How to Choose the Right Laptop
Charles Lindbergh knew a thing or two about traveling light. When preparing The Spirit of St. Louis for his transatlantic flight in 1927, the pilot jettisoned everything—from his parachute and radio to the traditional leather seat. (He used a wicker chair.) He even designed special lightweight boots.
You probably delegate worries about your plane’s range and fuel capacity to the airline, but odds are you hate to carry any excess ballast in your carry-on. That’s why laptop vendors strive to trim every ounce from their designs, and why we at PCMag pay so much attention to the results—starting with this guide to the lightest laptops you can buy.
How We Define “Light”
What defines a lightweight laptop? Most would agree that the upper limit is three pounds, possibly stretching to four for a system with a big 15.6-inch screen (although the 15.6-inch featherweight champion, the Acer Swift 5, is a remarkable 2.2 pounds). Neither of those figures counts the computer’s AC adapter, an often-overlooked bit of baggage that can be anything from a compact shirt-pocket gadget to an ungainly brick.
For manufacturers, crafting an ultralight laptop is all about compromise. A smaller battery pack will save weight, but it won’t last as long—a risky move in a market where many buyers expect to get through a full workday plus a Netflix movie in the evening. Exotic chassis materials like carbon fiber and magnesium alloys weigh less than vanilla notebooks’ plastic and aluminum, but they also increase cost. A touch screen is convenient, but its glass overlay adds a few grams.
For you, shopping for a svelte laptop is all about choices. Some aren’t particularly obvious, such as a system’s expandability—the lightest machines may have their memory, for instance, mounted directly on the motherboard, rather than in the upgradable SO-DIMM sockets of bulkier models. Similarly, virtually all will use solid-state drives rather than cheaper but heavier hard drives for storage, though the upgradability of these drives in the lightest laptops will vary from no-can-do (the storage is soldered down) to potentially upgradable (on a SATA or PCI Express M.2 SSD module, if you can crack the case to access it).
Other choices will be, well, in your face, starting with the obvious one: the display panel.
Screen Size: Weight vs. Squint
At the risk of insulting your intelligence, the biggest factor in laptop weight is the physical size of the chassis. And for a laptop, that correlates with screen size. If you’re cool with an 11.6-inch display, you’ve got plenty of ultralights to choose from; if you want a jumbo 17-inch screen, your only choice, to our knowledge, is the LG Gram 17Z990 (not yet tested here), a $1,699 Core i7 system carved from 2.95 pounds of nano carbon and magnesium. The flagship of the lightweight Gram line offers 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD, and a 2,560-by-1,600-pixel native screen resolution.
Most weight-savers, as you’d expect, are smaller than that, though it’s up to you how small is too small. Many shoppers don’t realize that the 2.75-pound MacBook Air is not Apple’s lightest laptop—that’s the 2.03-pound MacBook, though you may prefer the former’s 13.3-inch to the latter’s 12-inch display. (The MacBook was technically discontinued in July 2019, but it will be in sales channels for a bit longer, we suspect, as stock clears.)
The most popular panel sizes for light laptops are 13.3 and 14 inches. Resolution is usually either 1080p, also known as full HD (1,920 by 1,080 pixels), or 4K, also known as UHD (3,840 by 2,160 pixels). Some pixel counts fall between those extremes, such as the 2,560 by 1,440 of the 2.49-pound Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, and the special Retina resolutions of Apple’s Mac machines.
While it can be tempting to revel in the ultrafine detail of a 3K or 4K display for applications such as image editing or video streaming, don’t be ashamed if your needs (and budget) favor the everyday productivity of a 1080p panel. Besides getting a perfectly adequate screen (something that can’t be said for the older standard of 1,366 by 768 pixels), you’ll get substantially better battery life, all else being equal.
Slim Bezels Are Better
Excess bulk is the enemy of light weight, so look for a laptop with a high screen-to-body ratio—in other words, thin rather than thick bezels surrounding the display. (Ditto for a unit without wide borders on either side of the keyboard.)
The Dell XPS 13 was an early pioneer of nearly frameless screen design, so much so that Dell has long described the 2.7-pound system as a 13-inch laptop in an 11-inch chassis. For years, however, the drawback to the Dell’s skinny screen borders was that the top bezel didn’t have room for a webcam, resulting in the XPS 13’s camera being mounted below the display instead of above. There, it gave your Skype conference partners an unlovely view of your chin and nostrils.
Thanks to miniature lens engineering, the 2019 (model 9380) version of the XPS 13 relocates the camera to the top bezel. But it’s still worth checking webcam placement before you buy. The camera of Huawei’s 2.93-pound MateBook X Pro and Acer’s latest Swift 7 is embedded in the top row of the keyboard, showing your neck instead of your face.
The Detachable Alternative
What if you’d like to indulge your inner Lindbergh and redesign your laptop for travel? There used to be notebooks that let you replace their optical drives with empty weight-saving slices, but modular designs of that kind and optical drives are both history. You can opt, however, for a tablet that lets you remove its keyboard cover. This gives you two choices: carry just the tablet, if you’re viewing videos or jotting short notes with a stylus, or take both parts if you need to type something. A tablet plus its thin keyboard cover or folio usually weighs less than a conventional clamshell laptop.
The 12.3-inch Microsoft Surface Pro 6, for example, weighs 1.7 pounds without and 2.38 pounds with its Signature Type Cover (which Microsoft, unlike many makers of detachable 2-in-1s, charges extra for). The respective weights for Lenovo’s 13-inch ThinkPad X1 Tablet are 1.96 and 2.79 pounds.
Of course, detachables aren’t the only 2-in-1 hybrid laptops—there are convertibles whose screens flip and fold from laptop to tablet mode, propping up for kiosk or easel-like presentation modes in between. Several of these qualify as light (the HP Spectre x360 13 is 2.9 pounds), but their versatile hinges add weight compared to clamshells (the HP Spectre 13 is 2.45 pounds). The Samsung Notebook 9 Pen is just 2.2 pounds, but it felt a little flimsy in our review.
If you’re an avid gamer, you should know that nearly all ultralights rely on their processors’ integrated graphics instead of faster dedicated graphics—a discrete GPU is one of the first things that gets taken off the cargo roster when designers are trying to hit a weight target. The 2.89-pound Razer Blade Stealth is a rare exception, and even then, its Nvidia GeForce MX150 graphics chip is suitable only for light gaming compared to Nvidia’s GeForce GTX and RTX parts.
Light laptops also tend to have fewer ports and expansion options than their heavier cousins. The late Apple MacBook, for instance, has a headphone jack and one USB Type-C port—that’s it, that’s all. The Dell XPS 13 does better with two Thunderbolt 3 ports, a USB Type-C port, a microSD card slot, and an audio jack, but you’ll still need a dongle (which is included) to connect a USB Type-A device and another (not included) to connect an external monitor.
Shop carefully if you’re looking for, say, an HDMI video output or a full-size SD card slot, and realize that some ports seen on larger laptops (such as an Ethernet port for wired networks, though 802.11ac Wi-Fi is ubiquitous) are seldom seen on the lightest laptops.
Fortunately, the days when light laptops lacked battery life are more or less over. Though a beefy battery pack is still the easiest route to long runtime, today’s lithium-polymer cells are both weight- and energy-efficient. You can cross-index this guide against our roundups of the best battery life laptops and best ultraportables. But rest assured that we factored battery life into our top picks here.
Ready for Our Recommendations?
By now it’s clear—you don’t have to strain your arm and shoulder to carry real productivity power. Below is our current list of 10 of the best light laptops we’ve tested. It’s not comprehensive, since we review so many systems, but we’ll be refreshing it frequently. Meanwhile, safe travels and happy landings.