Windows 10 Hardware Brings Fresh Competition For The MacBook Air

2015 Dell XPS 13.

Windows 10 is not only a vastly improved operating system but runs on vastly improved thin-and-light hardware.

Though the gold standard for thin-and-light laptops has always been the MacBook Air, there’s a lot more competition these days, as PC makers over the years have not only taken cues from Apple AAPL -5.66% successful design but, in some cases, surpassed it. (And I should mention that Apple has tried to top itself with the new 12-inch Retina MacBook. But more on that below.)

Here are three of the best new Windows portables that I’ve used.  All offer more than a few reasons to think hard if you are trying to choose between the MacBook Air and a Windows 10-based thin-and-light for your next purchase.

Dell XPS 13, 2015 version: I’ve been using this for more than five months.  It’s probably the best thin-and-light laptop I’ve used since the first MacBook Air (circa 2008).   For starters, it boasts a CNC machined aluminum chassis, a carbon fiber composite that surrounds the keyboard, and a gorgeous Quad QHD+ resolution (3,200×1,800) touch screen with almost no bezel.  It also offers snappy performance and excellent battery life.  The XPS 13 comes with a Core i5 5200 U “Broadwell” processor. At its thickest point it’s about 0.6 inches and weighs 2.6 or 2.8 pounds, depending on the model, and starts at $799, ranging in price to $1,299. (See my review here.)

Hewlett-Packard HPQ +0.00% EliteBook Folio 1020: This ranks right up there with the XPS 13 — but for different reasons.   Crafted from a CNC aluminum and magnesium alloy, it is designed to pass MIL-STD 810G durability (for drop, shock, vibration).  It’s fanless (like a smartphone or tablet) and thus has no moving parts.  The model I’m using includes a 12.5-inch 2,560×1,440 touch screen, Near Field Communication (NFC), a fingerprint reader, a glass ForcePad, and an amazing keyboard. Inside, an Intel INTC -3.85%Core M-5Y71 1.2GHz Broadwell processor runs cool enough to obviate the need for a fan. (Fans are used in virtually all laptops today.). Battery life is decent, considering its use of a very bright, very-high-resolution display in an impossibly thin design.  At its thickest point, it’s 0.62 inches and weighs 2.68 pounds.  A Special Edition of the 1020 (which I have not used) weighs a mere 2.2 pounds.  The Folio 1020 starts at about $1,100 at online retailers (with a 1,920×1,080 display) and ranges up to more than $1,400.  (See my review here.)

Microsoft MSFT -4.65% Surface Pro 3: The Surface Pro 3 is probably the most avant-garde of the three. It’s essentially a high-end tablet with a great snap-on Microsoft keyboard.  And the keyboard is good enough to turn it into a laptop (almost). Flip that argument and it’s probably the fastest tablet on the planet, offering up to a Core i7 processor — and a 2,160×1,440 resolution to display, to boot. Made with a magnesium casing, it’s by far the lightest and thinnest of the three (sans keyboard) at only 1.76 pounds and 0.36 inches thick.  (The keyboard adds a little more than half a pound.)  Its novel design can be a godsend to consumers and businesses that need to use a Windows PC in tablet mode most of the time but want the option to switch to a laptop-like experience.  It is priced from $799 to $1,799.

Let me close by saying the MacBook Air now has competition from inside Apple itself: The 12-inch Retina MacBook is (like HP’s EliteBook above) fanless and offers tablet-like portability at only 2 pounds.  Will it become the new gold standard for thin-and-light designs, eclipsing the Air?  Time will tell.

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