Best laptop 2021: The 16 best laptops for any budget

If you’re looking for the best laptop to buy this year, or just fancy doing a bit of virtual window shopping, you’ve come to the right place. To help you along the way, we’ve sifted through all of the laptops we feel are worthy of your hard-earned cash in 2021 and selected the very best.

Wondering why you should listen to us? Simple. Every year, dozens of the latest and greatest laptops pass through the Expert Reviews labs – along with plenty of not-so-great laptops, too. Each device is subjected to our rigorous in-house testing, so when we recommend a laptop you can be sure of one thing: it’s a laptop we’d be happy to buy ourselves.

Read on and you’ll discover everything from the best business-class laptops to super-sleek ultraportables, gaming laptops and 2-in-1 hybrids. In short, there’s something for everyone. And if you’re really not sure what to go for, our laptop buying guide will point you in the right direction.

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How to choose the best laptop for you

Buying a brand-new laptop is no easy task. There are so many brilliant devices to choose from each year, with prices ranging from £200 to £2,000 or more. Cost can also vary massively between different configurations of the same laptop, which only adds to the confusion. In this brief buying guide, we’ll help you make the right choice by outlining the most important factors to consider before you bust out the bank card.

What do you need your laptop for?

Your personal requirements should dictate what sort of laptop you go for. A typical university student will have different tech needs than a professional video editor. Some may need a laptop that can process large files at rapid speeds, while others may just want to use Google Docs or browse the web. Ultimately, it all comes down to what you want your laptop to do.

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What about performance and battery life?

The most powerful laptops are those with the most powerful CPUs and the highest amount of RAM. A laptop’s CPU power is measured in GHz and each processor has a baseline frequency as well as a maximum frequency. Other factors can impact overall performance, including poor temperature control, which can lead to thermal throttling. Ideally, any laptop you buy should have at least 4GB of RAM as a minimum. Processors aren’t as easy to pin down – they might be dual-core, quad-core or hexa-core and can range greatly in power.

A MacBook Pro (or Windows equivalent like the Dell XPS 15) has a much more powerful CPU and more RAM than a cheap Chromebook because people expect them to run multiple demanding applications.

Battery size is measured in milliamp-hours (mAH) or Watt-hours (Wh) – the biggest battery will (in theory) last the longest, but it all depends on how much power the various components inside the device use (the display, CPU and GPU have the biggest impact). An ultra-budget laptop with a small battery size may last longer than a premium notebook with a huge battery because its internal hardware isn’t as demanding. We run a standardised video rundown test on every single laptop we review, with the longest-lasting performers tending to be a mix between efficient high-end ultraportable laptops and low-powered Chromebooks.

What operating system should you go for?

Whether it’s Windows, macOS or Chrome OS, each operating system has its own strengths and weaknesses. macOS is only found in Apple’s own laptops, while Windows powers all sorts of laptops from manufacturers such as Acer, Asus and Lenovo. Google’s low-powered Chrome OS is also rising in popularity and can be found on a wide range of devices.

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What’s the best display resolution?

When it comes to laptop displays, the resolution isn’t everything. If the same laptop has the option of a Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) display and a 4K (3,840 x 2,160) display, the latter is usually more expensive but not necessarily sharper. How sharp a display look depends on two factors: the size of the screen and how far away you sit from it.

In our experience, you don’t really need more than 1,920 x 1,080 on a screen 14in or smaller. In fact, if you have 20/20 vision, you’d have to be sitting viewing the display at a distance closer than 56cm. Given that laptops with higher-resolution panels typically suffer a bit in the battery life department, it’s often worth opting for the lower resolution, and cheaper, option if you can.

The quality of a laptop’s display has little to do with the resolution of the screen, however. There’s never a guarantee of a laptop’s maximum brightness, colour accuracy or contrast ratio no matter how sharp it is. We measure all of these when testing each laptop because a dim, muddy or washed-out display can ruin a great product.

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How many ports should a laptop have?

In addition to a power socket and headphone jack, most new laptops will come with at least a couple of USB-A and one USB-C port. When it comes to connections, the general rule of thumb is the more the merrier.

It is worth paying attention to the type of USB-C ports you’re getting, however; although they might look the same, they often have different capabilities from machine to machine. For the fastest transfer speeds, look for Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports; USB-C isn’t as quick.

And don’t assume every USB-C port on a laptop can carry video, power and data. Although the standard allows for this, manufacturers sometimes limit what each port can do.

It’s extremely useful to have a full-sized HDMI connector for hooking up the laptop to additional monitors, too, although these aren’t particularly common on slimmer laptops. And an SD card reader doesn’t hurt either – an addition that’s sorely lacking on Apple’s laptops these days.

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The best laptops you can buy in 2021

1. Dell XPS 13 (11th gen, late 2020): The best Windows laptop

Price: From £924 l Buy now from Amazon

Dell updates its XPS laptops twice a year these days in lockstep with Intel’s CPU upgrades and the latest has Intel’s 11th-gen CPUs as an option. As with previous XPS 13 editions, the late 2020 model is a laptop that gets pretty much everything right, from the brilliant build quality and colour accurate display to the fabulous keyboard and a generous specification for the money.

As ever, there’s an XPS 13 for most budgets. You can choose from various combinations of specifications, including an Intel Core i5-1135G7, a Core i7-1165G7 or a Core i7-1185G7, 8GB, 16GB or 32GB of RAM and a 512GB or 1TB PCIe SSD.

With improved performance across the board, including better battery life and significantly faster graphics scores, the Dell XPS 13 remains the Windows 10 ultraportable to beat, although it’s fallen behind the M1 MacBook Pro and Air laptops for outright bang per buck.

Read our Dell XPS 13 review for more details

Key specs – Display size: 13.4in; Resolution: 1,920 x 1,200 (non-touchscreen) or 3,840 x 2,400 (touchscreen); Type: IPS; CPU: Intel Core i5-1135G7 or Intel Core i7-1185G7; Graphics: Intel Iris Xe; RAM: 8GB/32GB; Storage: 512GB/1TB; Dimensions: 296 x 199 x 14.8mm (WDH); Weight: 1.2kg (non-touchscreen) or 1.27kg (touchscreen)