  • We paid close attention to specific categories, like tactileness and punchiness of the keys.


  • Experience out of the box: What apps come preloaded that provide real user benefits? Is there a ton of bloatware?
  • Ease of use: How easy was it to navigate around the respective base software and any core apps?


  • Overall: We noted what it was like to use as a daily driver and how it performed with a plethora of apps and workflows.


  • Overall: We noted the length of the included warranty and what it covers.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 (starting at $799.99; microsoft.com)

The Surface Laptop 4 is one of the best-looking laptops we’ve tested yet, and it’s a delight to use. The notebook has the same slim design we loved on the previous Surface laptop, except now it comes in a stunning new Ice Blue version that really pops in person. You’re also getting the same unique 3:2 display (which is taller than competitors for easier multitasking) and a truly excellent keyboard.

Despite its great looks and fast overall performance on the 11th-gen Intel Core i7 model we tested, the Surface Laptop 4’s roughly 8.5-hour battery life lags behind many competing notebooks. For comparison, Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon lasts over 10 hours. The Laptop 4’s webcam and speakers are also weaker than we’d like, and it’s fairly slim on ports (though you do get a USB-A connection — a rarity in many modern laptops).

Samsung Galaxy Book S (starting at $749, amazon.com)

Samsung’s Galaxy Book S looks absolutely stunning. It’s compact and lightweight, and it packs enough battery life to go well into the night after a full day of classes. However, it uses the same type of processor your phone uses, which means apps need to be built specifically for the platform. Because of that, whether or not an app works, or if it works well, is going to be a learning experience of its own. The technology behind the Galaxy Book S is undoubtedly the future, but it’s not quite ready for most.

Acer Aspire 5 (starting at $673; amazon.com)

Acer’s Aspire 5 surprised us with its performance, especially when you factor in its low price. Overall, however, the build quality, display and battery life held it back. Out of all the laptops we tested, the Aspire 5 had the worst battery life, clocking in at five hours and 30 minutes in our benchmarking. The plastic housing helps with the overall weight but at the cost of feeling cheap. About performance: The Aspire 5 kept up with the Dell XPS models we tested, and even some of the MacBooks, so we have confidence that this model will be able to get the job done. Just keep your charger handy.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 15 (starting at $799.99; microsoft.com)

We really liked the smaller of the two Surface Laptop 3 models, but the 15-inch model fell flat when it came to performance in our testing. Specifically, we tested the AMD edition, and both regular performance and battery life fell short of expectations — Microsoft’s and ours. For example, we saw a lowly five hours and 36 minutes of battery life in our battery benchmark. That’s not nearly enough to get through a couple of movies, let alone an entire workday. The overall design and appeal is there with the larger Laptop 3, but we just wanted more from it.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio (starting at $1,599; microsoft.com)

In terms of sheer performance and versatility, the Surface Laptop Studio is arguably Microsoft’s best notebook yet. Thanks to its durable, flexible hinge, this 2-in-1 works well as a laptop for everyday multitasking, a sturdy drawing tablet and a stand-up display for giving presentations or watching movies.

It’s also the only Surface with optional discrete Nvidia graphics, making it ideal for demanding visual tasks and even some light PC gaming. However, with an expensive starting price that only gets higher if you opt for a dedicated GPU and more processing power, we’d only recommend this machine to artists, video editors and general power users.

Microsoft Surface Go 3 (starting at $399; microsoft.com)

The Surface Go 3 packs a full Windows 11 experience and a surprisingly good webcam into a tiny 10-inch tablet, which turns into a comfortable mini laptop once you attach a Type Cover keyboard. However, its performance can be frustratingly slow at times, and its alluring $399 starting price quickly balloons closer to $800 once you configure it with a keyboard and halfway decent processor.

Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing:

Source News