These days, if you want a good notebook in a compact package, you pretty much have to go for a device with some sort of 12-inch screen.
That’s especially the case if you’re after powerful specs and premium features, cause otherwise, if you’re on a tighter budget, chances are you’ll find something better suited for your needs among 11-inchers, which we discussed in depth in this other article. And that’s because there aren’t many affordable 12-inchers out there anymore, but quite a few good and inexpensive 11-inchers.
Knowing this, I’ve decided to split the devices we’re going to cover in this post into two different sections, but not based on budget, as with most of my other lists, but based on screen types and form factors:
We’ll talk about the best available options in each of these classes below, in order to help you in your quest for the perfect compact computer. Btw, it’s worth adding that I’ve used a 12-inch laptop as my daily driver for many years. Recently I’ve switched to the Dell XPS 13, which is the most compact 13-incher on the market (could be considered as a 12-inch sized laptop with a 13-inch screen), but I still consider 12-inchers to provide that sweet balance between size, weight and features.
The convertible 12/12.5 inch mini laptops
Most 12-inch options pack touchscreens these days and some sort of a convertible form-factor. That makes them usable as a notebook for work related activities, with a good keyboard and trackpad at your disposal, but also as tablets or anything in between, if the user so desires.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
The Surface Pro 3 was one of the most appreciated convertibles of 2014/2015, and the newer Surface Pro 4 does everything slightly better.
It maintains the tablet form-factor, but gets a slightly larger 12.3-inch 3:2 screen, with a higher 2736 x 1824 px resolution and an improved digitizer and pen. You’ll find a few more details about the pen from the video review included below, as I feel this is one of the main reasons you might want to buy a Surface Pro 4. Magnesium is still used for the outer case, which gives the slate’s a nice and sturdy feel, and the Surface Pro 4 is thinner and lighter than the Surface Pro 3, despite the fact that it packs a larger screen.
Hardware wise, the Surface Pro 4 is built on either Skylake Y or Skyalke U processors. The former is a fanless platform targeted at casual users, while the latter are the Core i5 and i7 processors found in most of the other modern ultraportables, although this time crammed into a tiny body. The performance of the Surface pro 4 is a significant bump over the Haswell based SP3, both in everyday use and especially in anything graphics related. The top configuration can also be paired with 16 GB of RAM and 1 TB of storage.
The Keyboard Folio is another significant improvement over its predecessor, as the keys are taller and stiffer, while the trackpad is larger and more accurate. The new Folio works with the old Surface Pro 3 as well, so if you own the older Surface Pro, you could consider just upgrading the Folio, it’s worth it.
Not everything is all bells and whistles with the Surface Pro 4 though. For instance, Microsoft went for a smaller battery on this new iteration, which only translates in about 5-6 hours of daily use. That’s average by today’s standards, at best. Then there’s the form factor, great if you want to use this as a tablet or even on a desk, but not that much on a lap and other less conventional positions. And last but not least there’s the pricing.
Microsoft are charging premium for the Surface Pro 4, with the Core m3 version starting at $899 and the cheapest Core i5 model at $999. That’s without the pen and the Keyboard Folio, which are going to cost you around $200 extra.
Is the Surface Pro 4 worth that kind of money? Well, that’s up to you to decide. It’s definitely a great product, but the high price tag make it tough to recommend for the average user. Follow this link for more details and potential discounts, and you can also have a look at the Surface Pro 3, which is still a great hybrid and sells for significantly less. Just make sure you get the redesigned Keyboard Folio if you opt for this one.
Lenovo Miix 700
If you’re a fan of the Surface Pro, you must have the Lenovo Miix 700 on your list as well, because this one is pretty much a much more affordable and not as powerful copy of Microsoft’s device.
In fact, on the outisde it’s a copycat of the Surface Pro 3, with a similar design, similar 3:2 dispaly with Pen support, similar kick stand on the back and a similarly designed keyboard-folio, with a taller and supposedly a more comfortable to use keyboard though.
Unlike the Surfaces’ though, the Lenovo Miix 700 is only built on Skylake Core M platforms, so it’s not going to be as powerful. If you opt for a Core m5 or an m7 processor with 8 GB of RAM though, this device should be potent enough for most users and most everyday activities.
The major reason to consider this Lenovo is the aggressive pricing though. The base version is going to start at $699 for a Core m3 configuration, but it actually includes the Keyboard Folio and the Dock. In other words, the Miix 700 is going to be several hundred dollars cheaper than a similarly specked Surface Pro 4.
Asus Transformer Book Chi T300
The Trasnformer Book T300 Chi is a premium detachable with an excellent price. These days it sells for under $550, and for that kind of money you’ll end up with a sleek aluminum 12-inch tablet and a matching keyboard dock.
I’ve reviewed the Transformer Book Chi T300 a while ago and I was impressed by the screen, build-quality, performance and the typing experience. However, keep in mind this is a Core M motorized device, so it is fanless, but at the same time not very fast. It will do fine for everyday activities like browsing, editing Office documents and watching multimedia content. But don’t expect too much from it.
On the other hand, I wasn’t very happy with the price at the time of the review, temperatures, Wi-Fi performance and especially battery life. The latter are still issues to consider, but the price has gone down in the meantime, that’s why I think the T300 is these days a device to consider. Just make sure you know what you’re getting and what it can and cannot do.
Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 260 – the business hybrid
The ThinkPad Yoga 260 is business hybrid.
While still thin (0.7″) and light (2.9 lbs), the ThinkPad Yoga 260 checks boxes un-checked by most other 12-inchers. For instance, it packs an excellent keyboard and a trackpad with mechanical click buttons, it packs a screen with digitizer and pen support, gets the latest Skylake processors and Nvidia dedicated graphics, gets a 44 Wh battery and is still strongly built.
On top of all these, the Yoga 260 is a hybrid, with a 360-degrees convertible display. The keyboard, trackpad, ports and overall shape make it a great laptop, while the fairly light weight and the screen make it a decent tablet as well.
All in all, at least on paper, the ThinkPad Yoga 260 looks like a complete 2-in-1, a device meant for those of us in search of performance in a sturdy and light convertible form-factor. It’s not affordable though, but that was expected, given its features. The base version starts at $949 , with a mid-level configuration going for several hundred dollars extra. It will hit the stores in November 2015.
Dell XPS 12 9250
On a fist look the XPS 12 might look like a very compact 12-inch laptop, with a narrow bezel around the screen, but it’s actually a detachable. You can pull the tablet apart from the keyboard dock and use it independently, as the hardware, battery and screen are all tucked inside this slate.
However, the XPS 12 9250 is not like all the other detachables. As you can see from the article, the “hinge” on the dock is not exactly a hinge, but merely a support for the tablet. So the two parts don’t latch together, they just stay attached with magnets, and there’s no way to adjust the screen’s inclination in any way. This will impact everyday use and can be a major deal-breaker for some.
This aside though, the XPS 12 9250 is a great little fellow. Magnesium is used for the exterior and the slate alone is thin and light (1.75 lbs). Dell opted for a 12.5-inch IPS 4K display, while the whole thing is motorized by Skylake Core M platforms.
As for the dock, Dell is actually going to offer two version for the XPS 9250. One is slimmer and only includes a full-size chiclet keyboard and a large trackpad, while the other is thicker and heavier, but also adds an extra battery and several ports. If you opt for the former version, you’ll have to rely exclusively on the two USB TypeC connectors and the SD card slot on the tablet.
The XPS 9250 is scheduled for release in November 2015 in the US and you will find more details on the available configurations and prices on Dell’s website.
HP Spectre X2 12
The HP Spectre X2 12 is another hybrid with a Surface like form-factor. It gets a 12-inch display, Skylake hardware and an stunning aluminum body. The Keyboard Folio is metallic as well and sports backlit keys and a large trackpad.
I’ll update this section once the Spectre X2 12 will be available in stores. For now, check out this link from HP’s website for more details.
Toshiba Portégé Z20t
The Toshiba Portégé Z20t is another 12.5-inch hybrid built on Core M hardware.
The tablet alone houses an IPS FHD touchscreen with a matte finishing and an Active Digitizer, the hardware and a 36 Wh battery. The dock adds a great backlit keyboard, a trackpad, extra ports and another 36 Wh battery. Combined, the two weigh 3.3 lbs and make up for a solid 12-inch notebook.
Performance is still rather limited though, as this is motorized by a Broadwell Core M platform, so the Portege Z20t is capable of dealing with everyday tasks, but not with very demanding chores. On the other hand, it can easily go for 10-12 hours of real-life use on a charge, thanks to the two batteries.
Performance might be a deal breaker for some of your, but I feel that the major reason why people will usually consider something else is the price, as a Core M 5Y71 configuration with 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD sells for around $1700. That’s pretty much insane for a Core M device, no matter how good it is.
The classics – clamshell 12-inchers
If you’re after a simple, classic 12-inch notebook, you should know there are still a few of these left out there, and we’ll talk about the best ones in this section.
The Apple MacBook is not an ultraportable for everyone, and that’s because it’s an expensive product and it’s only powerful enough to handle everyday tasks, but can’t deal with demanding chores and serious multitasking. I’ve gathered my in depth opinions of the MacBook in this post, in case you’re interested.
On the other hand, no one can deny this little fellow is a wonderful piece of technology. It looks and feels amazing, it’s incredibly light and thin, it packs a great screen and lasts for around 6-7 hours of daily use on a charge. As for performance, well, it’s up to you to decide if this thing is what you want or not. Used lightly, it’s going to perform well. Pushed, it will choke.
My main nits with MacBook are the keyboard and the IO though. The keys are proper sized and spaced, but travel very little inside the frame, which leads to a weird experience. I type for a living and I couldn’t get used to this keyboard after using it for a few days and typing in thousands of words. If you can try it out in an Apple Store, do it, for me typing on it feels a lot like touch-typing on a screen, because of the limited key travel. You might feel otherwise.
As for the ports, well, there’s only one, an USB TypeC connector on the left edge, used for charging the device, transferring data, outputting video and connecting peripherals, with the help of dongles. Dongles that are not included in the pack. Oh, and you can only perform one of these at a time, since there’s just that single port.
These two aspects kill the MacBook for me. And then there’s the price.
The base version of the MacBook Air sells for $1299, but you can actually get it cheaper online. Follow this link for more details and potential discounts.
The base configuration however includes 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD, alongside the Core M processor, which brings the MacBook close to similarly specked MacBook Air 11 and 13. So in other words, you’re getting a better screen and a thinner/lighter package, but you’re sacrificing performance, typing experience and battery life when going for the 12-inch MacBook.
Samsung ATIV Book 9
The ATIVBook 9 is a Windows running alternative for the Apple MacBook, a device built on a similar hardware platform, with a similar screen and a similar foot-print.
Aluminum is used for the entire case and the ATIV Book 9 weighs just 2.1 lbs and feels sturdy, well built. For the screen Samsung chose a 12.2-inch IPS panel, a bright, sharp and color-accurate one. As for the keyboard, well, it travels a bit deeper than the keyboard on the MacBook, but the weird layout with a minuscule Space is annoying, while the lack of illumination is pretty much unacceptable at this level.
Hardware wise, the ATIV Book 9 is motorized by a Core M platform, with only 4 GB of RAM and either 128 or 256 GB of storage space. There’s also enough room for a 36 Wh battery inside, but the ATIV Book is not very efficient and will only last for 4-5 hours on a charge. So that’s another front where the MacBook comes on top.
In fact, I feel the MacBook is the better pick overall of these two, despite the fact that the ATIV Book 9 has a much more satisfying IO and more affordable prices on its side. You’ll find two USB 3.0 slots on the sides, a micro-HDMI connector and a microSD card-slot, while the prices range between $1099 and $1199, but you can find this one even cheaper online. Still, you’re only going to pay $100 more for the MacBook, but get 8 GB of RAM, a minorly faster processor, a backlit keyboard and a increased battery life, which I feel are worth paying a little extra for.
Lenovo ThinkPad X250/X260
This is Lenovo’s latest business ultra-portable at the time of this post, but it might have been replaced with the X260 model by the time you’re reading this.
The X250 is a business notebook, tough, simple and built to withstand the daily hassle of business environments. It gets a tough frame and case, built from carbon-fiber, magnesium and hard plastic, and it passes various MIL tests, like extreme vibrations, high humidity, dust and others.
The X250 gets Broadwell hardware, while the x260 is motorized by the newer Skylake platform. They are paired with up to 8 or 16 GB of RAM (for the Skylake model) and SSD storage.
Hardware specs aside though, the two are similar in many ways. They are a bit thicker than other ultraportables, but still fairly light (roughly 3 lbs). They accommodate a large selection of full-sized ports and two batteries, one embedded within the case and an external one, available in several different capacities. Opting for the largest one gives you a combined capacity of 95 Wh, which means the laptop is going to easily last for 15-18 hours of daily use on a single charge.
On top of these, both pack some excellent backlit keyboards and large trackpads with mechanical click buttons. They are also both regular clamshell notebooks with 12.5-inch IPS displays. You can opt for either a matte non-touch panel or a touchscreen, and it both cases the display can lean back flat to 180 degrees.
Now, all these don’t come cheap. And as business laptops, these ThinkPads are available in a multitude of configurations, with the base version selling for around $800 in the US, and a good Core i5 model with 8 GB of RAM and a 46 Wh battery going for around $1000. There are tools on Lenovo’s website that let you create your own configurations, and you might even find some predefined ones in other online stores.
One thing to keep in mind is that these ThinkPads seem to be extremely expensive in Europe. A given configuration in Germany costs nearly 50% more than what it costs in the US, so if you’re living in Europe, chances are these machines might not be worth your hard earned Euro.
Dell Latitude E7250 / E7260
These are Dell’s business 12-inchers. Like the Lenovos above, they also pack a 12.5-inch screen in a rugged, heavily tested body, ready for corporate life.
They are also available in a multitude of configurations, with different screens, batteries and hardware options. The Latitude E7250 series packs Intel Broadwell hardware with support for 16 GB of RAM, while the Latitude E7260 series gets the updated Skylake processors.
Both series are compact and thin, tipping the scales at just under 3 pounds. They offer a full set of ports, a backlit keyboard, a large trackpad with mechanical click buttons, a fingerprint-reader and an optional 3G/4G modem.
Bottom point, Dell put up together great 12-inch ultrabook with these Latitudes, as you can also see from this in-depth article about the Latitude 12 and 14-inch Series. However, the Latitudes are significantly more expensive than the Thinkpads. The base versions start at around $1150 for what Lenovo asks less than $900, while a mid-level Core i5 model sell for around $1400 (and only around $1000 for a similar Thinkpad).
So as much as I’d like these Latitudes, I can’t see why a regular user would actually pay that much for them, when the ThinkPad X models are just as good and much more affordable. Perhaps Dell are focusing more on corporate clients and not that much on end-users, otherwise it’s hard to understand their pricing policies and their high margins.
HP EliteBook 820 and 1020
HP offers two high-end models with 12.5-inch screens, the EliteBook 820, built on Core U hardware, and the EliteBook 1020, built on a Core M platform.
The latter could be an option if you really want the whole EliteBook experience in a fanless machine. That translates in sturdily build aluminum case, a great keyboard and a large selection of ports on the sides. But considering how the Folio 1020 actually weighs around 2.8 lbs and only includes Core M hardware and a 36 Wh battery, I don’t think this is actually worth the amount of money HP asks for it.
The Core M 5Y51 model with 8 GB of RAM and a 128 GB SSD sells for $1200 , while the Core M 5Y71 version with 8 GB of RAM and a 180 GB SSD sells for $1500. That kind of money can buy you either a much faster Core i configurations from other manufacturers, or one of the slimmer and much lighter Apple Macbook or Samsung Ativ Book S.
It might be worth your buck if you can find it cheaper online though.
The EliteBook 820 on the other hand is a great machine. In fact, it’s an option for those who appreciate the naked-aluminum look in a business machine, and packs pretty much everything one could want from a compact laptop, including the latest Core U processors, IPS FHD matte or touch screens, an excellent backlit keyboard and trackpad with mechanical buttons or a 46 Wh battery, all tucked inside a slim body that weighs around 3 lbs.
The base configuration sells for just under $1000 and includes a Core i5 processor with 4 GB of RAM, HDD storage and a HD TN display. There are a handful of preconfigured models available online, and there’s also the possibility of customizing your own version on HP’s website, but in this case a Core i5 configuration with 8 GB of RAM, a FHD IPS touchscreen and a 500 GB HDD will jump to around $1300, which is rather pricey. Still, the EliteBook 820 sits somewhat between the Thinkpad X and the Dell latitude series, price wise.
Ok, that’s about it with my list of recommended 12-inch laptops.
These days there aren’t as many laptops in this class, especially in the affordable sub-800 dollars price category. Most manufacturers migrated their cheap entries towards the smaller 11.6-inch class, and kept the 12-inchers as their more premium options, with high-end features and powerful hardware specs, which don’t come cheap.
So if you’re looking for more affordable mini laptops, you should definitely check out at my detailed list of recommended 11.6-inchers. And if you’re just after a compact and portable laptop, you might also want to go through the list of the best ultrabooks you can buy these days.
As for this post, I’m going to be constantly update it each couple of weeks, so be sure to check it out periodically for changes. Also, feel free to post your opinions, remarks and questions in the comments section below, I’m around to reply and will help out if I can.