Pros: Impeccable performance and best-in-class keyboard and trackpad; stable operating system
Con: Could find more powerful graphics card
Best for: Most anyone
Retail price: $1,199
Among the hundreds of new laptops released every year, there are lighter, faster, better-sounding, higher resolution and cheaper options than Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Air. But many of these machines give up too much to be class-leading in a single area. The Air’s strongest feature is its balance. Rather than a single extreme selling point, the Air is the best laptop for most people because of its utter lack of outstanding flaws. It mixes great performance from the latest chips and ports with impressive battery life, and perhaps most importantly for a laptop, an unbeatable keyboard and trackpad. And it’s packaged in an amazingly slim and solid aluminum body, a refinement of the chassis Apple introduced in 2008 that set a high-point for design, and which many manufacturers are only now able to match.
We also recommend the Air because of the greater chance that most users will be satisfied with the computer’s Mac OS X operating system, which comes bloat-free and is unshakably stable. And when it’s needed, Apple’s legendary service is there, with retail stores around the country doubling as repair centers.
But what about the just-released 13-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display? It’s a great machine, but the Air is still the better value for most people. A 13-inch Retina Pro with 8GB of memory and a 256GB solid-state drive (the specs we recommended for a new Air) is $400 more expensive and half a pound heavier, and its dual-core CPU and the same Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics found in the Air do not provide a quantum leap in performance. Its battery will also die about a half-hour sooner. If you need more power, look at the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display, which adds a quad-core processor and a more powerful graphics chip.
BEST BUDGET LAPTOP
Pro: High value for a bargain price
Con: Standard offering comes with last year’s processor. Might want to upgrade
Best for: Anyone with a modest budget who wants a dedicated computer
Retail price: $479.99
A budget laptop should cover everyday computer needs for around $500, and in this crowded market, our pick is the HP G6t-2200. A laptop in this class costs about as much as an iPad, and for Web browsing and reading e-mails, a tablet is portable and convenient. But if you need the benefits of a dedicated computer — a real keyboard, bigger screen and the ability to multitask with Windows software — you can buy a lot of computing power today for the price of a tablet.
If the laptop is your only computer, we recommend a model with a 15-inch screen, a DVD drive and a fully capable operating system (the G6t-2200 ships with Windows 8) that can run a variety of software. This rules out netbooks (too small, too slow) and Chromebooks, which only run Google’s Web-based software apps.
The biggest sacrifice with budget laptops is internal and external build quality. Even the best budget laptop is going to feel flimsy compared with a $1,000 system, and the G6t comes standard with last year’s “Sandy Bridge” Intel Core i3 processor. We recommend the $100 upgrade to a modern “Ivy Bridge” Core i5 for all-around better performance and graphics that are twice as fast, without reducing battery life. The G6t also has appealing extras: faster USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader for pulling images from a digital camera, and HDMI output, so you can watch movies on your HDTV.