Welcome to the FEBRUARY 2018 edition of The Tech Report's mobile staff picks, where we recommend our favorite tablets, convertible PCs, laptops, and phones.
It's been a while since our summer mobile staff picks. Where in the previous edition we were hunting down laptops and convertibles with Intel Kaby Lake (seventh-generation) processors inside, all the talk has turned towards Intel's recently-released eighth-generation mobile CPUs, codenamed Kaby Lake Refresh (KBL-R). To put it simply, these newest chips put more cores in the same power envelopes as their Kaby Lake predecessors. For just a couple examples, the previous-gen Core i5-7200U and Core i7-7500U offered two cores and four threads. Their successors, the Core i5-8250U and Core i7-8550U, are quad-core, eight-thread deals—all in the same 15 W.
That means two things. The first is that the machines with the new CPUs simply have more horsepower under the hood, making for faster laptops and convertibles, especially for tasks that require a lot of processor grunt. Intel has also put that power in eighth-gen systems without significantly affecting battery life, either. Considering that Kaby Lake systems already had a good reputation in that regard, Intel's achievement is quite impressive.
AMD has also gotten back in the game with a range of mobile-ready Ryzen CPUs. We thoroughly reviewed the Ryzen 5 2500U a while back and found that its Zen CPU cores can generally hang with Intel's latest and greatest in a range of workloads. The real appeal of Ryzen APUs is that they can deliver potent entry-level gaming experiences, thanks to their complements of Vega compute units. We weren't terribly impressed by the HP Envy x360 that we used to test the Ryzen 5 2500U, however, so it'll remain to be seen whether AMD's other mobile APU partners can put a better face on a potentially solid family of chips.
Whatever platform you fancy, the bad news is that it's likely you'll pay more for it than you might otherwise have of late. As most PC and parts shoppers have come to realize, the price of RAM can best be described as "hellish." Contemporary memory kits in their various guises are roughly twice as expensive as they were not even a year ago. SSD prices are also pretty high, or at least they haven't been steadily descending with time as all hardware is expected to. The scarcity of DDR4 and NAND have pushed the prices of laptops, convertibles, and Chromebooks upward in brutal fashion.
Judging by the interpretation of my Mark I Eyeball, the latest crop of laptops is easily $150-$200 more expensive than their generational equivalents not even a year ago. As a more practical example, where before you could find quality, thin laptops and convertibles with extras like 4K displays or Thunderbolt ports well under $1000, now you usually have to go above and beyond that mark to find those features.
Over in the phone aisle, there are new handsets, but there haven't been any tectonic shifts for a while. The sky is blue, most Android handset makers don't offer OS updates in a timely fashion (if they offer them at all), the sun still shines, and Apple has new iPhones out.
The most talked-of iDevice of late has to be the iPhone X and its beautiful, nearly borderless OLED display. Apple's bleeding-edge effort also puts facial identification front and center thanks to an array of depth-mapping sensors that is thus far unique among handsets from any manufacturer. The $999-and-up price tag is a serious downer on the excitement about the iPhone X's tech, though.
Over on Google's side, the Pixel 2 has been getting rave reviews for doing almost everything right despite not strictly breaking new ground. Its XL sibling has also garnered its share of fans, although concerns about the quality control and vividness of the larger phone's screen has dulled what might otherwise be the best Android phone around. Pick your poison.
If there's a market that's more ashes than embers, it's probably tablets. There's absolutely no new technology that we can think of in this department, and the only new recommendation we have is the newest iteration of Amazon's Fire HD 10, an offering with a rather impressive bang-to-buck ratio. That boring grey cloud has a silver lining, however—you can get great tablets for cheap on either end of the market.
Chromebooks, on the other hand, took a M1 Abrams tank hit price-wise. These machines are meant to be affordable, so they live in an extremely-price-sensitive jungle. The component shortages we discussed mean that the vast majority of the latest-generation Chromebooks with a sub-$400 price use boring old 1366x768 displays instead of nice 1920x1080 panels, and actual CPU upgrades are scarce. Having said that, they're still reliable and simple workhorse machines whose spec sheets tend to resemble those of costlier laptops. It helps that many Chromebooks nowadays have official support for Google's Play Store, meaning that they can run Android apps alongside the Chrome browser.
By the way, if you like this article, don't miss the rest of our guide series: our main System Guide, in which we detail the best PC components and explore some custom builds; our how-to-build-a-PC guide, where we walk folks through the PC assembly process; and our peripheral guide, where we pick the best monitors, mice, keyboards, and accessories to make your PC experience even better.
Our mobile staff picks guides include shopping links that you can (and should!) use to purchase the products we recommend. You'll be supporting our research-intensive work by doing that, and you'll also get a warm, fuzzy feeling inside from keeping our lights on. While we have referral partnerships with several retailers and receive commissions for our links to their product pages, they have no input on the products we choose to recommend in this guide.