There are few gifts more important than a personal computer, but it’s also one of the easiest to screw up. Buy a laptop based on price, brand, or a spec sheet alone, and you’re sure to run into unexpected tradeoffs. That’s why we review laptops here at The Verge, but also why we penned this guide: here are the best recommendations we have to offer, and some excellent choices at every price.
Best laptop: MacBook Pro with Retina Display (15-inch)
There’s really no question here. If money is no object, the best all-around laptop in the world is Apple’s 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display. Apple has managed to fit an unprecedented amount of power into its meticulously crafted aluminum chassis, and still found enough room for a comfortable full-size backlit keyboard and a solid five hours of battery life. And that’s without even mentioning the titular 2880 x 1800 Retina display. At $2,199 with Mac OS X, it’s not for everybody, but if you can afford it look no further.
Best gaming laptop: Alienware M17x
If you or your giftee plays video games, your $2,199 is better spent outfitting an Alienware M17x with a 1080p screen and Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 680M. The ominous 10.6-pound gaming laptop starts at $1,499, but trust us, you’ll want to spend more. For the absolute bleeding-edge configuration, you’ll spend $4,394, but even at $2,199 it’s an extremely potent performer.
Under $500: Samsung Chromebook Series 3
If you plan to spend under $500 for a laptop, expect slim pickings. But if you’re merely looking for a couch-surfing companion, then we have the machine for you: Samsung’s Series 3 Chromebook, which costs just $250. It’s a cheap plastic machine, sure, but it’s surprisingly well thought-out. It’s light, attractive, reasonably comfortable, completely silent, has over six and a half hours of battery life, and performs reasonably well considering the machine is pretty much limited to browsing the web.
Under $500: Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E535
For a full-featured Windows laptop on a budget, you could do worse than Lenovo’s ThinkPad Edge E535. At around $500, it has everything you’d expect from a basic 15.6-inch laptop, plus a great Lenovo keyboard and surprisingly good graphics power. It’s not fancy, and its 1366 x 768 display won’t win any awards, but it’s more powerful than a netbook and more versatile than a Chromebook, for a great price/
Under $750: Acer Timeline U M5
Acer’s Timeline Ultra featured in our Back to School laptop buying guide, and for good reason: you’d be hard-pressed to find another machine with this blend of performance and quality at this low a price point. Not only does Acer give you a capable performer at $629 for the basic model, but there are some choice upgrades too, including decent gaming graphics or a touchscreen. There are 15.6- and 14-inch models on tap, though we’d recommend the 14-inch version for slightly higher build quality.
Under $1,000: Sony Vaio S (15.5-inch)
Often, with Sony, you pay for more than you get — but that relationship may have changed with the latest Sony Vaio S. For $959 you get a 15.5-inch, 1080p laptop with all the processing power you could need. Or, you can mix, match, or add additional funds to get incredible specs, and incredible battery life to match. The Sony isn’t as thin or light as the latest ultrabooks, and it reportedly had a few touchpad issues, but otherwise it’s pretty solid.
Under $1,000: HP Envy Spectre XT
If your giftee wants the equivalent of a MacBook Air with Windows, the Spectre XT is the one to get. The 13.3-inch laptop doesn’t have a great display or great battery life, but in every other way it’s the thin, light, stylish and comfortable machine they’ve been dreaming of. At $999, it’s a good bet.
Over $1,000: MacBook Air (13-inch)
The MacBook Air needs no introduction, but we’ll give it one anyhow. At $1,199, Apple’s 13-inch is still the best blend of portability and quality on the market. Its unibody aluminum design is still durable and stylish, and the keyboard and touchpad are superlative for a laptop this thin. If you can, we’d recommend you spend the extra $100 for 8GB of RAM.
Over $1,000: Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13
We’ve yet to find the perfect Windows 8 touchscreen laptop, but so far the IdeaPad Yoga 13 is our best bet. With a 360-degree hinge that lets the screen flip from laptop to tablet to anywhere in between, it’s a versatile, well-made computer. And because it starts at $999, you can get a fair amount of power in this price range with additional upgrades. The $1,199 Dell XPS 12 is a solid alternative with an fantastic screen, but the battery life can’t compete.