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Working from home? These four laptops will up your tech game.

11September 2020

Still working or attending school from home because of COVID-19? There is no better time to up your tech game.

Start by replacing your computer, if your current workhorse is getting on in years, to make the most of your home-based productivity.

I’ve tried a variety of laptops over the course of the pandemic, and here are four of my faves in a range of prices.

Apple MacBook Air

The lightweight Air dates back to 2008 — It was then billed as the world’s thinnest computer — and has long been a top pick for mainstream users.

However, the Air and other Mac laptops were marred in recent years by a quirkily designed, prone-to-malfunction keyboard. I cautioned all who asked me about the Air to stay away from it unless they have a high risk tolerance.

For the newest version of the Air, Apple has returned to an older, more dependable keyboard design. I’d now be comfortable recommending the Air unconditionally.

The aluminum-sheathed Air boasts a gorgeous 13.3-inch high-resolution display, a monster trackpad, two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports on the left side — I would have liked one on either side, but I’m nitpicking — and plenty of power, memory and on-board storage for the $999 starting price.

I’ve been using the Air for a while now, and I love it. Note that you can get it in gold, silver or dark gray (I favor the latter shade).

One warning: The Air and other current-version Macs run on Intel processors of the kind that Apple is phasing out in favor of its own chips. In other words, a new Mac era is dawning (the first Apple-silicon Macs are due this year).

Does that mean you should avoid the Air? Not necessarily. Apple has pledged to support Intel Macs for years to come (and, in fact, is still releasing new Intel Macs). So, if you need a Mac urgently, getting the Air is just fine. If you are able to wait, however, consider doing so until the future of the Mac snaps into better focus in the coming weeks or months.

Lenovo Chromebook Duet

I’d generally be leery of a laptop costing less than $300, so the Chromebook Duet has been a pleasant surprise. For those on a tight budget, this is a good pick.

A “Chromebook,” for those who are not in the know, is a computer running a lean operating system that is based on Google’s Chrome browser. Such a Web-centric computer cannot run traditional Mac or Windows apps, but is fine for students and others wanting a streamlined computing experience.

Chromebooks come in all price ranges, and the Duet is among the cheapest. The low price gets you a 10.1-inch machine with some limitations — such as mediocre performance and a single USB-C port.

But it has terrific battery life and an ingenious design, including a detachable keyboard and protective case that are included. Such a modular approach means you can use the Duet laptop-style or as a tablet, which is great.

The Duet isn’t for power users, and those accustomed to productivity marathons might find the screen slightly claustrophobic, and the keyboard a bit mushy and cramped. But this is a decent choice for students needing a versatile laptop in an affordable, lightweight, ultraportable package.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

At the other end of the price spectrum, in a category of computers intended for professionals, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon excels.

Considered one of Lenovo’s flagship laptops, the X1 Carbon is renowned among Windows users for its superior build quality, exceptional keyboard and super-thin profile. (You can also get one with the Linux operating system.)

While laptops typically have aluminum exteriors, the X1 Carbon retains its black carbon construction, which I love. The version I used has a matte not glossy display for low reflectivity, another feature I like and wish more laptops incorporated.

There’s the usual ThinkPad weirdness, including the red TrackPoint nubbin built into the keyboard for use as a mouse alternative.

An entry-level X1 Carbon comes in at $1,249.99, which isn’t crazy expensive given its up-to-date innards and high quality. It’s a shame the display only has a 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution; you have to pay more for high-res. It’s not a touch display either; you pay extra for that, too.

While you’re looking at ThinkPad X1 models, by the way, be sure to check out the X1 Yoga with a 360-degree hinge for the same physical versatility of Lenovo Yoga consumer laptops (such as the fantastic C940 14-inch model).

Acer Chromebook Spin 713

Returning to the Chromebook realm, I give you Acer’s Spin 713, one of the best Chromebooks you can get at any price. If that sounds expensive, it’s not — The Spin 713 starts at $629.

The Spin 713 has won praise (see here and here) for solid if not sexy industrial design ideal for a range of demanding users, such as professionals and college students.

The computer is rugged, as I discovered when I accidentally dropped it onto the unforgiving tiles in my backyard patio with only a few superficial nicks and no performance issues to show for it.

Its 13.5-inch display is aces, not only because it is bright and sharp, but because it has a 3:2 aspect ratio. Compared to 16:9 displays on most laptops, the Spin 13’s screen is taller for more comfortably viewing documents or webpages. The display also has a 360-degree hinge.

With up-to-date Intel internals, the 713 has decent performance — especially since it is a Chromebook, which is more forgiving in this regard.

Shortcomings are minor. Though the Spin 713 has a touch display, no stylus is included. It is beefy compared to svelte Chromebooks like Google’s Pixelbook Go. And, again, its design is uninspired.

But if you just want to get work done instead of trying to draw admiring glances at your local coffeeshop (which you probably aren’t frequenting lately, anyway), the Spin 713 may be your Chromebook best bet.

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