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As much as some of us may deride the MacBook Pro for its awful keyboard, annoying Touch Bar and overreliance on Thunderbolt/USB-C connections, its balance of screen quality, weight, battery life and performance had no Windows-based peer for a long time. But now that OLED displays have hit the market, that balance is tipping. OLED delivers true blacks, which means high contrast, as well as a wide gamut of colors and high dynamic range that can rival or outperform the MacBook's Retina Display.

We expect the announcement of new MacBook Pro models soon, with a lot of changes that could skew our recommendations like higher-end processors and upgraded screens. But for now, these stand.

The M1-chip-based 13-inch MacBook Pro may have a performance advantage compared with similarly sized Windows alternatives, but there are still compatibility issues -- plus Apple's jacked up the prices of the Intel-based models -- which make it less of a slam dunk relative to the Windows systems than it might otherwise have been.

 And the 16-inch MacBook Pro may have ditched the butterfly-switch keyboard in favor of a slightly better scissor-switch-based one (which I still don't like) but it's basically the same as it ever was and still lacks 4K options. On the other hand, like its predecessors, its performance beats similarly configured Windows systems on a lot of tasks.

But even an entry-level MacBook can stretch the limits of your budget, and those who've set aside a nice chunk of cash might want something a little more customizable. No one can deny that one appealing thing about Windows laptops is the variety. Even when trying to imitate the offerings of a MacBook (heck, or even an iPad or iPad Pro) there are all sizes of far less expensive Chromebooks, as well as 14- and 15-inch laptops that are slightly smaller and lighter than the 16-inch MacBook Pro, but not quite as small as the 13-inch MacBook Air, across the price spectrum. You can also get more variety, with alternatives like 2-in-1s. Plus, we're seeing lots of experimentation with multiscreen designs.   

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For a lot less than an entry-level MacBook Pro 13, The HP Envy x360 13 makes a great pick for an older high-school or college student -- or anyone looking for a small, stylish and easy-to-travel-with two-in-one. It's light at just less than 3 pounds (1.3 kg) and battery life is long despite the size. It's also available with a choice of AMD Ryzen 5-4500U or Intel 11th-gen Core processors

Read our HP Envy x360 13 (2020) review.

 

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A slightly updated and renamed version of the Yoga C940, the Yoga 9i is just a little bigger than a 13-inch MacBook Pro, fast, attractive and feature-packed. Plus it gives you something you can't get in a MacBook: the 360-degree screen that lets you use it like a tablet or prop it up in a tent or kiosk configuration.

Read the Lenovo Yoga 9i review.

 

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If, like me, you're not a fan of OLED screens for photo editing -- they're not optimized for Adobe RGB and aren't great at tonal range in the shadows -- then what you need is a laptop with a good IPS display. The Dell XPS 17 9700 with the 4K screen option delivers that, and it's not as reflective as the OLED screens I've seen. Dell's PremierColor software isn't perfect, but it gives you more control over screen settings than most I've seen, and it's got two Thunderbolt 3 controllers to make your external drives happy. It's heavier than the MacBook, but not much bigger, especially given its larger 17-inch screen. And while its battery life isn't terrific, its performance can certainly keep up. The XPS 17 has been refreshed since this review, and just started shipping; the older model starts at $1,940, while the 9710 starts at $1,568. The starting price differential is because there's no integrated graphics option for the newer model.

The Razer Blade 17 is a strong runner-up here if you're willing to trade higher performance and a similar design for a bigger, heavier model. We haven't yet tested the refreshed 2021 version of the Blade 17 (formerly the Blade Pro 17) starting at $2,400, but there's nothing that should have changed our high opinion of it: It's gotten faster components and better screen options; one lone older model remains on sale for $2,900. While I recommend getting this Blade 17 laptop with its 4K-resolution display option for creators, I'm a big fan of the newly ubiquitous 165Hz 1440p laptop screens, and that resolution is a great match for the screen size without the 4K overkill.

And a great lower-cost alternative is the Dell Inspiron 16 Plus, which doesn't head to the front of the line primarily because of its lower build quality, and I'm assuming that if you're looking for a MacBook Pro equivalent you want the metal chassis, better screen and higher end components. But if you also want to save as much as $1,000, it's worth considering.

Read our Dell XPS 17 9700 review.

 


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Cheaper than even the MacBook Air, with roughly the same footprint but lighter. The 14-inch Flex 5 has the flexibility of a two-in-one if everything you do is cloud-based. Its sleek look and feel at a Chrome OS price make it a cost-effective alternative.

Read our Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 review.

 

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If you're drawn to a MacBook Pro for its featureless-slab aesthetic, Razer's your Windows go-to. If you want one that matches the 13-inch Pro for design, size and weight, the Stealth is your option. 

It's priced similarly to the Intel-based MacBook Pro options, and should provide better performance than the Intel models -- we're still figuring out comparisons between the M1 Macs and Windows systems -- since it incorporates discrete GeForce GTX 1650 Ti graphics.

Read Razer Book review.

 

Josh Goldman/CNET

Dell's XPS 13 is a 13.3-inch laptop that's so trimmed up that the body is basically the size of an older 11.6-inch laptop. Being part of the company's XPS line means both its chassis and components are top-notch for its class, so you're getting great battery life and performance, too. Power delivery is via USB-C and it comes with a microSD reader and headphone jack. It comes in both a standard clamshell as well as the two-in-one, but I prefer the two-in-one because you can fold it up into a tablet if you've got to work in a cramped space.

Read Dell XPS 2-in-1 review.

 

Josh Goldman/CNET

What's better than the Touch Bar? An entire half-screen second display, that's what. The Duo's tilt-up second screen can act as an ancillary display, an extension of the primary display (for viewing those long web pages) or a separate control center from which you can run Asus' custom utilities or as control surfaces for select creative applications. Plus, Asus excels at squeezing every bit of performance out of its high-end laptops, and the 14-inch delivers great battery life, as well. 

It comes in two models, 15-inch and the 2021 14-inch Duo 14 that we reviewed. The Duo 14 has either 11th-gen Core i5 or i7 processors, optional Nvidia MX450 discrete graphics and up to 32GB of memory.

Read the Asus ZenBook Duo review.

 

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