The best ultraportable laptops of 2018

A shortlist of our favorite thin and light laptops.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

When Steve Jobs first pulled the original MacBook Air out of a manilla envelope in 2008, the tech world dropped its collective jaw. A laptop that could fit in such a small package? Groundbreaking. With a three-pound weight and tapered silhouette that narrowed to just 0.16 inches at its thinnest point, the Air mesmerized reviewers. At $1,799, it was insanely expensive and its battery life was poor, but it was still lauded as a game changer.

These days, though, few can even remember that time: Almost every laptop we review at Engadget, save for gaming rigs, can be considered an ultraportable. But like Apple did with the optical disc drive on the original Air, companies have had to continue making trade-offs in the name of weight savings. Before you buy your next laptop, it's important to be aware of the compromises you're likely to make.

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What to expect

Ultraportable notebooks used to have to adhere to Intel's now-outdated size and weight criteria for Ultrabooks — a marketing term it coined for thin and light laptops. Nowadays, compact, lightweight computers are so common that the term "Ultrabook" (and its requirements) have become obsolete. At this point, there's no real agreed-on standard for what constitutes an ultraportable; it's evolved into a subjective term.

That said, you'll find ultraportable laptops in a variety of screen sizes: They don't all have to be dainty 12-inch or 13-inch things. Even 14- or 15-inch devices cut striking profiles, measuring less than 23mm thick. Battery life is also important to consider. What's the point of a lightweight laptop if you have to lug around a charger and cable or stay close to an outlet? Thankfully, most ultraportables (including all of our suggestions) last at least eight hours on a charge, meaning most people should be able to get through a typical workday.

In their effort to squeeze large batteries and powerful processors into increasingly thin, compact enclosures, companies have had to sacrifice other features. Most often, this results in a dearth of ports (sometimes just one or two USB-C ports and a microSD card reader if you're lucky), so you'll have to get used to dongle life. Some laptop makers keep their products skinny by settling for keyboards with barely any travel while others slim down the bezels only to move the webcam to an awkward location, like right below the screen or tucked into the keyboard.

These devices are generally priced toward the high end, typically starting at around $1,000. But for those who are frequently on the go and don't mind paying a premium, this shortlist should help simplify your next laptop-buying decision.

The best ultraportable laptops

Dell XPS 13 (2018)

Buy from Dell

Dell's XPS 13 is the gold standard in ultraportables, thanks to its reliable performance, long battery life, comfortable keyboard and gorgeous screen. It has consistently ranked on Engadget's and other reviewers' short lists since it debuted in 2015, and the newest model is no exception. The 2018 edition packs all those features in a compact 13-inch, 2.7-pound body while adding HDR support, a revamped heat-management system and a new stain-resistant white finish for those who want a lighter color.

The 4K unit we tested doesn't last as long on a charge as the Surface Laptop, the latest Surface Pro or the 2018 13-inch MacBook Pro, but opting for a lower-res screen will surely get you more battery life. Either way, you'll still enjoy at least nine hours of juice — plenty for a workday. Plus, the XPS 13's responsive keyboard is a joy to type on; it's even more comfortable than what you'll find on the Surface line.

Dell also moved the webcam from the side to the middle on this year's model, but it still sits below the screen, which makes for some unflattering angles during conference calls. If that's not a deal breaker, though, the XPS 13 will serve you well. And with a starting price of $1,000, this is one of the cheaper laptops on our list.

Apple MacBook Air (2018)

Buy from Apple

Apple changed the way laptops look with the original MacBook Air — something its competitors have since copied to death — but in recent years the MacBook's design hasn't changed much. That's not a bad thing though: We still dig its tapered profile and compact build, which now comes in at 2.75 pounds (down from 2.96 on the last generation).

Plus, the Air finally has a Retina display, which makes Netflixing and spreadsheet work much more pleasant. The new Air ($1,199-plus) also now has a Touch ID sensor; a quieter keyboard; louder, bassier speakers; a large Force Touch trackpad; and an eighth-generation Intel Core i5 processor (albeit one from its lower-powered Y series). Though that's hardly the most powerful CPU in Intel's lineup, it should still be more than enough power for mainstream use.

If you do indeed crave more power for the money, consider the three-pound 13-inch MacBook Pro ($1,299-plus), which uses higher-clocked chips (with quad-core processors standard on the Touch Bar Pro) and is offered with a Core i7 option even on the lower-specced non-Touch Bar SKUs. If you step up to the Pro, you'll also get additional benefits like a True Tone display, a wider color gamut, more-robust graphics and two additional Thunderbolt 3 ports. And also that Touch Bar, though we're not convinced that counts as a benefit as much as a gimmick.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 2

Buy from Amazon

Microsoft's first traditional laptop was a thing of beauty. Its lightweight, minimalist design and unique microfiber-covered keyboard made it one of the best-looking notebooks around. Then the company unveiled the Surface Laptop 2, which comes in a stunning all-black finish — our favorite of the four available color options.

Beyond mere aesthetics, the laptop's keyboard and touchpad are responsive, and the bright, bold 13.5-inch display is easy to read in sunlight, despite some glare. It offers a single USB-A 3.0 socket alongside a Mini DisplayPort and headphone jack — not a bad selection, but no USB-C. Despite using an inconvenient proprietary charging socket instead of USB-C, the Surface Laptop 2's reliable performance and epic battery life make it a compelling proposition.

If you want something even more portable, consider the Surface Pro 6 ($899-plus), which also comes in that gorgeous matte-black option. It's more of a tablet with a keyboard attachment than a laptop, but then again, that's the form factor for many ultraportables these days. With improved performance and battery life, a cushy keyboard and a brilliant display, the Pro 6 presents a solid alternative. It lasts longer than the original Laptop, which hit an impressive 14 hours and 49 minutes on our test. Keep in mind, though, you'll have to shell out an extra $130 for the keyboard cover and $100 for the stylus, bumping up its overall cost to about $1,130.

Huawei MateBook X

Buy from Amazon

At first glance the 2.31-pound MateBook X is virtually indistinguishable from the 12-inch MacBook, which is to say it's just as pretty and almost as portable. But Huawei's laptop offers a few advantages over Apple's, namely a second USB-C port; a slightly larger, 13-inch screen; and a comfier keyboard. You might still need to carry a dongle, but at least Huawei includes a dock that offers ports for USB-A, USB-C, HDMI and VGA (because it's so popular nowadays?). The MateBook X also has a fingerprint sensor built into its power button, not unlike the MacBook Air and Pro. With performance and battery life that's otherwise comparable to the 12-inch MacBook, the MateBook is a capable Windows alternative at a comparable price.

If you want a larger, brighter screen, more power and better speakers, consider the MateBook X Pro. It's a 14-inch device with a 3K touchscreen and Dolby Atmos-enhanced speakers, which allow for some immersive movie watching. The keyboard is comfortable, though it's sort of weird that it hides the laptop's webcam where the F6 key would normally be. It pops up only when you push it, and it stows away under the deck, so you can rest assured that even if malicious hackers access it, all they'll be seeing is the darkness inside your laptop. (The trade-off there would be potentially awkward camera angles during video calls.)

Impressively, Huawei managed to pack all these features into a body whose footprint is only slightly larger than the standard MateBook X.

Image: Corbis via Getty Images (Steve Jobs)