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

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Of course, what you gain in display you lose in battery life. The XPS 13 came through my battery test at 6 hours. That’s remarkable for a screen this adept, but it’s still a full 3 hours behind the ZenBook 13, with its much more pedestrian 1,920-by-1,080 display.

The keyboard is good, though it suffers from a short 1.2mm throw, which makes it hard for fast typists to use for an extended period of time. As you might imagine, the keyboard is a good half-inch narrower than other keyboards in this review, and that puts a crimp on big fingers. Unlike the ZenBook 13, though, all the keys are in locations you would expect, and the power switch sits out of harm’s way in the upper-right corner.

The 4.1-by-2.3-inch touchpad is a marvel. I had no problem with pinches, zooms, two finger swipes, and the usual left- and right-click zones. The touchpad uses the standard Microsoft Precision (read: Surface) driver, which bodes well for the future. Windows 10 will bring more capabilities to the Precision driver, along with integrated control in the Windows 10 Settings app, and the XPS 13 should come along for the ride.

The speakers fire to the side, and churn out reasonable volume and bass. They produce much better sound than down-firing speakers.

The XPS 13 (like all modern Dells) has a light in the jack that indicates power; there’s also a wide “charging” light in front. The left side has a simple power meter. Push the recessed button and you see one to four lights, which tell you how much power is left.

Upgrading to Windows 10 went well, although the traditional “Your upgrade is ready” notification never appeared. Instead, after reserving the upgrade, I had to venture to Windows Update to complete the task. 

Apart from a panoply of crapware and the low-mounted webcam, the XPS 13 was nigh flawless. This machine should be at the top of your list, if you can afford it. Pro tip: You can always uninstall the unwanted programs and stick duct tape over the camera.

HP EliteBook Folio 1020 G1

It ain’t cheap, but if you want a MacBook Air Retina in Windows clothing, this is it. The EliteBook Folio 1020 G1 (“generation 1”) sports an aluminum/magnesium-alloy case with a carbon fiber base that rivals the MacBook Air in look and feel, weighs less than 2.7 pounds, runs 0.62 inch thick, and packs all the ports you would reasonably want in a traditional clamshell. It’s rugged, to U.S. military (MIL-STD 810G) spec -- built to take a four-foot drop.

hp elitebook folio 1020 g1

HP EliteBook Folio 1020 G1

While the Folio 1020 G1 isn’t quite as tiny as the Dell XPS 13, measuring 12.2 by 8.3 inches to the Dell’s 12 by 7.9 inches, the look and feel of the EliteBook can’t be beat on the Windows side of the street.

The unit I tested includes a capable but not particularly noteworthy Core M-5Y71 “Broadwell” processor, 8GB of memory, a 256GB SSD, and a tremendous 12.5-inch, 2,560-by-1,440 touch display. It offers surprisingly good battery life and … no fan. There’s also a Near Field Communication chip (want to swipe your EliteBook to pay at Starbucks?), a fingerprint reader that works with Windows 10’s Hello, and everything you need for corporate installations, including a Trusted Platform Module and compatibility with an array of HP security and manageability systems. List price is $1,649.

Bonus points: You can actually get into the machine and swap out the battery or the SSD.

Then there’s the backlit keyboard. Most of the keyboards in this review range from tolerable to unbearably bouncy. The keyboard on the EliteBook Folio 1020 drew me in from “The quick brown fox,” and didn’t let go. With excellent spacing, room for my 10 thumbs, great tactile feedback, and a throw that would put many desktop keyboards to shame, I can type on this keyboard for hours with few mistakes and very little fatigue.

It will take you a while to get used to the Synaptics ForcePad. There’s no click, but the pressure sensitivity is a bit odd, at least at first. HP has a full tutorial that steps you through the settings. Along with pinch to zoom, you get a two-finger drag that’s useful for moving items over large expanses, two-finger right-click in addition to the traditional click-in-the-lower-right-corner, and pressure-sensitive gestures to continue scrolling and to speed up or slow down zooming.

Battery life is good. The EliteBook managed to keep going seven hours with my standard video-playback test. That’s not as good as the Asus ZenBook in this roundup (the less-capable screen in the ZenBook makes a big difference), but it’s better than all the others.

Much to HP’s credit, the EliteBook Folio 1020 comes with a full array of ports (see product chart below for details), including a docking connector that, with a dongle, can convert into an Ethernet and VGA port. Not enough? The $209 HP 2013 UltraSlim Docking Station has two DisplayPort ports, one VGA, one Ethernet, four USB 3.0, and an audio line-in/out port in a very small and light package.

While the Core M-5Y71 processor won’t win any speed awards, it’s certainly up to any common business task, short of balancing the federal budget. Gamers may want to look elsewhere, and if you frequently edit videos, the EliteBook you will certainly want more oomph.

The upgrade to Windows 10 went without a hitch. After a few days waiting, the Get Windows 10 app in Windows 8.1 notified me that Windows 10 was ready. Installation took a few clicks and a couple of reboots.

The EliteBook Folio 1020 G1 is a sleek, luxurious, and feature-packed machine that puts battery life ahead of performance.

Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro

Still the king of the flip-all-the-way-over 13-inch Ultrabooks, the Yoga 3 Pro is also a remarkable deal. Thanks to recent discounts, the price is only $1,149 for a machine with 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and a solid 3,200-by-1,800 screen. But don’t expect much battery life, and watch out for the crapware.

lenovo yoga 3 pro

Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro

Some people like the “watchband hinge” that lets you use the Yoga 3 Pro like a regular Ultrabook, or flipped over like a tent, or flipped all the way around to create a thick tablet. The keyboard deactivates when the angle exceeds 190 degrees.

If you can use that kind of versatility, the Yoga 3 Pro won’t disappoint. The hinge is a masterwork of engineering. Even if you only use the contortionist as a clamshell, the hinge provides excellent support through a wide range of angles -- all the way to flat straight, with both the keyboard and the screen pointing up.

For most of the rest of us, though, the hinge isn’t nearly as important as the old-fashioned qualities we seek in laptops: performance, ergonomics, battery life, stunning good looks. The Yoga 3 Pro excels in almost all of those categories, and the recently lowered price may tip it your way.

At the heart of the Yoga 3 Pro beats an Intel Core M-5Y71. According to AnandTech’s extensive benchmarking, the Yoga 3 Pro runs neck-and-neck with the much-cheaper Asus ZenBook 13, a little bit behind the Dell XPS 13, and ahead of the Surface Pro 3. It had no problem at all working with my typical, big office documents and handling simple photo editing.

The Yoga’s 13-by-9-by-0.5-inch dimensions make it a little bit bigger, but as thin as the Asus ZenBook 13. At 2.6 pounds it matches the ZenBook 13 and the Dell XPS 13.

In my stress test -- installing 100 or so Windows 8.1 updates, back-to-back -- the fan kicked on but wasn’t particularly noticeable, and I didn’t detect any substantial heat buildup.

I don’t like the keyboard, even though it is backlit and the keycaps are scooped out ever so slightly to help your fingers hone in. The throw is a typically stunted 1.2mm, but the keys don’t spring back quickly enough for my taste. There is also very little feedback. Lenovo used to ship Yogas with six rows of keys, but the Yoga 3 Pro has only five. Alas, there are no dedicated F keys, and the media keys (volume, play, pause) are all in the hunt-and-peck area at the bottom. By comparison, the Dell XPS 13 has six rows of keys, making for a more comfortable layout.

The 3.5-by-2.3-inch Synaptics touchpad works reasonably well, but I occasionally hit a snag with long drags where the touchpad gave up, and I had to try again.

The Yoga 3 Pro has decent enough sound, but the bottom-firing speakers muddled things when I used the laptop in clamshell mode, and even when it was flipped over completely to act like a tablet.

I had trouble with the power switch. It’s on the right side of the base, near the middle, and for the life of me I kept hitting it accidentally while adjusting the hinge.

You might think that the Yoga 3 Pro’s low-glare 3,200-by-1,800 display would match the 3,200-by-1,800 display in the Dell XPS 13, but the Lenovo doesn’t reach those heights. The Lenovo display is perfectly fine for business use, but it doesn’t match the Dell’s extraordinary color depth when the picture is dark. Watch the trailer for "Batman vs. Superman" or the snippet in the "Star Wars VII" trailer that shows Darth Vader’s helmet, and you’ll immediately see what I mean.

My battery tests were revealing. Using my standard no Wi-Fi, no sound, 70 percent brightness, endless loop of wildlife.wmv running in Windows Media Player, the Yoga Pro 3’s battery lasted only four hours. That’s the shortest battery life in this roundup by far.

Lenovo ships the machine with complete manuals and an icon on the taskbar that brings up the manuals. One problem: When you click on the icon, you don’t see the manuals. Instead, you see an ad for a PDF reader called Nitro. Oh, Lenovo, will you never learn? The machine is absolutely loaded with crapware, starting with 20 Lenovo apps.

Fortunately, you can buy a clean Signature Edition machine through the Microsoft store. Unfortunately, the Microsoft version costs $150 more than ordering direct from Lenovo.

Upgrading to Windows 10 worked without a hitch. Unfortunately, all of Lenovo’s lovely crapware came along for the ride.

The bottom line: The Lenovo Yoga Pro 3 offers high resolution, good performance, and great flexibility, but dismal battery life.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3

“The tablet that can replace your laptop” made a big impression when it shipped a year ago. Though Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 is showing its age, I know many people who still swear it’s the greatest portable computing device ever created. Whether you would agree depends, in no small part, on how you view the slap-on keyboard. Some people love it, while others are decidedly meh. No matter what you think of the keyboard, the Surface Pro 3 is a classy and truly revolutionary machine that deserves its billion-dollar run rate.

But is it the right machine for you?

microsoft surface pro 3

Microsoft Surface Pro 3

Earlier Surfaces weren’t up to snuff. The original Surface (running now-defunct Windows RT) led to a $900 million earnings write-off. The Surface Pro, the Surface 2 (also RT), and the Surface Pro 2 all failed to generate much excitement. But the Surface Pro 3 hit the mark. In spite of many early problems with Wi-Fi connections and 10 firmware updates, by January of this year the Wi-Fi problems were history and the Surface Pro 3 hasn’t looked back.

Now, the machine is starting to show its age, but Microsoft has been creatively bundling discounts. Expect to see even heftier discounts as the rumored Surface Pro 4 makes an appearance.

The machine I tested -- with an Intel Core i5-4300U processor, 8GB of memory, a 256GB SSD, and a 2,160-by-1,440 display -- lists for $1,429 ($1,299 plus $130 for the slap-a-long Type Cover keyboard). Costco offers a 4GB/128GB/Core i5 version with Type Cover and a one-year Office 365 Personal subscription for $1,150, and an 8GB/256GB/Core i7 version with Type Cover and Office 365 Personal for $1,700. That puts the Surface Pro 3 at the top of the price range in this roundup, a little more expensive than a comparable Dell XPS 13.

While you can buy and at least theoretically use a Surface Pro 3 without a Type Cover, the Type Cover will be the first accessory you want and need. Even business customers who use a keyboard only occasionally will want it. That’s why, for purposes of this discussion, I include the Type Cover in all specs.

Direct comparisons with other 13.3-inch, 16:9 ultraportables are a bit of a stretch because the Surface Pro 3 packs a 12-inch, 3:2 screen. The Surface Pro 3 (with Type Cover, which protrudes in all directions) runs 11.9 by 8.9 by 0.54 inches -- a tad thicker than the tiny Dell XPS 13, which measures 12 by 7.9 by 0.6 inches and tapers to 0.33 inch. At 2.41 pounds, the Surface Pro weighs significantly less than the 2.8-pound XPS 13.

The Type Cover attaches quite solidly, with a long strip of strong magnets. But it doesn’t sit flush with the tablet part. The Type Cover rides up, completely covering the bottom bezel. You won’t be able to swipe up from the bottom with the keyboard attached -- a potential problem in Windows 8.1, but no sweat at all in Windows 10. Using the Type Cover, though, can pose problems for fast typists -- it flexes too much. Typing hard and fast makes the base behind the keys jump up and down like a Jeep without shock absorbers.

The kickstand has a good, solid feel, and it will extend to 150 degrees. On the downside, it takes up quite a bit of room. I found it awkward to prop on my lap.

The pen is a joy to use. It’s very precise to my nonartist hands, with lots of tricks for the top and two lower buttons. There’s even a loop for it on the Type Cover. Microsoft likes it so much it bought the company, N-Trig.

The small 3.5-by-1.7-inch touchpad works well enough, but it’s so small. That makes it hard, especially for those with big fingers, to tap and drag long distances.

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