While 2016 may not have had a lot of highlights for many people, it was at least a good year for laptops. We saw the first systems with OLED displays (something you really have to see in person to appreciate); gaming laptops that could handle VR hardware without being as hefty as a big-city phone book; and a race to create ever-thinner systems, even dipping below the 10mm mark.
The laptops collected here are my personal favorites for the year. Yes, they were among the fastest and longest-running, with the most forward-looking designs — but much more importantly, I chose them because they hit that perfect balance of price, performance, features and design. It’s that overall sum-of-its-parts “feel” that makes for a computer you’d feel comfortable potentially spending thousands on.
I’ve expanded my personal picks for 2016 from the usual five slots to six, because I’ve included both of the systems Apple updated this year, the 12-inch MacBook and the new MacBook Pro. It’s also worth mentioning that Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 is still my favorite tablet based-hybrid, but it wasn’t updated in 2016, so it’s not included here.
Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar
The Touch Bar is actually the least important part of the new MacBook Pro. The real reason it’s still king of the premium laptops is that nearly every part of it has been updated, from the thinner, lighter design to the brighter screen, to the larger touchpad, which is twice the size of the older model’s. Yes, having only USB-C ports take some adjustment, but check back in a couple of years and almost every laptop will be USB-C only.
Alienware 13 R3 (OLED)
I’ve always wanted a really good smaller gaming laptop, but previous attempts just didn’t cut it: poor performance, lackluster screens, high prices. Then Alienware comes up with a new version of its 13-inch gaming laptop that pretty much runs the table on my wish list. It’s got an OLED screen, which is amazing to play games on, an excellent keyboard, and an Nvidia GeForce 1060 GPU, which is powerful enough to run all the big VR headsets. I just wish it had a couple of extra USB ports for the Rift/Vive and accessories (a point that I acknowledge runs counter to my USB-C claims above), but that’s the only real flaw I can find.
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga
The ThinkPad version of the Yoga has always been my favorite of Lenovo’s many Yoga products, because the keyboard retracts into the body when you fold it into its tablet mode (technically, rather than the keys retracting, the keyboard tray rises up flush with the keyboard, but let’s not split hairs). This professional version of the Yoga is also one of the only laptops available with an OLED display, which makes it more expensive, but it also looks stunning. This is my current pick for the best laptop-style hybrid.
HP EliteBook Folio G1
HP has been pushing its 10mm-thick Spectre 13-inch laptop as a high-end flagship, but I prefer this model from HP’s professional line. The Spectre, while impressively thin, lacks a touchscreen and has very limited configuration options. The Folio G1 is a little bit thicker and uses Core M instead of Core i-series processors, but it’s still very slim and attractive, offers a 4K touchscreen option, and even has a 180-degree hinge for lying flat on a table.
Samsung Galaxy TabPro S
There’s no new Surface Pro from Microsoft this year, so my tablet-style hybrid of choice is this slim Samsung model, which beats the Surface Pro on price by including its keyboard cover in the box, rather than forcing you to buy it separately. The price on this tablet/keyboard combo has actually dropped recently, down to $799 (£635 or $AU1,070), and that includes a very impressive AMOLED display. It’s a great value for a very premium-feeling product.
Apple MacBook (2016)
I’m giving Apple two bites of the…well, you know, on this list because I really do think the 12-inch MacBook will be the best choice for many people looking for a MacBook Air alternative. It’s very thin and very light (but not as much so as the slimmest Windows laptops), and includes all those magic MacOS touches, from the long battery life, to the responsive touchpad gestures, to the flawless sleep/wake cycle. The first generation lagged a bit on performance, but the 2016 model is more than enough computer for almost anyone. It’s my hands-down current favorite for coffee shops and airplane rides.
Have a different pick to suggest? Leave a note in the comments section. Want more ideas? Take a look at our more expansive holiday gift guide for laptops below, or check out all the laptops we reviewed in 2016 here.