The Best Ultraportable Laptops for 2021

The evolution of laptops has always been driven by the push for thinner, lighter, and more power-efficient designs, and whatever the year, these demands coalesce into the perfect expressions of leading-edge laptop design: ultraportables.

What exactly defines this category? In general, ultraportables weigh 3 pounds or less, have screens 14 inches or smaller, and offer enough battery life to survive most of a workday off-plug. These systems are now faster than ever, are well-suited to travel, and come with a variety of features and display resolutions wide enough to fit anyone’s needs. You may have seen laptops of this breed referred to over the years as “ultrabooks” or “streambooks,” but those were primarily attempts to attach some branding to the same basic template of “ultralight laptop.” The design always comes back to the same foundational elements: thin, light, and long-running.

Dynabook Portege ultraportable

How Much Should You Spend on an Ultraportable?

Although ultraportable laptops as a class may look sleek, quite a few key differentiators distinguish models from one another. The first to consider is price. There’s a huge difference between a system that costs $400 and one that costs $1,300, even if they boast the same brand name, and similar looks and features.

At the low end are entry-level systems that generally run $500 or less. For many casual users, this is the only price range worth looking at, but there are some caveats to keep in mind. The processing power, display resolution, and storage capacities are usually lower on inexpensive ultraportables, as they’re built for basic web browsing, word processing, and media viewing purposes, and the construction can be on the flimsy side. The weight for these models also ranges up to 4 pounds.

Lenovo Flex 5 14

Entry-level ultraportables make solid systems for younger family members to use for homework or watching movies around the house, since they are both highly portable and relatively inexpensive. Value is a big factor in this category, as plenty of budget ultraportables can entice you with a low price. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself let down by a system that’s only a bargain because its manufacturer cut too many corners.

That said, the spec floor has risen in this category. As faster base parts become less expensive and more common, cheaper systems with decent build quality are more capable of completing day-to-day tasks. Your average $500 laptop has become quite adequate for simple tasks such as web browsing and word processing on the go.

Midrange systems are better, but by definition they also cost more, ranging from about $500 to $1,250. Materials and specs that were once exclusive to high-end ultraportables are now the norm in midrange systems, including features such as full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) or even QHD (2,560-by-1,440-pixel) resolutions, touch displays, and metal chassis. Battery life and storage have improved, as well, making it easier to get better bang for your buck in this price range. You’ll still have to compromise in one or two areas (such as storage capacity, port options, and resolution) compared with the high-end systems, but for most shoppers, this price range represents the best mix of price and performance.

Dell XPS 13 2020

At the top of the price ladder are premium systems, which we categorize as anything costing $1,250 or more. With these high-end systems come choice materials, cutting-edge components and features, and top performance that will speed up photo editing and other productivity tasks. Here, you’ll also see 3K- or 4K-resolution displays, quality sound hardware (often from familiar brands like Bang & Olufsen), spacious and speedy storage, and other exciting features, all while the system’s form factor remains slim and compact.

Many premium business laptops also fall into this class, due to specialized remote-management and corporate features. This pricing tier yields the best overall user experience, the most features and port options, and the fastest internal hardware, but not every premium system is created equal. And when you’re spending this much money, do you really want second best? If you have the budget, and will be spending a lot of time on your laptop, it may very well pay to invest in quality.

Choose Your Power Wisely: Processors in Ultraportables

For smooth performance and a good user experience, you’ll want to be choosy about your processor. Even in a less-expensive system, the average processor is more capable than ever of handling routine tasks, but if you need speed, select carefully. At the top of the heap are Intel’s Core i5 and Core i7 processors, which can be found in midrange and premium models. Most ultraportables from early 2020 use Intel’s 10th Generation Core CPUs, divided into “Ice Lake” and “Comet Lake” varieties, while the releases in late 2020 moved to Intel’s new “Tiger Lake” 11th Generation Core processors. Some 9th Generation ultraportables are still out there, but almost all have shifted to 10th, if not 11th, Generation chips by 2021. The CPU is typically paired with 8GB of memory, though some premium systems boast 16GB of RAM.

HP Elite Dragonfly

The processors in ultraportables will usually be classified as U-series CPUs, which are designed for lean laptop designs. This is still the case with Tiger Lake, though the “U” suffix is not present in the names of these chips to denote it. (Instead, you’ll see names like Core i7-1165G7, where the number after the “G” indicates the potency of the built-in graphics.) All released Tiger Lake chips relevant to ultraportables are U-series; Tiger Lake H-series chips, new in early 2021, are designed for thicker power laptops. In previous generations, a few middle-of-the-pack models would opt for processors in Intel’s power-saving Y series. These chips, from the Core families, are identified by the “Y” in their model number and are capable for basic tasks but ultra-low-powered. In Tiger Lake, some U-Series chips will be offered with lower wattage for less expensive and especially thin laptops, but aren’t denoted separately. With 9th Generation Core, you’ll find Core i5 and i7 Y-series chips, as well as some Core i3 chips in the least powerful (and generally inexpensive) laptops.

The design of a Y-series CPU allows for processing power that approaches that of Core i5 chips, but with lower power consumption and often no need for cooling fans. This results in slimmer laptop designs, quieter operation (in some designs, no fans means no fan noise), and longer battery life. In the past, Y-series systems were a good choice if you wanted the most portable ultraportable, but they are fading out as 10th and 11th Gen processors dominate.

Many of the faster, higher-end ultraportables will opt for the U-series chips regardless, which also focus on power saving. You’ll have to look at some machines in person to find the right balance of physical design and performance to fit your needs. The new 2021 VAIO Z is one of the rare ultraportables with an H-series power CPU.

Aside from Intel’s near-ubiquitous CPUs, you will see a few less-expensive systems featuring processors from other manufacturers, primarily AMD and in a couple of cases, Qualcomm. While AMD chips support the same range of uses as Intel chips, from web browsing to video editing and gaming, they aren’t remotely as common in ultraportables. This is starting to change thanks to positive early returns from AMD’s Ryzen CPUs in other categories as well as in the first couple of ultraportables we tested with these chips, the HP Envy x360 13 (2020) and the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 5 14. If you aren’t sure about the model used in the system you’re considering, take a look at our reviews (particularly the results of our benchmark tests) to see how it will fare in real-world conditions. Like Intel’s Cores, AMD’s Ryzen chips now come in U-series designs (for ultraportables) and H-series ones (for thicker, more powerful laptops).

HP Envy x360 13 (2020)

Finally, at the low end are Intel’s Pentium and Celeron processors. These budget processors are inexpensive and energy-efficient, but power users may find themselves frustrated by slow performance, and lesser RAM allotments (as low as 4GB) concurrent with extreme-budget designs. You will definitely feel a difference in speed, but you can probably make do if you’re a casual user and not multitasking much. Still, consider one of these only in the very cheapest laptops.

The new caveat to all of this is with Apple laptops. As of late 2020, the latest MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro (and Mac mini desktop) dropped Intel processors for Apple’s own homegrown M1 chip. In our reviews of these systems, and subsequent testing, we found the M1 to be quite impressive, though not without some early adopter caveats. Apple will eventually utilize its M1 processor in all of its systems, so after this initial adoption period, this will just become the norm: If you’re buying Apple in the future, your machine will be running on Apple Silicon. That makes it less of a buying decision, per se, but you will have to decide if its speed (comparable to current Intel solutions in our initial testing, and likely better with specially written native software) is worth using macOS if you’re traditionally a Windows user.

Pay Attention to Graphics: The GPU Factor

Also important: the graphics processor, also known as the GPU. Almost all ultraportables rely on integrated graphics, and for any Intel chip up through the 10th Generation, that came in the form of Intel UHD Graphics. This is graphics-acceleration silicon that is part of the CPU, not a dedicated chip of its own. This level of horsepower is fine for casual (often web-based) or old games, streaming media, and maybe editing the odd photo, but not for substantial gaming.

However, Tiger Lake is challenging that narrative. One of its main draws is improved integrated graphics, named Iris Xe, that replaces the Intel UHD Graphics in the higher-end versions of the chips. While the performance does not equal that of the discrete GPUs seen in gaming laptops, it’s much improved over past Intel and AMD integrated solutions. This means non-gaming laptops with Tiger Lake CPUs are generally capable of running big-budget single-player games on medium or low settings, and less-straining multiplayer titles, opening up gaming to a wider audience. Performance does vary based on each Tiger Lake chip, so the higher chips in the hierarchy are better for gaming, but the passive performance of each is evident. You can see more specific Iris Xe performance numbers in our testing piece. Additionally, Apple’s M1 chip is in the same boat for graphics processing: Up to eight of its cores are dedicated to graphics, resulting in similar numbers to Iris Xe in our testing.

If you want to do more with media and play games at higher settings and frame rates, 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 generally only seen in gaming laptops or bulkier desktop-replacement notebooks. There are an increasing number of exceptions that are both portable and game-ready, however, like the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14, but by and large the most travel-friendly systems are not suited to gaming. Don’t expect the integrated graphics to suffice for playing much more than a few less-demanding games on lower detail settings. At the end of 2020, Intel did also announce its first discrete GPU, Iris Xe Max (first tested here), but the performance is somewhere between typical integrated graphics and Nvidia’s entry-level GTX GPUs, which is to say, only a modest tick above regular Iris Xe.

Space Is Everything: Assessing Storage

Speedy hardware is all well and good, but you also need somewhere to keep all your digital stuff. For almost all ultraportables now, this means a solid-state drive (SSD). These compact, flash-based storage devices are weight savers and immune to data loss from shock or bumps because they don’t have any moving parts, which is ideal for systems doing a lot of traveling.

Increasingly, SSDs use a form factor called M.2, which is smaller than your traditional 2.5-inch SATA drive—and smaller connectors allow smaller designs, which makes them a perfect fit for an ultraportable. Increasingly, these M.2-connected drives use a PCI Express (PCIe) bus connection for faster data transfer, and thus faster overall performance. Some very thin ultraportable designs bypass M.2 implementations, as well, and solder the storage directly to the motherboard for even greater space efficiencies.

HP laptop left angle

A 256GB capacity for SSD storage is very common on midrange and high-end ultraportables. While it would be nice to have a bit more room than that, boosting SSD capacity still tends to be pretty pricey, so the cost can jump up fast if you opt for a larger 512GB or 1TB option if the manufacturer offers it. A 256GB drive will do the job for many users, though, especially since you likely won’t be storing large game installations or media projects on this type of computer.

While SSDs are the most common storage format for ultraportables, you will see two other storage options used on less-expensive systems. A few use an embedded MultiMediaCard (eMMC), a form of solid-state storage sometimes (mis)identified as an SSD in product specs but actually flash memory like the kind used on memory cards. As such, it’s slower and a lot smaller in capacity (32GB to 64GB) than a standard SSD. You’ll generally find this type of storage only on the very cheapest laptops.

Finally, a few budget-minded systems still use good, old-fashioned spinning hard drives. These drives are less expensive than SSDs, and they offer substantially more room for your files for the money—you will often see hard drives with capacities of 500GB or more. You won’t get the same speedy performance as you do with an SSD, but there’s something to be said for lots of storage space. Some laptops pair a small SSD with a larger hard drive, but that’s seldom seen among ultraportables. Given thin designs, most makers of ultraportables have phased out bulky hard drives altogether at this point.

Picking Your Pixels: Ultraportable Displays

Let’s go from what’s inside a typical ultraportable to the most visible aspect of the exterior: the screen.

Ultraportables’ displays come in an increasingly varied array of resolutions, from now-humdrum standard high definition (1,366 by 768 pixels) in budget models to full HD (1,920 by 1,080) and even Ultra HD or 4K (3,840 by 2,160). Lower-resolution screens are most frequently found in entry-level systems simply because they’re the least-expensive option. They work well enough for reading and typing text, and YouTube often defaults to something lower than full HD, anyway, so less discerning users can get by just fine. But a 1,366-by-768-pixel screen is best avoided here in 2021 in a new laptop with a screen 13 inches or larger, if you can help it.

Full HD (often referred to as 1080p) screens are what you should expect on many budget systems, all midrange models, and some premium ultraportables. The 1080p display is becoming standard enough that even some cheaper options now offer them, a far cry from the situation just a few years ago, when much grainier 1,366 by 768 was the norm. These displays offer support for full-1080p video playback and are better equipped for multitasking, since you can fit more readable text and two side-by-side windows onto a 13- or 14-inch 1080p screen. This is a sharp, true full-HD resolution, ideal for most daily use.

Asus ZenBook

Ultra HD is currently the resolution of choice for the highest-end ultraportables and models for content-creation pros. As 4K screens have four times the resolution of a full HD display, you can fit a lot onto them. The sheer number of pixels requires more power, however, and 4K-equipped systems usually see a significant drop in battery life compared with similar full HD systems. There’s also the question of content. Although 4K TVs and displays are becoming increasingly common, there still aren’t a lot of places to stream 4K video (this is slowly improving on some streaming services), and gaming in 4K is definitely way more than any ultraportable can support. At present, these displays are best suited to uses like photo and video editing, but they do look stunning.

Some premium laptops now use QHD or QHD+ screens, which are resolutions that fall between 1080p and 4K. They represent a nice middle ground between expensive, power-draining 4K resolutions and sharp, better-than-HD picture quality, so you should be happy to see QHD or QHD+ on a laptop you’re considering buying. In addition, an increasing number of light-laptop makers are moving select ultraportable models to screens with squarer aspect ratios, such as 16:10 or 3:2, away from the much more common 16:9. That’s a trend we saw ramp up toward the end of 2020 and into 2021.

The other feature to watch for is support for touch input. While touch-capable displays were uncommon just a few years ago, they’re now much more a thing in ultraportables, even in the entry-level and business-laptop categories. Windows 10 includes some baked-in gesture controls and touch-friendly features, which helps promote its use. Touch technology is also useful on a bus or train where you may not have a mouse, making it a good match for ultraportables. Even if you don’t regularly use touch in your day-to-day computing and don’t plan to incorporate it, it may be worth having just so you don’t regret the decision not to get it down the road.

Two Laptops in One: Convertibles and Detachables

More and more ultraportables are being released as what we call “convertible hybrids,” or 2-in-1s. Some 2-in-1s rotate around the hinge, while others have a separate keyboard base that detaches from the screen. In the former case, these mash-up machines let you enjoy both laptop and tablet functionality, thanks to hinges and swiveling joints that let you bend the display back around to use without a keyboard. These systems don’t come apart the way the latter detachable kind do. More and more manufacturers are adopting the rotating non-detachable design.

HP laptop hybrid

Rotating-hinge convertible devices are laptops first, but they aren’t limited to traditional clamshell designs. Because they feature specialized hinges and touch screens, you can also prop them up like a tent, or turn the keyboard facedown so the screen is better positioned for watching a movie or giving a presentation. While convertibles are a category in their own right, the ability to shape-shift naturally lends itself to making a good travel laptop, so you’ll see that some of our highest-rated ultraportable laptops are convertibles, too. (See our guide to the best 2-in-1 convertible laptops and detachables.)

A Value Option: Lightweight Chromebooks

Depending on what you do with your computer, you might find a Chromebook to be one of the best values in ultraportables. A Chromebook is a bare-bones laptop that runs Google’s Chrome OS, and thus limits you to using web apps and, as of models released in the last couple of years, Android apps too. (You’ll want to check for that, though.)

This means that you won’t have access to traditional Windows software, so if that’s central to how you work and play, a Chromebook isn’t for you. But if you use a web-based email client such as Gmail or for communications, rely on Google Drive for doing your work, and spend most of your time watching videos on YouTube or playing web games, and you don’t expect your needs to change, chances are you’ll get along just fine with a Chromebook. And considering that computers of this type can be extraordinarily affordable (most cost $500 or less), you could outfit your family with several Chromebooks for what you’d pay for just one high-end Windows 10 ultraportable.

So, Which Ultraportable Should I Buy?

With ultraportables available now that are thinner, lighter, and more powerful than ever, there’s something in this vibrant class of laptops to suit everyone’s usage habits and travel needs. Below are 10 of the top ultraportables we’ve tested. We refresh the list constantly to include the newest products, but because of the large number of laptops we review every year, not every top-rated product makes the cut. Rest assured, though: These are all winners.