Analyst Picks: Best Laptops Of 2021

Over the last year, I have had the opportunity to test out many different laptops in my capacity as a tech analyst. While not all of them received their own reviews at the time, today I’d like to offer a comprehensive look at last year’s PC market—my favorites and what I liked about them.  

On-The-Go Productivity – HP Dragonfly Max

Using the HP EliteBook Dragonfly Max on the beach. ANSHEL SAG

The HP Dragonfly Max is first on this list because it is the laptop that I have consistently used the most, rarely putting it down even when reviewing other laptops. The Dragonfly Max is truly the complete package, with Intel’s 11th Gen Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, 1000-nit display and great battery life, all wrapped up in a lightweight 2.5 lb. package. 

It’s also a great on-the-go device, thanks to the compatibility and performance of its x86 CPU and the connectivity of its Qualcomm Snapdragon X55 5G modem. Windows Hello and the upgraded 5 MP webcam also make it well-suited for remote conferencing. On numerous occasions, I fell back on this laptop when my other devices were having connectivity issues—in my travels as an analyst, it’s often I find myself staying at an Airbnb with poor home broadband. HP shipped this laptop to me with an AT&T SIM and I can honestly say that AT&T’s 5G network saved my skin more than once. The laptop’s full-size USB and HDMI ports also saved me numerous times when I didn’t have an adapter handy. 

While I wish that HP could bring down the cost of the 5G option from its current $440 premium, I believe it is worth it for anyone who is truly on the go and requires a reliable connection wherever they find themselves. In terms of improvements, I’d like to see a 15” version. I’d also like HP to find room for a USB Type-C port on the left-hand side of the device for easier charging.

Creativity – Dell XPS 17

The Dell XPS 17, as I’ve previously written, features a great balance of performance and design. I love the fact that it packs the punch of a 17” notebook inside of a roughly 15” form factor, with its gorgeous 4K infinity edge display, powerful Intel i9 processor and NVIDIA 2060 discrete graphics. In the time since I originally reviewed the laptop, Dell has refreshed it with Intel’s latest 11th Gen i9 and NVIDIA’s 3060 graphics, for even better thermals and performance. Overall, I do really love this laptop as a primary laptop, if you have reliable connectivity. It didn’t make me yearn for my desktop while traveling. That said, it only has four USB Type-C Thunderbolt ports, which are great for connecting peripherals, but ultimately means you must remember to carry around adapters. That said, I understand that USB-C and Thunderbolt are how these laptops stay so thin. Overall, this laptop strikes an elegant balance between powerhouse and portable, though I still yearn for full-size ports. Granted, this can be achieved with an adapter like Dell’s USB-C dock/speaker combo (which the company sent me along with the laptop), but that’s still one more thing you have to remember on your way out the door.

Premium Consumer/WFH – HP Spectre x360 14

The HP Spectre x360 14 was another interesting notebook I reviewed in 2021. As the first HP laptop I had used in some time, it served as my personal reintroduction to the brand. I thought it did a lot of things extremely well. The first thing you’ll notice about this laptop is its overall design and premium aesthetic. I really enjoyed the device’s unique 3:2 aspect ratio with the 3K x 2K OLED display and found that it really improved the overall quality of the experience. I believe that the Spectre x360 14 is the perfect day-to-day laptop for most people. It comes with two USB Type-C Thunderbolt 4 ports and a full-size USB port, but, once again, no Type-C ports for charging on the left-hand side of the device. That said, HP did implement an interestingly angled Type-C port in the back right corner of the laptop. This innovation should help draw the charging cable away from a user’s hand if they are using a mouse, while also making it less visible behind the laptop. Overall, it was quite evident from the laptop’s consistent performance and overall experience that a lot of work went into this system. It was also one of the first laptops to come out of the Intel Evo program and both companies clearly spent a lot of time ensuring a great experience. 

Gaming – Alienware X17

The powerful Alienware X17 was probably my favorite gaming notebook of the year, due to its many exciting features and a form factor that was much thinner than expected. While it still weighs a hefty 6.65 lbs., there’s a reason for that—it sports an 11th Gen Core i9 11980HK, an NVIDIA RTX 3080 and 32GB of RAM. These features effectively make it an even thinner desktop replacement than Alienware’s niche Area-51M laptops, which themselves provided a stellar gaming experience at the cost of size and weight of their desktop counterparts. This performance level is still in high demand, and I think Alienware was right to include all the new bells and whistles. The X17 was also the first laptop to get Cherry’s new mechanical switches for keyboards and I must say, to date, no other laptop typing experience has even remotely come close. It is well worth the $50 upgrade, in my opinion. The Alienware X17 is the only laptop I consider for gaming on-the-go. That said, I hope that GaN charging comes to high-end gaming laptops with higher TDPs—at this point the power adapter is the clunkiest part of the experience.

Convertible – Surface Laptop Studio

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio MICROSOFT

The Surface Laptop Studio gets accolades for its elegant design, function and durability. I hadn’t used a Surface laptop before, but I was pleasantly surprised by the Surface Laptop Studio experience and its native Windows 11 integration. I think it is very hard to separate the Surface Laptop Studio software experience from Windows 11, but I would say that overall, it has been positive. While I’m not in a rush to upgrade my PCs to Windows 11, I do enjoy using it on the Surface Laptop Studio. I have found myself consuming more content in more places on the Surface Laptop Studio. Additionally, I’ve been using the tent mode more than I have on any other convertible. I also found myself using the pen more and appreciated the ability to stow it magnetically and securely under the touchpad. 

While I do appreciate the Surface’s magnetic charging system, I would still like to be able to charge it on both sides of the laptop. My guess is that Microsoft would have considered this a waste of space on such a limited chassis. Any type of full-size ports would also be welcome. I was quite impressed with the battery, which lasted all day even with a discrete GPU onboard. The biggest thing I thought was missing from the Surface Laptop Studio was 5G connectivity. I think I would have probably used it more if I didn’t have to rely on Wi-Fi. Since I’m always on the move, I found myself carrying the HP Dragonfly Max along with the Surface Laptop Studio. 

Biggest Risk Taker – Lenovo X1 Fold

Lenovo X1 Fold Mini Mode LENOVO

The Lenovo X1 Fold was very early in 2021, and while many people may have since forgotten it, I haven’t. After all, the X1 Fold was the first foldable PC to hit the market! I wrote a fairly detailed review of it earlier this year and talked about its many ambitions. I still believe that the X1 Fold is just the beginning of the PC’s transformation into something more portable and dynamic. I’m excited to see the lines of what a PC looks like continue to blur. The Fold is an ambitious product, and I believe Lenovo deserves credit for taking the risk. While the effort may not have been a home run, I’d call it a solid double (pardon the baseball reference). I think that we will see more foldable PCs soon, but probably with more mature hinge designs, less visible creasing and better platforms for low-power performance that match the premium price of a foldable PC.

What I’d like to see in 2022

I would like to see connectivity in PCs improve in 2022. Specifically, Wi-Fi and 5G. I have encountered way too many laptops in 2021 that had issues with Wi-Fi disconnecting from the network while going to sleep and simply not reconnecting again afterwards. I have had to troubleshoot way too many Wi-Fi connections this past year, and considering that I have had this problem across virtually every kind of Wi-Fi network, I don’t believe its the network itself that is the problem. I don’t know if it’s a Windows issue, an OEM issue or a chipset issue, but it needs to improve in 2021.

5G connectivity is one option, and I can firmly say it vastly outpaces 4G in the earlier days of connected PCs. That said, the operators are going to need to work more closely with the PC OEMs to reduce friction to users accessing 5G connectivity—perhaps an offer of 6 – 12 months of free service would do the trick. PC OEMs should not wait for Apple to come to market with an M-based variant with a 5G modem to start taking the 5G PC experience seriously. 

I also hope to see GaN continue to grow in popularity and improve the size and weight of laptop chargers (especially on the higher end of the power consumption scale). Huge bricks are not fun to carry around and I believe they defeat the purpose of having these thinner and lighter notebooks. We may also see OLED grow in popularity. Though it has struggled to catch on in the last few years, I believe it represents a great qualitative improvement to the PC experience.

In conclusion, 2021 was a great year for PCs. I hope we’ll see just as much innovation in 2022.