Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

You asked; you got it. When we ran our first-ever laptop buyer's guide earlier this year, many of you wrote in, requesting that we include more affordable picks (not just, you know, twelve-hundred-dollar Ultrabooks). So with this latest seasonal guide, we've added budget and mid-range options, some with touchscreens, some without. The only unfortunate thing? We're expecting Intel to drop its new Haswell chips sometime this summer, so it should go without saying that it might be worth waiting for the various PC giants to refresh their lineups before committing to anything. If you absolutely can't wait, though, we've picked our favorites, with a particular emphasis on models we don't think will be going anywhere anytime soon.

TOUCH-ENABLED MACHINES

Convertibles

It used to be that "convertible" only meant one thing: a laptop whose display could swivel around and fold down into tablet mode, at which point you could interact with it using either your fingers or a pen. While that form factor has hardly disappeared, the word "convertible" is now more of an umbrella term than anything else, a category encompassing all sorts of miscellaneous form factors -- everything from sliders to dual-screened notebooks. Suffice to say, though, not all of these designs are created equal. Though we made an effort to pick three items for each category, we only named two for convertibles. That's because we couldn't think of any more that we'd actually recommend. Sliders tend to offer a compromised typing experience, we find, and we've had a disappointing experience with other contenders, like the ASUS TAICHI and MSI Slidebook S20. We expect we'll see some fresh second-gen models arrive just in time for Haswell, but in the meantime, here are the two best machines you can buy today.

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

The Yoga 13 was the first Windows 8 convertible to debut, and it remains one of the best. Sure, it's imperfect (the five-and-half-hour battery life is low compared to some Ultrabooks) but it wins high marks for its light design and comfortable typing experience. More than any of that, though, it's that versatile form factor that makes it such a standout. Thanks to a sturdy hinge, you can fold the screen all the way back into tablet mode. If you like, you can also stop it halfway so that the keyboard is flat against the table (Stand Mode) or so that the laptop is resting in Downward Dog position (Tent Mode). All that adds up to one versatile product with very few compromises (such as the keys, which stay exposed in tablet mode, but Lenovo is at least selling sleeves to cover them up). We hope the firm is already hard at work on a second-gen model with a bigger battery and maybe even a 1080p screen. Even as is, though, the Yoga 13 is one of the most memorable Windows 8 machines we've seen so far.

The bottom line: A one-of-a-kind form factor and comfortable keyboard make this the most memorable Windows 8 convertible we've tested.

Key specs: Up to a 2GHz dual-core Intel Core i7-3537U CPU, 4GB to 8GB of RAM, 128 to 256GB of internal storage, Intel HD Graphics 4000, 13.3-inch (1,600 x 900) display.

Price: $999 and up from Lenovo

Dell XPS 12

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

It's always a tough call, deciding whether to recommend the Yoga 13 over the Dell XPS 12, or vice versa. Ultimately, the Yoga 13 has a more versatile design, but even so, the XPS 12 is one of the most well-rounded Ultrabooks we've tested. When you're not using this as a regular touchscreen laptop, you can flip the display in its hinge so that the laptop transforms into a 12-inch tablet. As it happens, we find this a little too bulky to hold up as a tablet (ditto for most of these machines, frankly), but that doesn't really matter. Even if you never pop the screen out of its hinge, this is a fantastic touchscreen Ultrabook in its own right, with a comfortable, backlit keyboard, lovely 1,920 x 1,080 display and fast performance.

The bottom line: Even if you rarely use it in tablet mode, the XPS 12 makes an excellent Ultrabook, thanks to a comfortable keyboard, crisp display and sophisticated design.

Key specs: Up to a 2GHz dual-core Intel Core i7-3537U CPU, 4GB to 8GB of RAM, 128 or 256GB of internal storage, Intel HD Graphics 4000, 12.5-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $1,200 and up from Dell

High-end notebooks

Behold: the safest way for PC makers to experiment with touch. Other than hybrids, which are already pretty gosh-darn ubiquitous, this is the Windows 8 form factor you're most likely to see on store shelves. And it makes sense, right? PC makers aren't yet sure whether consumers will prefer sliders, hybrids or convertibles, but it's easy enough to just slap a touchscreen on an older laptop and call it Windows 8-ready. While a few models (the Acer Aspire S7 and Toshiba Satellite P945t) were created with Win 8 in mind, most of the available options (the Sony VAIO T13, etc.) are remixes of earlier models, with touch sometimes offered as just an upgrade option. As a heads up, while some of our picks have carried over from a few months ago, we've dropped the Acer Aspire S7, as it's due for a refresh (it was first announced last June) and suffered from short battery life anyway.

ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

Back in the days when Ultrabooks didn't have touchscreens, the ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A was one of our favorites -- second only, perhaps, to the Samsung Series 9. In particular, we've been fans of the 1,920 x 1,080 IPS screen and futuristic design, but now, ASUS has updated the trackpad so that it works more reliably. All of that's true of the touch model too except, you know, it has a touchscreen to help you make the most of Windows 8. Our only real complaint is about the battery life, which, to be fair, has been mediocre on most of these early Windows 8 systems.

The bottom line: A great Ultrabook with few flaws, and a lower price than some of its competitors.

Key specs: Up to a 1.9GHz dual-core Intel Core i7-3517U CPU, 4GB of RAM, 128 or 256GB of internal storage, Intel HD Graphics 4000, 13.3-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $1,099 and up

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch is another example of a standout Ultrabook getting upgraded with touch. From the beginning, we liked the original X1 Carbon on account of its slim shape -- it's notably compact for a 14-inch machine, and it manages to be both thinner and lighter than the 13-inch ThinkPad X1 that came before it. And then, of course, there's the ThinkPad keyboard, which is admittedly different than the old one ThinkPad fans are used to, but is nonetheless an improvement over what you'll find on other ultraportables. Our main caveats are these: the 1,600 x 900 display could benefit from wider viewing angles. Also, the starting price is high for a touchscreen laptop with these specs -- it's not even like it has a three-year warranty to help justify the cost. If user experience counts for something, though -- and we think it should -- the X1 Carbon Touch deserves to be on your shortlist.

The bottom line: Our favorite business Ultrabook gets a touchscreen.

Key specs: Up to a 2GHz dual-core Intel Core i7-3667U CPU, 4GB to 8GB of RAM, 128GB of internal storage, Intel HD Graphics 4000, 14-inch (1,600 x 900) display.

Price: $1,319 and up from Lenovo

HP Spectre XT TouchSmart

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

HP might know a thing or two about making laptops, but until now, it hadn't bothered to put a full HD display on an Ultrabook -- the best it had to offer was the Envy 14 Spectre, with a 1,600 x 900 panel. Well, the company is doing itself one better with the Spectre XT TouchSmart, whose marquee feature is a 15-inch, 1080p IPS touchscreen. As you'd expect, it is indeed a lovely display, and it also manages to avoid the color calibration issues that previously plagued the HP Envy 15. In addition, it has an elegant all-metal design, similar to other Spectre-series machines, along with a comfortable, well-spaced keyboard. Our only complaint is with the battery life: four hours of runtime is skimpy for a machine this size.

The bottom line: HP's first 1080p Ultrabook offers everything you could possibly want in a $1,200 machine -- except impressive battery life.

Key specs: Up to a 1.9GHz dual-core Intel Core i7-3517U CPU, 4GB to 8GB of RAM, 128GB to 256GB of solid-state storage or a 500GB hard drive with an optional 32GB SSD, Intel HD Graphics 4000, 15.6-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $1,200 and up from HP

Samsung ATIV Book 7 (formerly known as the Series 7 Ultra)

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

Samsung already lays claim to the sexiest Ultrabook we've ever seen (that would be the Series 9), and now it's expanding its lineup to include something a little more brawny. The ATIV Book 7 (formerly known as the Series 7 Ultra) is the first Ultrabook to join the company's Series 7 family of products, which has always emphasized performance even over cutting-edge design (though it has that too). While most ultraportables are saddled with Intel's integrated HD 4000 graphics, the Series 7 Ultra steps up to a discrete GPU -- specifically, AMD Radeon HD 8570M with 1GB of video memory. Combine that with a 13.3-inch, 1080p display, and you've got a great canvas for editing photos, watching movies and playing games. That just leaves two questions: how's the battery life? And can you do without eight gigs of RAM?

The bottom line: Sammy's brand-new Ultrabook isn't just sleekly designed; it's also one of the few with graphics good enough to handle gaming.

Key specs: 1.8GHz dual-core Core i5-3337U CPU, 4GB of RAM, 128GB of internal storage, AMD Radeon HD 8570M Graphics (1GB), 13.3-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $1,000 from Best Buy

Toshiba KIRAbook

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

Fed up with its reputation for making cheap, low-rent laptops, Toshiba decided it was time for a little rebranding. As a way of reminding the notebook-buying public it's indeed capable of making premium devices, it recently launched the high-end KIRA brand, with the 13-inch KIRAbook as the inaugural product. And if our hands-on time is any indication, it truly is the most thoughtfully designed PC Toshiba has put out, with a durable magnesium design, sturdy hinge, redesigned keyboard and, best of all, a crisp 2,560 x 1,440 display, the likes of which you won't find on any other Windows laptop. For the money ($1,600 and up), we wish the touchscreen weren't optional, and that you could opt for something other than basic Intel HD graphics. What you do get for that princely sum, however, is a dedicated customer support line, with near-instant pickup times. Taking a page from HP's playbook, the company is offering a two-year standard warranty, along with full copies of Adobe Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements, and a two-year Norton security software subscription.

The bottom line: Though we're sure other companies will follow suit, this is currently the only Windows laptop with such a high-resolution display.

Key specs: Up to a 2GHz dual-core Core i7-3537U CPU, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of internal storage, Intel HD 4000 graphics, 13.3-inch (2,560 x 1,440) display, touchscreen optional.

Price: $1,600 and up, ships May 12th

Mid-range machines

So you can't afford to drop 1,200 bucks on a touchscreen Ultrabook. Join the club. Thankfully for you, at least, the year 2013 seems to be the year of affordable touchscreen laptops, with prices already dipping into the $600 to $700 range. Not all of these are Ultrabooks, but they're all thin and light, which was half of Intel's original vision anyway, right?

HP Pavilion TouchSmart 15z

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

HP's not one to sit out a sweeping category like low-cost Windows 8 machines, though admittedly, it's got just one such model on offer at the moment. That would be the Pavilion TouchSmart 15z, which uses AMD parts to help keep the cost down. As we've seen on other laptops, these AMD chips don't always match Intel's Core processors in terms of battery life, but the discrete-quality graphics are likely to be a big improvement over the ol' Intel HD 4000 chipset. On the outside, it more or less has the same design as the Sleekbooks HP's been selling since last fall, with a subtly patterned finish that helps hide fingerprints.

The bottom line: The least expensive touchscreen laptop HP has to offer, and one of few such machines you'll find from any PC maker, period.

Key specs: Quad-core AMD A8-4555M APU, 6GB to 8GB or RAM, up to 1TB of internal storage or an SSD (up to 256GB), AMD Radeon HD 7600G graphics, 15.6-inch (1,366 x 768) display.

Price: $650 and up from HP

ASUS VivoBook S400

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

You could say ASUS started it, this trend of affordable, touchscreen laptops. When the company announced the VivoBook line, it was almost inconceivable to find a touch-friendly machine for around $600. But time flies, and here we are, with $650 getting you not just an Ultrabook, but also one with a touchscreen, to boot. In the US, at least, the 14-inch VivoBook S400 has specs that neatly match up with other mid-range ultraportables, including a 500GB hard drive paired with a 24GB SSD, and a choice of Core i3, i5 and i7 processor options. (ASUS' site says the S400 is also available with Celeron and Pentium processors, but we're having an awful time even finding those online.) If you want something smaller, ASUS is also selling the 11.6-inch VivoBook S200, but that tops out with a Core i3 processor, which is why it didn't cut it as one of our main picks.

The bottom line: If you can live with the fact that your next laptop won't technically count as an Ultrabook, the VivoBook offers many of the same attributes, especially at the higher end of the range.

Key specs: Up to a 1.9GHz dual-core Intel Core i7-3517U CPU, 2GB to 4GB of RAM, up to 500GB of internal storage with a 24GB SSD, up to Intel HD 4000 graphics, 14-inch (1,366 x 768) display.

Price: $659 on Amazon

Lenovo IdeaPad U310 Touch

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

Back last summer, we reviewed a mid-range Ultrabook from Lenovo called the IdeaPad U310. It wasn't our favorite ultraportable ever -- being a lower-priced machine, it was a tad bulky compared to flagship models, and the battery life wasn't best in class, either. All told, though, it was a good deal: well-built, with a cushy, tactile keyboard, and a trackpad that actually worked reliably. So we're pretty confident in our recommendation of the U310 Touch: it's the same metal-clad chassis we already praised in our original review, except now it makes room for a touchscreen to make Windows 8 a little easier to use. (Win 8 hadn't started to ship when the original U310 came out.) If you need more power, Lenovo's also offering the 14-inch Z400 and 15-inch Z500, both of which have optical drives, discrete graphics and up to 8GB of RAM and 1TB of hard drive space.

The bottom line: We liked the U310 even when it didn't have a touchscreen, so we're pretty sure it's a good buy now that it does.

Key specs: Up to a 2GHz dual-core Core i7-3537U CPU, 4GB of RAM, up to 500GB of internal storage with an optional 24GB SSD, Intel HD 4000 graphics, 13.3-inch (1,366 x 768) display.

Price: $655 and up from Lenovo

Budget

ASUS VivoBook X202E-DH31T

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

We can't promise this is a top performer -- in fact, with a Core i3 ultra-low voltage processor and spinning hard drive, it's almost certainly not -- but we don't know of another touchscreen laptop that costs so little. To be honest, that's why this section of our guide is so short: we'd be remiss if we didn't mention this one option, but we also couldn't turn up any more for you to keep in mind. In any case, so long as you can accept this isn't as fast as a $700 machine, this is your best bet if you want a touchscreen Windows 8 laptop on the cheap.

The bottom line: Can you think of another touchscreen laptop with halfway decent specs that costs less than this? We certainly can't.

Key specs: 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i3-3217U CPU, 4GB of RAM, 500GB of internal storage, Intel HD 4000 graphics, 11.6-inch (1,366 x 768) display.

Price: $470 from B&H

NON-TOUCH MACHINES

There's no getting around the idea that Windows 8 was built for touch. But that doesn't mean you need a touchscreen, per se: after all, most Win 8 machines coming out today have updated trackpad drivers that allow you to make the same gestures you would on a touchscreen (think: swiping in from the right to reveal the Charms bar). Meanwhile, touch panels bump up the cost of a machine, and add to the thickness and weight as well. From what we've seen, too, they invariably have an adverse effect on battery life. And hey, wiping fingerprints off your touchpanel can quickly get tedious. So, while we're all about touch-friendly machines, we can think of several valid reasons why you might want to sit that trend out. That said, if that's the way you feel, you might want to reserve your non-touch system now: we know of several PC makers whose forthcoming summer lineups will be almost all-touch.

Ultraportables

We expect this section is going to become increasingly smaller, if not irrelevant, as touchscreens will be a requirement for Windows Ultrabooks packing Intel's fourth-generation Core processors. For now, though, here's a selection of lightweight machines whose screens were intended to remain fingerprint-free. Oh, and for those of you who were wondering what the heck happened to the MacBook Air, we dropped it from our guide this time around because we suspect Apple is going to refresh the MBA in the early summer, and we'd hate to steer you toward something that's about to become obsolete.

Samsung ATIV Book 9 (formerly known as the Series 9)

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

We were so sure our favorite Ultrabook of 2012 was about to get a refresh, but as it turns out the Samsung Series 9 (now called the ATIV Book 9) is going to stick around for a while yet. In addition to showing it off in a new color at CES, the company recently started selling the 13-inch version with a 1,920 x 1,080 display, a step up from the 1,600 x 900 panel that comes standard on lower-end models. The only downside is that the full HD screens are slightly dimmer than the 1600 x 900 option (300 nits, down from 400). Other than that, it's as excellent as ever, with a whisper-quiet backlit keyboard, long battery life, an understated aluminum design and a matte finish on the display. There's still a 15-inch model, too, which at 0.58 inch thick is easily the skinniest machine in its size class. Unfortunately, though, it hasn't been refreshed with a 1080p screen.

The bottom line: More than a year after its release, this is still one of our favorite Ultrabooks.

Key specs: 13-inch: Up to a 1.9GHz dual-core Intel Core i7-3517U CPU, 4GB of RAM, up to 256GB of internal storage, Intel HD Graphics 4000, 13.3-inch (1,600 x 900 or 1,920 x 1,080) display; 15-inch: up to a 1.9GHz dual-core Intel Core i7-3517U CPU, 8GB of RAM, up to 256GB of internal storage, Intel HD Graphics 4000, 15-inch (1,600 x 900) display.

Price: $1,300 and up (13-inch) / $1,400 and up (15-inch) from Samsung

Dell XPS 13

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

How do you make a good Ultrabook great? Upgrade it with a 1080p screen and fix the trackpad, that's how. Until now, the Dell XPS 13 wouldn't have made the cut for our previous buyer's guides, what with its 1,366 x 768 screen (disappointing for a thousand-dollar laptop) and the finicky touchpad. Since our review, though, it's improved enough that it's now worth a shout-out as a top contender. The biggest change would be that it's now offered with that 1080p screen for $1,400 and up, and we're told it also has an improved 72 percent color gamut, up from 45 percent in all the 720p models. Even if you can't spring 1,400 bucks for the better screen, you'll still be treated to a lightweight carbon fiber design and one of the most comfortable Ultrabook keyboards we've ever tested.

The bottom line: Forget what you read previously: with a new 1,920 x 1,080 screen and some refined trackpad drivers, the XPS 13 is a much better product than when it first came out.

Key specs: Up to a 2GHz dual-core Core i7-3537UCPU, 4GB to 8GB of RAM, up to 256GB of internal storage, Intel HD 4000 graphics, 13.3-inch (1,366 x 768 or 1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $1,000 and up from Dell

Acer Aspire M5

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

The Aspire M5 was hardly the most upscale notebook we tested in 2012, but it offers some of the best performance for its price class. As one of the first machines to pack a GPU from NVIDIA's Kepler family, it remains one of the only Ultrabooks available with discrete graphics. At 0.81 inch thick and 4.3 pounds, it's fairly compact for a 14-inch machine, especially considering it makes room for a tray-loading optical drive. Display snobs won't appreciate the 1,366 x 768 resolution (nor the typical Acer build quality, for that matter), but at least the bezels are nice and narrow. Those quibbles aside, we think you'll enjoy this if you're looking for a lightweight machine that's reasonably priced and also a little more performance-oriented.

The bottom line: One of very few Ultrabooks with graphics good enough for gaming. And it's inexpensive, too!

Key specs: 1.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5-3317U CPU, 6GB of RAM, 500GB of internal storage with a 20GB SSD, Intel HD Graphics 4000 or NVIDIA GeForce GT640M LE (1GB), 14- or 15.6-inch (1,366 x 768) display.

Price: $600 and up

Performance powerhouses

Sometimes an Ultrabook just isn't good enough. Maybe you want discrete graphics for editing photos or chopping HD video. Maybe you're looking for a little more processing power, better speakers or -- gasp! -- an optical drive for burning the occasional Blu-ray. Whatever it is, we've got the selection narrowed down to five. (No promises on the BD-RW drive, though.)

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

We're not saying it's a practical choice, but damn if that Retina display isn't the most gorgeous laptop screen on the market right now. Though it's also available with a 13-inch (2,560 x 1,600) display, we prefer the 2,880 x 1,800 15-inch model, if only because of the configuration possibilities. Here, quad-core processors come standard, as does 256GB of storage. A higher-end model comes with a 512GB drive and you can even custom-order it with 768 gigs. The 15-inch model also has switchable graphics, with a 1GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M GPU on the discrete side. The 13-inch version is lovely too (and recently got a $200 price drop), but with dual-core processors, integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 and storage options starting at 128GB to 256GB, it's sort of like an expensive Ultrabook, just heavier with a nicer display. Then again, as impressive as the 15-incher is, we still might not have sold you, given how pricey it is and all. If money actually is an object, you might be almost as happy with a regular (read: non-Retina) MacBook Pro. Those start at $1,199.

The bottom line: It's the laptop we'd recommend to people who have all the money in the world (and who don't need a touchscreen or have already ruled out Windows machines).

Key specs: 13-inch: Up to a 3GHz dual-core Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, up to 768GB of internal storage, Intel HD Graphics 4000, 13.3-inch (2,560 x 1,600) display; 15-inch: Up to a 2.8GHz quad-core Core i7 CPU, 8GB to 16GB of RAM, up to 768GB of internal storage, Intel HD Graphics 4000 and NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M (1GB), 15.4-inch (2,880 x 1,800) display.

Price: $1,499 (13-inch) / $2,199 (15-inch) from Apple

Dell XPS 15

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

At some point, Dell's XPS 15 mainstream laptop got remodeled to look like the XPS 13 and 14 Ultrabooks. And that's a good thing: we've always enjoyed their comfortable keyboards and their premium design, which mixes sturdy metals and soft-touch finishes. One thing hasn't changed, though: this is still a fairly big-screen laptop with an emphasis on robust performance. In fact, short of upgrading to an Alienware gaming rig, you probably won't find a more powerful system in Dell's lineup. Highlights include an optional quad-core i7 processor, up to 16GB of RAM and your choice of NVIDIA GPU, with up to 2GB of video memory. Whichever configuration you choose, though, it comes standard with a 1080p display.

The bottom line: A well-designed, well-performing mainstream laptop with lots of configuration options.

Key specs: Up to a 2.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7-3632QM CPU, 6GB to 16GB of RAM, up to 1TB of internal storage with a 128GB SSD or a 512GB solid-state drive, NVIDIA GeForce GT 630M (1GB) or 640M (2GB), 15-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $1,300 and up from Dell

Samsung ATIV Book 8 (formerly known as the Series 7 Chronos)

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

If you recall, we were pretty sweet on last year's Series 7 Chronos lineup, so the new model looks quite tempting, to say the least. Available in 15- and 17.3-inch versions (the ATIV Book 6 and 8), it settles on 1080p brightness across the board, along with 300-nit brightness (yep, similar to the new full HD Series 9 Ultrabook). It's been slimmed down considerably -- so much so that it no longer has an optical drive. On the inside, it packs AMD's new Radeon HD 8870M GPU and RAMaccelerator technology that claims to increase browsing and general application speeds by up to 150 percent. Lest you get too overwhelmed, there's only one configuration on sale in the US, and that includes a 2.4GHz Intel Core i7 3635QM CPU, 8GB of RAM, 1TB of storage, a backlit keyboard, JBL speakers and a battery capable of lasting 11 hours on a charge (supposedly, at least).

The bottom line: One of the best performance laptops of 2012 gets made over with a slimmed-down design and top-of-the-line AMD graphics.

Key specs: ATIV Book 6: 2.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i7-3635QM CPU, 8GB of RAM, 1TB of internal storage, AMD Radeon HD 8870M (2GB), 15-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display; ATIV Book 8: 2.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 3635QM CPU, 8GB of RAM, 1TB of internal storage, AMD Radeon HD 8870M (2GB), 17.3-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display

Price: $1,200 from Best Buy (15-inch) / $1,300 from Samsung (17-inch)

Lenovo IdeaPad Y580

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

Though Lenovo bills the IdeaPad Y580 on its site as a "powerful gaming PC," it'd be more accurate to say it's a hearty laptop that happens to be well-equipped for gaming. Casual gaming, anyway. With a 15-inch, 1,366 x 768 display (a 1080p model is available), it's just fine for someone who wants an affordable notebook capable of photo editing, HD video encoding and maybe even a little SimCity. Despite the low MSRP ($799 and up), it comes with some heavy-duty specs, including a quad-core, 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-3630QM CPU, overclockable to 3.4GHz. Also on board is an NVIDIA GeForce GTX660M GPU with two gigs of video memory, and no less than 6GB of RAM.

The bottom line: A solid pick for people who want high-end performance for a mid-range price.

Key specs: Up to a 2.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i7-3630QM CPU, 6GB to 8GB of RAM, 750GB of internal storage, NVIDIA GeForce GTX660M (2GB), 15.6-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $799 and up from Lenovo

Sony VAIO S 15

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

Sony's always had a big-screened laptop fit for photo editing and HD movie playback, but it's undergone so many changes you might not know where to look for it on Sony's site anymore. Formerly known as the F series, it's now the S 15, and the screen has shrunk a bit from 16 inches to 15. In addition to the design (spare with clean lines), we appreciate how customizable it is, particularly compared to some of its competitors, which are only available in a handful of configurations, if that. In fact, prices on Sony's site range from $850 to $1,900, so in theory, there should be a little something for everybody.

The bottom line: Sony's most powerful laptop is attractively designed and highly configurable, too.

Key specs: Up to a 2.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7-3632QM, 4GB to 12GB of RAM, up to 1TB of internal storage or dual 128GB SSDs, Intel HD graphics 4000 or NVIDIA GeForce 640M LE (1GB or 2GB), 15.6-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $850 and up from Sony

Gaming systems

We know what you're going to say, dear readers: gaming laptops are overpriced, and it's better to just build your own desktop anyway. We don't necessarily disagree. If, however, you don't mind paying a premium, they're a good way to enjoy still-playable frame rates, even while on the go. Note: in case you're wondering why Alienware's not on here, it's because that whole series has grown long in the tooth after going several years without a major redesign. In terms of sheer performance, those laptops might still be our favorites, but at this point, you're probably better off holding out for something fresh if you're truly set on buying from that brand.

Razer Blade

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

The Razer Blade is fast, powerful and impossibly thin for a 17-inch laptop (just 0.88 inch thick and 6.6 pounds). It's also absurdly expensive, with a starting price of $2,500. So, clearly, you're not getting the best bang for your buck here, but if you insist on a lightweight form factor and strong performance and can only really compromise on price, this could be the thing for you. As ever, its touchpad doubles as a secondary LCD, which you can customize to do things like launch apps and switch profiles. We actually find that so-called Switchblade UI intriguing, but it admittedly needs work, and we wouldn't describe it as a top selling point anyway.

The bottom line: Though the Blade hardly offers the most power for your dollar, there isn't another gaming laptop out there that's this thin and this powerful.

Key specs: 2.2GHz Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, 500GB of internal storage with a 64GB SSD, NVIDIA GeForce 660M (2GB), 17.3-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $2,500 and up

Samsung Series 7 Gamer

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

Given that this was Samsung's first gaming laptop, you'd think the company would've made a few missteps in the design process. And while Sammy is indeed guilty of a few rookie mistakes (short battery life, middling audio quality), the Series 7 Gamer is still the best mid-range option available. Mostly, we're fond of the performance, which other machines in this category will struggle to match. The 1080p display is also a standout, mostly thanks to rich colors and a 400-nit brightness rating. Unsurprisingly, too -- given that this is Samsung we're talking about -- we also dig the (relatively) subtle design. We could do without the cheesy transition to Game Mode, but still, you'll never see us dock a machine for being too earnest.

The bottom line: While it doesn't check off quite every box, it hits the ones that count. The Series 7 Gamer might just be the best mid-range gaming machine available.

Key specs: 2.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7-3610QM CPU, 16GB of RAM, 1.5TB of internal storage with 8GB of ExpressCache, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 675M (2GB), 17.3-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $1,900 from Samsung

MSI GT70

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

The 17-inch MSI GT70 excels where you'd expect it to (graphics performance), and also in some areas you wouldn't -- namely, battery life. It lasts nearly three hours on a charge, which is about 40 minutes more than you can expect from the Samsung Series 7 Gamer. It also has an exceptional keyboard: sturdy, tactile and loaded up with customizable backlights. The one thing you should keep in mind is that the benefit of having a 1,920 x 1,080 display is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the viewing angles are so narrow.

The bottom line: Strong performance, a great keyboard and long battery life (for a gaming machine, anyway) make this worth a look.

Key specs: Up to a 2.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i7-3630QM CPU, 12GB to 16GB of RAM, up to 750GB of internal storage, NVIDIA Geforce GTX670M (3GB), 17.3-inch (1,9220 x 1,080) display.

Price: $1,400 and up from Amazon

Budget and mid-range notebooks

Toshiba Satellite U945

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

Remember when Ultrabooks priced at $700 seemed like a bargain? Yeah, well, try $600. The Toshiba Satellite U945 is currently one of the least expensive machines that's thin and well-specced enough to meet Intel's increasingly stringent Ultrabook specifications. For the money, you'll need to settle for a plastic chassis as opposed to a metal one, but on the inside, the specs match what you might have gotten for $900 just a year ago. That includes your choice of a Core i3 or i5 processor, with six to eight gigs of RAM and a 500GB hard drive paired with a 32GB SSD for faster boot-ups.

The bottom line: One of the least expensive Ultrabooks available right now, with specs that might've cost you $900 a year ago.

Key specs: Up to a 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i5-3337U CPU, 6GB to 8GB of RAM, 500GB of internal storage with a 32GB SSD, Intel HD 4000 graphics, 14-inch (1,366 x 768) display.

Price: $600 and up from Toshiba

Lenovo IdeaPad Z580

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

Take Lenovo's high-end performance Y series, lower the screen resolution, downgrade the graphics, and you've got a much more affordable (but still very capable) machine fit for families and students alike. Like some of the company's more premium machines the IdeaPad Y580 has Intel's Wireless Display technology, along with up to 8GB of RAM and 1TB of storage, plus an optional Blu-ray drive. We're also fans of the design, which includes a fingerprint-resistant metal lid and the same sturdy, well-spaced AccuType keyboard you'll find on some other Lenovo machines.

The bottom line: Not a graphical powerhouse, per se, but a solid multimedia machine nonetheless, especially at this price.

Key specs: Up to a 2.9GHz dual-core Core i7-3520M CPU, 4GB to 8GB of RAM, up to 1TB of internal storage, Intel HD 4000 graphics, 15.6-inch (1,366 x 768) display.

Price: $599 and up from Lenovo

Dell Inspiron 15R

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

Dell's long had a stronghold in the cheap laptop market, and if you're just starting to look for a new notebook now, your timing couldn't be better: the company recently refreshed its mainstream Inspiron 15R with a slimmer design and an optional touchscreen. The specs for the 15-inch version alone offer some nice variety (up to a Core i7 processor with 8GB of RAM and 1TB of storage), but there are also 14- and 17-inch versions for you to consider. As a heads up, the 14-inch version can also be configured with a touchscreen. The 17-incher is non-touch-only, sadly, but at least it steps up to 1,600 x 900 resolution (1,366 x 768 is standard on the two smaller machines).

The bottom line: If you're looking for an affordable mainstream laptop, you won't want to rule out Dell's recently revamped Inspiron R line with its wide offering of configurations and optional touchscreens.

Key specs: Up to a 2GHz dual-core Intel Core i7-3537U CPU, 6GB to 8GB of RAM, up to 1TB of internal storage, Intel HD 4000 graphics, 15.6-inch (1,366 x 768) display, optional touchscreen.

Price: $530 and up from Dell

Acer V5-171-6471

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

As a rule, most of the budget machines you'll find are either big and decently specced (see: Dell and HP's offerings) or small and underpowered (think: Chromebooks). The Acer V5-171-6471 (how's that for a name?) is an exception, though: it's a cheap 11-inch system whose Core i5 processor and 6GB of RAM make it powerful enough to use not just as a secondary travel laptop, but as a primary machine. Try and find something like it and you'll come up empty-handed. We should know: we've looked. Oh, and if you're not wed to the 11-inch form factor, Acer's V5 and slightly lower-end V3 series notebooks come in a variety of sizes, with too many spec variations for us to list here.

The bottom line: You'll be hard-pressed to find another small-screened laptop that's both this powerful and this inexpensive.

Key specs: 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i5-3337U processor, 6GB of RAM, 500GB of internal storage, Intel HD 4000 graphics, 11.6-inch (1,366 x 768) display.

Price: $530 from Amazon

Samsung Chromebook (2012)

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

It's taken a while, but we think we can finally start recommending Chromebooks to regular consumers. Not the Chromebook Pixel, mind you -- that's not a practical purchase for anyone -- but the cruder, less expensive variety. Specifically, Samsung's $249 Chromebook, which took a significant dip in price after Sammy moved from an Intel Celeron processor to a homegrown Exynos 5 Dual SoC, based on ARM's A15 chip. To be sure, you may suffer a slight performance hit as a result, but the new, lower-powered chip is still hearty enough to support everything Chromebooks were built for: namely email, web surfing, video streaming and some basic photo editing. Meanwhile, the comfortable keyboard and trackpad make it a pleasure to use -- something we can't say even about more expensive laptops.

The bottom line: With more bang for your buck than any other Chromebook, Samsung's offering is great if all you want is a cheap secondary laptop and would have spent all your time in the browser anyway.

Key specs: 1.7GHz dual-core Samsung Exynos 5 Dual (5250), 2GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage, integrated graphics, 11-inch (1,366 x 768) display.

Price: $249 from Amazon

HP Envy dv6

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

HP's 15-inch Envy dv6 is one of the most attractive mid-range laptops we've seen, with a recessed keyboard, soft-touch accents and some tasteful chrome trim ringing the keyboard. If you check out HP's site, it can be had with a quad-core processor and full HD screen (for $1,000, mind you), but if you require less power you could easily swap in AMD or Intel Core i3 innards and spend about half the price.

The bottom line: Good-looking with broad configuration options, the dv6 is an obvious contender among mainstream laptops.

Key specs: Up to a 2.4GHz quad-core i7-3630QM CPU, 6GB to 8GB of RAM, up to 750GB of internal storage, Intel HD 4000 or AMD Radeon HD graphics, 15.6-inch display (1,366 x 768 or 1,920 x 1,080).

Price: $530 and up from HP

ASUS K55 series

Engadget's laptop buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

ASUS' bestselling notebook starts at $399 with a quad-core AMD A8 chip, but goes all the way up to Core i7. (Even that costs a reasonable $679.) Even at the lowest end, it has an attractive aluminum chassis, which is a step up from the all-plastic construction you'll find on ASUS' X line (though keep that other family of products in mind if you want to spend as little as possible). If your budget is more mid-tier than bargain-basement, ASUS also sells the slimmer, more Ultrabook-like S46CA for $679, with the 15-inch S56CA going for $699.

The bottom line: ASUS' top-selling laptop comes in a wide variety of configurations, with price points to please almost everyone.

Key specs: Up to a 2.5GHz dual-core Core i5-3210M CPU, 4GB of RAM, up to 500GB of internal storage, Intel HD 4000 graphics, 15.6-inch (1,366 x 768) display.

Price: $400 and up from Best Buy