What to expect
The first thing to remember is that the term “ultraportable” is subjective. There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules governing the weight and thickness. We at Engadget define an ultraportable laptop as one that weighs less than three pounds and measures less than 0.75 inch thick at its widest point. Usually that means you’re talking about 13-inch and 14-inch laptops, though occasionally a 15-inch device hits the mark too.
Most ultraportables have premium designs because they tend to sit at the top of the line. Companies spend a lot of time and money engineering them to be as thin and light as possible without sacrificing too much on power and battery life. They tend to be made from metal, carbon fiber or a mix of the two, and their enclosures are usually just thick enough to include the latest Intel or Ryzen processors, large batteries and enough RAM and storage for most people’s needs.
What you won’t find in most ultraportables are high-powered GPUs or loads of ports. Most have integrated graphics chips (think: Intel UHD) because anything more powerful would take up space and pose heat-management problems. When it comes to ports, the edges of these laptops simply don’t have a lot of free space. You’re almost guaranteed to get a couple Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C ports on the newest notebooks, but some have already abandoned the USB-A standard, which is a shame.
Also, due to the flagship caliber of most ultraportables, you can expect to pay top dollar for these. Most start at $1,000, gradually increasing in price as you bump up the specs. However, there are a few we’d recommend that often come in below the $1,000 mark, either thanks to slightly lower starting prices or frequent sales. We’ve included a couple “budget” picks in this guide, but just know that “budget” in this case doesn’t mean cheap; it means relatively affordable.
One other thing that’s important to look out for is battery life. Ultraportable manufacturers have gotten better at eking out more juice from their devices. We recommend buying one rated for at least eight hours.
You can take all of that advice and wade through the plethora of product pages on the Internet to find the best ultraportable laptop for you. But if you don’t have that kind of time or patience, we’ve compiled a list of the devices that we consider to be the best options available right now.
Best overall: Dell XPS 13
The XPS 13 has been one of our favorite laptops for about five years, but in 2019, Dell made it close to perfect. The 2020 model improved upon the tried-and-true notebook even further and cemented its place at the top of our best ultraportables list.
The latest updates may seem minor, but they make a big difference in daily use. First, Dell removed the excessive chin bezel below the screen, letting the 13.4-inch display extend from corner to corner. It now has a 16:10 aspect ratio, which is better than before but not quite as good as a 3:2 ratio. We prefer taller screens because they reduce the amount of scrolling necessary to browse web pages and review documents comfortably. The XPS 13’s display continues to support HDR and Dolby Vision, so you’ll get top-notch video quality whenever you stream.
Dell also increased the size of the trackpad by 17 percent and extended the keyboard so it reaches the edges of the chassis. The company achieved this by enlarging the keycaps, which makes the keyboard even more comfortable to type on. While the MagLev keyboard on the XPS 13 2-in-1 isn’t terrible, we’re happy that Dell kept the traditional scissor mechanism on the standard clamshell model.
Otherwise, the XPS 13 is just as thin and light as it has been for the past couple of years. It weighs only 2.64 pounds and measures just over a half-inch thick at its widest point. It’s not the flashiest ultraportable on our list, but honestly we kinda dig its subtle design. It looks and feels like a flagship device, but it never feels ostentatious.
The 2020 model has a slightly better battery life than the 2019 model, too. It clocked just under 16 hours in our testing, which is about four hours more than last year’s model and roughly five hours more than the new MacBook Air. The only downsides: Connections are limited to a couple of Thunderbolt 3 ports and a headphone jack, and the base configuration is a bit underpowered. It previously had only 4GB of RAM (which we’d never recommend), but now the $999 model has a 10th-gen Core i3 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. A Core i3 processor is less than ideal for a daily driver, so we recommend choosing a model with either a Core i5 ($1,099) or Core i7 ($1,399) processor instead.
Best for Apple fans: MacBook Air
It’s never been easier to recommend the MacBook Air and that’s mostly thanks to improvements Apple made in the 2020 model. The latest model has the new Magic Keyboard that Apple introduced in the 16-inch MacBook Pro and suffice to say, it’s far more comfortable and precise than the controversial butterfly keys of yesteryear. You’ll find firm, springy buttons here and any typing errors are probably due to human error, rather than a stuck key.
The latest MacBook Air looks very similar to past models with its 2.8-pound aluminum chassis, tapered profile and 13.3-inch, 2,560 x 1,600 Retina display. It doesn’t rock a Touch Bar like MacBook Pros do, but it does have the TouchID fingerprint sensor for quick logins. We clocked 11.5 hours of battery life in our testing, so the Air should be able to last through a full day’s work and then some. Unsurprisingly, Apple only included a headphone jack and two Thunderbolt 3 ports — dongle life will persist for the time being.
In addition to new 10th-gen Intel processor, Apple upped the base storage to 256GB in the 2020 edition. We’re also happy that the $999 base model comes with 8GB of RAM (double the memory in the base XPS 13), although we wish it also included a Core i5 processor rather than Core i3. Nevertheless, most people who want a Mac will find the latest MacBook Air has just the right combination of design, specs and price to fit their needs.
Best convertible: HP Spectre x360 13
The Spectre x360 13 is the culmination of years of improvements on HP’s part. It combines most things we want in a great laptop, and more, in a convertible design. Old-school 2-in-1s had a tendency to be wobbly and unstable, but this is anything but. Its metallic hinges provide a sturdy structure for the machine when in laptop mode and spin smoothly whenever you need to work in tent or tablet mode.
The model we reviewed had a 1080p touchscreen, but HP gives you the option to outfit the Spectre x360 13 with a 4K AMOLED panel — a good choice for creatives and streaming aficionados (just be prepared for shorter battery life). By no means is a 4K panel necessary on a 13-inch machine, but companies have been adding them as options on flagships to satisfy all the display nerds out there. Regardless of the panel you choose, the laptop’s 90-percent screen-to-body ratio will provide an immersive experience when you’re watching movies on Netflix. The keyboard is also quite comfortable and we like that HP made the buttons as large as possible, stretching them all the way to the edges of the chassis.
HP also included an IR camera for Windows Hello, a Precision touchpad and a few more ports than you’d expect to see on an ultraportable of this size. Its edges hold two USB-C ports for charging and data, a USB-A port (!!!) and a microSD slot. The machine’s 14.5-hour battery life makes it even more versatile, as it lasts an entire work or school day with juice left to spare.
The worst thing we can say about the Spectre x360 13 is that its webcam produces grainy video and HP includes a bit more bloatware than other OEMs. Also, the machine’s jewelry-like design may not be to some shoppers’ tastes, but it’s not garish enough for us to knock it. It also helps that the base model includes a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and an FHD touchscreen for just over $1,000. What’s more, HP is one of the few companies to include a stylus with its flagship convertible at no extra cost, meaning you can use it as a digital notebook straight out of the box.
Best budget option: ASUS ZenBook 13
It’s hard to find a truly budget-friendly ultraportable in part because size and weight are two of the most obvious areas to make compromises in the name of cost cutting. But the ASUS ZenBook 13 is a good ultraportable that starts at just $899 and doesn’t sacrifice much in the way of slimness or power.
The overall design of the ZenBook 13 is quite nice — it measures 13.9mm thick, weighs just over 2.5 pounds and its metal body meets the MIL-STD-810G military standard for durability. My main gripe is that it feels a bit… squished. Its 13.3-inch FHD display has a 16:9 aspect ratio, so it’ll be better suited for watching movies than for reading documents. The keycaps are also slightly narrower than what you’ll find on our other top picks. It appears ASUS made this choice so it could include a large trackpad. While I was able to type comfortably most of the time, I did make a few extra errors due to the cramped keys.
The ZenBook 13 isn’t large enough to include a number pad on the keyboard, but the company found a clever way to get that feature in there anyway: a light-up numpad under the trackpad. Press and hold the barely visible icon at the top-right corner of the trackpad and a cool blue light reveals a number pad with symbol keys. This might seem gimmicky at first, but I’m happy to report it’s neither cumbersome nor janky — it worked as promised every time.
The ZenBook 13 is most similar to the HP Spectre x360 13 when it comes to ports, with two USB-C ports, one USB-A connection, an HDMI socket and a microSD card slot. (Sorry, no headphone jack on this one.) It also supports WiFi 6 (a feature that most flagships are just starting to incorporate) and it has an IR camera for Windows Hello. On top of all that, the $899 model comes with a 10th-gen Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD — pretty powerful stuff for less than $1,000.