Ever since smartphones ate the world whole, tapping and touching screens has become an expectation in new gear you buy. But tap the screen on any given laptop in your local electronics superstore, and it’s a roll of the dice whether you’ll get a response, or just an oily fingerprint.
Touch screens are a staple of modern computing, but not every laptop has one. It’s a feature that you need to shop for specifically. With some categories of laptop, it’s uncertain whether the machine will support touch. With others, their very nature is a virtual guarantee that they will—or won’t. The key is knowing the difference.
Touch Screens 101: The Basics
First of all, some terminology. In most cases, a touch-screen-equipped laptop has a conductive digitizing layer, overlaid on the panel element, that allows for tap, pinch, or swipe input. Most modern laptops make use of what’s known as capacitive touch input, in which the over-screen layer detects where you’ve touched with one or more fingers using the conductivity of your skin. This layer is typically a grid of ultra-fine wires, or a film; it needs to be subtle or translucent enough to not interfere with viewability.
That electrical aspect explains why touch screens don’t work if you’re wearing gloves. This is in contrast to the resistive touch technology you might see in other implementations of touch screens, in which the upper layer covering the screen flexes. When you write or tap on a resistive screen, that upper layer closes a circuit with another layer beneath it. (Having to press a little to, say, sign your name on a screen is an earmark of resistive touch.)
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Which Laptops Will Have Touch Input?
Depending on the specific kind of laptop you’re looking at, the tendency toward touch support will vary. Let’s dig into the major types.
BUDGET CLAMSHELLS. Most low-cost machines that are straight-up laptops (that is, models that do not have 2-in-1-type hinges or tablet modes) will not have touch screens, but you’ll run across the occasional exception. In under-$500 machines, a touch screen should be seen as a pleasant surprise, not a given. Exception: 2-in-1s, more about which in a moment. (For more, see our picks for the best budget laptops.)
MAINSTREAM AND BUSINESS CLAMSHELLS. You’ll see the most varied mix of touch and non-touch models here. This is the category most likely to be frought with touch versus non-touch models in the same system family. Take for example, the 1,920-by-1,200 non-touch panel versus the 4K touch panel in the latest Dell XPS 13. (For more, see our picks for the best business laptops.)
the best convertible laptops.)
the best gaming laptops.)
GIANT-SCREEN MACHINES. It’s rare to see a laptop of any stripe with a 17-inch display that supports touch input. Touch-panel implementations at that size are pricey and simply not cost-effective. They’re also not very practical: As we said, many touch-screen laptops are 2-in-1s, and a 17-inch tablet would be pretty unwieldy. The 2020 Dell XPS 17 is the rare recent 17-inch touch model. (See our favorite 17-inch laptops.)
the best Chromebooks.)
MacBook Pro models. (The Touch Bar is merely a contextual-shortcut strip that adapts to the program at hand.) Like Chrome OS, the macOS operating system isn’t optimized for touch. In the Apple-sphere, full touch displays remain the province of the company’s iPhones and iPads.
You might think it’s a given that having a touch screen is a good thing, if you can get one. But you’ll want to consider a few factors before going all in.
CONSIDER BATTERY DRAIN. All else being equal, a touch screen will reduce your battery life versus an identical non-touch screen in the same system. That’s because the system has to keep a trickle of power fed to the digitizing layer, which will be always on, waiting for your fingertip or stylus tip to tap. That said, we emphasize “all else being equal”: The battery factor is seldom an apples-to-apples comparison, because touch screens in a given laptop line that also offers non-touch options also tend to be higher-end, higher-resolution, or higher-brightness screens that, by their nature, consume more power to start with—the touch aspect regardless.
WILL YOU ACTUALLY USE IT? Think about how you actually work or play, day to day, before insisting on a touch panel. If your main PC activity is mincing through fine-celled spreadsheets, jabbing a touch screen with a finger might not afford the precision or utility you need for operations. If you spend 80 percent of your time tapping from YouTube vid to YouTube vid, on the other hand, touch can be a delight.
Also consider the ergonomic aspects. To use a touch panel much, you’ll be reaching from keyboard to screen, which can clash with your workflow on a clamshell machine. So make sure that kind of reaching jibes with your day-to-day usage. Alternately, if you’ll often be tapping at music- and movie-playback controls on the screen or poking frenetically at YouTube thumbnails, consider a 2-in-1 that you can prop up in A-frame or tent mode, in which tapping the screen makes more sense and requires less reaching.
You Pen? Stylus Considerations
Separate from simple tap, swipe, and pinch actions on the screen, pen support requires a touch-capable screen, and if sketching or handwritten note-taking are part of how you work, you’ll want to investigate the pen options available in a given touch-screen laptop.
Windows 10, can also be a compelling reason to investigate the stylus capabilities of a given touch-enabled laptop. With the introduction of Ink came support for Sticky Notes, Sketchpad, and Screen Sketch within the OS. With Sticky Notes, you can scrawl on virtual Post-It notes and have Cortana interpret relevant information from your scribbles, such as email addresses and phone numbers, and make them actionable. Sketchpad lets you do freeform drawing with basic tools, while Screen Sketch lets you annotate onscreen images freehand, great for UI designers, developers, or others who work with graphical elements that need feedback. Other pen-enabled apps appear in the Windows Ink Workspace, a pen-centric panel that you can pop up with an icon in your taskbar.
That’s where our reviews come in. Our rankings above and below line up our current-favorite clamshells, detachables, rotating 2-in-1s, and Chromebooks that support touch. Note that if you find one you like and decide to order from an e-tailer, we strongly recommend that you double-check that the specific model you’re looking at (especially if it’s a configurable clamshell) actually does include the touch-screen option.
In the case of a few models in our ranking, the specific model may support a touch-screen option, but we may have reviewed a non-touch version and our online pricing links may point to that. Bear that in mind if you click through to an e-tailer.
The Best For Style-Minded Travelers Who Need to Present Often
Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 (7390)
The Best For Touchscreen Users Seeking a Big Screen
Dell XPS 17 (9700)
The Best For Heavy-Typing Business Travelers
Lenovo ThinkPad X390
The Best For Style-Minded Travelers Happy With Clamshell Designs
Dell XPS 13 (9300)
The Best For Executives on the Road
HP Elite Dragonfly
The Best For On-the-Go Users Looking for the Best Value
HP Envy x360 13 (2020)
The Best For Budget-Minded Business Buyers
Lenovo ThinkPad L13 Yoga
The Best For Sketchers, Note-Takers
Microsoft Surface Pro 7
The Best For Creative Pros Who Can Use Two Screens
Asus ZenBook Pro Duo
The Best For Content Creators, Casual Gamers
Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 (15-Inch)
Pros: Excellent design and build quality.
Intel 10th Gen “Ice Lake” CPU and graphics.
Wi-Fi 6 support.
Long battery life.
Bundled USB adapter.
Cons: Shallow keyboard.
No USB Type-A ports.
Balky fingerprint reader.
Bottom Line: With sterling build quality, a brilliant display, and an Intel “Ice Lake” CPU with real graphics pep, the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 is tops among convertible laptops.
Pros: Roomy 17-inch display with option for 4K-resolution panel
Relatively compact for a 17-incher
Comfortable keyboard, gigantic touchpad
Four Thunderbolt 3 ports and SD card reader
Excellent audio quality
Available Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 graphics
Long battery life
Cons: Expensive as configured
Occasional coil whine
Even when plugged in, slight power drain during intense gaming sessions
No USB Type-A ports
Bottom Line: The 2020 resurrection of Dell’s XPS 17 is a bold, sleek laptop with a gorgeous 17-inch display, long battery life, and serious computing power.
Pros: Healthy battery life.
Strong build quality and performance.
Excellent input devices.
Plenty of ports, including Thunderbolt 3.
Cons: Standard warranty is only one year.
Battery isn’t swappable.
Inconvenient microSD card slot.
Bottom Line: Lenovo’s ThinkPad X390 ultralight combines strong build quality, zippy performance, and a great keyboard into a winning recipe for a productive travel laptop.
Pros: Unique ScreenPad Plus second display simplifies workflows. Main display is an OLED panel. Excellent design and build quality. Intel Core i9 and Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 offer computing muscle. Included stylus and wrist rest.
Cons: Cramped keyboard and touchpad. No SD card reader. Heavy. Short battery life.
Bottom Line: The Asus ZenBook Pro Duo is a thoughtful, albeit pricey, reinvention of the laptop, with a second screen in the keyboard base and an Intel Core i9 processor that should appeal to creative professionals with resource-intensive workflows.
Pros: Sleek styling
Excellent 16:10 display
Narrow screen bezels
Long battery life
Cons: Expensive as configured
Limited port selection
Bottom Line: The 2020 version of the Dell XPS 13 is an excellent ultraportable laptop, with head-turning looks and plenty of power for everyday tasks.
Pros: Extremely light weight.
Exceptional build quality.
Supports Intel vPro.
USB Type-A and HDMI ports.
Standard three-year warranty.
Cons: Frequent fan noise.
Uses older-generation CPUs.
Only available in dark blue.
Bottom Line: The HP Elite Dragonfly is a no-compromises, no-nonsense business laptop that manages to stay under 2.5 pounds while including a 360-degree convertible hinge.
Pros: Thin, light, and spiffy-looking
Nifty automatic camera shutter
Aggressive pricing, given components and build quality
Cons: Cramped touchpad
Bottom Line: This Ryzen-powered version of HP’s classy Envy x360 13 offers fast performance, a slick chassis, nifty features, and a palatable price. It’s an excellent midrange 2-in-1 convertible laptop.
Pros: Superb build quality
Attractive 1080p touch screen
USB-A, USB-C, and HDMI ports, plus a microSD card reader
Cons: Modest Core i5 CPU, integrated graphics
No Thunderbolt 3 port
Wi-Fi supports 802.11ac only, not 802.11ax
A few ounces overweight
Bottom Line: It’s no benchmark barn-burner, but Lenovo’s ThinkPad L13 Yoga is a top-notch convertible-laptop value at a thrifty $899.99 in our test model.
Pros: Attractive, unassuming design. Thin and light for a 15-inch laptop. Bright, vivid 3:2 display. Comfortable touchpad.
Cons: Optional extras (such as the Surface Dock) are pricey. Limited selection of ports. No Wi-Fi 6 support.
Bottom Line: With a large 3:2 screen, a comfortable touchpad, light weight for its size, and decent performance (powered by new partner AMD), Microsoft’s larger-screen Surface Laptop 3 is an excellent mainstream machine.
Pros: Snappy new Intel “Ice Lake” processor.
Robust battery life.
Finally includes USB-C.
Cons: Keyboard still sold separately.
Just two ports, and no Thunderbolt 3 support.
Bottom Line: The Surface Pro 7 is another solid iteration of Microsoft’s flagship Windows-tablet 2-in-1, elevated this time by worthy upgrades in the form of a USB-C port and peppy Ice Lake CPUs.
A veteran of Computer Shopper since 1993, John has covered just about every kind of computer gear—from the 386SX to octo-core processors—in his long tenure as an editor, a writer, and an advice columnist. He has served as Computer Shopper’s editor in chief since 2008. In the years before Computer Shopper, he worked in the science-book field and as an editor of computer-tech books for Paramount Publishing. A lifetime New Yorker, John is a graduate of New York University and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. See Full Bio