Review: The best 13-inch laptops for Windows 10

Laptops and convertibles from Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Microsoft square off in our performance, workability, and battery tests

With Windows 10 out but customized hardware only starting to appear, there may never be a better time to buy a discounted Windows 8.1 machine -- whether you intend to keep Win 8.1 or upgrade for free to Windows 10. With an eye toward making the upgrade, I put six of the best and most popular 13-inch laptops through my extensive, real-world, “can I really live and work with them” test.

All six machines that ran my gauntlet of usability, performance, and battery tests -- the Acer Aspire R13, the Asus ZenBook 13, the Dell XPS 13, the HP EliteBook Pro 1020, the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro, and Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 -- have unique advantages. A few are classic clamshells. A few are contortionists suited to both laptop and tablet duty. One, the Surface Pro 3, is a slate with a strap-on keyboard and laptop aspirations.

After giving them all a first-class workout with Windows 8.1, I upgraded them to Windows 10, using a standard in-place installation. That’s the same installation method you would use right now with the “Get Windows 10” notices you’ve no doubt seen. In every case, the upgrade to Windows 10 went smoothly.

What differentiates these best-of-breed machines? More than anything, besides price, it’s the form factor. Ultimately, that is a very personal choice.

If you’re going to use the laptop as a desktop adjunct or replacement -- or if you’re going to haul it off to meetings and you don’t anticipate using it in contortionist positions, like on an airplane -- you may prefer a traditional clamshell. (I do.)

If you want a clamshell and money is no object, the Dell XPS 13 is the machine to beat. Its gorgeous screen and excellent performance belie its tiny size, though there are still shortcomings. For a couple hundred bucks more, the HP EliteBook Folio 1020 isn’t as small, and its screen doesn’t have as many pixels, but it’s sleek, the keyboard is less cramped, and the battery lasts longer.

For a price-conscious thin clamshell, the Asus ZenBook 13 takes the cake -- but at the lower price range it doesn’t have a touchscreen.

We cover three more form factors in this review. The trapeze on the Acer Aspire R13 comes in very handy if you’re going to use the machine while standing or try working from odd angles. The Lenovo Yoga Pro 3’s foldback hinge may be exactly what you need if you’re constantly moving back and forth between a tablet and a keyboard. Finally, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3, deservedly a legend, is the ideal choice for the person who wants a tablet with laptop power under the hood.

Acer Aspire R13

At $1,300 (add $50 for the well-designed Acer Active Stylus) the Aspire R13 tips the top of the price scale, but it packs a lot of capability into an energetic frame. At first I was put off by the trapeze design, until I discovered a real forte: This may be the best Windows laptop yet for a standing desk. The ability to move the bottom of the screen to almost any position -- even if it slightly overlaps the number keys -- makes it a joy to use when you’re standing up. The trapeze mechanism proved solid and predictable. I had no problem poking the touchscreen, even when it was tilted askew.

acer aspire r13

Acer Aspire R13

On the downside, I found it hard to open the machine. Prying the screen apart from the laptop is a job for smaller fingers than mine. Also, a thick bezel -- more than an inch of black across the bottom of the screen, and half an inch at the top and sides -- makes the whole package bigger than it might otherwise be (13.5 by 9.1 by 0.71 inches). And oddly for a laptop with a slate persona, there’s no hardware Windows button.

With an Intel Core i7-5500U “Broadwell” CPU under the hood, the Aspire R13 has serious processing power -- and the fan noise to go with it. The R13 turned noticeably hot during my stress test (downloading and installing all 100 or so Windows 8.1 patches back to back), and the fan complained. But my test unit, which came with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, swam through typical office work, including large spreadsheets, complex documents, and light photo editing. It’s a fast and responsive machine.

The 13.3-inch, 2,560-by-1,440 screen shows remarkably little glare, but the color depth didn’t impress me. The second trailer for "Star Wars VII" appeared a bit washed out, but it got better when I turned off the automatic screen brightness setting in Windows 8.1 (Settings > PC and devices > Power and sleep) and adjusted the brightness manually. The screen is quite responsive to touch, with pinches and multifinger gestures working well.

In my usual battery stress test (no Wi-Fi, no sound, 70 percent brightness, running a continuous loop of the wildlife.wmv file from Windows 7 on Windows Media Player) the battery ran out in 6.5 hours, which is quite respectable given the high screen resolution.

The keyboard is typical Chiclet style, backlit, with a not very comfortable 1.1mm throw, although it rests on a very stable base. The key layout is a bit odd, with the tilde next to a half-wide Caps Lock, a half-wide Esc key, and the PgUp/PgDn keys packed in next to the arrow keys. Fast typists may have trouble adapting.

The large, 4.1-by-2.3-inch touchpad worked very well, with right-clicks reliably recognized (a boon for the Win 8.1 Start button) and gestures quickly reflected on the screen.

Acer has its own software for the pen, which you can set to trigger the launching of various apps, including OneNote. I’m not an artist, but a friend complained that the pen didn’t respond with the sensitivity she expected. I found it fine for normal business use.

Unfortunately, the power brick’s barrel connector nearly fits into the headphone jack, as is so often the case with this kind of charger, leaving me playing a game of power whack-a-mole. There’s no “charging” light near the power jack or the power brick. To verify that the machine is charging, you have to look under the pry lip in front.

The Windows 10 upgrade proved a bit dicey. Although the “Your upgrade is ready” notification appeared a few days after registering for the upgrade, running the installation resulted in a “Windows Update ran into a problem” notice and error 80010108, common for Win10 installs. I clicked the Restart button in Windows Update, and the machine went through a lengthy shutdown, finally emerging with Windows 10 fully installed.

Verdict: The Acer Aspire R13 is a very capable machine that’s particularly good for those who like to stand and poke.

Asus ZenBook 13 

Slim, light, capable, and $700 cheap, the Asus ZenBook 13 UX305 is a traditional kind of Ultrabook for a traditional keyboard-and-trackpad kind of customer -- like me. If you’re looking for touch, superhigh resolution, calisthenics, or screaming performance on the latest games, you’re looking in the wrong direction. (That said, a more expensive, touchscreen ZenBook is coming.)

asus zenbook 13

Asus ZenBook 13

If you want something that looks as good as a MacBook Air, with a battery that keeps chugging along, no fan, and 256GB of fast, solid-state storage and you’re willing to pay only $700 -- keep reading.

My first impression on unboxing the ZenBook 13: Somebody must have goofed and stuck a blackish MacBook Air in the Asus box. The all-aluminum case is flawless. At 12.7 by 8.9 by 0.5 inches, it’s downright small (although not as tiny as the Dell XPS 13). Running 2.6 pounds total, it’s a featherweight. Pull the ZenBook out of the box and it looks -- and feels -- like a masterfully constructed Ultrabook. You know, the way it’s supposed to be.

The ZenBook 13 UX305 uses an Intel Core M-5Y10C chip. There’s no fan -- indeed, no moving parts at all, so it works away in silence. When I hit it with my stress test (downloading and installing about 100 Windows 8.1 patches back-to-back), the base became quite warm on my lap, with additional warming noticeable on the top of the base, above the keys.

The unit I tested has 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, pre-partitioned into 15GB for a Recovery partition, 95GB for the C: drive, and, oddly, 128GB for a D: drive.

In real-world use, the ZenBook 13 took sizable spreadsheets and documents in stride, with no noticeable slowdowns. AnandTech ran dozens of benchmarks on the machine, which generally placed its performance on par with that of the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro, behind the Dell XPS 13's, and ahead of Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3. Of course, there are many nuances.

The 13.3-inch screen runs “only” 1,920 by 1,080. While the other screens in this roundup ran at higher resolution, the difference for work-related activities is hardly noticeable. (Movie clips are another story, of course.) Remarkably, I saw no glare at all. Acer has a utility called Splendid Utility that does make it fairly easy to adjust color.

The Chiclet-style keyboard has a very good feel, with a decent 1.5mm throw. The layout is great, too, except that Asus packed the small power button, the equally small Delete key, and the doublewide Backspace key all together in the upper-right corner. Several times I hit Backspace, only to discover that I’d actually turned off the machine. The keyboard is not backlit.

The 4.1-by-2.9-inch touchpad readily understood my tapping, right-clicking, pinching, and scrolling, with excellent feedback. The down-facing speakers had trouble pumping out enough volume, though, and they are distinctly shrill. Plan on carrying headphones or at least earbuds.

The ZenBook excelled at my battery stress test, lasting 9 hours. That makes the ZenBook 13 the longest-lived computer in this roundup, by a considerable margin. Clearly, the power-sipping CPU and lower-resolution screen go a long way.

Like the Acer Aspire, the ZenBook’s power cube has a barrel connector that nearly fits the headphone jack. Unlike the Aspire, the ZenBook has a “charging” light to confirm that the power cord is actually connected. Wi-Fi runs 802.11n but not 802.11ac.

The Windows 10 upgrade ran slower on the ZenBook than on any other computer in this bunch. Even after waiting a week for the “Your upgrade is ready” notification, I performed a manual upgrade using the Windows Media Creation Tool. The upgrade went through without a problem.

If you’re looking for a traditional clamshell with considerable power, a beautiful design, a decent screen, and long battery life, and if money’s a primary consideration, the Asus ZenBook 13 is a heck of a deal.

Dell XPS 13 

The Dell XPS 13 is arguably the best 13-inch clamshell on the market and inarguably the smallest. How has Dell managed to shoehorn a 13.3-inch screen into a package that’s about the size of most 11-inch netbooks? Open the case, and you’ll discover that, where every other laptop in this class has a 1-inch bezel around the sides and top of the screen, the XPS 13 runs about 0.2 inch. That lets Dell squeeze the size of this little guy down to 12 by 7.9 by 0.6 inches, tapering to a mere 0.33 inch. That’s nearly the same as an 11-inch MacBook Air, which measures 11.8 by 7.6 by 0.7 and tapers to 0.1 inch.

dell xps 13

Dell XPS 13

Unfortunately, there’s a downside to the bezel-less engineering. Dell doesn’t have a place to put the webcam up at the top, so it sits down on the lower left of the screen. Thus your mug shot in video calls emphasizes your waddle, not your receding hairline. Combine that angle with lighting from below, and you’ll scare off anyone who dares to call. Come to think of it, maybe it’s a feature.

While you can get an XPS 13 for as little as $800 (Intel Core i3, 4GB of RAM, 128GB SSD, nontouch 1,920 by 1,080), I took the high road with a considerably faster and glitzier machine. It starts with a fast Intel Core i5-5200U “Broadwell” processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD, and adds what may be the best 13-inch screen in the business, a 3,200-by-1,800 panel known as an Infinity Display.

But at what cost? Ramping up to the IGZO (Indium Gallium Zinc Oxide) Infinity Display not only raises the price to $1,400, but also takes several hours off the battery life when used continuously. On the upside, the extra oomph doesn’t change the size or the weight of the machine one iota.

Befitting its horsepower, the XPS 13 has a fan. During my stress test (the gauntlet of Windows 8.1 updates) I could hear a subtle but distinct whoosh. The whole unit barely registered warm.

The XPS 13 chewed through normal office work, proving very fast and responsive even on big spreadsheets. AnandTech ran dozens of performance benchmarks with results that, in broad strokes, placed the XPS 13 QHD+ somewhat faster than both the Asus ZenBook 13 and the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro, and considerably quicker than Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3.

Permit me to rhapsodize about the screen for a minute. I can throw around numbers: 276 pixels per inch, ahead of Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Pro Retina’s 227 and my beloved 15-inch MacBook Pro Retina’s 220. Its brightness of 400 nits compares favorably to the 13-inch MacBook Pro’s 389.

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The screen rocks. The edge-to-edge coverage is striking. Playing HD trailers for this summer’s movies blew me away: The blacks were deep, colors vibrant, flesh tones spot-on, without a whisper of stutter, even in the most action-packed sequences and transitions. The tiny bezel helps the screen stand out. There’s a very wide viewing angle. I did see a little glare, an unfortunate side effect of the eye-zapping experience. But the display is in a class of its own.

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