Best ultraportable laptops

In this guide, we’ve tried to assemble a collection of the best gear for working on the go — today’s workplaces are more flexible than ever, meaning that we all (generally speaking) have a lot more freedom when it comes to working from home, or the coffee shop, the airport or basically anywhere you can find a flat surface to rest your computing device.

Despite how far smartphones have come in the last eight-odd years, as productivity devices, they’re still a little too restricted to get serious work done.

They’re undoubtedly fine for quick tasks like replying to emails and scheduling appointments, but a bigger-screened laptop (or tablet with a keyboard) is still much more efficient.

For this feature, we’ve rounded up a range of laptops and 2-in-1s to find out which ones deliver on the promise of being go-anywhere productivity machines.

There’s a growing amount of diversity in this category, but most of the devices we tested were 13-inches or under, with our main goal being that they were 2kg or under — in other words, a weight that won’t pull your shoulder off if you choose to lug your device around in a messenger bag.

And despite being ‘professional’ gear, there are some surprisingly affordable options here, with prices starting at just $1,200.

Read on for our recommendations in this curiously varied category.

Apple MacBook (12-inch, Mid-2015)

Apple MacBook (12-inch, Mid-2015)This 12-inch Apple laptop sits between its Air and Pro siblings in terms of both price and features.

Apple’s main goal with the device has been to get a full-featured laptop into as small a body and light a weight as possible (it’s just 920g), and it’s mostly a resounding success.

It perhaps doesn’t have the visual elegance of other MacBooks. The keyboard and display both come right to the edges of the chassis, making full use of almost all the available physical space.

To us, that makes its overall appearance seem a little odd and imbalanced, but the proof really is in how it performs, and in that regard, it’s hard to fault. Though the keyboard keys differ from other MacBooks — they’re bigger and meet each other edge-to-edge — they still feel and function great under the fingertip.

The screen is a Retina IPS number at 2,304 x 1,440 pixels, rendering images and text incredibly sharp and clear. That monstrous trackpad works a treat, giving you easy access to OS X’s library of useful shortcuts and gestures.

There are some caveats with the design. You don’t get any standard USB ports, only a single USB 3.1 Type-C. You’ll basically need to opt for wireless peripherals. The Core M CPUs used can also struggle a bit if you load them up with too many apps or do image or video work.

Then there’s the price. There’s no ‘basic’ model and those shrunken parts are expensive; prices start at $1,999 for the 256GB SSD/8GB RAM model.

Still, this is a fantastically portable little device, and if you’re after a super-compact unit for doing the basics, there’s lots to like here.

Verdict: Amazingly portable, but that Core m3 CPU can struggle with heavy multitasking and multimedia jobs.

Price: From $1,999
From: Apple

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Apple MacBook Air (11- and 13-inch, Early-2015)

Apple MacBook Air 13Now going on nearly eight years old, the MacBook Air was revolutionary when it first landed — so much so that its external design that hasn’t changed much since its inception.

What has changed is that the Air has transitioned from being Apple’s premium portable to its entry-level laptop. It’s still class-leading when it comes to build-quality, though, with Apple’s unibody aluminium design making it super-tough and the keyboard and trackpad are likewise first-rate.

You can spec an Air up moderately high — up to a Core i7 with 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD — and they’re faster than their 12-inch brethren, but do get outgunned by the Pro line.

The main caveat with the Airs, though, is their lower-resolution displays. They’re the last remaining MacBooks not to have ‘Retina’ high-DPI screens. That means you get 1,366 x 768 pixels in the case of the 11-inch and 1,440 x 900 on the 13-inch.

That’s perfectly functional, but does make text-rendering a little jagged and is beginning to look seriously miserly when everything else has 1080p-plus resolutions.

Our flagging Aussie dollar has seen the Air creep up in cost of late — two years ago, this was one of the best-value ultrabooks around, but it’s now simply average (in fact, the likes of Venom’s BlackBook 13 Zero makes what Apple’s charging look seriously overpriced).

There’s still a lot to like here, including outstanding battery life (over seven hours when we installed Windows and ran PCMark 8 Home) and Apple’s excellent service and support. Well-worth considering.

Verdict: Still a fantastic laptop, but not quite as compelling from a specs or price perspective as it used to be.

Price: 11-inch from $1,349; 13-inch from $1,549
From: Apple

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Apple MacBook Pro (13- and 15-inch)

Apple MacBook ProDespite us hankering for a newer model with Intel’s Skylake (AKA 6th-gen) chips, these early- and mid-2015 releases (13- and 15-inch, respectively) are actually still performing at the top of their game.

The 13-inch and the 15-inch models are quite different beasts.

The 15-inch has a top-of-the-line 4th-gen quad-core Core i7 chip that is now a couple of years old, alongside a Radon R9 M370X GPU in addition to the CPU’s integrated Intel Iris Pro Graphics 5200. It’s considerably pricier too, starting at $3,099 for a 256GB SSD model.

The 13-inch, on the other hand, uses a more recent dual-core 5th-gen Intel Core i5 chip, and has just the onboard Intel Iris Graphics 6100 and starts at a more affordable $1,999 for a 128GB model.

But despite using older chips, the Pros still outpace some of the latest Skylake devices like the Yoga 900, which scored around 5% less than the 13-inch Pro’s single-core and multi-core scores in the GeekBench 3 aggregated tests.

Apart from the 13-inch model getting Apple’s Retina display, one of the main design differences between the latest Pro models and earlier iterations is the addition of the Force Touch trackpad.

As much as we’d love to love this new technology, the lack of useful tie-ins and the decision to ditch a couple of established trackpad gestures actually make the trackpad feel like a sidestep rather than a progressive feature.

But when that’s the only thing you have to complain about, it shows that this is still the device to beat in the premium ultrabook category.

Verdict: A old workhorse, but one that has no trouble keeping ahead of the youngsters.

Price: 13-inch from $1,999; 15-inch from $3,099
From: Apple

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

ASUS Transformer Book T300 Chi

ASUS Transformer Book T300 ChiThe T300 is a 2-in-1 with a fully detachable screen that comes away easily from its keyboard base.

It originally launched early last year, being one of the first devices with an Intel Core M processor. These are much more power-frugal and cool-running than their Core i counterparts, meaning they can be used in thinner and lighter designs that don’t require active coolers.

However, because of its age, the T300’s just about reached the end of its life and any units still on sale have Windows 8.1 for their OS. While you can upgrade this one to Windows 10 for free, the question really is, is it worth the effort?

This is the least-expensive unit we tested. It has a nice, high-DPI, 12.5-inch display at 2,560 x 1,440-pixels, as well as 8GB of RAM.

However, it only has a 128GB SSD, of which you get under 94GB of storage, though there’s a microSD slot to help pad that out. The Core M-5Y71 CPU is adequate, but will struggle with more demanding work.

The tablet’s also relatively tough, physically, with an unibody aluminium back. (The keyboard has an aluminium top and a plastic underside.)

But there are some shortcomings — a battery of just 3:19 hours, the lack of a full-sized USB port, and no Type-Cs. Instead, there’s a Micro-B type socket and a dongle adapter that gives you a full-sized USB port. It’s a functional solution, but not a very slick one.

We wish the screen had more height, though. It’s 16:9, but the 3:2 aspect ratio is ultimately much better for productivity. In fact, we’d spend the extra and opt for the entry-level Surface Pro 4 instead.

Verdict: A lower price can’t quite make up for the lack of storage and average battery life.

Price: $1,200
From: ASUS

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

ASUS Zenbook UX305FA

ASUS ZenBook UX305FAWe actually reviewed this model back in August last year, and although its age might take some of the shine off it, the time on the shelf has actually matured some of this device’s features and has even helped softened the price a little.

What’s still clear is just how compact this ultra-portable is, with 12.3mm thick and a 1.2kg total weight, the UX305 looks and feels like an impressively built Windows counterpart to the MacBook Air.

In fact, the $200-odd dollars that have come off it since it launched put it under the 11-inch MacBook Air in price, making it an excellent option.

Wrapped in a shiny black/purple brushed-aluminium chassis with a matching matte screen-trim and keyboard-surround, there’s a lot to appreciate in the design. The chiclet keyboard is definitely a step up from average, although the trackpad does occasionally suffer from a bit of drag.

The 13.3-inch 1080p IPS display has nice, rich colours, though unfortunately, the matte anti-glare coating does add a bit of sparkle to images.

If you’re considering this one, it’s worth noting that some retailers are still offering it with Windows 8.1, although there are units with Windows 10 on offer.

The UX305 is a well-designed device that offers a lot of processing grunt for the price, but it’s underpowered compared to the MacBook Air, which sports full intel Core i chips, whereas the UX305 has a lower-end Core M CPU.

But while it’s still some way off being a genuine Macbook Air killer, for the price, this is a pretty good deal.

Verdict: The price is right on this budget-but-basic all-rounder ultrabook.

Price: $1,200
From: ASUS

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Dell XPS 13 (Late-2015)

Dell’s XPS 13 is the most-compact 13-inch laptop we’ve tested; a very neat little package with a mixed aluminium-and-carbon-fibre chassis and a display with super-narrow bezels — they’re 5mm on the top and sides, meaning the screen basically fills the lid casing.

It’s been updated with Intel’s 6th-gen Core i parts. In Australia, you’ve got the choice of either a 1080p non-touch model (with matte finish screen) or a 3,200 x 1,800-pixel model with a glossy touchscreen.

The keyboard and trackpad are both superb and make using the XPS 13 a real joy. It’ll go the distance, too, with the Core i5 model lasting 6:39 hours in the challenging PCMark 8 Home battery test — that’s the best result in this feature, by quite a wide margin. Also neat is the fact that the unit’s completely silent.

However, the placement of the webcam (down the bottom right of the display) is odd, and means you’re shot from an unflattering angle when used for video-chat.

And unless you have a compelling need for a touchscreen, you don’t need that 3,200 x 1,800 display at this 13.3-inch screen size — you have to squint to see pixels on the non-touch, 1080p model and opting for the latter’ll save you $500.

Starting at $1,799 with a 128GB SSD and 4GB of RAM, the XPS 13’s main problem is that it isn’t nearly as good value as the Venom BlackBook reviewed further down.

But for those that want the most portable Windows 13-incher around, and are willing to pay for it, there’s little to complain about here, with first-rate build quality, a stylish design and stunning battery life.

Verdict: An incredibly compact and well-built 13-inch ultrabook; gets almost everything right.

Price: From $1,799
From: Dell

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

HP Spectre x2-A005TU

HP Spectre x2-A005TUThe general theme to HP’s Spectre line is ‘sleek, thin and stylish’.

This new model is very much a 2-in-1 cast in the Surface Pro mould, at 8mm thick and 840g with kickstand and a chassis carved out of a single piece of aluminium, plus a 12-inch IPS 1,920 x 1,280-pixel display (at the same productivity-friendly 3:2 aspect ratio as the Surface Pro).

But it is a smidgen more affordable, offering up a creditable Core m5/128GB SSD model for just $1,199 — the entry-level Surface Pro 4 will cost you $150 more for less memory (4GB vs 8GB), a slower Core m3 processor and it doesn’t include the keyboard cover.

And the x2 actually does a respectable job of being a ‘Surface lite’ — yes, it’s a little fiddlier to switch between modes (you need to slide a switch to extend the kickstand), but its fattish, AAA-powered stylus, which can be safely slotted onto the keyboard cover when not in use, works great for handwriting and drawing.

There are some key differences between this and the Pro 4: there’s no standard USB ports, just two smaller USB 3.1 Type-Cs. You get a dongle that’ll convert Type-C to the legacy USB, but that’s one more thing you have to carry.

And the quality in some areas is lower than the Surface line. The keyboard doesn’t feel as high-quality as the Surface Pro’s — it’s a bit rattly and plasticky — and there was a yellowish/purple tinge to the display of our test unit, something that was particularly noticeable with skin tones in video.

Still, considering the price, those shortcomings are easy to overlook.

Verdict: If you’re after a very functional 2-in-1 without the Microsoft premium, this one’s a bargain.

Price: From $1,199
From: HP

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Lenovo Yoga 900

Lenovo Yoga 900Despite having a name that suggests a completely different lineage, the Yoga 900 is actually the 2015 successor to the Yoga 3 Pro, a similar 2-in-1 hybrid that was made popular by a successful slimline design and a clever swivelling hinge.

In many ways, the Yoga 900 walks in the shoes of its earlier sibling, but Lenovo has built on this design by adding better battery life, a superior CPU and an upgraded hinge design.

Upgrading the CPU from one of Intel’s Core M chips to a full Core i5 (or optionally, an i7) chip has given the Yoga 900 predictably higher processing power over the earlier model.

But this device’s amazing 3,200 x 1,800 13-inch screen helps suck up the brunt of that extra processing power — coordinating nearly three times as many pixels as a 1080p screen will do that.

And when you compare the Yoga 900 to similarly specced devices with a 1080p screen and a slightly thicker chassis (allowing for more cooling) you can see the sacrifice in benchmark scores the 900 makes when it comes to general home- and work-related tasks.

In many ways, the Lenovo is similar to the Core i5 versions of the Surface Pro 4; they have similar processors that crank out similar performance, have equally impressive screens, cost a similar amount and each can be used as either a tablet or a laptop.

The only real difference is that the Surface is predominantly a tablet and has less onboard storage, while the slightly heavier, fixed-keyboard Yoga 900 is likely to appeal to those looking for a more traditional laptop-like hybrid.

Verdict: Trading processing power for a better display isn’t always a bad thing.

Price: $1,990
From: Lenovo

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Microsoft Surface Pro 4

Microsoft Surface Pro 4It’s taken four iterations for Microsoft to get its 2-in-1 tablet design to really live up to its initial promise, that of being a “tablet that can replace your laptop”.

It’s now light enough, powerful enough, and its accessories have reached a polished-enough point that it can genuinely match that boast.

The build quality across the core 12.2-inch tablet, its stylus (Surface Pen) and the keyboard cover is likewise now universally excellent. That Type Cover’s keyboard, in particular, has improved markedly — it’s nice and rigid, forming a stable platform for its big comfy keys, and the trackpad (which was previously too small) has been upsized to make it much more usable.

The built-in handwriting recognition is still second-to-none. It works almost universally across the OS, so you can type with the on-screen keyboard or with the Surface Pen.

Microsoft’s offering the Pro 4 in more configurations, too, starting with a basic Core m3 unit at a relatively affordable $1,349 — you’ll need to pay another $200 to add the keyboard.

Some problems do still exist on the Pro 4 — the kickstand design works great provided you’ve got a table (or at the very least a cushion) to place it on, but it’s much trickier to balance the device on your lap if you’re, say, commuting on a bus or train, or just sitting on a park bench. Battery life is also just passable at a bit under four hours.

This is a premium device with a premium price tag. But if you can genuinely use those features and you believe you should “spend your money where you spend your time”, this is the best 2-in-1 on the market.

Verdict: It’s taken four tries, but the Surface Pro 4 is now undeniably the 2-in-1 to beat.

Price: From $1,349
From: Microsoft

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Microsoft Surface Book

Microsoft Surface BookThe Surface Book is a device built for those who want the Surface family’s distinctive features combined with a slightly bigger display, a bit better processing grunt and a more traditional laptop form-factor.

Despite the laptop appearance, the Surface Book is still decidedly a 2-in-1, however — the 13.5-inch, 3,000 x 2,000-pixel screen undocks from the keyboard to become a slim (although large) standalone Windows tablet.

It can be flipped around 180º and re-docked to the keyboard, too, giving you extra battery life, but this does make it a supremely heavy tablet. (Undocked, the slate supposedly lasts for around three hours, whereas with the extra cells in the base, it will take you over 10 hours. We got exactly half those, respectively, in our tough mixed-usage battery test.)

That keyboard also incorporates a discreet GPU from Nvidia that’s aimed at accelerating media-creation tasks, like manipulating images in Photoshop or speeding up video-encoding.

The more-stable design and accordion hinge mean that this is a Surface you can actually use on your lap in laptop mode. However, the Book ends up being a bit fiddly in some other regards — if you want to undock it, you’ll need to first exit any GPU-accelerated apps, then hold down a button on the keyboard until the screen locks disengage.

The premium magnesium-allow chassis and specialised design-oriented Surface features mean a price bump too — so if you don’t need them, there are much better-value 2-in-1s or laptops out there.

Verdict: Well-made for it’s targeted audience, but might not be worth the additional cost for everyone else.

Price: From $2,299; $4,199 as tested
From: Microsoft

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

MSI GS40 Phantom

MSI GS40MSI’s new GS40 Phantom is another from the Taiwanese company that seems hell-bent on breaking the stereotype of portable gaming laptops, delivering a reasonably compact 14-inch gaming device in a shell that amounts to a perfectly carryable 1.6kg.

Despite being only 2.3cm thick and feeling like something you’d actually use as an on-the-go laptop, this semi-discreet unit hasn’t thrown out the muscle that’s expected from a decent gaming PC.

In fact, the 6th-gen Intel Core i7 CPU, 8GB of DDR4 RAM and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970M GPU work well together, pushing out respectable scores around or above 60fps averages on big-name titles like Bioshock Infinite, GRID 2, Tomb Raider and Metro: Last Light with Ultra-level graphics settings.

While Intel and Nvidia’s more power-frugal and cool-running CPUs and GPU have definitely contributed to MSI’s effort in shrinking this device to the size it is, the GS40 also gives you the impression that anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary has been ripped out and discarded.

The thin plastic casing has an overly generous amount of flex — pushing too hard on the escape key or lifting the laptop from a corner (never a good idea) will actually cause the chassis to warp and come in contact with an internal fan.

We’d be lying if we weren’t a little concerned about the potential longevity of this device if treated with anything but the utmost care.

That said, for what’s inside, it’s quite reasonably priced, and is lightweight and powerful enough that it’s hard not to be a little wooed by it.

Verdict: A compact, well-priced workhorse that’ll perform — as long as it doesn’t actually disappear into the ether.

Price: $2,399
From: MSI

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Toshiba Satellite Radius 12

Toshiba Satellite Radius 12The Radius 12 is the first 2-in-1 laptop/tablet hybrid to flaunt an UltraHD (AKA 4K), multi-touch display panel; a pretty impressive feat for a device that’s just 1.3kg.

And to back that up, this hybrid has one of the latest Intel Skylake (AKA 6th-gen) Core i7 processors, plus 8GB of DDR3 RAM and a 512GB SSD. On paper, at least, that makes the Satellite Radius 12 an amazing little unit that could potentially take on the Surface Pro 4.

Where the Radius suffers a little is in its overall design and visual appeal.

Uneven bezel thickness around the screen — it’s different along the top, sides and bottom — throws the proportions off and makes the screen uncomfortable to look at, and though the keyboard is largely fine in use, the keys have been squashed a little vertically to fit the smaller 12-inch form factor, which could make it difficult to use for large-fingered folk.

But the real limitation is processing power; when you compare the Radius 12 against a Core i5 version of the Surface Pro 4 (an inferior processor to the Radius 12’s Core i7) this Toshiba achieves less than two-thirds the work and general-usage benchmark scores.

Considering this 2-in-1 retails for just shy of 3,000 large ones, it’s surprising that it performs in the vicinity of a $1,200 to $1,500 laptop.

The Radius 12 might be the first hybrid to pack a 4K screen, but it has seemingly had to sacrifice a lot in order to do so. We’re not sure that imbalance is worth it.

Verdict: A top-heavy unit that seems to sacrifice performance for a 4K screen.

Price: $2,799
From: Toshiba

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Venom BlackBook 13 Zero

Venom BlackBook 13 ZeroMelbourne-based Venom Computers’ is known for its premium laptops that use high-quality parts and a variety of little tweaks to deliver an exceptionally reliable and enjoyable computing experience.

So when Venom said that the 13 Zero was “the best computer we’ve ever made”, we sat up and took notice.

The build quality here is fantastic: a sturdy MacBook-like unibody aluminium-composite chassis, stable and backlit chiclet keyboard and large matte-finish. Venom has multiple configs of the 13 Zero available, with this $1,599 unit being the mid-range model, one step up from the $1,399 basic unit.

It’s incredibly well-specced for that price. We honestly say it’s the best-value Windows ultrabook we’ve ever tested, with a Core i5-6200U mid-range processor, 8GB of RAM, heaps of storage thanks to a 256GB SSD and 500GB hard drive, and a balanced 13.3-inch 1080p IPS display that’s driven by integrated Intel HD 520 graphics.

There’s two full-sized USB ports, a smaller USB Type-C, a full-sized HDMI out, and microSD port. The charger’s compact, too.

In short, it has everything you need to get stuff done on the go. It’s been genuinely tweaked and tuned for the pro/enthusiast. There’s no bloatware. The only software extras are Firefox and Chrome and a full year’s subscription to Norton Internet Security.

It’s a passable 3:16 hours in the tough PCMark 8 Home test, but other similarly specced competitors can manage 5–6 hours. That shortcoming aside, this is an ultrabook we could happily use all day, every day.

Verdict: The best-value ultrabook we’ve ever tested. It has everything you need for getting sh*t done.

Price: $1,599
From: MLN

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5