Want to give someone a laptop this Christmas, but can't decide which machine to choose?
It's getting down to the wire and you still haven't figured out which laptops to get your kids for Christmas.
The good news is that this is a great time to be in the market for a budget laptop. Today more than ever, consumers don't have to sacrifice as much performance or as many features as they have in the past to stay within their budgets. Processors have improved to the point that a budget laptop can easily handle most of your web browsing and other basic functions. Memory (aka RAM) and storage are relatively inexpensive now, too. Some Chromebooks and Windows 10 laptops, like Lenovo's IdeaPad 100S, even come with additional cloud storage for free.
But which laptop is right for your kids? Should you get a Chromebook or a Microsoft Windows laptop? And is an Apple MacBook really worth the hefty price tag?
Chromebook vs. Windows?
A Chromebook will work for most people because 90 percent of what most of us do with laptops is web-based, such as checking Gmail or Facebook; watching videos on Netflix or shopping on Amazon. So for most people a Chromebook offers all the functionality you need, according to Ackerman. And the price is right, with plenty of Chromebooks costing less than $500 and some as little as $150. That's cheaper than most smartphones these days! These inexpensive Chromebooks can also feel "faster" than similarly priced Windows laptops, mostly because they aren't loaded up with software that slows down the processor.
But there are limitations to Chromebooks. Ackerman points out that a Microsoft Windows laptop will give you more flexibility in terms of setup customization, installing and running apps, and basically doing anything you wouldn't do in a Chrome browser window. Students, for example, may need to install a specific app for school, or some web tools may work better in alternative browsers like Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Internet Explorer or Microsoft Edge.
Apple MacBook vs. Microsoft Windows
Now on to your college kid. It's true that Apple's MacBooks are expensive. The cheapest MacBook Air with a 13-inch screen is at least $999 from Apple. And that device hasn't had a significant upgrade since March 2015. Earlier this year, Apple did give the base model 8GB of RAM as a standard option. But on the chance an update could be coming soon for this line, buying it now could be risky. That said, the next MacBook in the lineup starts at $1,299.
By contrast, you can get a Mac-like experience from a less-expensive Windows laptop, like the Dell XPS 13, which starts at $799. There's also the Razer Blade Stealth for $899. And Microsoft right now is offering lots of good deals on the Surface Pro 4, which doubles as a tablet. You can get one for $799.
Still, none of these devices are as well built as a MacBook. Ackerman said he's confident a MacBook will last you four to five years without really falling apart.
"I'm not sure I'd say that for even premium-priced Windows laptops," he said. "Macs have that OS/hardware synergy, so the touchpad gestures are unmatched, and you get great little features like hitting the spacebar to preview any file."
He also added that a Mac will go to sleep when you close the lid, and wake up when you open it. Even today, that's a "roll of the dice on a Windows laptop."
Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar
The new Touch Bar feels like a tool that can enhance your computing experience, but won't revolutionize it. It does less than a full touchscreen might, but Apple has found a way to use it to cut down on keystrokes, streamline tasks and add additional levels of fine control.
Microsoft Surface Book i7
This revamped Surface Book is a full-power tablet that plugs into a keyboard base containing an extra battery, as well as decent graphics for gaming. Included is the Surface Pen, one of our favorite digital drawing tools.
This is not the perfect laptop for everyone, but I found myself appreciating Apple's exercise in strictly enforced minimalism and I turned to it more and more often, especially for on-the-go computing in coffee shops around New York.
HP EliteBook Folio G1
HP has cooked up something that looks and feels a lot like the 12-inch MacBook, built for professional Windows users, but still stylish enough that anyone can feel comfortable using it.
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga (OLED)
The latest 14-inch ThinkPad model, called the X1 Yoga, adds an OLED display (in its highest-end pricing configurations), making it one of the first laptops anywhere to have this stunning new type of screen.
Alienware 13 R3 (OLED)
With its fantastic OLED display, very good (for a 13-inch laptop) graphics performance and support for VR headsets, this redesigned Alienware 13 is a great all-around gaming laptop if you want something less bulky than a big 17-inch model.
Dell XPS 13
Dell's XPS 13 has an amazing-looking edge-to-edge display, in both sub-$1,000 versions and the gold-toned high-end model seen here.
At least for the moment, this is one of the world's thinnest laptops, at under 10mm thick, even though it rocks a speedy Core i7 processor.
Acer Chromebook 14
This is a solid mainstream Chromebook, which makes it a perfect gift for those who aren't computer experts, as it's difficult to do too much accidental damage in Chrome OS.
Samsung Notebook 7 Spin
A big-screen version of a 360-degree hybrid, this Samsung includes an HDR mode for its display, which boosts brightness and contrast for video, much like the latest high-end televisions.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
Still the kind of the hybrids, the excellent fourth-generation Surface Pro has a killer clip-on keyboard cover, excellent stylus, and a powerful processor behind its slim, high-resolution screen.
Lenovo Yoga 900
The new Yoga 900 keeps the watchband-style hinge from the older Yoga Pro 3, which takes up less space than a traditional hinge (and just looks cool), but trades up to new Intel Core i7 processors rather than the slower Core M.
HP Spectre X2 Touch
Essentially HP's version of the Microsoft Surface Pro, this one actually wins on price because it includes the keyboard cover in the base price, rather than requiring a separate purchase.
HP Spectre x360
A really fantastic value in a mainstream hybrid with a 360-degree hinge, full-size ports, and plenty of battery life.
Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Series
The Dell Inspiron 7000 2-in-1 series is truly exceptional. Starting at just $750, these 13- and 15-inch laptops don't merely punch above their price bracket, they do it without removing any of the features you'd want and expect from a PC in 2016.
Lenovo Yoga Book
This superportable two-in-one laptop/tablet hybrid includes a Wacom sketching pad that can instantly transform into a QWERTY keyboard. The result is a fun, highly portable device that instantly appeals to creative professionals.
Razer Blade Stealth
Rather than another highly designed gaming laptop, the Stealth is a pure ultrabook. It may lack the gaming graphics of other Razer PCs, but it includes the company's signature Chroma backlit keyboard, an under-the-fingers lightshow unmatched by anyone else.
Asus ZenBook 3
There's a new contender for most MacBook-like, and it's called the Asus ZenBook 3. It's a close-to-total clone, at least on the outside. But under the aluminum chassis, this ambitious, slim laptop trades midtier Intel Core M processors for a low-voltage Core i7 CPU.
Apple MacBook Pro (2016)
The new MacBook Pro adds a much larger touchpad and a redesigned keyboard into a slimmer, lighter body. The least-expensive model lacks the fancy new Touch Bar strip, but keeps all the other new upgrades, including the USB-C ports.
Acer Swift 7
A hair slimmer, on paper, than even HP's own Spectre, this sub-10mm 13-inch laptop has a sharp gold-and-black design and two USB-C ports (plus some handy connection dongles come in the box).
This slim bar sits right below your laptop screen and connects via USB, magically turning any laptop into a touchscreen device. The idea of using add-on sensors on a non-touch screen for finger control isn't new, but the AirBar works surprisingly well, as long as you keep expectations modest (the accuracy can creep a bit). It's a fun plug-and-play add-on for a reasonable $69.
Razer Kraken 7.1
These mid-priced ($99) headphones connect to your PC via USB and offer virtual 7.1 surround sound, but the coolest feature is the retractable headset mic, which dissapears for the 99-percent of the time you're not doing voice-to-voice chat.
Pad & Quill Leather Attaché Bag
A great accessory for a high-end laptop is an equally high-end bag. This hefty leather shoulder bag from Pad & Quill is one of our favorites because it's rugged on the outside, but soft and well-padded on the inside.