Engadget's laptop buyer's guide: fall 2013 edition

We're not sure how many of you will be lucky enough to receive a spanking new notebook for the holidays, but just in case you've got one on your list (or are shopping for someone else), we've got a newly updated laptop buyer's guide full of suggestions. Whether it's a convertible Ultrabook you're looking for, or a regular Ultrabook, or maybe a gaming machine, we're here to be of service.

Convertibles

When Windows 8 first came out, PC makers were experimenting with all sorts of inventive designs in an effort to figure out what consumers actually wanted. In those early months, we saw laptops whose screens could rotate, pop out, detach and fold over. Others had a sliding design, and one even attempted two screens. The results were mixed -- so mixed, in fact, that our last two laptop buyer's guides have had just two recommendations in the convertible category. Now that these companies have had a chance to go back to the drawing board and start shipping some 2.0 products, we're starting to see more form factors we'd actually want to use.

Dell XPS 12

DNP Engadget's laptop buyer's guide fall 2013 edition

The Dell XPS 12 has always been on this list, so you can bet we have effusive things to say now that it's been upgraded with Haswell, NFC and a larger battery (50Wh, up from 47Wh). All told, between the beefier battery and new chipset, Dell is promising this thing will last 9.5 hours on a charge -- more than three hours longer than the OG model. Otherwise, it's the same machine it always was, with a 12.5-inch, 1080p screen that flips around in its hinge so that you can show off presentations and stuff to people sitting opposite you. It might not be quite as versatile as the Yoga, but we love it anyway for its solid build quality, attractive design and unusually cushy keyboard. After all, if you can't enjoy one of these convertibles in regular notebook mode, why even bother?

The bottom line: Even if you rarely use it in tablet mode, the XPS 12 makes an excellent Ultrabook, especially now that Dell's refreshed it with Haswell and a bigger battery.

Key specs: Up to a 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i7-4500U CPU, 4GB to 8GB of RAM, up to 256GB of internal storage, Intel HD Graphics 4400, 12.5-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $1,200 and up from Dell

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2 Pro

DNP Engadget's laptop buyer's guide fall 2013 edition

Even back when we included just two convertibles on this list, the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 was always one of them. Though lots of companies make missteps with their first-gen products, Lenovo won us over right away with the Yoga, whose screen could fold all the way back into tablet mode. Over time, though, as rival companies began upgrading their wares, the original Yoga started to seem stale. Well, just in the nick of time, Lenovo gave it a makeover. The new version, the Yoga 2 Pro, comes standard with a 3,200 x 1,800 screen, making it one of the crispest you'll find on a 13-inch Ultrabook. It also comes in a thinner, lighter package, and runs on Haswell processors for faster performance and longer battery life. Best of all: The price is low compared to other premium Ultrabooks. We'll be posting a review soon, so you might want to wait and see how this guy fares in real-world testing. Besides, Lenovo also has the ThinkPad Yoga, whose keyboard flattens out as you flip the screen over. That's not even on sale yet, so that's yet another reason you might want to wait.

The bottom line: The most versatile Windows convertible is back with a slimmer, lighter design, sharper screen and longer battery life.

Key specs: Up to a 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i7-4500U CPU, 4GB or 8GB of RAM, 128GB to 512GB of internal storage, Intel HD Graphics 4400, 13.3-inch (3,200 x 1,800) display.

Price: $1,049 and up from Lenovo

Sony VAIO Duo 13

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Remember we said some companies made missteps their first time out? We give you Sony. The VAIO Duo 11 didn't make our original list. In fact, no slider Ultrabooks did. The propped-up display eats up too much of the potential keyboard space, we said, leading to a compromised typing experience. The Duo 11, in particular, also suffered from short battery life and an ugly hinge design that left too many of the mechanical bits exposed. Fortunately, Sony went back to the drawing board and returned with a much-improved follow-up, the VAIO Duo 13. With its "Surf Slider" hinge, the Duo is now much easier to open with one hand, and the back side has been cleaned up as well. Interestingly, though this rocks a larger 13.3-inch screen, the dimensions are about the same, and the weight is only slightly heavier. The secret? Thinner bezels to maximize screen real estate. But wait, we're not done yet: There's now a clip to hold the included pressure-sensitive pen. The keyboard, meanwhile, is more comfortable this time around, even if the touchpad is a bit cramped. And the battery life is much longer too, thanks to a fresh Haswell processor.

The bottom line: Sony got the slider design right on its second try, thanks to a completely revamped hinge, a more spacious keyboard and longer battery life.

Key specs: Up to a 1.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i7-4650U CPU, 4GB to 8GB of RAM, 128GB to 512GB of internal storage, up to Intel HD Graphics 5000, 13.3-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $1,400 and up from Sony

High-end notebooks

Just because every PC maker is experimenting with some strange, convertible form factor, doesn't mean regular, old notebooks are going the way of the dodo. In fact, most of the laptops we've seen this season are standard notebooks, many with touchscreens attached (at least in the case of Windows machines). In fact, with the exception of the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro, Dell XPS 12 and Sony VAIO Duo 13, all of the high-end systems on our list actually do hew to this design. Find our favorites below.

Acer Aspire S7-392

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If there's one theme coursing through this guide, it's that Intel's new Haswell processors have transformed laptops with poor battery life, and turned them into lean, mean, all-day machines. That couldn't be truer of the Acer Aspire S7, which came out last year to mostly rave reviews. Well, raving about everything except the runtime, which topped out at around four hours. Recently, though, Acer refreshed its 13-inch flagship Ultrabook with Intel's fourth-generation processors, and is now promising up to seven hours of juice (we got seven and a half). Aside from that very important under-the-hood change, Acer didn't alter the design much; the keyboard layout is similar, as is that white Gorilla Glass lid. Also, while the display option in the US is still a 1080p IPS panel, other markets, especially some European countries, will get the choice of a 2,560 x 1,440 screen. No fair, we say.

The bottom line: The new S7 addresses all the shortcomings of last year's model, and is now one of our favorite Ultrabooks.

Key specs: Up to a 1.8GHz dual-core Core i7-4500U CPU, 8GB of RAM, 128GB to 256GB of internal storage, Intel HD Graphics 4400, 13.3-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $1,400 from Acer

Apple MacBook Air

DNP Engadget's laptop buyer's guide fall 2013 edition

Apple's latest MacBook Airs look just like the ones that came out last year, but they still bring some meaningful improvements. In particular, they come complete with Haswell processors and the promise of much longer battery life (up to nine hours on the 11-inch model, and up to 12 on the 13-inch version). And remember, Apple has a tendency to make conservative battery life claims -- in fact, we got nearly 13 hours on the 13-inch model when we took it for a spin. Meanwhile, Apple also switched to faster PCIe SSDs, which yield much faster I/O speeds. On top of all that, Apple dropped the starting price of the 13-inch model by $100, making it that much easier for us to recommend. The only thing you might want to keep in mind is that the new Retina display MacBook Pro offers similar battery life and doesn't weigh that much more, so you might be tempted to get that instead if you want a sharper screen and don't mind a little extra heft.

The bottom line: No, there's still no super-sharp Retina display, but the unbelievably long battery life more than makes up for it.

Key specs: 11-inch model: up to a 1.7GHz dual-core Core i7 CPU, 4GB to 8GB of RAM, 128GB to 512GB of internal storage, Intel HD Graphics 5000, 11.6-inch (1,366 x 768) display; 13-inch model: up to a 1.7GHz dual-core Core i7 CPU, 4GB to 8GB of RAM, 128GB to 512GB of internal storage, Intel HD Graphics 5000, 13.3-inch (1,440 x 900) display.

Price: $999 and up (11-inch)/$1,099 and up (13-inch) from Apple

HP Spectre 13 Ultrabook

DNP Engadget's laptop buyer's guide fall 2013 edition

It's been a while since we've featured an HP Ultrabook in our laptop buyer's guide -- about seven months, in fact. It's an old story, really: HP took its time refreshing its line with new designs and fresh processors, and we were loath to recommend something that was about to become obsolete. Well, we're glad we waited. HP recently announced the Spectre 13 Ultrabook, and it's better than its predecessor in almost every way. In addition to running Haswell Core i5 and i7 processors, it's available with a 2,560 x 1,440 display for an extra $70 -- a first for HP. Additionally, it has an extra-wide touchpad with "Control Zones" on the sides that give you tactile feedback as you're doing things like exposing the Charms Bar or swiping in from the left to cycle through open apps.

The bottom line: The Spectre 13 remains one of the few Ultrabooks available in the US with a screen sharper than 1080p.

Key specs: Up to a 1.8GHz dual-core Core i7-4500U CPU, 4GB or 8GB of RAM, up to 256GB of internal storage, Intel HD 4400 Graphics, 13.3-inch (1,920 x 1,080 or 2,560 x 1,440) display.

Price: $1,000 and up from HP

Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus

DNP Engadget's laptop buyer's guide fall 2013 edition

Samsung went a long time without refreshing its Series 9 Ultrabook, save for adding a 1080p screen option earlier this year. Finally, though, the company announced a proper replacement, the ATIV Book 9 Plus. Though it's similar in design to the aluminum version that came out last year, this steps up to a much sharper screen -- a 13.3-inch, 3,200 x 1,800 panel with enough pixel density to surpass even the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. On the inside, it makes use of Haswell processors, solid-state storage and a battery rated for 12 hours of runtime (we managed nearly nine hours in our video rundown test). The only unfortunate thing is that thanks to the added touchscreen, the ATIV Book 9 Plus is heavier than it used to be: 3.06 pounds versus 2.55. Make no mistake, it's still plenty portable; but there are even lighter touchscreen Ultrabooks out there.

The bottom line: One of our favorite Ultrabooks from 2012 gets refreshed with an eye-melting 3,200 x 1,800 display and a more robust battery.

Key specs: Up to a 1.8GHz dual-core Core i7-4500U CPU, 4GB or 8GB of RAM, up to 256GB of internal storage, Intel HD Graphics 4400, 13.3-inch (3,200 x 1,800) display.

Price: $1,400 and up from Samsung

Sony VAIO Pro 13

DNP Engadget's laptop buyer's guide fall 2013 edition

Sony broke a lot of hearts when it discontinued its super-thin, super-light Z series. Fortunately for VAIO fans, though, the company recently came out with the Pro 13, a 2.34-pound, carbon fiber machine that's the spiritual successor to the ol' Z. Sony says it's the lightest touchscreen Ultrabook of this size, which sounds about right to us: This thing feels utterly insubstantial in the hand. In addition to that featherweight design, the Pro 13 offers PCIe SSDs, a 1080p display with wide viewing angles, a backlit keyboard and built-in NFC. Battery life is rated at seven hours (thanks, Haswell!), but you can double that with an external sheet battery (another nice carryover from Sony's older machines). Most importantly, though, Sony slashed the starting price of the 13 to $1,250, down from around two grand. There's also a less-expensive 11-inch version, the Pro 11, but the keyboard is a tad cramped, and you won't get those fast PCIe SSDs (just regular solid-state drives).

The bottom line: Sony's discontinued Z series laptop gets a new life with the Pro lineup, which offers great battery life, crisp displays and a much more reasonable starting price.

Key specs: Up to a 1.8GHz dual-core Core i7-4500U CPU, 4GB to 8GB of RAM, 128GB to 512GB of internal storage, Intel HD Graphics 4400, 13.3-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $1,250 and up from Sony

Mid-range

Acer M5-583P-6428

DNP Engadget's laptop buyer's guide fall 2013 edition

OK, it's technically not the cheapest Haswell system Acer has to offer (that would be the $580 E1-572-6870), but it is the cheapest one that comes with both a fourth-generation Core processor and a touchscreen. Be warned that Acer had to cut corners in some areas to make that price point; the build quality is fairly mediocre, and you'll have to make do with a spinning hard drive. That said, we appreciated the narrow bezels on last year's M5, and we have a feeling the battery life will be more impressive this time around too.

The bottom line: Acer's cheapest Haswell laptop with a touchscreen offers decent specs for the price.

Key specs: 1.6GHz dual-core Core i5-4200U CPU, 8GB of RAM, 500GB of internal storage, Intel HD 4400 Graphics, 15.6-inch (1,366 x 768) display.

Price: $700 from Best Buy

HP Envy TouchSmart 15t-j100

DNP Engadget's laptop buyer's guide fall 2013 edition

HP's 15-inch, mid-range laptop (once called the dv6) has received a makeover for 2013, with an aluminum chassis, backlit keyboard and a touchscreen with up to 1080p resolution (1,366 x 768 is the standard). Now called the Envy TouchSmart 15, it's available with an AMD processor at the low end, and a quad-core Intel Core i7 processor at the high end. For our purposes, though, we're recommending the in-between option, a $750 model that comes with a dual-core Core i5 CPU. As a performance machine, it comes standard with speakers and a subwoofer for your audio needs, and can be configured with up to a 4GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M GPU.

The bottom line: A great pick for mid-range budgets, with enough flexibility that you can turn it into a performance powerhouse.

Key specs: Up to a 2.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7-4702MQ CPU, 6GB to 16GB of RAM, up to 1TB of internal storage, up to a 4GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M GPU, 15.6-inch (1,366 x 768 or 1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $750 and up from HP

Lenovo IdeaPad U430 Touch

DNP Engadget's laptop buyer's guide fall 2013 edition

There's a reason we chose to give away the Lenovo IdeaPad U430 Touch in our back-to-school sweepstakes: It's a great thin-and-light laptop at a great price. We've actually been testing it here in our labs (review coming soon) and have found that in addition to offering a sleek, premium-looking design, it performs better than many other laptops in the same price range. It even manages to offer the same sort of battery life you'd expect from an Ultrabook, and that's despite the fact that it has a spinning hard drive instead of a more power-efficient SSD. Ready for the clincher? It has a fairly sharp 1,600 x 900 display -- not bad for a machine at this price.

The bottom line: An incredible value for a sub-$700 laptop.

Key specs: 1.6GHz dual-core Core i5-4200U CPU, 4GB of RAM, 500GB of internal storage, Intel HD 4400 Graphics, 14-inch (1,600 x 900) display.

Price: $680 from Best Buy

Toshiba Satellite P50

DNP Engadget's laptop buyer's guide fall 2013 edition

As you might have gathered looking at this list, though Intel formally announced its Haswell processors back in June, some companies have been a little slow in getting their upgraded systems to market. In fact, some mid-range machines still rock Ivy Bridge (we've since cut them off this list, which is why you won't see Sony's VAIO Fit line, for example). Not Toshiba's, though: The company recently unveiled a whole line of back-to-school systems, big and small. Of the bunch, the 15-inch P50 (that's P for "premium") hits the sweet spot for us, with a nice mix of higher-end design elements and robust performance. With this year's models, Toshiba's made the aluminum chassis up to 25 percent thinner. It's also added features like an optional touchscreen and an HDMI 1.4 port for 4K output (should you actually have some compatible content). Rounding out the list, Toshiba included Sleep and Charge/Sleep and Music ports as well as Harman Kardon speakers with DTS sound -- pretty much what we've already come to expect from Toshiba's high-end machines.

The bottom line: Toshiba's P series is as feature-rich as ever, except now it's significantly thinner.

Key specs: Up to a 2.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i7-4700MQ CPU, 12GB of RAM, up to 1TB of internal storage with an 8GB SSD, up to a 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 740M GPU, 15.6-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $700 and up from Toshiba

Budget
ASUS VivoBook X202E-DH31T

DNP Engadget's laptop buyer's guide fall 2013 edition

We can't promise this is a top performer -- in fact, with a Core i3 Ivy Bridge processor and spinning hard drive, it's almost certainly not -- but we don't know of another touchscreen laptop that costs so little. Scratch that -- our budget section has actually grown to include more touchscreen models -- but most don't have a processor this relatively powerful. In any case, so long as you can accept this isn't as fast as a $700 system, the X202E is probably your best bet if you want a cheap touchscreen Windows 8 laptop with enough oomph to be your main machine.

The bottom line: Even after all this time, we're still hard-pressed to think of another touchscreen laptop with halfway decent specs and this low a price.

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: $479 from Amazon

Samsung Chromebook (2012)

DNP Engadget's laptop buyer's guide fall 2013 edition

It's taken a while, but we think we can finally start recommending Chromebooks to regular consumers. Not the Chromebook Pixel, necessarily -- that's not a practical purchase for anyone -- but the cruder, less expensive variety. Specifically, Samsung's $249 Chromebook, which got a significant price cut after Sammy moved from an Intel Celeron processor to a homegrown Exynos 5 Dual SoC, based on ARM's Cortex-A15 chip. To be sure, you may suffer a slight performance hit as a result, but this new, lower-powered chip is still hearty enough to support everything Chromebooks were built for: namely email, web surfing and video streaming. Meanwhile, the comfortable keyboard and trackpad make it a pleasure to use -- something we can't even say about many more expensive laptops. Best of all, the battery lasts six and a half hours. Sure, it's no Ultrabook, but it's pretty good for a Chromebook, which is precisely why we'd still recommend this over newer models like the $279 HP Chromebook 11 or the pricier HP Chromebook 14, which has Haswell.

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: $243 from Amazon

Dell Inspiron 15R

DNP Engadget's laptop buyer's guide fall 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 Haswell processors. The specs for the 15-incher offer some nice variety (up to a Core i7 processor with 8GB of RAM and 1TB of storage), and we also dig the slimmed-down chassis, which takes design cues from Dell's higher-end systems. And if the screen size isn't quite right, there are also 14- and 17-inch versions for you to consider. As a heads-up, the 14- and 15-inch models can be configured with touchscreens, but the 17-incher is non-touch-only. On the other hand, the 17R has 1,600 x 900 resolution, whereas 1,366 x 768 is standard on the two smaller machines.

The bottom line: If you're looking for an affordable mainstream laptop, you'll want to take a look at Dell's recently revamped Inspiron R line with its wide offering of configurations and optional touchscreens.

Key specs: Up to a 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i7-4500U CPU, 6GB to 16GB of RAM, up to 1TB of internal storage, Intel HD 4400 graphics, 15.6-inch (1,366 x 768) display, optional touchscreen.

Price: $600 and up from Dell

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 three. (No promises on the BD-RW drive, though.)

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display

DNP Engadget's laptop buyer's guide fall 2013 edition

We've always liked Apple's Retina display MacBook Pros, but we could never recommend them without a caveat: They were good (really good), but only if you could afford them. This year, it's a little easier to suggest them -- especially the 13-inch model, which has seen a $400 price drop (the 15-incher is cheaper too, but only by $200). The 13-incher in particular is now closer than ever to the 13-inch MacBook Air in both weight and thickness, with just half a pound between them. And thanks to a new Haswell processor too, the battery life is also fairly similar; we got over 11 hours of runtime in our battery rundown test, compared with nearly 13 for the Air. All told, you'll be faced with a difficult choice: Buy the MacBook Pro for its stronger graphics or get the Air for its lighter weight and slightly longer battery life? It all depends on your priorities.

The bottom line: Apple's Retina display MacBook Pros are easier to recommend now that the prices have dropped, and now that the battery life has taken a huge leap.

Key specs: 13-inch: Up to a 2.8GHz dual-core Core i7 processor, 4GB to 16GB of RAM, up to 1TB of internal storage, Intel Iris graphics, 13.3-inch (2,560 x 1,600) display; 15-inch: Up to a 2.6GHz quad-core Core i7 CPU, 8GB to 16GB of RAM, up to 1TB of internal storage, Intel Iris Pro graphics or a 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M GPU, 15.4-inch (2,880 x 1,800) display.

Price: $1,299 and up (13-inch)/$1,999 and up (15-inch) from Apple

Dell XPS 15

DNP Engadget's laptop buyer's guide fall 2013 edition

The Dell XPS 15 fell off our shortlist for the summer buyer's guide just because it was getting long in the tooth and hadn't yet been updated with Haswell. Since, then, though Dell has come out with a redesigned model, complete with fourth-generation Intel processors and a 3,200 x 1,800 screen option. So with that, it's returned to our laptop buyer's guide with a vengeance. If you check out Dell's site, you'll see it's available in two configurations, with the higher-end $1,999 model matching the 15-inch Retina display MacBook Pro spec-for-spec in nearly every case (weight, screen quality, graphics, et cetera).

The bottom line: Windows users who always wanted a machine as light and powerful as the Retina display MacBook Pro with just as sharp a screen now have a solid option in the new Dell XPS 15.

Key specs: Up to a 2.2GHz quad-core Core i7-4702HQ CPU, 8GB or 16GB of RAM, up to 1TB of internal storage with a 32GB SSD, Intel HD 4400 graphics or a 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M GPU, 15.6-inch (1,920 x 1,080 or 3,200 x 1,800) display.

Price: $1,500 and up from Dell

Lenovo IdeaPad Y510p

DNP Engadget's laptop buyer's guide fall 2013 edition

When the IdeaPad Y510p came out, Lenovo was quick to clarify it's not a gaming laptop, per se. Instead, the company would rather you think of it as more of an all-around multimedia machine, the sort of thing you'd use to edit full HD video or batch-edit lots of photos. And while we would indeed recommend this to anyone planning on doing serious editing, we'd also suggest gamers take a look: The system comes standard with a 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M GPU, and almost every configuration sold has a 1080p display to match. Even design-wise, it straddles the line: The red backlit keyboard suggests this is a gamer's machine, regardless of what Lenovo says, but thanks to an otherwise simple chassis, it's still restrained enough that you can use it in public.

The bottom line: Powerful enough for a gamer, but discreet-looking enough for everybody else.

Key specs: Up to a 2.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i7-4700MQ CPU, 8GB to 16GB of RAM, 1TB of internal storage with an optional 24GB SSD, up to a 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 755M GPU with optional Ultrabay SLI graphics, 15.6-inch (1,366 x 786 or 1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $1,099 and up from Lenovo

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.

Razer Blade (2013)

DNP Engadget's laptop buyer's guide fall 2013 edition

After wowing us with its 17-inch, absurdly thin Razer Blade laptop, Razer is back with a 14-inch model (yep, also called the Razer Blade). Like its big brother, now called the Razer Blade Pro, it costs a pretty penny, with a starting price of $1,800. As before, then, you're not getting the best bang for your buck, 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. What's interesting is that Razer got rid of its Switchblade UI -- that secondary LCD that doubled as a touchpad -- a move that allowed the company to achieve the smaller, thinner laptop we have here. All told, rock-solid build quality, fast performance and surprisingly long battery life make it a good pick for on-the-go gamers, but for the money, we wish it had a higher-res screen.

The bottom line: Razer expanded its gaming lineup to include a smaller, 14-inch model. It's as thin and powerful as you'd expect, but it's about as expensive too.

Key specs: 2.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7-4702HQ CPU, 8GB of RAM, 128GB to 512GB of internal storage, Intel HD Graphics 4600/2GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 765M GPU, 14-inch (1,600 x 900) display.

Price: $1,800 and up from Razer

Alienware 17

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After years of just simple CPU refreshes, Dell finally unveiled an entirely redesigned line of gaming notebooks, with screen sizes ranging from 14 to 18 inches. For the purposes of this guide, we're focusing on the in-between-sized one, the Alienware 17, but really, we'd recommend any of them, with the caveat that the specs (especially screen quality) improve as you go up in size. Whichever you choose, Dell has retired the old plastic chassis and switched to a metal one, replete with a magnesium lid and aluminum body. These new systems also have even more customizable LED lights than before: Not only are there multiple keyboard zones, but the touchpad also fully lights up, and you can change the color of that glowing alien head on the lid. Rounding out the design changes, Dell gave the keyboard more depth, moved the vents to the back edge where they're not in the way and introduced Klipsch speakers across the board.

The bottom line: The biggest name in gaming laptops recently came out with a line of brand-new models. If you trust the Alienware brand, this couldn't be a better time to take a look.

Key specs: Up to a 3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7-4930MX CPU, 8GB to 32GB of RAM, up to 1.5TB of internal storage, up to a 4GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780M GPU, 17.3-inch (1,600 x 900 or 1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $1,499 and up from Dell

MSI GT70

DNP Engadget's laptop buyer's guide fall 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. Even with last year's chips, it lasts nearly three hours on a charge, but with a new Haswell processor, you can expect runtime in the four-and-a-half-hour range. Performance aside, 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. Oh, and if you want something smaller, MSI is now selling the 14-inch GE40; it's reasonably priced, at $1,300, but it's not as configurable as, say, the Alienware 14.

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

Key specs: 2.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i7-4700MQ CPU, 8GB to 32GB of RAM, up to 1TB of internal storage or up to three 128GB SSDs, up to a 4GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780M GPU, 17.3-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $1,500 and up from MSI

ASUS G750

DNP Engadget's laptop buyer's guide fall 2013 edition

If you're looking for a Haswell-powered gaming notebook, we'd advise you not to count out ASUS and its Republic of Gamers line. Its refreshed 17-inch G750 laptop, available in two configurations, packs a 2.4GHz quad-core processor similar to what you'll find on competing models, like the MSI GT70 detailed above. For the money, though, it starts with more RAM, and has a lovely design defined by brushed-metal surfaces. Additionally, ASUS has added an amplifier inside the headphone socket, so you should expect better in-game audio with this generation.

The bottom line: ASUS' 17-inch gaming machine is back with a new processor, fresh graphics and improved audio quality -- something the notebook wasn't known for in previous generations.

Key specs: 2.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i7-4700HQ CPU, 12GB to 32GB of RAM, up to 1TB of internal storage with an optional 512GB SSD, up to a 4GB NVIDIA GTX 780M GPU, 17.3-inch (1,600 x 900 or 1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $1,283 and up from Amazon

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Engadget's laptop buyer's guide: fall 2013 edition