We're more than seven full months into 2014, and with back-to-school shopping season underway and the holidays looming, it's a perfect time to take stock of the year in laptops thus far.
We've seen some impressive gaming rigs, super-thin Ultrabooks, tons of clamshells with touchscreens, high-resolution everything, the rise of Haswell-class Core chips, and a surprising uptick in Chromebooks--although no Google-powered machines made it into this top list.
Expect a few more surprises from laptop makers as we approach the end of the year, but here's a look at what's impressed us the most so far. While all the laptops mentioned below are based on the review configurations we received from the manufacturers, most are available in more budget-friendly (and over-the-top expensive) versions.
NOTE: All prices are in US dollars.
Dell Latitude E7440 Ultrabook
Price as reviewed: $1,=340
Kicking off this mid-year laptop rundown is one of several no-nonsense business-focused Ultrabooks. The Dell Latitude E7440's bland aesthetic won't drop jaws the way some of the more stylish Ultrabooks will, but other than that it checks all the boxes: a 14-inch 1080p display with a Gorilla Glass touchscreen, a fast 256GB SSD paired with Core i5 processor and 4GB of RAM, yada yada yada.
The inclusion of the more potent Pro version of Windows 8.1 is a nice touch, but for anyone who spends a lot of time on their laptop, the real star is the Latitude E7440's comfortable keyboard and responsive touchpad. Ergonomics are everything in a business machine.
Alienware 17 (2014 edition)
Price as reviewed: $2968
There's really only one word to describe the latest Alienware 17-inch gaming monster: impressive. This 9.4 pound gaming laptop is as (relatively) sleek as it is responsive with its anodized aluminum and magnesium alloy chassis and 10-zone lighting system. Dip inside and you've got a screaming fast Intel Core i7 processor, a GeForce GTX 880M graphics card with 8GB of dedicated memory, 16GB of system RAM, a 256GB SSD boot drive, and 1TB HDD.
No, gaming won't be a problem on this fire-breathing beast, though its battery life stinks and its keyboard and trackpad are mediocre at best. Nevertheless, the 2014 Alienware 17 is one of the best gaming laptops PCWorld has ever tested.
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook
Price as reviewed: $1609
I'll admit I've got a soft spot for Lenovo's laptops, but who could say no to this Ultrabook? Like Dell's Latitude, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon won't win any prizes for style, as the general design of the ThinkPad line is one of the constants of the laptop universe. But there's a lot to like here, from a 14-inch IPS touchscreen with 2560-by-1440 resolution to an oh-so-thin-and-light build to its solid, speedy performance.
The X1 Carbon also has some neat extra features, like a touch-based adaptive function row on its keyboard that changes based on the application you're using. PC traditionalists may find that Lenovo went too far with its keyboard experimentation, however, by dumping the caps lock key and requiring key combinations for scroll lock, break, pause, and insert. But hey: The basic feel of the X1 Carbon's keyboard, touchpad, and pointing stick are just as blissful as ever, despite its new take on ThinkPad ergonomics. (Ignore the gimmicky voice and gesture controls, though.)
Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook
Price as reviewed: $1299
The XPS 13's Core 15 processor, 128GB SSD, and the Intel integrated graphics are par for the (admittedly speedy) Ultrabook course these days--but there are many other things that set Dell's laptop apart from the competition.
For starters it's got 8GB RAM, where most laptops in its class have 4. You also get a vibrant 1080p touch display and a solid, but thin-and-light chassis sporting a blend of aluminum, magnesium, and carbon fiber. It doesn't have amazing battery life or a wide selection of I/O ports. but for a solid travel laptop that looks good and performs well, the XPS 13 gets high marks indeed.
HP ZBook 15 Mobile Workstation
Price as reviewed: $3158
There are machines for work and then there are work machines. This Hewlett-Packard special falls into the latter category. HP didn't mess around putting this workstation together--it's got a 15.6-inch 1080p display, an Intel Core i7-4800MQ processor, 16GB of RAM, an Nvidia Quadro K610M graphics card with 1GB dedicated RAM, and Thunderbolt connectivity. It's not as heavy as the Alienware 17, but at 6.2 pounds this desktop replacement still doubles as a nice training weight on business trips.
Digital Storm Krypton (Model S-8298)
Price as reviewed: $2251
Like any laptop, the Krypton isn't perfect. We weren't fans of Digital Storm's tech support and the 15-percent restocking fee for returns may keep some away. But overall, it's a stellar 17-inch gaming laptop for an incredible price.
It's got the same Nvdia GTX 880M card with 8GB dedicated memory as the Alienware 17, paired with a Core i7-4810MQ processor that's somewhat wimpier (but still potent) than its rival's chip. But with a 750GB hard drive, a 256GB SSD boot drive, a generous 16GB of RAM, and 17.3-inch IPS 1080p display, this well-priced gaming rig will keep budget conscious gamers very happy indeed. The rig is easily upgradeable and packs astounding audio, to boot--and it absolutely chews through games. But be warned: As with other gaming laptops, you won't be taking this puppy very far thanks to its 11-pound heft and short battery life.
Toshiba Portege Z10t
Price as reviewed: $1799
Tablets that double as laptops when connected to a keyboard are nice and all, but if you want something portable that still has some actual power, you're better off looking for a laptop that doubles as a tablet.
The Toshiba Portege Z10t is the best execution of the detachable 2-in-1 concept yet, sporting an 11.6-inch IPS 1080p display, Core i7-4610Y processor, 8GB of DDR3/1600 RAM, Windows 8.1 Pro, and a 256GB SSD. With a weight around three pounds--most of which is in the display--this is not a tablet you'll want to hold upright for long periods of time. Nevertheless, it performs like a champ. While we prefer 2013's screen-flipping Yoga 2 Pro overall when it comes to hybrids, the Portege Z10t can't be beat if you're looking for a laptop-first convertible with a pull-off keyboard.
Samsung Ativ Book 9 (2014 Edition)
Price as reviewed: $1500
Now this is an laptop that will make head turns at the next board room meeting. Samsung's beautiful laptop is just 0.63-inches thick and ultra-light thanks to its all-aluminum chassis. Sure, you won't win a specs war with its 15.6-inch 1080p display, a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB SSD, but that load out works perfectly for business and casual users.
The Samsung Ativ Book 9 also has a special treat for audio fans, thanks to the inclusion of the high-end Wolfson WM5102 audio CODEC. How good is it? Simple: Reviewer (and audio enthusiast) Michael Brown says the laptop "is by far the best-sounding laptop I've ever listened to."
It's not all roses though. At $1,500, Samsung's laptop sells at a high premium, especially considering the somewhat skimpy intel hardware you get for the price.
Lenovo ThinkPad X240
Price as reviewed: $1555
The latest edition in the popular X200 series, the Lenovo ThinkPad X240 is another great example of a PC born for business, but with enough features for casual use. Like its predecessors, Lenovo's 12.5-inch display sticks with a downright disappointing 1366-by-768 resolution, though it does include touchscreen capabilities. Office workers will also appreciate the host of ports, including 2 USB 3.0 ports, a single USB 2.0 connection, mini DisplayPort, an SD card reader, and yes, a crucial-for-business VGA port.
The ThinkPad X240 is bulkier than most Ultrabooks, but still qualifies for Intel's ultraportable designation. The notebook's most interesting feature, however, is a dual battery set-up that uses a battery bridge to swap power packs without shutting down. Hello, future! The ThinkPad X240 also keeps the same island-style keyboard found on the X230 had instead of the legacy "dream board"--well, that's what I call it--on the X220, which is a little disappointing.
Price as reviewed: $1700
True, we felt the Toshiba's Kirabook fell juuuuuuust short of being unabashedly awesome, but there's still a lot to love about this Ultrabook. Most notably, it's got a Retina-like 13.3-inch touchscreen sporting a 2560-by-1440 resolution good for an eye-popping 221 pixels per inch. What, that's not visually pleasing enough for you? The Kirabook's HDMI port can pump out full-blown 4K video to an external display, though it's limited to a refresh rate of either 29- or 30Hz at that resolution.
The laptop also boasts a respectable six hour battery life, a nice set of ports--including three USB 3.0 ports--and gorgeous chassis that weighs just under 3 lbs. But at $1,700, you're paying a lot for the Kirabook's stunning looks when compared to other Ultrabooks with Core i7 processors, 8GB RAM, and 256GB SSDs.
Bonus: Surface Pro 3
Price as reviewed: $1299
All right, you caught me. Surface Pro 3 isn't a laptop--at least not technically. That's why it's a bonus pick. Nevertheless, Microsoft's fancy tablet deserves a mention on this list simply because it's the first Surface--the first tablet--that is a legitimate contender as a laptop replacement. Previous generations suffered from glaring flaws, but the Surface Pro 3's large, gorgeous screen, improved kickstand and Type Cover connection, and Ultrabook-class processors finally strike a near-perfect blend of portability, productivity, and performance.
With a base price starting at $800 (though you'll likely want the $1,000 Core i5 model), anyone who wants to unlock the full potential of the Surface Pro 3 will also need to pick up that $130 Type Cover to complete the laptop look-alike package. Looking for even more flexibility? Spring for the $200 docking station to transform the Surface into a desktop PC replacement when you're sitting around the house.