Need a laptop as light as a feather that lasts all day with a single battery charge? Thin, light, and energy-efficient, these ultra-portable devices are our most powerful testing products. The evolution of laptops has always been the driving force for thinner, lighter, and more energy-efficient designs, and whatever the year, these requirements are matched in the excellent expression of pioneering laptop design: they are ultra-portable.
What exactly defines this category? Overall, ultra-portable devices weigh 3 pounds or less, have screens of 14 inches or less, and offer sufficient battery life to survive most of a day’s work without a hit. These systems now have a variety of features and screen resolutions that are faster than ever, very convenient to travel to, and wide enough to meet everyone’s needs. Over the years, you may have seen laptops of this type, called “ultrabooks” or “stream books”, but these were essentially attempting to branding on the same basic “ultra-light laptop” model. The design always returns to the same basic elements: fine, light, and durable.
The Best Top Picks For 2020
- Dell Inspiron 14 7000 (7490)
- Dell XPS 13 (9310)
- Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 8 (2020)
- Apple MacBook Pro 13-Inch (2020)
- HP Envy x360 13 (2020)
- Acer Swift 3 (2020)
- Apple MacBook Air (2020)
- Lenovo Yoga C640
- Microsoft Surface Laptop Go
- Razer Blade Stealth 13 (2020)
How much should you spend on an ultraportable?
While ultraportable laptops as a class may look stylish, many key differentiators distinguish patterns from each other. The first to consider is the price. There is a huge difference between a system that costs $400 and another that costs $1,300, even though they have the same brand name and similar appearances and features.
At the bottom of the range are entry-level systems that typically run at $500 or less. For many casual users, this is the only price range worth considering, but there are a few caveats to keep in mind. Processing power, display resolution, and storage capabilities are generally lower on cheap ultraportables, as they are designed for basic web browsing, word processing, and multimedia visualization, and construction can be fragile. The weight of these models also varies up to 4 pounds.
Entry-level ultraportables are solid systems that young family members can use for homework or watch movies at home, as they are both highly portable and relatively inexpensive. Value is an important factor in this category, as many ultraportables on a low budget can seduce you with a low price. If you are not careful, you may find yourself disappointed by a system that is only a good deal because its manufacturer has made too many turns.
Choose your power wisely: processors in Ultraportables
For smooth performance and a good user experience, you’ll want to be selective on your processor. Even in a less expensive system, the average processor is more capable than ever of managing routine tasks, but if you need speed, select carefully.
At the top of the pile are the Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processors, which can be found in mid-range and high-end models. Most ultraportables in 2020 use the 10th-generation Intel Core processors, divided into “Ice Lake” and “Comet Lake” varieties, while the latest versions in late 2020 have been moved to the new 11th-generation Intel Core “Tiger Lake” processors.
Some 9th generation ultraportables are still available, but almost all have switched to 10th- if not 11th-generation chips here at the end of 2020. The processor is usually associated with 8GB of memory, although some high-end systems have 16GB of RAM.
Ultraportable processors will generally be classified as U-Series processors, designed for lightweight laptop designs. This is still the case with Tiger Lake, although the suffix “U” is not present in the names of these chips to designate it (instead, you will see names like Core i7-1165G7).
Indeed, so far, all the Tiger Lake chips published are from the U series, so you’ll see a lot in the best ultraportable. In previous generations, some mid-range models will opt for Intel’s energy-saving Y-Series processors.
These chips, Core families, are identified by the “Y” in their model number and are capable but very low power, intended to bridge the gap between the U-Series chips and the Intel Atom processors you find in cheap Windows tablets. and extreme-budget laptops.
At Tiger Lake, some U-Series chips will be available with lower power for cheaper and mostly thin laptops. With the 9th-generation Core, you’ll find Core i5 and i7 Y-series chips, as well as Core i3 chips in the least powerful (and generally cheap) laptops.
Watch out for graphics: the GPU factor
Also important: the graphics processor, also called GPU. Almost all ultraportables rely on built-in graphics, and for any Intel chip up to the 10th generation, which came in the form of Intel UHD graphics
This is graphical acceleration silicon that is part of the processor, not a dedicated chip per se. This level of power is suitable for casual (often web-based) or older games, multimedia streaming and perhaps strange photo editing, but not important games.
However, Tiger Lake disputes this account. One of its main attractions is an improved integrated graphics card, named Iris Xe, which replaces Intel UHD graphics. While performance is not equal to that of discrete gaming laptop GPUs, it is much better than the old Intel and AMD integrated solutions.
This means that non-gaming laptops equipped with Tiger Lake processors are typically able to run single-player big-budget games with medium or low settings, and less stressful multiplayer titles, opening the game to a wider audience. Performance varies with each Tiger Lake chip, so the highest chips in the hierarchy are better for games, but the passive performance of each is obvious. You can see more specific Iris Xe performance figures in our test piece.
If you want to do more with the media and play games with higher frame settings and image frequencies, you’ll need a discrete graphics chip, like the mobile versions of Nvidia’s GTX and RTX graphics cards.
These GPUs require more power and cooling and, as such, are usually only visible in gaming laptops or larger replacement laptops.
There are, however, a growing number of portable and game-ready exceptions, such as the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14, but overall, the most travel-friendly systems are not suitable for the game. Don’t expect built-in graphics to play more than a few less demanding games with lower retail settings.
Choose your pixels: ultraportable screens
Let’s move on from what’s inside a typical ultraportable with the most visible look from the outside: the screen.
Ultraportables’ screens are available in an increasingly varied range of resolutions, from the now standard high definition (1366 by 768 pixels) in economy models to full HD (1920 out of 1080) and even ultra HD or 4K (3840 out of 2160). Low-resolution screens are most often found in entry-level systems simply because they are the cheapest option.
They work well enough to read and type text, and YouTube often defaults to something inferior to Full HD, anyway, so less demanding users can do just fine. But it’s best to avoid a 1366 x 768-pixel screen here in 2020 in a new laptop if you can help it.