Selecting the best travel laptop is tough and it all comes down to performance vs. portability vs. price.
My old last laptop died last week and I spent over 30 hours researching the best travel laptops available in Q1 2016 before buying a new one.
…it all comes down to performance vs. portability vs. price
In this post I explain how I decided on the best travel laptop for me, while providing advice on what to look for in choosing the best travel laptop for you. If you just want recommendations for the best travel laptops available now, skip to the bottom.
Deciding on a Windows or Apple system will quickly narrow your travel laptop choices.
Apple MacBooks are extremely popular among artists, designers, and students because of their sexy designs, performance, and usability. Unfortunately, MacBooks cost more than comparable PCs, often require Apple-specific peripherals, and are not as customizable or upgradeable as Windows laptops.
If you’re used to a Windows environment, primarily collaborate with PC users, or already have a lot of Windows Software, buying a MacBook may mean a steep learning curve, issues with sharing files and documents, and the added expense of new software licenses. If you already use an Apple iPhone or Mac, you should be familiar with Apple”s interface and may benefit from how Apple’s devices integrate.
It is possible to load Windows on a MacBook with Apple’s Boot Camp software, but if you want to use Windows it makes more sense to me to buy a cheaper Windows PC.
If you’ve never used an Apple MacBook before, try borrowing one to see if you like it before committing to a purchase; once you’ve spent the money it’s difficult to change your mind!
Windows remains the software of choice in most corporate offices outside the design world. You have likely used Windows before so the interface should be relatively familiar to you, even if you haven’t used it for a long time.
Although Microsoft’s release of Windows 8 was a mess, Windows 10 is arguably a better operating system than Apple’s OS X El Capitan. Unfortunately, PC manufacturers have been slow to release laptops with small, sexy, and lightweight designs akin to those from Apple but more and more good looking Ultrabooks are now available.
Because Windows Ultrabooks are manufactured and supported by so many third parties, Ultrabooks tend to cost less than MacBooks and there are more options for hardware and peripheral customization or upgrade. Unfortunately, the openness of the Windows platform also means a higher risk for viruses, configuration issues, and other hardware/software conflicts that may require wasted time troubleshooting, especially if you aren’t tech savvy.
Chromebooks run Google’s Chrome OS and provide good performance if you mostly work online, especially with Google’s apps.
Chromebooks are a cheap and portable option, with great battery life, but you need internet access for most activities since the hard disk space tends to be very small. Given how horrible WiFi can be in some foreign countries this can be a severe limitation for travelers.
You cannot install applications like Microsoft Office or Photoshop to a Chromebook so, even though you can use Office Online and the open-source GIMP image editor, it is important to confirm a Chromebook will do everything you need it to do.
Windows 10 laptops are now almost as cheap as Chromebooks so my recommendation is to buy a Windows PC unless you are absolutely sure a Chromebook will be adequate.
13″ MacBook Air Next to 15.6″ Asus Zenbook Pro
Since I need to process travel photos and videos for this blog, I considered switching to an Apple MacBook Pro based on the positive reviews I’ve read from creative professionals.
Although Macs are supposedly easier to use than PCs, after using a MacBook Air for several days I decided I prefer Windows 10 over Apple’s OS. I also already own Windows software, am familiar with the interface, and consult for companies that use PCs so the cost of changing platforms would be high for me. Further, I do not use any other Apple devices so migrating to Apple’s integrated world will not benefit me.
Overall, despite Apple’s sexier hardware and great performance reviews, I would rather buy a PC and put the extra money I save towards upgrading my camera gear and software. The Apple vs. Windows debate really amounts to personal preference though so try both platforms for yourself before making a decision.
Up until recently, most Ultrabooks (lightweight and small laptops) were only available in 10-13.3″ sizes and could not handle tasks like video editing (Apple was ahead of the curve and released a <5 pound 15″ MacBook Pro in 2012 and have had high performing MacBooks for several years).
Luckily, PC manufacturers are now also releasing a wide variety of high performance 12″ to 15.6″ laptops that are thin and lightweight.
Small laptops are easy to pack and carry since they tend to weigh less than 2.5 pounds (1.1kg), but in my opinion their usability sucks. They are only capable of performing basic tasks and the small keyboards make typing difficult for most people.
If you only want to surf the internet, make Skype calls, and only type short e-mails, you may prefer to buy a large-screened smartphone or tablet instead of a laptop.
If you’ll occasionally write long e-mails or use a word processor then may consider a device with a physical keyboard, like the sub-$300 Asus Transformer TP200SA. However, if you expect to spend more than an 45 minutes a day on your laptop, type a lot, or upload and edit photos or videos I strongly recommend a larger screen size.
I included 12″ laptops in this category as models like the 12.3″ Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and 12″ MacBook (both 2 pounds or <1kg) perform more like 13.3″ laptops than 10-11″ options.
Even though these laptops perform better than 10″-11″ options, I still find a 12″ screen and keyboard small for regularly working with documents, spreadsheets, and photos. Unless you REALLY care about portability over productivity or price, I would strongly recommend looking at 13″ or larger laptops.
13.3″ laptops are the most popular size of ultrabook for a reason; they provide a great compromise between portability and performance. The best 13″ laptop configurations have 2Ghz+ processors, 8GB+ RAM, and SSDs that can do just about everything except fast video editing, 3D rendering, and gaming at a weight of 2.6-3.5 pounds (~1.2-1.6kg).
Obviously, 14″-15.6″ are larger and heavier (4-5 pounds or ~1.8-2.3kg) than 12-13.3″ laptops making them less portable; However, the larger size provides several performance benefits including:
Typically, larger laptops offer a better performance to price ratio since manufacturers can use larger components and more easily deal with the heat created by fast processors and discrete graphic chips.
15.6″ Asus Zenbook UX501VW
My old laptop was a massive 17″ beast with a 1600×900 screen. At over 6.5 pounds I would not consider it very portable but having that extra screen space was great, especially when I wasn’t traveling.
Now that laptops feature such high resolution screens I thought a 13.3″ HD Ultrabook might be able to replace my 17″ screen. Unfortunately, after a few days of working on a 13.3″ MacBook Air I realized that resolution can’t totally replace screen size and I wished I had a larger laptop for viewing multiple documents at once and editing photos.
Now that PC manufacturers are releasing 15.6″ Ultrabooks that only weigh 4-5 pounds (~1.8-2.3kg), I believe they are a great option for travelers who use their laptops a lot or aren’t changing locations every few days. Students and commuters who carry their laptops everywhere may find the extra size and weight annoying and prefer 13.3″ laptops, but I don’t mind carrying an extra pound or two every few days when I’m traveling given the usability benefits.
Excuse my Shakespeare reference; the touch screen really isn’t a life or death decision. Touch tablets and smartphones are wonderful, but are they really needed for laptops?
All 2-in-1 devices will be touch screens and it’s a great benefit since you can surf the internet or scroll through documents in tablet mode at the swipe of a finger.
For non-convertible laptops, I’m still not convinced there is a point to touch screen displays. They are bad for battery life, introduce fingerprints to the screen, and aren’t faster or easier to use than the trackpad or mouse.
The laptop I bought has a touchscreen and the only helpful use I have found so far is easier zooming, moving, and selecting points while editing photos in Lightroom.
I would not buy a screen less than Full HD (1920×1080) given how much content is now available online at this resolution. In the future, more 4K (3840×2160) content will become available, but the quality difference is negligible to the naked eye on laptop-sized screens.
In some cases, 4K screens are actually detrimental since not all software is designed for such high resolutions and fonts or windows may shrink to 1/4 their intended size. These issues are quickly being remedied but the fact remains Full HD screens are adequate for most people.
Despite the foregoing, I chose a laptop with a 4K screen. I will be doing a lot of photo and video editing and my Panasonic Lumix G7 is 4K video capable so I want to ensure that I am seeing my photos and videos in as much clarity as possible when I edit.
Laptop screens can differ greatly in brightness and colour correctness. If you just want to watch movies and do normal tasks, you likely only care about having a bright and clear screen.
If you’re a photo or video editor, the screen performance will be very important since you will want your edited work to reproduce correctly. You will want to confirm the colour gamut (range of colours), brightness, and colour accuracy of the laptop screens before buying. Even though I’m colour blind (Mild Protan) and at a disadvantage for colour accurate editing, I definitely wanted a good quality screen so I’m not at an even greater disadvantage. I would also recommend IPS screens because the screen shouldn’t brighten or darken as you change your viewing level of the screen.
Laptop screens are not as good as properly calibrated desktop monitor in a controlled environment, but they are getting better and better.
Apple’s Retina Screen and Dell’s XPS screens have received great reviews out-of-the-box but even the same model of laptop screens may perform irregularly under different conditions. I still recommend checking review site measurements for the screen performance of the exact model you are considering since manufacturers may use different screens for different specifications within their line-up. For example, an Asus UX501JW received far worse screen reviews than the UX501VW so I almost didn’t consider the UX501 at all, which would have been a mistake.
It’s difficult to understand modern processor options. If you’re only looking to perform basic tasks then any processor should do, though if you like to have dozens of windows open at a time you will likely want an Intel Core i5 or better.
For most photo and video editing you will want an Intel Core i7, though there are many different models within the Core i7 lineup. Because modern processors are being optimized for battery life, newer and more expensive processors are not necessarily faster. It is also worth noting that quad core processors aren’t necessarily better than dual core processors. Unless you’re really into geeky performance benchmarks, my recommendation is to narrow your choice in computer models down to two or three options and then just research the differences between the processors offered on those models.
If you plan to edit videos, having a discrete graphics card should speed things up but you will notice that discrete graphics are usually only offered on the more expensive machines. The other option is integrated graphics, such as Intel’s Iris series which is part of the processor and usually cheaper.
Random Access Memory (RAM) is basically where your computer stores all of the temporary work files it creates. When working on basic documents or tasks you can usually get away with 4-8GB.
When editing photos and videos, your temporary files can be very large so the more space you have to store these files, the better. Nothing ruins my workflow more than delayed response to my photo edits or stuttering video so I personally want at least 16GB of RAM on my laptop, though many people get away with only using 8GB.
Random Access Memory (RAM)
Solid State Drives (SSDs) have replaced standard disc drives on most Ultrabooks and high end machines because of their small size and fast performance. Unfortunately, SSDs are very expensive, especially for larger sizes. Therefore, most Ultrabooks are offered with 128GB or 256GB SSDs and it may cost several hundred dollars to upgrade to 512GB or 1TB drives.
One of the biggest frustrations I faced with my old Windows laptop was its slow start-up speed. With Windows 10 and an SSD my laptop now starts up in around 5 seconds. Transferring files is also lightning quick. I feel like 256GB is too small for all of the files I want quick access to while on the move so I chose a laptop with a 512GB SSD and may consider upgrading to 1TB when prices come down.
Given my huge collection of photos and videos I definitely also need external storage. For my purposes, I like to have physical hard drives for external storage because my internet connection is not always great when I travel though these days, cloud storage is also viable for most people.
Since I already had a 2TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim for backups, I took the two 1TB drives out of my old laptop and bought <$10 HD enclosures off Amazon to store my photos and videos. I only carry and plug my external drives in while backing up files or doing editing work so it hasn’t been much of an inconvenience to me. I definitely love the speediness of the SSD and would not consider buying a laptop without one.
Old 5400 RPM Western Digital 1TB Drive
If you know you want an Apple, your travel laptop decision is pretty straightforward given Apple’s limited number of models.
For basic tasks (word processing, e-mails, surfing the internet) your best choice is MacBook or MacBook Air. They range from 11.6″ – 13.3″ in screen size, are thin and lightweight (2-3 pounds), and offer battery life of ~9+ hours. Prices range from US $900-$1600 depending on the size of RAM and hard disk.
If you’re a photographer, videographer, or graphic designer, you likely want a MacBook Pro. The Pro models are thicker and heavier than the non-pro models, but are still thin and weigh less than 4.5 pounds. MacBook Pros offer more processing power and RAM than non-pro models, which is needed to perform editing and rendering tasks quickly. Apple’s retina screen is consistently rated as one of the best colour calibrated screens and the hardware performs better than most rival PCs with similar specs. MacBook Pros are expensive though; prices range from US $1100-$2500 depending on the configuration and creative users will probably spend $2000+ for a machine that meets their needs.
Note: New Apple MacBook models are expected to be released in mid-2016 so it’s likely worth waiting for the new models or price cuts on the 2015 models before buying.
If you can handle the small 12.3″ screen size, the Microsoft Surface Pro is an innovative 2-in-1 that takes the shape of tablet, performs like a laptop, but only has a keyboard cover for typing. The highest performing Surface Pro 4 has an i7 processor, 16GB RAM, and 256GB SSD, which competes with larger ultrabooks, but that configuration costs a whopping US $1800. I have not used a Surface Pro myself but have read mixed reviews online. Some people love the small tablet design but I have seen too many business executives crunched over their Surface Pros in airport lounges to personally want one but if you really want portability and money is no concern, it’s worth checking out.
The best performance 13″ Windows laptops in 2016 are the Dell XPS 13, HP Spectre x360, and Asus UX303.
There are many different sub-models available so check out the latest performance reviews for the model you are interested in before making a final purchase decision.
Note: HP announced a new beautiful and thin Spectre model in April. It may be worth waiting to see reviews on pricing on that model when it ships.
The 13.5″ Microsoft Surface Book is an innovative 2 in 1 that looks and acts like a laptop but features a detachable tablet screen. Early adopters continue to report issues with the Surface Book and I do not believe the high price (US $1400-3200) is justified…yet. If Microsoft’s Surface Book becomes more refined, and prices drop significantly, it could become a great travel laptop option in the future.
If performance is not a priority but you want a cheap and capable WIndows 10 laptop, I recommend the sub-$600 2-in-1 options from Dell, Asus, and HP. You can find models that weigh less than 3.7 pounds with 1920×1080 HD touch screens and 8GB of RAM if you catch a sale.
14″ Laptops have become a sweet spot for business use and therefore only of interest for users who want portability and a usable screen and keyboard but don’t care about performance for photo and video editing. Lenovo has released some great options but I generally find pricing higher than it should be, likely because of the target corporate expense account audience. For my money, I’d go with a 15″ laptop instead.
It should come as no surprise that the best 15.6″ Windows laptops in 2016 are the bigger brothers of their 13″ counterparts, namely the Dell XPS 15, HP Spectre x360, and Asus UX501.
Asus Zenbook Pro UX501VW
After all of my research, I decided the Asus Zenbook Pro UX501VW offered the most bang for my hard earned buck.
Initially, I eliminated the Zenbook from my options because of bad reviews about the screen’s colour calibration. Luckily, I discovered these reviews were with respect to the UX501JW model and Asus changed the screen supplier for the VW, improving its colour accuracy. For US $1500, I have not found another model that comes anywhere close to the Zenbook Pro UX501’s performance specs.
No doubt, the XPS 15 is a beautiful, portable, and high performance laptop, but the price is too high for me to justify. There have also been a lot of reports of dead pixels on the screens though I’m sure Dell will sort those issues out quickly. Had the XPS 15 price only been a few hundred dollars more than the Asus I would have considered it, but I would much rather put the $1000 I saved towards camera gear and travel!
The HP Spectre x360 is lightweight and beautiful and I can see the tablet mode being useful for surfing the internet in airports, but the dual core i7 processor may not perform well during video editing. Given its higher price and lower performance than the Zenbook, I can’t see a justification for spending the extra money for the HP Spectre x360 unless you are very weight conscious or want a 2-in-1.
Note: I will eventually write a full review of the laptop, but after one month of use I couldn’t be happier with the Asus UX501VW and would recommend this computer to travelers who need a high performance travel laptop.