How to Buy an Ultrabook

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They’re the thinnest, lightest laptops yet—and the hottest computing category in years. Here’s what you need to know when joining the ultrabook generation.

Tablets? Toys. Netbooks? Nope. The Holy Grail of portable productivity is a no-compromise laptop with a full-sized, comfortable keyboard; easy-on-the-eyes display; all the performance and ports of a desktop replacement; the convenience of near-instant-on startup; and all-day battery life—all in a package so thin and light you’ll forget it’s in your briefcase.

It’s not a new vision, but it has a big new backer or cheerleader in Intel, which at the Computex trade show in May 2011 sketched the outline of what it calls ultrabooks. In August, the chip giant announced a $300 million marketing and R&D campaign for the new category. And by January 2012′s CES, Intel was boasting of 15-odd ultrabooks on the market with another 60 designs in the pipeline.

If you’d like to board this bandwagon, the first thing to know is that while Intel has a trademark on the capitalized word Ultrabook, it doesn’t have a monopoly on the idea. The 2.9-pound Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (check price) dates back to 2008, and its magazine-like profile, tapering from 0.7 inch thick in back to just 0.1 inch in front, has inspired numerous ultrabook designers (some Apple fans would say copycats). There’s also a MacBook Air 11-inch (check price).

On the Windows side, Samsung’s Series 9 also predates Intel’s ultrabook push, and Samsung doesn’t use the term in describing it; the company’s super-thin flagship is available in 13- and 15-inch sizes. The Series 9 is also, like the MacBook Air, a premium or status-symbol machine that lands north of Intel’s pricing guidelines for ultrabooks—theoretically, under $1,000 for 13-inch models, a goal not all manufacturers have met (prices at this writing range from around $800 to more than $1,400 for fully loaded systems).

One Size Fits Most
Your first decision when ultrabook shopping is screen size, and your choices are skewed—the majority of ultrabooks have 13.3-inch displays with 1,366 by 768 resolution. Exceptions include the 1,400 by 900 resolution of the MacBook Air 13-inch and the 1,600 by 900 pixels of Asus’ Zenbook UX31 (check price) and the Samsung Series 9. Intel dictates a maximum thickness of 18mm (0.71 inch) for 13-inch and smaller ultrabooks, but no rules on weight, which ranges from 2.5 pounds for the Toshiba Portege Z835-P330 (check price) to 3.25 pounds for the Editors’ Choice HP Folio 13 (check price).

If even these super-slimlines are too portly for you, the smaller MacBook Air and Asus Zenbook UX21 (check price) offer 11.6-inch screens, also with 1,366 by 768 resolution. They weigh about 2.3 pounds and pack performance that puts netbooks to shame.

Fourteen-inch and larger ultrabooks, close to reaching the market at this writing, can be 21mm (0.83 inch) thick. Compared with their innovative 13-inch siblings, most of these laptops are more reminiscent of the thin-and-light or slimline systems we’ve seen in past years. Some, such as the 14-inch Samsung Series 5, promise to make room for the optical drive that almost all ultrabooks omit.

Apart from the Lenovo ThinkPad T430u—a business-focused 14-incher not scheduled to go on sale until the third quarter of this year—we don’t know of any ultrabooks that use a discrete graphics adapter. The twin emphases on productivity and battery life mean that the processor’s integrated graphics rule—and that would-be gamers are out of luck.

The balance between light weight and sturdy construction is perhaps the toughest challenge for ultrabook makers. The Asus Zenbooks and Lenovo IdeaPad U300s take a page from Apple’s book and carve their chassis from single pieces of aluminum, with no plastic panels. The Dell XPS 13 combines an aluminum case with a carbon fiber base. The Toshiba Z835-P330 relies on magnesium alloy. The HP Envy 14 Spectre covers its lid and palm rest in scratch-resistant glass.

If you can check out an ultrabook before buying, try picking it up by one corner or grasping the screen by the top corners, as well as typing on it with the system in your lap. Try lifting the open laptop by its screen and see if a loose hinge causes the keyboard to flop down. Look for flex or wobble. You shouldn’t expect an ultrabook to feel as solid as a six-pound desktop replacement, but you shouldn’t settle for one that feels flimsy instead of firm.

Under the Hood
Current or first-generation ultrabooks are built around Intel’s second generation, codenamed “Sandy Bridge,” of Core i3, i5, or i7 mobile processors, teamed with 4GB of memory (don’t settle for less, though ultrabooks with more are rare). The Core i5 seems the most popular balance of price and performance; Core i7 ultrabooks are costly, and we found the Core i3-powered Portege Z835-P330 a bit poky in image- and video-editing benchmarks (but perfectly fine, we must admit, for the e-mail, web browsing, and Microsoft Office work that are all that many users need).

Come spring or summer, “Sandy Bridge” will give way to Intel’s next crop of processors, “Ivy Bridge,” expected to bring a modest improvement in performance, graphics, and battery life—and to usher in a plethora of new ultrabook designs. By summer or fall, AMD is widely expected to market its own ultrathin platform, for sub-three-pound portables that, while they won’t use the ultrabook nomenclature, are likely to undercut Intel flyweights’ prices by a C-note or two.

More than its processor, though, what makes an ultrabook special is its storage—for most, a 128GB or 256GB solid-state drive (SSD) instead of a conventional spinning hard disk, and for economy models like the Acer Aspire S3 (check price), a hybrid hard disk with a solid-state or flash-memory cache or booster. Besides the increased reliability that comes with a no-moving-parts design, the advantages of silicon storage are (1.) fast startup or boot times—in some cases, not long enough for the Windows 7 logo lights to finish their circling onscreen dance—and (2.) even faster wake or resume times from sleep or hibernation, permitting an ultrabook to pause for hours or days in the middle of a work session, then spring back into action in as little as two or three seconds. Intel calls this speedy solution Rapid Start Technology.

Making Connections
Some ultrabooks, such as the Toshiba Z835-P330, have plenty of input/output ports; others, such as the Dell XPS 13, have just a few. Almost all have USB 2.0 and faster USB 3.0 ports—the latter identified by a blue connector or the letters SS for Super Speed—for external drives, printers, and other peripherals. Some have USB ports that can recharge smartphones or other handheld devices. Headphone/microphone jacks and HDMI ports for plugging in an external monitor are common too.

Less common, but handy, choices include VGA ports for connecting older monitors or projectors and Ethernet ports for joining a wired office network. Some HDMI and VGA ports use miniature connectors that require dongles or adapters (the Asus UX21 comes with both a mini VGA and a USB-to-Ethernet adapter). A Secure Digital (SD) or other flash-card slot for transferring files or importing pictures from a digital camera is a plus. Apple’s MacBook Airs and the Acer Aspire S5 boast Thunderbolt ports for data transfer even faster than USB 3.0 for a small but growing list of Thunderbolt peripherals.

WiFi or 802.11n wireless networking is standard on every ultrabook, many pairing it with Bluetooth. WiMAX, 4G, or other mobile broadband so far seems limited to aftermarket add-ons and USB modems rather than being offered as a built-in option, but Intel’s latest wireless innovation is a popular feature: Wireless Display or WiDi lets you beam the laptop’s screen and audio to a living- or conference-room HDTV set equipped with a third-party (Belkin or Netgear) adapter.

Keyboards and More
“Eventually,” a September 2011 Intel blog post promised, “you’ll think of an ultrabook as a tablet when you want it, a PC when you need it.” This means we can look forward to seeing touch screens and hybrids like the flip-flopping Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, but the first crop of ultrabooks are conventional albeit skinny screen-and-keyboard clamshell designs. That makes keyboard comfort a paramount concern, and the good news is that ultrabooks’ virtually full-sized keyboards banish memories of cramped netbook layouts. The bad news is that ultrabooks are so thin that some keyboards are shallow or short on travel or typing feel, though still superior to typing on a tablet LCD.

If you can’t sample a keyboard’s feel before buying, at least try to check out its layout—whether, for instance, it has dedicated Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys or doubles those functions up on the cursor arrows. Ultrabooks with backlit keyboards, such as the HP Folio 13, are great for typing in dim rooms or on red-eye flights. Touchpads, too, are an important matter of personal preference, although dedicated mouse buttons seem to be vanishing in favor of Apple-style one-piece designs with clickable lower left and right corners. Another Apple feature that’s been adopted by other manufacturers for slimness’ sake is a sealed or internal battery pack that can’t be swapped out for a spare as larger laptop batteries can.

The MacBook Air pair, of course, come with Mac OS X Lion; other ultrabooks come with Windows 7 in Home Premium, Professional, or Ultimate guise, with touch-screen models likely to arrive alongside Windows 8. Apple’s iLife suite usually wins the bundled-software competition over Windows ultrabooks’ antivirus trials, though HP says the Envy 14 Spectre will come with Adobe Premiere Elements and Photoshop Elements for video- and image-editing buffs.

One Intel technology called Smart Connect, featured in models such as the Dell XPS 13, could be a game-changer: It promises to periodically wake a sleeping ultrabook and check your favorite wireless network for updated information ranging from Facebook posts to Outlook e-mails, so that when you resume work the laptop is already updated for you. Call it one more way that ultrabooks are all about productivity—anywhere and anytime.

By Eric Grevstad, PCMag

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