The fitness tracker isn’t dead, and if you’re reading this, you’re probably one of the people keeping these little devices alive. Smartwatches have all but taken over the mainstream wearable space, but the humble fitness tracker remains an option for those who want a gadget to do one thing right all the time. Despite the headwinds, there are still a bunch of fitness bands out there to choose from. Engadget has tested many of them and picked out the best for most people.
What do fitness trackers do best?
The answer seems simple: Fitness trackers are best at monitoring exercise, be it a 10-minute walk around the block or that half marathon you’ve been diligently training for. Obviously, smartwatches can do that too, but there are some areas where fitness bands have the upper hand: focus, design, battery life and price.
When I say “focus,” I’m alluding to the fact that fitness trackers are made to track activity well; anything else is extra. They often don’t have the bells and whistles that smartwatches do, which could distract from their activity-tracking abilities. They also tend to have fewer sensors and internal components, which keeps them smaller and lighter. Fitness trackers are also a better option for those who just want a less conspicuous device on their wrists all day.
Battery life tends to be better on fitness trackers, too. While most smartwatches last one to two days on a single charge, fitness bands will last five days to one week — and that’s with all-day and all-night use.
When it comes to price, there’s no competition. Most worthwhile smartwatches start at $175 to $200, but you can get a solid fitness tracker starting at $70. Yes, more expensive bands exist (and we recommend a few here), but you’ll find more options under $150 in the fitness tracker space than in the smartwatch space.
When to get a smartwatch instead
If you need a bit more from your wearable, you’ll likely want a smartwatch instead. There are things like on-watch apps, alerts and even more robust fitness features that smartwatches have and fitness trackers don’t. You can use one to control smart home appliances, set timers and reminders, check weather reports and more. Some smartwatches let you choose which apps you want to receive alerts from, and the options go beyond just call and text notifications.
But the extra fitness features are arguably the most important thing to think about when deciding between a fitness tracker and a smartwatch. The latter devices tend to be larger, giving them more space for things like GPS, barometers, onboard music storage and more. While you can find built-in GPS on select fitness trackers, it’s not common.
Best overall: Fitbit Charge 5
Fitbit's Charge 5 has everything most people would want in a fitness tracker. First and foremost, it's not a smartwatch. That means it has a slightly lower profile on the wrist and lasts days on a single charge while tracking activity and sleep. It also has a full-color AMOLED display — a big improvement from the smaller, grayscale screen on last year's Charge 4. That display, along with a thinner design, make Charge 5 feel more premium than its predecessor.
But it also costs $180 — $30 more than the Charge 4 — and that's due in part to the design upgrades but also some additional features. The Charge 5 has EDA sensors for stress tracking and it will eventually support ECG measurements and Daily Readiness Scores (the latter is for only for Premium subscribers). Those are on top of existing features that were carried over from the Charge 4 — most notably, Fitbit Pay support and built-in GPS. The former lets you pay for coffee or groceries with a swipe of your wrist, while the latter helps map outdoor runs, bike rides and other activities. Built-in GPS remains the star of the show here — it's fast and accurate, making the Charge 5 the best option if you want a do-it-all wearable that’s focused on fitness.
A more subtle-looking alternative is the $100 Garmin Vivosmart 4. It’s thinner than the Charge 5 and fits in a bit better with bracelets and other jewelry you might wear regularly. But its attractive design is only part of its appeal — Garmin knows how to track fitness, and the Vivosmart 4 is proof that you don’t need to drop hundreds on one of the company’s fitness watches to get a capable device.
Like the Charge 5, the Vivosmart 4 tracks all-day activity and sleep and has a pulse ox sensor for blood oxygen saturation measurements. It has only connected GPS capabilities, and it has universal music controls that can control the playback of most anything. The band is also waterproof and can track basic swim workouts, plus it also has a battery life of up to seven days. While it’s similar to the Charge 5 in that the Vivosmart 4 works with both Android and iOS devices, it’s a bit more flexible as it syncs with Apple Health (the Charge 5 and other Fitbit devices do not).
If you only have $100 to spare, the Fitbit Inspire 2 is the best option. It strips out all the luxury features from the Charge 5 and keeps only the essentials. You won’t get built-in GPS, Fitbit Pay or Spotify control but you do get excellent activity tracking, automatic workout detection, smartphone alerts and plenty more. As the updated version of the Inspire HR, the Inspire 2 includes a heart rate monitor, which the device uses to keep track of all-day heart rate, active zone minutes, sleep stages and more.
The Inspire HR is thinner than the Charge 5 but it also has interchangeable bands, so you can switch up its style whenever you feel like it. Its design is also swimproof, and it should last up to 10 days on a single charge. Fitbit also recently added Tile-tracking to the Inspire 2, allowing you to find your misplaced band using the Bluetooth locator feature and the Tile mobile app. All of these features make it the best value fitness tracker you can get.
The $60 Samsung Galaxy Fit 2 band is almost like a more affordable Garmin Vivosmart 4. The two trackers share the same skeletal design but the Galaxy Fit looks a bit more utilitarian — you can swap out its bands, though — something you can’t do on Garmin’s device.
We haven’t given the Fit 2 the full review treatment, but Engadget’s Cherlynn Low was impressed with the original Galaxy Fit: the Tizen-based interface is colorful and easy to use, and plenty of people will appreciate its durable, no-nonsense design. It tracks a bunch of workouts as well and even has auto-exercise recognition. That’s on top of its daily activity tracking and sleep monitor, all of which uses the built-in heart rate monitor to collect pulse data throughout the day.
The kicker for the Galaxy Fit 2 is battery life — the tiny tracker can last for up to 15 days on a single charge, and you can even extend it to 21 days if you change some settings. That’s much longer than most competing bands, so even if Samsung isn’t as comprehensive as Garmin or Fitbit is when it comes to fitness data collection and analysis, the Galaxy Fit 2 is a good option for those who want a basic tracker that they can safely forget to charge each night.
All of the previously mentioned fitness trackers are attractive in their own way (bonus points to those that have interchangeable bands), but they share a similar look. There aren’t many alternative designs for these devices anymore. The $70 Withings Move watch is an exception, and one of the most traditionally fashionable fitness trackers you can get. It’s an analog watch with a couple of health monitoring features including step, calorie, distance and sleep tracking, connected GPS, auto-recognition for more than 30 workouts and a water-resistant design. But we really love it for its button-cell battery, which can last up to 18 months before needing a replacement.
The weather is starting to get cooler, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to head indoors for winter just yet. There’s ample time to enjoy the backyard, porch or balcony before the first snowfall. We’ve rounded up the best outdoor gear for cooking, relaxing and imbibing this fall, from a pizza oven, to a uniquely designed fire pit and a smart outlet for your outdoor lighting.
Ooni Karu 16
If you’ve opened Instagram in the last several months, chances are you’ve seen someone firing up an Ooni pizza oven in their backyard. The company has become even more popular during the pandemic, and rightfully so. Its line of wood- and gas-fired pizza ovens allow you to make restaurant-quality pies at home. The Karu 16 is the company’s latest offering, with a larger stone for bigger pizzas, an easier to access fuel chamber and a built-in thermometer. The door is also attached so it’s simpler to use and has a glass window so you can keep an eye on things without losing heat. Like commercial Neapolitan-style ovens, the Karu 16 can reach temperatures of up to 950 degrees Fahrenheit, and does so in just 15 minutes. This model runs on wood chunks out of the box, but the company offers an optional gas burner for $100.
Cooler weather is a perfect time to tune up your backyard pitmaster skills. Even if you’re a beginner, Traeger’s line of WiFi-connected pellet grills can guide you through the entire cooking process. The company’s app, which allows you to control and monitor its grills remotely, is also packed with recipes and step-by-step guidance.
Personally, I like the Ironwood series, which comes in two sizes with 650 and 885 square inches of grilling space. They sit in the middle of Traeger’s lineup, and offer the best bang for your buck. Low and slow smoking? Yep. Hot and fast searing? They do that too. And with the company’s pellet sensor, you don’t have to worry about running out of fuel halfway through a 10-hour brisket sesh.
Weber is best known for its charcoal kettle grills, but its gas models aren’t too far behind. Following up on the smart grilling tech it built into its SmokeFire pellet grills in 2020, the company brought the Weber Connect system to its gas lineup earlier this year. There are a number of options here, but the Genesis II EX-315 is a great mid-range choice. Thanks to the Connect tech, you get real-time food doneness updates, estimated completion times and fuel level monitoring.
Weber Connect also offers step-by-step guidance based on the food you're cooking and the LED display on the grill shows both meat and ambient temperatures. Of course, the grill is WiFi-enabled, so all of this info can be sent to your phone. And if you get caught in the dark, a handle-mounted light and backlit control knobs are there to help.
The Thermapen is the grilling tool I use most often. It’s handy for making sure I’m not serving undercooked chicken or overcooking a pricey steak I’ve had in the sous vide for hours. It’s also great to have in the kitchen to instantly check temps of things like bread. Thermoworks unveiled the successor to its wildly popular Thermapen Mk4 earlier this year with the Thermapen One. The device is super fast, giving you a reading in one second. It’s also more accurate and has a brighter display than the previous model. The screen automatically rotates depending on how you hold it, plus an auto-wake and sleep feature and IP67 rating keep things running smoothly.
I’ll admit it: when I first saw Meater’s wireless food probes I was skeptical that they would work well. The Meater Plus has all of the convenience of the company’s original wireless probe, but with extended Bluetooth range. Each one has two sensors, so it can monitor both internal food temperature and the ambient temp of your grill. All of the info is sent to the company’s app where you can set target temperature, get estimated completion times and follow step-by-step directions if you need them. What’s more, you don’t have to worry about routing wires since the Meater Plus is completely wireless and stays out of your way. Not having to fight food probe cords is a grilling innovation I’m sure a lot of people can get behind.
Last year, the Thermacell Patio Shield kept us mosquito-free for socially-distanced outdoor activities. For 2021, the company is back with the E-55 that offers a 20-foot coverage area and is fully rechargeable. This slightly larger unit runs on a Li-Ion battery instead of burning fuel to keep the biting bugs at bay for up to 12 hours. If you need more protection for you and the fam, you can buy refills for up to 40 hours of use. Also, like other Thermacell products, the E-55 doesn’t give off any odor, so you’ll barely notice it’s there.
As the temperatures drop, a fire pit is a cozy place to spend your time. However, most of the cheap options you’ll find at your local big box store aren’t really designed to channel smoke away from you or to maximize airflow. Solo Stove’s stainless steel fire pits do both, creating a roaring fire that won’t smoke you out. Each of the three models, ranging from $269 to $599, are portable(ish) and burn whatever variety of wood you happen to have. I’ve been testing the Ranger, the smallest and most portable option. While you can certainly set these right on the ground or concrete patio, I highly recommend splurging for a stand and a weather-proof cover which cost around $80 for the Ranger and Bonfire models.
I tested the Kasa Outdoor Smart Plug for our first backyard guide and I was immediately hooked. TP-Link recently announced a new model of the smart plug in addition to a dimmable single-outlet version. Both are waterproof and plug into your existing outside outlet to give you one or two spots for lights and other gear. With the two-plug option, you can control each one independently. The Kasa app allows you to set a schedule, timer, runtime and more for each plug, so you can automate when those string lights over the deck turn on. Additionally, they work with Alexa and Google Assistant, so you don’t even need to pick up your phone most of the time. Plus, 300 feet of WiFi range means you shouldn’t have trouble connecting these to your home network for use.
When you need tunes outside, whether that’s at home or on the go, Sony’s tiny XB13 speaker is a great option. Its small size makes it insanely portable, but it still manages big sound thanks to Sony's Extra Bass feature and Sound Diffusion Processor. It’s rated IP67 for dust- and water-proofing so taking it outside shouldn’t incite anxiety. What’s more, it has a UV coating for protection from the sun. You can use the XB13 for hands-free calls and employ two of them at once for a stereo pair. It lasts up to 16 hours on a charge and will only set you back $60.
I’ve been a big fan of Brumate’s beverageware since I bought myself a Hopsulator Trio for a beach vacation a few years ago. I still use it all the time, during both warm and cool months. However, when the temperatures begin to dip, I tend to reach for hot beverages more often, so Brumate’s Toddy insulated mug is a better option. The cup works well to keep drinks hot or cold and the trademark feature is the spill-proof lid. That thing has saved me from massive cleanup more times than I can count. The regular Toddy can hold 16 ounces while the Toddy XL doubles the capacity to 32 ounces.
For a few years now, gaming laptops have been some of the most intriguing PCs around. They’ve gotten thinner and lighter, naturally — but they’ve also become vastly more powerful and efficient, making them suitable for both work and play. They’ve adopted some bold innovations, like rotating hinges and near desktop-like customizability. Gaming laptops are where PC makers can get adventurous.
If you’re a professional in the market for a beefy new computer, and you like to play a few rounds of Apex Legends on occasion, it may make more sense to go for a gaming notebook instead of a MacBook Pro-like workstation. You’ll still get plenty of power for video encoding and 3D rendering, plus you may end up paying less than you would for some comparable workstations.
What's your budget?
Your laptop buying journey starts and ends with the amount of money you're willing to spend. No surprise there. The good news: There are plenty of options for gamers of every budget. In particular, we're seeing some great choices under $1,000, like Dell's G15, which currently starts at $930. PCs in this price range will definitely feel a bit lower quality than pricier models, and they'll likely skimp on RAM, storage and overall power. But they should be able to handle most games in 1080p at 60 frames per second, which is the bare minimum you'd want from any system.
Stepping up to mid-range options beyond $1,000 is where things get interesting. At that point, you'll start finding PCs like the ASUS Zephyrus ROG G14, one of our favorite gaming notebooks of the last few years. In general, you can look forward to far better build quality than budget laptops (metal cases!), improved graphics power and enough RAM and storage space to handle the most demanding games. These are the notebooks we'd recommend for most people, as they'll keep you gaming and working for years before you need to worry about an upgrade.
If you're willing to spend around $1,800 or more, you can start considering more premium options like Razer's Blade. Expect impeccably polished cases, the fastest hardware on the market, and ridiculously thin designs. The sky's the limit here: Alienware's uber customizable Area 51m is an enormous beast that can cost up to $4,700. Few people need a machine that pricey, but if you're a gamer with extra cash to burn, it may be worth taking a close look at some of these pricier systems.
What kind of CPU and GPU do you want?
The answer to this question used to be relatively simple: Just get an Intel chip with an NVIDIA GPU. But over the last two years, AMD came out swinging with its Ryzen 4000 and 5000-series notebook processors, which are better suited for juggling multiple tasks at once (like streaming to Twitch while blasting fools in Fortnite). In general, you’ll still be safe getting one of Intel’s latest 10th or 11th-gen H-series chips. But it’s nice to have decent AMD alternatives available for budget and mid-range laptops, especially when they’re often cheaper than comparable Intel models.
When it comes to video cards, though, AMD is still catching up. Its new Radeon RX 6000M GPU has been a fantastic performer in notebooks like ASUS’s ROG Strix G15, but it still lags behind NVIDIA when it comes to newer features like ray tracing. I’ll admit, it’s nice to see a Radeon-powered notebook that can approach the general gaming performance of NVIDIA’s RTX 3070 and 3080 GPU.
If you want to future-proof your purchase, or you’re just eager to see how ray tracing could make your games look better, you’re probably better off with an NVIDIA video card. They’re in far more systems, and it’s clear that NVIDIA has had more time to optimize its ray tracing technology. RTX GPUs also feature the company’s DLSS feature, which uses AI to upscale games to higher resolutions. That’ll let you play a game like Destiny 2 in 4K with faster frame rates. That’s useful if you’re trying to take advantage of a high refresh rate monitor.
NVIDIA’s RTX 3050 is a decent entry point, but we think you’d be better off with at least an RTX 3060 for solid 1080p and 1440p performance. The RTX 3070, meanwhile, is the best balance of price and performance. It’ll be able to run many games in 4K with the help of DLSS, and it can even tackle demanding titles like Control. NVIDIA’s RTX 3080 is the king of the hill; you’ll pay a premium for any machine that includes it.
It’s worth noting that NVIDIA’s mobile GPUs aren’t directly comparable to its more powerful desktop hardware. PC makers can also tweak a GPU’s voltage to make it perform better in a thinner case. Basically, don’t be surprised if you see notebooks that perform very differently, even if they’re all equipped with the same RTX model.
What kind of screen do you want?
Screen size is a good place to start when judging gaming notebooks. In general, 15-inch laptops will be the best balance of immersion and portability, while larger 17-inch models are heftier, but naturally give you more screen real estate. There are some 13-inch gaming notebooks, like the Razer Blade Stealth, but paradoxically you'll often end up paying more for those than slightly larger 15-inch options. We’re also seeing more 14-inch options, like the Zephyrus G14 and Blade 14, which are generally more powerful than 13-inch laptops while still being relatively portable.
But these days, there are plenty more features to consider than screen size alone. Consider refresh rates: Most monitors refresh their screens vertically 60 times per second, or 60Hz. That's a standard in use since black and white NTSC TVs. But over the past few years, displays have evolved considerably. Now, 120Hz 1080p screens are the bare minimum you'd want in any gaming notebook — and there are faster 144Hz, 240Hz and even 360Hz panels. All of those ever-increasing numbers are in the service of one thing: making everything on your display look as smooth as possible.
For games, higher refresh rates also help eliminate screen tearing and other artifacts that could get in the way of your frag fest. And for everything else, it just leads to a better viewing experience. Even scrolling a web page on a 120Hz or faster monitor is starkly different from a 60Hz screen. Instead of seeing a jittery wall of text and pictures, everything moves seamlessly together, as if you're unwinding a glossy paper magazine. Going beyond 120Hz makes gameplay look even more responsive, which to some players gives them a slight advantage.
Not to make things more complicated, but you should also keep an eye out for NVIDIA's G-SYNC and AMD's FreeSync. They're both adaptive sync technologies that can match your screen's refresh rate with the framerate of your game. That also helps to reduce screen tearing and make gameplay smoother. Consider them nice bonuses on top of a high refresh rate monitor; they're not necessary, but they can still offer a slight visual improvement.
One more thing: Most of these suggestions are related to LCD screens, not OLEDs. While OLED makes a phenomenal choice for TVs, it's a bit more complicated when it comes to gaming laptops. They're limited to 60Hz, so you won't get the smoother performance you'd find on a high refresh rate screen. And they're typically 4K panels; you'll need a ton of GPU power to run games natively at that resolution. OLED laptops still look incredible, with the best black levels and contrast on the market, but we think most shoppers would be better off with an LCD gaming laptop.
A few other takeaways:
Get at least 16GB of RAM. And if you're planning to do a ton of multitasking while streaming, 32GB is worth considering.
Storage is still a huge concern. These days, I'd recommend aiming for a 1TB M.2 SSD, which should be enough space to juggle a few large titles like Destiny 2. Some laptops also have room for standard SATA drives, which are far cheaper than M.2's and can hold more data.
Normally we'd recommend getting your hands on a system before you buy, but that's tough as we're in the midst of a pandemic. I'd recommend snagging your preferred system from a retailer with a simple return policy, like Amazon or Best Buy. If you don't like it, you can always ship it back easily.
If you can't tell by now, we really like the Zephyrus G14. It's compact, at just 3.5 pounds, and features AMD's new Ryzen 5000-series chips paired together with NVIDIA's latest graphics. It's a shockingly compact machine, and while its 14-inch screen is a bit smaller than our other recommendations, it looks great and features a fast 144Hz refresh rate. We also like its retro-future design (some configurations have tiny LEDs on its rear panel for extra flair). While the G14 has jumped in price since last year, it’s still one of the best gaming notebooks around. The only downside: It doesn't have a webcam, which can be inconvenient in the era of never-ending Zoom calls. Still, it's not that tough to attach an external camera. (If you want something bigger, consider the Zephyrus G15.)
We've been fans of Dell's G5 line ever since it first appeared a few years ago. Now dubbed the G15, it starts at just over $1,000 and features all of the latest hardware, like Intel's 11th-generation CPUs and NVIDIA's RTX 30-series cards. (You can also find AMD's Ryzen chips in some models.) It's a bit heavy, weighing over five pounds, but it's a solid notebook otherwise. And you can even bring it into mid-range gaming territory if you spec up to the RTX 3060.
Razer continues to do a stellar job of delivering the latest hardware in a sleek package that would make Mac users jealous. The Blade 15 has just about everything you'd want, including NVIDIA's fastest mobile GPU, the RTX 3080, as well as Intel's 11th-gen octa-core CPUs and speedy quad-HD screens. You can easily save some cash by going for a cheaper notebook, but they won't feel nearly as polished as the Blade.
While we've seen some wilder concepts from Acer, like its 360-degree hinge-equipped Triton 900, the Triton 500 is a more affordable bread and butter option that doesn't break the bank. This year, it’s bumped up to a 16-inch display, giving you more of an immersive gaming experience. It’s relatively thin, weighs just over five pounds , and it can be equipped with Intel's 11th-gen CPUs and NVIDIA's RTX 30-series GPUs. Acer's build quality is as sturdy as ever, and it has most of the standard features you’d need in a gaming notebook.
Take everything we loved about the Razer Blade 15, scale it up to a larger 17-inch screen, and you’re pretty much in gamer paradise. If you can live with its six-pound weight, the Blade 17 will deliver the most desktop-like gaming experience that you can find in a notebook. It’s relatively slim, and it’s perfect for binging Netflix in bed. The Blade 17 is also a smart choice if you’re editing media, as its larger screen space makes it perfect for diving into larger timelines. It’s not for everyone, but sometimes you just want to go big or go home, right?
A decade ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find a laptop weighing less than three pounds with a profile slimmer than a paperback book. Now every manufacturer has at least one, making even some of the most jaded tech reviewers exclaim “how did they do this?”
But, even with the ubiquity of ultraportable laptops, some continue to stand out for their ability to balance sleek designs with powerful performance. As with any else, though, the best ultraportable laptops still demand some sacrifices. We’re here to help you decide which ones are worth making.
What to expect
The first thing to remember is that the term “ultraportable” is subjective. There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules governing the weight and thickness. We at Engadget define an ultraportable laptop as one that weighs less than three pounds and measures less than 0.75 inch thick at its widest point. Usually that means you’re talking about 13-inch and 14-inch laptops, though occasionally a 15-inch device hits the mark too.
Most ultraportables have high-end design touches like ultra-slim bezels, gem-cut edges, and premium materials because they tend to sit at the top of the line. Companies spend a lot of time and money engineering them to be as thin and light as possible without sacrificing too much on power and battery life. They tend to be made from metal, carbon fiber or a mix of the two, and their enclosures are usually just thick enough to include the latest Intel or Ryzen processors, large batteries and enough RAM and storage for most people’s needs.
What you won’t find in most ultraportables are high-powered GPUs or loads of ports. Most have integrated graphics chips (think: Intel UHD) because anything more powerful would take up space and pose heat-management problems. When it comes to ports, the edges of these laptops simply don’t have a lot of free space. You’re almost guaranteed to get a couple Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C ports on the newest notebooks, but some have already abandoned the USB-A standard, which is a shame.
Also, due to the flagship caliber of most ultraportables, you can expect to pay top dollar for these. Most start at $1,000, gradually increasing in price as you bump up the specs. However, there are a few we’d recommend that often come in below the $1,000 mark, either thanks to slightly lower starting prices or frequent sales. We’ve included a “budget” pick in this guide, but just know that “budget” in this case doesn’t mean cheap; it means relatively affordable.
One other thing that’s important to consider is battery life. Manufacturers have gotten better at eking out more juice from their devices. We recommend buying one rated for at least eight to 10 hours.
You can take all of that advice and wade through the plethora of product pages on the Internet to find the best ultraportable laptop for you. But if you don’t have that kind of time or patience, we’ve compiled a list of the devices that we consider to be the best options available right now.
Best overall: Dell XPS 13
Dell didn’t overhaul the XPS 13 for 2021, because why fix what isn’t broken? Instead, the company brought in more optional add-ons so customers could make its flagship laptop as personalized as possible — as long as they have the cash to do so.
The XPS 13 has been one of our favorite laptops for years thanks to its slim, attractive design, powerful performance and solid battery life. In 2020, we saw Dell remove the excessive chin bezel below the screen, letting the 13.4-inch display extend from corner to corner. It now has a 16:10 aspect ratio, which is better than before but not quite as good as a 3:2 ratio. We prefer taller screens because they reduce the amount of scrolling necessary to browse web pages and review documents comfortably. The XPS 13’s display continues to support HDR and Dolby Vision, so you’ll get top-notch video quality whenever you stream. New for 2021 is the optional 3,456 x 2,160 OLED display, which you can add to the XPS 13 for about $300 extra.
The XPS 13 remains just as thin and light as it has been for the past couple of years. It weighs only 2.64 pounds and measures just over a half-inch thick at its widest point. We also like its spacious trackpad and comfortable, scissor-switch keyboard. It may not be the flashiest ultraportable on our list, but honestly we kinda dig the XPS’ subtle design. It looks and feels like a flagship device, but it never feels ostentatious.
Those set on the XPS 13 in 2021 will find Tiger Lake processors powering the laptop, and the option to trick it out with up to 32GB of RAM and 2TB of storage. Notably, the base model includes 8GB of RAM much better than the 4GB minimum on past models. Four gigs is rarely enough for a daily driver (unless you’re looking at a Chromebook), and it’s reassuring to see Dell finally came around on that. If you’re going to upgrade anything when ordering directly from Dell, we recommend springing for the Core i5 processor instead of sticking with the base Core i3.
Apple continues to make the MacBook Air a compelling option for most people thanks to the M1 chipset in the latest model. And that’s really the star of the show here — the MacBook Air M1 is blazing fast, running native apps like Safari and GarageBand without breaking a sweat. The laptop wakes almost instantly when you open its lid, sites load swiftly and scrolling is seamless. And because M1 is ARM-based, you’ll be able to run iOS apps on the Air, too.
While the MacBook Air M1 looks familiar on the outside, a big difference under the hood is that there’s no fan. Although you sacrifice a bit in the way of heat management, it means the laptop runs more quietly than before. And just because its appearance hasn’t changed, doesn’t mean it looks dated. It still has an attractive 2.8-pound unibody enclosure, a gorgeous 13.3-inch Retina Display, a TouchID fingerprint sensor and a comfortable keyboard with springy buttons (no problematic butterfly keys to be found here).
Along with the M1 processor, the latest MacBook Air comes most readily with 8GB of RAM and either 256GB or 512GB of storage. If you order directly from Apple, you can increase the RAM to 16GB and get as much as 2TB of internal storage. A fully specced-out model will set you back $1,800, but most people will find that their needs are met by the 256GB base model.
The Spectre x360 13 is the culmination of years of improvements on HP’s part. It combines most of the things we’d want in a laptop, including a versatile convertible design. Old-school 2-in-1s had a tendency to be wobbly and unstable, but this is anything but. Its metallic hinges provide a sturdy structure for the machine when in laptop mode and spin smoothly whenever you need to work in tent or tablet mode.
The model we reviewed in 2019 had a 1080p touchscreen, but HP gives you the option to outfit the Spectre x360 13 with a 4K AMOLED panel — a good choice for creatives and streaming aficionados (just be prepared for shorter battery life). By no means is a 4K display necessary on a 13-inch machine, but companies have been adding them as options on flagships to satisfy all the display nerds out there. Regardless of the screen you choose, the laptop’s 90-percent screen-to-body ratio will provide an immersive experience when you’re watching movies on Netflix. The keyboard is also quite comfortable and we particularly like that HP made the buttons as large as possible, stretching them all the way to the edges of the chassis.
In addition, HP included an IR camera for Windows Hello, a Precision touchpad and a few more ports than you’d expect to see on an ultraportable of this size. Its edges hold two USB-C ports for charging and data, a USB-A port and a microSD slot. The machine’s 14.5-hour battery life makes it even more versatile, as it lasts an entire work or school day with juice left to spare.
The worst thing we can say about the Spectre x360 13 is that its webcam produces grainy video and HP includes a bit more bloatware than other OEMs. Also, the machine's jewelry-like design may not be to some shoppers’ tastes, but it’s not garish enough for us to knock it either. It also helps that the base model now includes an 11th-gen Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and an FHD touchscreen for just over $1,000. What’s more, HP is one of the few companies to include a stylus with its flagship convertible at no extra cost, meaning you can use it as a digital notebook straight out of the box.
In order to appeal to Gen-Z users, HP made its Pavilion Aero 13 laptop as thin and light as possible while keeping it at a relatively affordable price. Starting at $749, the laptop weighs only 2.2 pounds and takes some design notes from the company's Spectre and Elitebook lines. That makes it a pretty attractive machine, and that's not something we take for granted at this price range.
While its keyboard is not backlit by default, it is comfortable to type on even if the layout is slightly more cramped than usual thanks to the page up/down key column on the right side. You also get a big trackpad and a 13.3-inch 1,920 x 1,200 display on the base model, plus the option to upgrade to a 2,560 x 1,600 display if you like. We also appreciate the port variety on this machine: two USB-A ports, one HDMI connector, one USB-C port and a 3.5mm audio jack. HP has generally done a good job keeping as many connectors as possible on even its flagship laptops, and it's nice to see that its budget notebooks received the same treatment.
We reviewed the top-tier model that costs $999, but the base model isn't anything to scoff at. It includes a Ryzen 5 5600U processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, which is impressive when you consider other flagship laptops with similar RAM and storage amounts cost $250 more to start. While it does force some sacrifices, the Pavilion Aero 13 is not one to overlook if you want a good value laptop.
In the last two years, true wireless earbuds have made quite the leap. There’s no doubt the popularity of Apple’s AirPods helped make these headphones a mainstay, but companies’ ability to offer reliable connectivity, great sound and active noise cancellation (ANC) in an increasingly smaller form factor has hastened widespread adoption. You can also get features that used to be reserved for premium models on mid-range devices. Of course, the popularity means that new earbuds are popping up all the time and the list of options is longer than ever. To help, we’ve compiled the best wireless earbuds you can buy right now, including noteworthy features for each selection.
Best overall: Sony WF-1000XM4
No one comes close to Sony’s true wireless earbuds with its overall mix of sound and features. That was true of the WF-1000XM3 in 2019 and the company distanced itself even further from the competition earlier this year with the WF-1000XM4. A smaller design offers a better fit, but Sony still packed in the features — from adaptive ANC and wireless charging to 360 and high-res audio support. The company’s app gives you the ability to let the M4s do a lot of the adjustments for you based on activity and location. What’s more, tools like speak-to-chat, although imperfect, are handy when you need to have a quick conversation.
I’m not a huge fan of the new foam ear tips, but based on other reviews, I’m in the minority there. Still, it’s easy enough to find alternatives, and those tips shouldn’t deter you from an otherwise excellent set of buds.
Master & Dynamic typically stands out from other audio brands due its attention to detail when it comes to design. When most companies are using spruced-up plastic, M&D chooses aluminum, ceramic and leather — even for its true wireless earbuds. The leather is reserved for its headphones, but Master & Dynamic still pairs premium elements with a stellar set of features on the MW08. 12-hour battery life, improved noise cancellation and excellent sound quality are the highlights, plus the company reduced the overall size of the earbuds for a better fit.
Sure, there are cheaper options, but for $80, it’s hard to beat the Anker Soundcore Spirit Dot 2. These true wireless earbuds are smaller than a lot of the competition which makes them more comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. Anker also delivers ample bass, which means they can handle hip-hop, electronic and other genres better than many budget buds. They’re also IPX7 rated, so they’ll easily double as your new workout partner.
There’s no denying that AirPods are extremely popular among iPhone owners. And there’s a good reason. The earbuds integrate seamlessly with iOS. Plus, the more recent models offer hands-free access to Siri, on top of core features like quick pairing. In addition to active noise cancellation, the AirPods Pro have one very important thing the “regular” AirPods don’t: comfort. And when you factor in the spatial audio improvements in iOS 14, the Pro model is well worth the extra investment at this point.
In 2020, Google debuted redesigned true wireless Pixel Buds. They were a massive improvement over the original model, but they were also far from perfect. Instead of issuing a minor update in 2021, the company took nearly all of the best features and put them in the more affordable Pixel Buds A-Series. Hands-free access to Google Assistant, handy language translation and actionable notifications will help with tasks and productivity while improved sound quality makes the A-Series a better option for music than its predecessor.
Best overall sound quality: Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2
Sennheiser made quite the leap from its first true wireless earbuds to version 2.0. The company figured out the touch controls, extended the battery life and added active noise cancellation. The Momentum True Wireless 2 is also the best sounding set of true wireless earbuds we’ve tested. As we noted during our review, Sennheiser consistently creates an audio profile that highlights minute details of songs, from the subtle attack of acoustic guitar strumming to the deep sub of synths and drum machines. The company’s trademark tone is warm, pleasant and inviting. The downside is these are pricey at around $300 and you can find better battery life (and wireless charging) elsewhere. In terms of pure audio quality though, this is the clear top pick.
Best overall noise cancellation: Bose QuietComfort Earbuds
It’s no surprise Bose built a set of true wireless earbuds with impressive active noise cancellation. The company has spent years perfecting its QuietComfort technology to block out the world around you. Most of the time, that’s easier said than done with true wireless, but Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds stand above the rest in the ANC department. The company allows you to select one of 11 levels of noise cancellation in its app and you can assign three of those to the on-board controls for quick access. It doesn’t match the isolation of its over-ear headphones, but Bose is clearly ahead of the true wireless competition when it comes to blocking unwanted noise.
Samsung’s recent Galaxy Buds have all been well-designed — perhaps with the exception of the Galaxy Buds Live — and offer a comfy fit due to their small size. The company merged its noise-cancelling Galaxy Buds Pro with the more affordable Galaxy Buds+ to create the Galaxy Buds 2. At $150, this true wireless model remains tiny and comfortable with improved audio quality, adjustable ambient sound and wireless charging. That combination of features makes the Galaxy Buds 2 a solid option for the Android faithful that won’t break the bank.
Beats is no stranger to true wireless earbuds, but until recently, the only option was its over-the-ear hook design that isn’t for everyone. With the Studio Buds, the company offers a more “traditional” true wireless fit and surprisingly balanced sound. Plus, the small size keeps things comfortable, even during extended listening sessions. iOS users get hands-free access to Siri and the company offers Android users a similar quick-pairing experience iPhone owners have enjoyed on previous Beats headphones.
Jabra’s true wireless earbuds are always a solid option, offering a lot of features for less than the typical premium flagship prices. The company made an impression with its Elite 65t earbuds in 2018 and followed up in late 2019 with the new-and-improved Elite 75t. Jabra redesigned nearly everything, offering smaller buds with a better fit, in addition to improved sound quality, longer battery life and optional wireless charging. The company also added ANC via a firmware update in 2020, so these don’t seem outdated by any means.
The Nintendo Switch is pretty popular, but its included Joy-Cons aren’t for everyone. Some players feel the detachable controllers are a bit small for their hands. Many players miss having a regular D-pad. Whatever your reasons for wanting to upgrade your Switch controller situation, know that there are alternatives — it’s just a matter of picking the one that fits your needs. We tested out a bunch of Switch controllers to see which are worth your money.
For casual gaming: Joy-Cons
Honestly, there’s a lot to like about the included Joy-Cons. They come right in the box and can be separated from the system so two people can play. The system also includes a special gamepad grip so you can hold them in your hand like any standard controller. So if you are in fact, happy with your Joy-Cons, there’s no need to switch them out. Just tweak them a little depending on your needs. Find them a tad too small? FastSnail’s matte rubber shells can make them a little easier for large hands to hold, and Hori’s Analog Caps can make the thumb sticks grippier.
There’s really no good way to replace the Joy-Cons entirely with a third-party copy. Some Joy-Con-like controllers won’t connect wirelessly, while others lack key features like vibration or an NFC reader. But there are some tradeoffs that are worth it. For example, if you like to play a lot of 2D platformers in handheld mode, Hori’s D-pad controller will restore the beloved cross-shaped directional button to your gameplay. If you’re looking for something that’s also more comfortable in your hand, the company’s $50 Split Pad Pro is also worth a look. It has a D-pad on the left side and a more ergonomic grip than your standard set of Joy-Cons. But it also makes the entire assembled Switch a lot chunkier.
If you like to play your Switch with groups (or you’ve experienced the dreaded “drift” issue), chances are you’ve picked up one or two extra pairs of Joy-Cons. Which means you’re going to need a place to charge the spares. PowerA makes an excellent $25 charging station that can be plugged into your Switch dock (or any device with a USB port) and handles four Joy-Con-like controllers at once — that includes third-party gamepads as well as Nintendo’s own Switch-compatible NES controllers (see below).
Sometimes you just want a standard controller to play your favorite action titles — and standard in 2020 means something like you’d get packed in with an Xbox, with grips for the heels of your hands, shoulder buttons and triggers, two thumb sticks, a set of four buttons on the right and a D-pad on the left. Nintendo knows that, which is why it created the Pro Controller. This first-party gamepad pairs easily with the Switch and features a D-pad on the left, while still maintaining features like the infrared sensor and vibration that might go missing on third-party alternatives. The only downside is the $70 price, but avid players of games like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will appreciate the refined controls and increased comfort.
While you can plug your Pro Controller directly into your Switch dock to charge, it’s not the most elegant solution. PowerA also makes an attractive $25 dock that accommodates both Joy-Cons and the Pro Controller, which should keep your gaming area nice and tidy.
When the price of the Pro Controller is a bit rich for your blood or out of stock, PowerA makes its own version with the same arrangement of buttons. The Enhanced Wireless Controller skips the rechargeable battery in favor of AAs, which has its downsides, but at least when it runs low on juice you can just pop in a new pair of batteries and get right back to gaming. Unfortunately, there’s no USB-C port to connect with so you’ll have to pair the device wirelessly — which can be finicky and may take a few tries before your Switch recognizes the controller. It also lacks vibration, so you won’t get tactile feedback in games where it’s helpful. And the plus and minus buttons are placed a bit closer to the center, so those with smaller hands will have to reach a bit further to press them.
If you’d prefer not to have to recharge — or buy batteries for — your gamepad, PowerA also makes a wired version of the same controller that connects via USB. It’s got the same look and feel, but you won’t have to struggle as much with getting your console to recognize it, and there’s no potential for wireless lag, making it ideal for fast-paced shooters and fighting games. The included cord is 10 feet long so it should reach most couches just fine.
While most third-party controllers tend to mimic the Xbox style of gamepad, anyone more familiar with the PlayStation’s distinctive DualShock design will probably prefer the $50 Pro 2 from 8BitDo. The retro-styled controller has the same general layout as the classic SNES gamepad, but adds twin thumb sticks, palm grips, back buttons, control remapping and even sensitivity adjustments. It’s truly the Swiss Army knife of Switch controllers.
For old school gaming: Niche and retro controllers
Twenty years later and the preferred controller layout for Super Smash Bros. players is still the one made for the GameCube, which is why today it’s still possible to buy new gamepads straight from Nintendo. The Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Edition GameCube Controller is identical in layout and design to the original gamepads, though now it connects via USB so it can be used with the Switch. The only downside to the reissue is that it doesn’t come in a bold shade of purple anymore.
However, if you’re still sporting a classic GameCube controller with its proprietary connector, you can also pick up an adapter that will let your Switch accommodate up to four old-school gamepads. Nintendo sells one on its store, but the Y Team controller adapter is also a good alternative that costs less and can be bought at Amazon.
But you might not want to be tethered to your console — especially if you have fond memories of kicking back on your couch with a Wavebird in hand to play GameCube games like Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Killer 7. PowerA’s Nintendo GameCube-Style wireless controller is the closest you can get to recreating that feeling short of plugging a few RF dongles into a GameCube adapter.
What if your retro tastes go even further back, say to the NES and SNES era? If you’re subscribed to Nintendo Online, you have access to over 100 classic titles, so you might want a more “authentic” controller to use with them. Nintendo Online subscribers can buy retro-style wireless gamepads directly from the company, though the $60 set of two small, rectangular NES controllers will remind you why we’ve moved on from that design. The dog-bone shape of the $30 SNES model is more hand friendly and can still be used with the NES games, so it’s a better use of your funds should you decide you want to recreate your childhood gaming experiences.
If you don’t need an exact copy of your beloved childhood gamepads it’s worth looking at 8BitDo instead: It makes a variety of classic-styled controllers that add just enough modern features to make them useful for a wider variety of games. Its models are almost all wireless, and there are some design changes to make the controllers more comfortable and easier to use. We’ve already recommended the DualShock-like Pro 2, but the $45 SN30 Pro also offers features like dual thumb sticks and vibration in the dog-bone controller style.
If you’re looking for something more portable, however, the $25 8BitDo Lite is smaller and swaps out the thumb sticks for two D-pads, keeping the four button arrangement on each side. It’s great for 2D games and it even matches the color scheme of the Switch Lite.
Before you try any of the controllers listed in this guide, remember to update your Switch to the latest firmware — the 8BitDo controllers will run on any version, but the PowerA gamepads need your system to run at least version 6.0.0.
It’s shaping up to be a good year for the Nintendo Switch, with games like New Pokémon Snap, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles and Famicom Detective Club giving us plenty of reasons to keep playing the now four year old console. The new OLED version might add a bit of extra pep to your game graphics, but a better Switch experience doesn’t have to cost $350. You can upgrade your setup with the right accessories, and we’ve got a few recommendations for different uses.
For Switches that stay at home
The first thing you’ll want to pick up for your Switch or Switch Lite is a microSD card. After all, there are a lot of great games to download and your system has limited storage space. It’s also the only way you’ll get screen captures off your console if you haven’t connected it to Facebook or Twitter. Samsung's EVO Select line is recommended for its speed and reliability, but it’s the price that you’re likely to find most appealing, with a 256GB card running only $36 and the more spacious 512GB costing $70.
It might be tempting to pick up a third-party dock for your Switch. Don’t. There have been reports of Switches getting bricked by non-Nintendo docks, which means you’re stuck with the official $100 model. However, if all you’re looking for is a change in look, you can buy a skin for your dock (and the Joy-Cons too) that will liven things up. Dbrand offers a range of bold, vibrant colors, and the skins won’t damage your Switch if removed. If you’d prefer something with a design, Slickwraps offers marble and camo patterns as well some attractive Super Nintendo and Super Famicom-themed skins.
If your Switch gets a lot of use, chances are you may have picked up some extra Joy-Cons and a Pro Controller. It’s a real pain to have to charge multiple pairs of Joy-Cons on one Switch, however, so a charging dock can be a great buy. PowerA’s Pro Controller charging dock has room for one pair of Joy-Cons and a Pro Controller, keeping them tidy and powered up. If you don’t need a place to put your Pro Controller, the regular charging dock can accommodate two sets of Joy-Cons. You can also use them for other controllers that slide onto your Switch’s rails like the official NES-style controllers or Hori’s Split Pad Pro.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the Labo VR kit from 2019, mostly due to its price and a lack of game support. But if you’re interested in trying out the virtual reality modes in games like Super Mario Odyssey and Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, the VR starter kit is a good purchase. It comes with the basic headset and the blaster, which was easily the most fun of all the various Labo VR projects. It usually costs around $40, but Best Buy often puts it on sale for half that amount so be sure to keep an eye out.
You’re going to need a case, that’s certain. It doesn’t need to be fancy, just enough to protect your Switch from getting bumped around in your bag. The AmazonBasics model is cheap, has 10 slots to hold additional Switch cards and a mesh pocket to store an extra charging cord or set of Joy-Cons. If you’re planning to take your entire setup, dock and all, Amazon also makes a larger storage case that can fit all the cords and controller accessories. If you need something smaller for your Switch Lite, the official case from Nintendo is incredibly slim and even comes with a screen protector. But it’s not made for carrying a lot of games. For that, we recommend TomToc’s line of Switch Lite cases, which are waterproof and come in a wide variety of colors to match your handheld for under $20.
You probably already have a bag that you’re carrying around all your stuff in, but if you were looking for one specifically made for your Switch, how about this backpack from HORI? It’s specifically designed to hold a Nintendo Switch and all its accessories, and comes in Pokémon, Mario and Zelda designs. The company also makes less overtly nerdy bags, but where’s the fun in that?
If Animal Crossing is more your aesthetic, Target sells a charming collection of bags emblazoned with leaf or character patterns. The backpacks have a special pocket just for your Nintendo Switch, while the clutch purses are perfectly sized for the consoles while being super stylish to boot.
Whether you hate the speakers on your Switch or just don’t want to bother those around you, you’re going to need a pair of headphones to listen to your games. Ideally you want something that doesn’t cost too much and can survive a beating in your bag, so if you don’t mind wires we’re still big fans of Turtle Beach’s Recon 70, which offers great sound in an affordable, lightweight form factor. However, if you just can’t stand cords and don’t mind dropping a bit of extra cash, check out the SteelSeries Arctis 1 or Razer’s Barracuda X headsets. They both come with a USB-C receiver you can plug directly into your console for a solid wireless connection, and the sound quality of either is among the best you’ll find in any gaming headset, especially for under $150.
If you already have a pair of wireless headphones you’re particularly attached to, you can use those with your Switch or Switch Lite by plugging HomeSpot’s 5.0 Audio Transmitter Adapter into the USB-C port. It’s rather diminutive and can slip into your case easily, and very affordable at only $30.
One thing you definitely have to worry about if you game on the go often is battery life, and in those cases you’ll want to carry around an extra power bank. For your Switch there are two features you need to focus on, and that’s the ability to use a USB-C cord to connect, and a slim profile so it’ll fit inside your Switch case. The RavPower 26,800mAh power bank fits both those criteria perfectly, is rather affordable at $61, and can even charge your device as you play.
Occasionally you might want to make use of the Switch’s kickstand and play with a standard gamepad. The official Pro Controller is generally accepted to be the best available, but it’s also kind of cumbersome to lug around in your bag. If you’re trying to travel a little lighter and don’t mind a slightly smaller version, PowerA’s Enhanced Nano controller can do the job. In my testing I found it’s susceptible to electrical interference, but when you’re sitting right in front of the Switch on a table it should handle the task just fine. It even comes with a little cloth bag to protect the controller from dings and scratches.
Chromebooks have earned a reputation for being cheap and limited, but that hasn’t been true for a while now. The combination of years worth of software updates and laptop manufacturers making more powerful and better-built Chromebooks means there are a ton of good Chrome OS machines that work well as everyday drivers. Of course, there are an unnecessary number of Chromebooks on the market, so choosing the right one is easier said than done. Fortunately, I’ve tried enough of them at this point to know what to look for and what to avoid.
What is Chrome OS, and why would I use it over Windows?
That’s probably the number one question about Chromebooks. There are plenty of inexpensive Windows laptops on the market, so why bother with Chrome OS? Glad you asked. For me, the simple and clean nature of Chrome OS is a big selling point. If you didn’t know, it’s based on Google’s Chrome browser, which means most of the programs you can run are web based. There’s no bloatware or unwanted apps to uninstall like you often get on Windows laptops, it boots up in seconds, and you can completely reset to factory settings almost as quickly.
Of course, the simplicity is also a major drawback for some users. Not being able to install native software can be a dealbreaker if you’re, say, a video editor or software developer. But there are also plenty of people who do the vast majority of their work in a browser. Unless I need to edit photos for a review, I can do my entire job on a Chromebook.
Google has also added support for Android apps on Chromebooks, which greatly expands the amount of software available. The quality varies widely, but it means you can do more with a Chromebook beyond just web-based apps. For example, you can install the Netflix app and save videos for offline watching; other Android apps like Microsoft’s Office suite and Adobe Lightroom are surprisingly capable. Between Android apps and a general improvement in web apps, Chromebooks are more than just a browser.
What do Chromebooks do well, and when should you avoid them?
Put simply, anything web based. Browsing, streaming music and video and using various social media sites are among the most common things people do on Chromebooks. As you might expect, they also work well with Google services like Photos, Docs, Gmail, Drive, Keep and so on. Yes, any computer that can run Chrome can do that too, but the lightweight nature of Chrome OS makes it a responsive and stable platform.
As I mentioned before, Chrome OS can run Android apps, so if you’re an Android user you’ll find some nice ties between the platforms. You can get most of the same apps that are on your phone on a Chromebook and keep info in sync between them. You can also use some Android phones as a security key for your Chromebook or instantly tether your laptop to use mobile data.
Google continues to tout security as a major differentiator for Chromebooks, and I think it’s definitely a factor worth considering. The first line of defense is auto-updates. Chrome OS updates download quickly in the background and a fast reboot is all it takes to install the latest version. Google says that each webpage and app on a Chromebook runs in its own sandbox, as well, so any security threats are contained to that individual app. Finally, Chrome OS has a self-check called Verified Boot that runs every time a device starts up. Beyond all this, the simple fact that you generally can’t install traditional apps on a Chromebook means there are a lot fewer ways for bad actors to access the system.
As for when to avoid them, the answer is simple: If you rely heavily on a specific native application for Windows or a Mac, chances are good you won’t find the exact same option on a Chromebook. That’s most true in fields like photo and video editing, but it can also be the case in fields like law or finance. Plenty of businesses run on Google’s G suite software, but more still have specific requirements that a Chromebook might not match. If you’re an iPhone user, you’ll also miss out on the way the iPhone easily integrates with an iPad or Mac, as well. For me, the big downside is not being able to access iMessage on a Chromebook.
Finally, gaming is almost entirely a non-starter, as there are no native Chrome OS games of note. You can install Android games from the Google Play Store, but that’s not what most people are thinking of when they want to game on a laptop. That said, Google’s game-streaming service Stadia has changed that long-standing problem. The service isn’t perfect, but it remains the only way to play recent, high-profile games on a Chromebook. It’s not as good as running local games on a Windows computer, but the lag issues that can crop up reflect mostly on Stadia itself and not Chrome OS.
What are the most important specs for a Chromebook?
Chrome OS is lightweight and usually runs well on fairly modest hardware, so the most important thing to look for might not be processor power or storage space. That said, I’d still recommend you get a Chromebook with a relatively recent Intel processor, ideally an eighth-generation or newer M3 or i3. Most non-Intel Chromebooks I’ve tried haven’t had terribly good performance, though Lenovo’s Chromebook Duet 2-in-1 runs surprisingly well on its MediaTek processor.
As for RAM, 4GB is enough for most people, though 8GB is a better target if you have the cash, want to future-proof your investment or if you’re a serious tab junkie. Storage space is another place where you don’t need to spend too much; 64GB should be fine for almost anyone. If you plan on storing a lot of local files or loading up your Chromebook with Linux or Android apps, get 128GB. But for what it’s worth, I’ve never felt like I might run out of local storage when using Chrome OS.
Things like the keyboard and display quality are arguably more important than sheer specs. The good news is that you can find less expensive Chromebooks that still have pretty good screens and keyboards that you won’t mind typing on all day. Many cheap Chromebooks still come with tiny, low-resolution displays, but at this point there’s no reason to settle for anything less than 1080p. (If you’re looking for an extremely portable, 11-inch Chromebook, though, you’ll probably have to settle for less.) Obviously, keyboard quality is a bit more subjective, but you shouldn’t settle for a mushy piece of garbage.
Google has an Auto Update policy for Chromebooks, and while that’s not a spec, per se, it’s worth checking before you buy. Basically, Chromebooks get regular software updates automatically for about six years from their release date (though that can vary from device to device). This support page lists the Auto Update expiration date for virtually every Chromebook ever, but a good rule of thumb is to buy the newest machine you can to maximize your support.
How much should I spend?
Chromebooks started out notoriously cheap, with list prices often coming in under $300. But as they’ve gone more mainstream, they’ve transitioned from being essentially modern netbooks to the kind of laptop you’ll want to use all day. As such, prices have increased a bit over the last few years. At this point, you should expect to spend at least $400 if you want a solid daily driver. There are still many budget options out there that may be suitable as couch machines or secondary devices, but if you want a Chromebook that can be your all-day-every-day laptop, $400 is the least you can expect to spend.
There are also plenty of premium Chromebooks that approach or even exceed $1,000, but I don’t recommend spending that much. Generally, that’ll get you better design quality with more premium materials, as well as more powerful internals and extra storage space. Of course, you also sometimes pay for the brand name. But, the specs I outlined earlier are usually enough.
Right now, there actually aren’t too many Chromebooks that even cost that much. Google’s Pixelbook Go comes in $999 and $1,399 configurations, but the more affordable $650 and $850 options will be just as good for nearly everyone. Samsung released the $1,000 Galaxy Chromebook in 2020; this luxury device does almost everything right but has terrible battery life. Samsung quickly learned from that mistake and is now offering the Galaxy Chromebook 2 with more modest specs, but vastly better battery life at a much more affordable price (more on that laptop later). For the most part, you don’t need to spend more than $850 to get a premium Chromebook that’ll last you years.
Best overall: Lenovo Flex 5 Chromebook
Look beyond the awkward name and you’ll find a Chromebook that does just about everything right that’s also a tremendous value. It gets all the basics right: The 13-inch 1080p touchscreen is bright, though it’s a little hard to see because of reflections in direct sunlight. It runs on a 10th-generation Intel Core i3 processor, the eight-hour battery life is solid, and the backlit keyboard is one of the best I’ve used on any laptop lately, Chromebook or otherwise. The Flex 5 is now a little over a year old, but it still holds up well and is even cheaper than it was when it first launched. It can now regularly be found for well under $400 on Amazon. (As of this writing, it’s priced at $329.) That’s an outstanding value for a Chromebook this capable.
Naturally, Lenovo cut a few corners to hit that price. Most significantly, it only has 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. Normally, I wouldn’t recommend anyone buy a computer with those specs — but Chrome OS is far less dependent on local storage. Unless you were planning to store a ton of movies or install a huge variety of Android apps, 64GB is enough for moderately advanced use. I was concerned about the non-upgradeable 4GB of RAM, but my testing showed that the IdeaPad Flex 5 can run plenty of tabs and other apps without many hiccups. If you push things hard, you’ll occasionally have to wait for tabs to refresh if you haven’t viewed them recently, but other than that this is a solid performer, particularly for the price.
Other things in the IdeaPad Flex 5’s favor include that it has both USB-C and USB-A ports and a 360-degree convertible hinge. I personally don’t find myself flipping laptops around to tablet or stand mode very often, but it’s there if you like working in those formats. At three pounds and 0.66 inches thick, it’s not the lightest or slimmest option out there, but those specs are also totally reasonable considering the price.
Ultimately, the Ideapad Flex 5 hits the sweet spot for a large majority of potential Chromebook buyers out there, providing a level of quality and performance that’s pretty rare to find at this price point. That said, given this laptop has been out for over a year now, we’re keeping an eye out for any potential replacements Lenovo offers, as well as comparable options other manufacturers release.
Premium Chromebooks with more power, better design and higher prices have become common in recent years. If you want to step up over the excellent but basic Lenovo Flex 5, there are two recent options worth considering: Samsung’s Galaxy Chromebook 2 and Acer’s Chromebook Spin 713.
The Galaxy Chromebook 2 is infinitely more stylish than most other Chromebooks, with a bright metallic red finish and a design that looks far better than the utilitarian Flex 5 and Chromebook Spin 713. As I mentioned earlier, Samsung’s Galaxy Chromebook 2 fixes some of the serious flaws we identified in the original. Specifically, the 2020 Galaxy Chromebook had terrible battery life and cost $999; this year’s model starts at $549 and can actually last seven hours off the charger. That’s not great, but it’s far better than the lousy four hours the original offered.
Samsung cut a few corners to lower the Galaxy Chromebook 2’s price. Most noticeable is the 1080p 13.3-inch touchscreen, down from the 4K panel on the older model. The good news is that the display is among the best 1080p laptop screens I’ve seen in a long time, and the lower resolution helps the battery life, too. The Galaxy Chromebook 2 is also a bit thicker and heavier than its predecessor, but it’s still reasonably compact.
Finally, the Galaxy Chromebook 2 has a 10th-generation Intel Core i3 processor rather than the Core i5 Samsung included last year. All these changes add up to a laptop that isn’t as ambitious, but is ultimately much easier to recommend. Instead of pushing to have the best screen in the thinnest and lightest body with a faster processor, Samsung pulled everything back a bit to make a better-priced but still premium laptop.
Acer’s Chromebook Spin 713, by comparison, doesn’t look like much from the outside — it’s a chunky gray slab with little to distinguish it from many other basic laptops. While it doesn’t seem exciting, the Spin 713 is just as well-made as the Galaxy Chromebook 2, with a sturdy hinge and body. But what’s most interesting is the display, a 13.5-inch touchscreen with a 3:2 aspect ratio. That makes it a much better option than 1080p displays when you’re scrolling vertically through documents and webpages. It has a somewhat unusual resolution of 2,256 x 1,504, thanks to the taller aspect ratio, but it makes for a more pixel-dense display than you’ll find on your standard 13.3-inch, 1080p laptop. Long story short: The screen is great.
As for the rest of the hardware, the 11th-generation Intel Core i5 processor is more than enough power for most tasks, and the keyboard and trackpad are solid, if not the best I’ve used before. The same can be said for battery life: I got about the same six to seven hours using the Spin 713 as I did using the Galaxy Chromebook 2. I wish it were better in both cases, but it’s in line with other premium Chromebooks I’ve used lately.
The Spin 713 configuration that I tested costs $699, the same as the Galaxy Chromebook 2. Because I’m such a fan of the 3:2 display, I prefer the Spin 713 (which also has a more powerful processor), but the Galaxy Chromebook 2 is worth a look if you want a laptop that has a little more style and a better keyboard.
Last year, Google’s Pixelbook Go was our pick for the best premium model. It’s still an excellent choice and one of my favorite Chromebooks to use, but it’s almost two years old. Its age coupled with its aging 8th-generation Intel processor make it tougher to recommend. That said, it’s still one of the thinnest and lightest Chromebooks around, and it still handles everything I can throw at it. It also has the best keyboard I’ve used on any recent Chromebook. There’s still a lot to like, but it’s harder to justify spending $650 or more on it. Hopefully Google will release an updated version this fall.
While Lenovo’s Flex 5 is inexpensive enough that you could get one for your kid, Acer’s Chromebook 512 might be a better option for young ones in your life. First off, it’s specifically built to take abuse. In addition to the military-rated (MIL-STD 810G) impact-resistant body, you can spill up to 330mL of liquid on the keyboard. A drainage system will flush it out and keep the insides working. (Note that I haven’t actually tried that.) The keyboard features “mechanically anchored” keys that should be harder for kids to pick off, too. Regardless of exactly how much water you can pour onto that keyboard, the Chromebook 512 should handle a child’s abuse better than your average laptop.
This computer isn’t a speed demon, but the Intel Celeron N4000 chip coupled with 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage should be fine for basic tasks. The 12-inch screen isn’t a standout either, but it has the same taller 3:2 aspect ratio as Acer’s Chromebook Spin 713. That means you’ll get more vertical screen real estate than you would on the 16:9, 11-inch panels typically found in laptops of this class. (The Chromebook 512’s screen resolution is 1,366 x 912, whereas most 11-inch Chromebooks use a 1,366 x 768 panel.)
All in all, it’s a fairly modest computer, but grade-school kids, a computer that can take some abuse and runs an easy-to-use OS that’s well supported in education should fit the bill well. The Chromebook 512 is priced at $249.99 direct from Acer, but it's going for $219.99 as of this writing at other retailers.
Engadget recommends a variety of laptops every year as part of our annual back-to-school guide. But that’s not quite enough if you want a productive study environment. Whether you’re a student staying home this year or you’re returning to campus, you’ll benefit from a few additional essentials. A laptop stand is useful for preventing neck and arm pain, while a lumbar pillow supports the lower back. A pair of noise-cancelling headphones does wonders for blocking out distractions and a LED lamp helps ease eye fatigue. From an external keyboard to a USB dock, we think all our suggestions below will lead to much-improved setup for those long study sessions.
Soundance Laptop Stand
While laptops are more convenient than desktops, using just your notebook for long periods of time is bad for your posture and can lead to neck ache. That’s why we strongly recommend getting a laptop stand. You can position your machine so that the screen is at the appropriate height. In general, you want your eye level to be one to two inches below the top of the display.
One of our team’s favorites is this one from Soundance, which can support laptops with 10- to 15-inch screens. It’s made from a sturdy aluminum alloy and the surface that holds the laptop is rubberized, which prevents it from sliding around. And, thanks to a series of detachable components, it’s also one of a few stands that’s easily portable. You can take it apart and put it together in minutes, making it great not just for your desk at home, but also for using it in the library.
The Soundance raises your laptop six inches above the desk, which should work well for most people. Also, the elevated design both facilitates better posture and helps ventilate your laptop. There’s even enough space underneath for you to store your keyboard and mouse when they’re not in use. If you want one with adjustable height, we recommend the Rain Design iLevel 2. It’s not quite as portable and it’s more expensive than the Soundance, but it’s a good option if you need a stand with more flexibility.
If you do get a laptop stand, you’ll definitely want an external keyboard to go along with it. (It’s not going to be comfortable typing on your laptop while it’s docked in the stand.) We recommend a wireless model so you don’t have to worry about cords cluttering up your desk. Logitech’s line of Bluetooth keyboards is an Engadget favorite, and the K780 is one of the brand’s most versatile models. It’s a full-size keyboard complete with a numpad, but it still feels slim and compact. The keys are responsive and comfortable as well, and you can pair it with up to three devices. There’s even an integrated cradle if you wish to use it with a smartphone or iPad.
In addition to the external keyboard, you should get a wireless mouse to match. Logitech’s M525 is a great option thanks to its ergonomic design and affordable price point. It’s small enough that it won’t take up much space on your desk and It has an ambidextrous design that’ll fit both right and left-handed users. Its precision scroll wheel has a tilt function that allows for side-to-side scrolling as well. We should note, however, that this isn’t a Bluetooth mouse; you connect it to your computer via a USB receiver.
If you’d rather have the convenience of Bluetooth, consider the MX Anywhere 3. It has a 4,000-dpi Track Anywhere sensor that works on most surfaces, even glass. However, the MX Anywhere 3 is a lot pricier at $80 and it doesn’t include the aforementioned tilt wheel, so bear that in mind.
Long study sessions often mean sitting for an extended amount of time, which can result in lower back pain. You could get a chair with better back support, but those can be expensive. Plus, if you’re living in a dorm, you probably don’t have much choice in furniture anyway. The next best option is to get a lumbar support pillow. I personally recommend the Purple Back Cushion because it has a cushy grid that’s malleable enough to mold to the contour of my spine. One of the features that sets it apart from other cushions is that it has hundreds of air channels, which means you won’t get a sweaty back after sitting in a stuffy dorm room all day long. It comes with a washable cushion cover and an integrated strap that helps you attach it to most chairs.
Another desk must-have is a lamp for those late-night study sessions. And if you’re going to spend money on one, it’s a good idea to get a lamp that can charge your devices at the same time. We’ve commended the Taotronics desk lamps in previous buying guides due to their multi-functionality, which is why we feel so confident recommending the Taotronics LED Desk Lamp 38 for most students.
The lamp has a built-in Qi-enabled wireless charger on its base that works with fast-charge compatible iPhone and Samsung devices up to 7.5W and 10W, respectively. Additionally, it has a USB port for charging other devices that aren’t Qi compatible. A multipurpose lamp is perfect for students who have a limited space and budget, plus the quick-charging base means you can quickly top up your battery in between classes. Of course, not having to deal with a charging cable while you’re studying is also a bonus.
The LED Desk Lamp 38 is also just a really excellent lamp, with five lighting modes and five brightness levels. You can use it on your nightstand too: It has a “night light” and a timer mode that automatically shuts off after an hour, which is helpful for those of us who like to read before bed.
A pair of noise-cancelling headphones is great for blocking out unwanted noise during study sessions, be it from annoying siblings or a raucous roommate. You might be hesitant to get one because you think noise-cancelling headphones are expensive, and for the most part that’s correct. Fortunately, there are some budget options that aren’t terrible.
Take Sony’s WH-CH710N wireless cans, for example. Engadget’s Billy Steele noted that it offers decent range and good clarity, adept ANC, plus it has dual noise sensors that can detect environmental noise. You can also switch to ambient sound mode if you need to quickly hear the world around you. They also offer an impressive 35 hours of battery life, plus USB-C quick charging that promises 60 minutes of playback on a 10-minute charge.
These headphones may look a little more basic than the higher-end XM4s, but Sony didn’t compromise on comfort here thanks to adjustable sliders and soft oval-shaped earcups. They’re also much more affordable at $198 (and we’ve seen them for less), giving you a lot of bang for your buck.
Sitting for long periods is bad for your health, which is why many people like to have standing desks. Unfortunately, they can be expensive, plus you might not even have the space for one. Instead, consider a standing desk converter that can be used with the desk you already own. Fully’s Cooper is a staff favorite, and we like it more than even the company’s Cora model because it has two levels: one for your laptop and another for your external keyboard and mouse. Raising and lowering it is easy thanks to a simple hydraulic lift, and it’s external-monitor friendly thanks to its 35 pounds (16 kilograms) weight limit. Plus, unlike a lot of other sit-stand converters, it’s pretty stylish to boot — we especially like the one with the bamboo finish.
Your computer can be your portal to, well, everything when you're in school — you're probably using it to attend classes and complete coursework all while also relying on it to connect with family, game with friends and the like. You may find yourself constantly connecting and disconnecting peripherals and accessories while pushing your machine to its limits, and that's where a dock like this one from CalDigit can come in handy. Commerce Editor Valentina Palladino likes it because it has 10 ports, including USB-A, USB-C, Gigabit Ethernet and DisplayPort (or HDMI, depending on the model you choose), and it supports up to two 4K monitors with a single cable.
Our favorite part, though, is that it works with both Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C laptops, so if you’re not sure which you have, you don’t have to worry about it. You can also use it with the latest iPads, such as iPad Pros and the 4th-gen Air. Unlike smaller dongles, it’s not the most portable solution, but the Pro Dock makes up for that by giving you many more ports than your traditional adapter has — and it provides up to 94W of power to charge your device while it’s connected.
Sometimes a laptop screen just isn’t big enough, and an external monitor is needed for you to do your best work. It’s useful for those who need more screen real estate for stats and charts, Excel spreadsheets, editing photos or video, or just looking over copious amounts of code.
However, monitors can be pricey. ViewSonic’s 24-inch VA2456-MHD, however, delivers an impressive feature set for the price. Though we haven’t reviewed it, it’s highly-rated on Amazon and we’ve liked ViewSonic’s other monitors in the past so we know the company has a solid track record for quality. The VA2456-MHD has HDMI, DisplayPort and VGA connections, which makes it pretty versatile for a budget monitor. It also has 1080p resolution and an IPS panel for wide-angle viewing. Its three-sided frameless design is sleek too, an important quality for such a relatively large object. Lastly, it has a blue light filter to help minimize eye strain.
We should note however, that those looking for a color-accurate monitor might want to invest in something more powerful, like Dell’s UltraSharp U2720Q, but it is also considerably more expensive at nearly $700.
It’s important to stay hydrated even when you’re at your desk, which is why we like having a dedicated water vessel nearby. Commerce Editor Valentina Palladino recommends the Ironflask 24-ounce Classic tumbler as a more affordable alternative to a Yeti or a Hydro Flask (the new Nomad tumbler is slightly more travel-friendly thanks to its leak-proof flip lid). Its double-walled, vacuum insulated construction can keep drinks cold for up to 16 hours and hot for up to four hours. That means you can use it for water as well as coffee or tea when you need a pick-me-up. It comes in a variety of colors, and it ships with two stainless straws, two plastic straws and straw cleaning brushes — so not only is the cup itself easy to clean, but you’re getting the tools to clean the straws, too. It also fits standard-size cup holders, which is great when you want to grab a drink on the go.
There's never been a better time to be a PC gamer, especially when it comes to laptops. Gaming notebooks are lighter, more powerful and cheaper than ever before. They're particularly useful for students because their beefy hardware could be helpful for rendering video and doing any other schoolwork that would make super-thin ultraportables sweat. You can find some general advice on choosing gaming laptops in our guide. In this piece, you'll find a few selections specifically geared towards school use.
Are gaming laptops good for college?
As stated above, gaming laptops are especially helpful if you're doing any demanding work. Their big promise is powerful graphics performance, which isn't just limited to games. Video editing and 3D rendering programs can also tap into their GPUs to handle especially demanding tasks. While you can find decent GPUs on some productivity laptops, like Dell's XPS 15, you can sometimes find better deals on gaming laptops. My general advice for any new workhorse machine: Get at least 16GB of RAM and the largest solid state drive you can find. Those components are both typically hard to upgrade down the line.
The one big downside to choosing a gaming notebook is portability. For the most part, we'd recommend 15-inch models to get the best balance of size and price. Those typically weigh in around 4.5 pounds, which is a significantly more than three-pound ultraportables. Today's gaming notebooks are still far lighter than older models, though, so at least you won't be lugging around a 10-pound brick. Also, if you're not into LED lights and other gamer-centric bling, keep an eye out for more understated models (or make sure you know how to turn those lights off).
Best midrange for most people: ASUS Zephyrus G15
The Zephryus G15 has all the power you'd want in a gaming laptop, at a price that's more reasonable than higher-end options. It's a slightly larger follow-up to last year's favorite for this category (the G14), but there's still lots to love. The G15 features AMD's latest Ryzen 5000 processors, along with NVIDIA's RTX 3000 GPUs. And, judging from our benchmarks, it manages to make good use of all that power. It also has a fast 165Hz 1440p screen, which is ideal for playing games at high framerates. The G15 doesn't have a webcam, but its solid specs and performance more than make up for that.
For years, Razer has staked a reputation for building gaming laptops that look as good as MacBooks. And that's still true. Razer's Blade 15 features a sleek and sturdy metal case, an impressively understated design (unless you really kick up those RGB keyboard lights), and just about all the power you'd want in a portable gaming powerhouse. If money is no object, you can equip the Blade 15 with Intel's latest 11th-gen processors, NVIDIA's powerful RTX 3080 and either a 240Hz QHD or 360Hz HD screen.
While you'll pay a bit more for the Blade 15 compared to some other models, you've still got a few different price points to work with. The entry-level model starts at $1,699 with an RTX 3060 GPU and 144Hz 1080p display. That's certainly enough power for most games and creative apps. If you're looking for something a bit smaller, Razer's new AMD-powered Blade 14 looks compelling as well.
A stylish mid-range option: Alienware M15 R5 Ryzen Edition
Alienware's M15 notebooks have made for solid options over the last few years, but the R5 Ryzen Edition adds something new to the mix with AMD's latest processors. Basically, you can expect slightly better multi-core performance from this machine, compared to its Intel-equipped siblings. The Alienware M15 still retains the brand's signature, sci-fi-like aesthetic, making the R5 Ryzen Edition a great option if you want a notebook that’s also distinct (without looking garish like cheaper offerings).
While Alienware has established itself as a solid premium brand, Dell's cheaper G-series notebooks are worth a look for anyone on a budget. In particular, the G5 15 continues the trend of delivering very capable hardware under $1,000. Sure, the case may contain a lot of plastic, and the screen doesn't offer all of the latest niceties, but for the price it's hard to find something much better.
Best no-limit gaming laptop: ASUS Zephyrus Duo 15 SE
Taking the idea of a gaming laptop to the absolute extreme, ASUS's latest Zephyrus Duo combines AMD's latest Ryzen mobile processors with all of NVIDIA's great RTX 30-series hardware. And, true to its name, it has two screens: a gorgeous 15.6-inch main display, and a very wide secondary panel right below. That opens up a near desktop-level of multitasking, since you can have windows spread across both screens. That could be useful for browsing the web and keeping an eye on Twitter at the same time. (Or, perhaps squeezing in a game of Overwatch while following an online lecture on the other screen. We won't tell anyone.)