Computers / Hands-on Review

The 7 Best Laptops of 2016 by Usage

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It seems as though, every year, we make a pitch for what we think the seven best laptops of the year are—but every year, it gets harder and harder to write an article like this. Why? The answer is a definitive, “I have no idea.” First of all, the laptop industry has taken its fair share of lumps recently, and like younger siblings who can’t help showing off, tablets are more portable and far more powerful than they used to be. As if that weren’t enough to make you suffer from an inferiority complex, tablets’ little brothers and sisters—smartphones—are starting to make mobile computing more of a real deal and not a far-off concept.

The reason I’m being as decisive as a kid in a candy store is because the decision to buy or use a laptop is purely personal and dependent on an individual’s needs. That’s why, this year, we’re going to concentrate on the seven best laptops for specific uses. That way, if you came here looking for a laptop, you have to ask yourself why you want one. And if you’re here looking for gift ideas, then each of these laptops fits a specific need, and you should be able to find something for that special someone on your list this holiday.

Best Laptop for Design or Video Processing

Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base: If there is someone on your holiday list who deserves some extra special attention, you can’t get any more extra special than this top-of-the-line laptop. The Microsoft Surface Book comes with bragging rights—but only if you buy the edition with the performance base. The base adds an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 965M graphics controller with 2GB of VRAM to the already impressive 2.6 GHz Intel® Core™ i7-6600U Skylake CPU, 512GB solid-state drive and 16GB of RAM. Coupled with a 13.5" 3000 x 2000 detachable touchscreen, this puts this premier laptop into the “ya gotta be kiddin’ me range” with a price to match. What sets it apart? Well, the detachable option should make it clear that you can use the included Surface Pen to turn this into a digital design studio—complete with drawing pad, artist’s canvas, and CAD drawing board—and the power and graphics muscle means that entertainment (watching movies and playing games) is as much as an option as business functionality. You could find more for less, but you won’t see it as completely packaged as well as the Surface Book.

Microsoft 13.5" Surface Book Multi-Touch 2-in-1 Notebook with Performance Base

Best Non-Windows Laptop that Can Compete with the Surface Book

Apple 15.4" MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (Late 2016): Okay, that’s cheating. This is the only non-Windows laptop that can compete (notice the lack of Chromebooks this year—has Chrome lost its luster?). The Apple architects responsible for the MacBook knew that the iconic laptop needed an update, so they updated the Apple 15.4" MacBook Pro with the one thing that creative professionals wanted, which is a Touch Bar that puts ease and functionality literally at your fingertips. The Touch Bar is more than a gimmick; it’s a useful application-based system that can be used by productivity software like Final Cut Pro, Adobe Photoshop, and GarageBand. So, on top of the already phenomenal 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7 Quad-Core processor, 256GB PCIe SSD, and 16GB of RAM, you can also pile on a 15.4" 2880 x 1800 Retina display, AMD Radeon Pro 450 GPU with 2GB of GDDR5 memory, larger Force Touch trackpad, four (count ’em—four) Thunderbolt 3 ports, and a super-productive touch bar that will appeal to creatives of all types.

Apple 15.4" MacBook Pro with Touch Bar

Best Budget Gaming Laptop

Dell 15.6" Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming Series Notebook: The pros and cons of this laptop can be found in the B&H Explora article, The Best Gaming Laptop on a Budget—Ever, but for those not inclined to click through, let’s just say this is a great steal for the money, with the only downside being a slightly dim screen. If you can get past that (and game in slightly darkened rooms like the rest of us) you’ll find more bang for your buck with this Dell 15.6" gaming laptop. If you’re not into gaming, you will still find it hard to pass up a 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ Quad-Core processor, 16GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive with an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960M GPU with 4GB of GDDR5 RAM. Yeah, the 15.6" Full HD 1920 x 1080 IPS display may seem a little flimsy compared to better offerings, but for less than $1,000, you may not find a better laptop period, regardless of its gaming chops.

Dell 15.6" Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming Series Notebook

Best 2-in-1 Hybrid Laptop/Tablet

Microsoft Surface Pro 4: Why did Microsoft make the list twice? Partly because the Surface design regimen has taken the laptop/hybrid world by storm—many try to emulate it, but few succeed in replicating its ease of use and slim form factor. The Surface Pro 4 makes the list (instead of the Surface 3) because it is powered up by a variety of processors, from a Core M3 to an Intel Core i7, and a slew of storage options including up to a 1TB solid-state drive. But a mid-range model, with a Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB solid-state drive can still be had for less than $800, and for that, you still get one of the best laptops out there. Not only do you upgrade the processor from the Surface 3, you also get a bigger 12.3" screen and a pretty sharp 2736 x 1824-resolution display. The included Surface pen makes this ideal for design students, but the absence of the keyboard (which you have to purchase separately) may be a deal breaker.

Microsoft 12.3" Surface Pro 4 128GB Multi-Touch Tablet

Best Business Laptop

HP Elite x2 1012 G1: I have never been a big fan of Core m processors—they always felt a little underpowered when compared to their big brother Core i-Series chips. But if you’re still using a four-year-old laptop, then anything will seem faster. The HP Elite x2 1012 G1 makes the list here because it crunches the numbers you need for business applications: Excel, PowerPoint, etc. It also has the power to multitask when web searching, and can handle all of this with less power consumption, which gets you about 5 hours of battery life—pretty poor if you’re away from a power outlet for a while. Where it does shine is in its security; pre-installed HP Client Security, Intel® vPro, and optional features like a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) and self-encrypting drive (SED) are all needed when using this as a business machine.  It comes in a variety of configurations, from a Core m3 to a Core m7 model, and a form factor that sincerely flatters the Surface series with its slim feel, compact keyboard, and stylish stylus. Like the Surface; however, for some models the keyboard is also an added expense. Check back for a full review of the Elite x2 1012 G1 laptop soon, but if you’re looking for a laptop that meets your requirements for a perfect business gift, then two questions remain: What are you waiting for, and do you have any openings in your company?

HP 12" Elite x2 1012 G1 Multi-Touch Tablet with Travel Keyboard

The Best VR Ready Laptop

The ASUS ROG G752VS OC Edition: VR isn’t cheap—a good VR headset like Oculus Rift or HTC Vive comes with an additional price tag—you have to be able to pony up the scratch for a compatible PC, as well. For those of us in constant motion, we don’t want to be tied down to our desks when experiencing VR, and a VR ready laptop is essential to keep things on the move. The ASUS ROG G752VS OC Edition happens to be a laptop that meets many of the stringent requirements for VR games—a Windows 10 machine with a 2.7 GHz Intel Core i7-6820HK quad-core processor and a whopping 64GB of 2400 MHz DDR4 RAM. With a 17.3" G-Sync display (which syncs the screen’s refresh rate with the graphics card’s frame rate output to minimize screen tearing and stuttering) running at Full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution, and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 GPU with 8GB of GDDR5 VRAM, this laptop already exceeds most of our home PCs, and in style. It’s capable, it’s powerful, and it’s ready to process whatever you throw at it. It’s also pricey, but hey—you want your virtual reality to be as real as possible, and that comes with a premium price tag.

ASUS 17.3" Republic of Gamers G752VS Series Notebook

The Best All Around Budget Laptop

Acer 15.6" Aspire E5-575-521W Notebook: Here’s the problem with budget laptops. What’s budget for you may be too much for me, and what’s too much for you may be a steal for others. We narrowed it down to these factors—the processor, the amount of RAM, and the screen resolution. There was a time not too long ago when an Intel Pentium laptop with HD 1366 x 768 resolution screen and 4GB of RAM (the minimum required to run Windows effectively) would have cost thousands of dollars. And yes, we know, Chromebooks are a reasonable alternative to pricey Windows-based laptops. But we did find an Acer 15.6" Aspire E5-575-521W Notebook that hits a couple of triggers for us: it has a reliable Intel Core i5 processor (anything lower, like an Intel Core i3 or Atom processor, may have trouble multitasking), it has a respectable 8GB of RAM where most only offer 4GB, and it can still display at full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution. Surprise—it also offers USB C connectivity and an 8-hour battery, along with dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi.

Acer 15.6" Aspire E5-575-521W Notebook

Yes, every year this gets harder and harder, and every year we find new laptops that surprise us. What will 2017 hold for the market, and for the future of laptops? Unfortunately, we don’t see a psychic-card-reading-fortune-telling laptop on the horizon, but if we did, rest assured, we’ll recommend it next year.

If you have any questions or additions to this magnificent seven, please post below, in the Comments section.

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Discussion 15

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I'm the proud owner of a early-2010 15" MacBook Pro with Touchbar that I purchased from B&H. I don't just like this computer, I love it. It's got a beautiful form factor, and is super fast when working in programs like Photoshop. 

I know there's been some controversy regarding CPU power and the lack of anything but USB-C for peripherals, but those haven't been an issue. I really think both complaints are a tempest in a teapot. The CPU is plenty powerful. A newer and more powerful one from Intel would have supported more memory that 16GB, but at the expense of the 10 hours of battery life I'm getting. As for USB-C, you really need only one, inexpensive adapter to go from USB-C to USB-A which is under $10. This then allows you to connect all of your peripherals until such time as USB-C becomes more widely accepted.

Don't let what you read prevent you from enjoying this beautiful piece of engineering. It's a major upgrade to last year's MacBook Pro, and in my case, my early 2010 15" MacBook Pro. I'd be stunned if you don't love this computer.

I am the tech buyer for a school (K-8) going One-to-One this year and have decided on the Lenovo Chromebook.  I have done a lot of research and did a pilot test this year.  It will be the best for our students, but now I want to buy a Laptop for my granddaughter and thought this would be a good choice for her until I saw what she was doing as a high school freshman taking AP courses. She is using all the "Big Three" Word, Excel and PowerPoint at a level beyond me in some cases, so only a "fully outfitted" laptop will work for what she is doing now and in the next few years.

My point is that buying a computer now is no different than when I bought my first Compaq in 1984. Find out what you or the user is going to do with the computer and know just what specs are needed and buy what they need.  I have decided on a Yoga 900 because it fits the way MY granddaughter will use a computer. Powerful to run those Office Apps, will work as a tablet when she studies on her bed at night, small and light to go everywhere and with great battery life.   

Indeed, every word is engraved in stone ..
Especially the Dell 15.6 "Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming Series Notebook
Highly recommended one of the best if not the

My girlfriend just by a laptop for mainly do photo editing. She made lots of reserch to do so. It's like there's not a realy photo editing laptop existing on the market. Maybe except for the mac's. If you don't want to go on mac your kind of having to go on gamer's laptop. I found that situation surprising knowing that there is a market for that. Maybe BandH could make one?

I figured the Asus Zenbook Pro 15.6" would be on this list with ultra high def screen and is way less than the surface which is ABSURDLY priced. Thoughts?

Lenovo YOGA 900 is the best hybrid laptop of 2016 period! You can't find better package in $1500 CAD range. Not Dell XPS 13 that will end up costing you $2000 for the 16/512 package or Surface $3500 same config.
You can get Yoga 900 with intel i7 Skylake 6500 2.5Ghz to 3.10Ghz, 16gb ram and 512gb SSD for $1500 CAD! This is the best hybrid mobile laptop you can get for the money. Battery goes for up to 15hr, weight is only 2.5 lbs and it's super slim.
Forget MacBook pro with it's gimmicky one inch touch bar that cost you almost $3000. With YOGA 900 or even 910 both made in 2016 you get all 14" of 4k display that is all TOUCH SCREEN!
For photo edit and digital image production is a different story, I only recommend yoga 900/910 for the "best on the go notebook of 2016"! Merry Christmas to everybody!

What a strange "best of" list ... especially for a photo & video gear shop !

The "Best Laptop for Design or Video Processing" boast a 13 inch reflective screen ... are you kidding me, is that what you recommend for photo/video processing ? LOL ! No really, there's quite a number of far better choises out there, with 15 or 17 inch matte screens, with at least the same muscle power ...

Yes, thank you for saying that! I literally thought I had missed something and went into another dimension or time travelled to a place where the computers you speak of were only living in my dreams! This list is CrAzY!

Cedric, could you recommend some 15" matte screen laptops good for photo editing? I am also surprised the author did not comment on the Apple's lack of an SD card reader and its need for adaptors for all our existing peripherals. I, too, was expecting a more photo-oriented review, and would love to see the same on this website.

I wondered about that too. Hardly seems photography friendly not to include an SD card reader. But then, I gather all the newest Macs will be without an SD reader...not sure what Mac is thinking or where they are going with this.

Any suggestions for music production laptops

 Hi - 

Designed to replace the MacBook Air, the space gray 13.3" MacBook Pro from Apple is faster and more powerful than the previous generation, yet thinner at 0.59" and lighter at just 3 lb. This system is powered by a 2.4 GHz Intel Core i7 Dual-Core processor that features a burst speed of up to 3.4 GHz, while 8GB of 1866 MHz LPDDR3 RAM helps to ensure smooth multitasking and also allows the computer to quickly access frequently-used files and programs.

What about HP spectre 360?

A bit pricey but, in i7/16 GBRAM/512 GB SSD configuration works like a charm to me

It would be really nice if you had also highlighted a 3 lb or less computer with Wi-Fi, bluetooth, good graphics for photos.  Usage would be for email, light Excel usage, email, etc. with USB ports to connect external HDs for photos, videos, etc. 

Hi   - 

    The 13.3" ZenBook UX301LA Multi-Touch Ultrabook from Asus is a thin and light notebook ideal for users who are constantly on-the-go and need a system that won't slow them down. It's powered by a 2.4 GHz Intel Core i7-5500U Dual-Core processor and 8GB of DDR3L RAM that'll let you efficiently multitask and quickly access frequently used files and programs. When handling a heavier workload, the CPU can reach up to 3.0 GHz thanks to Intel Turbo Boost technology. For storage, this system is equipped with a 256GB M.2 SSD. Should you need more room, you can connect external storage devices using its USB ports as well as its SD media card reader, which can also be used for quickly transferring files between mobile devices. 

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