A while ago Intel decided to revolutionize the market and impose some high standards for a new breed of laptops: the ultrabooks. Only a few years later, we now have plenty of ultrabooks on the market, some better, some worst, but all built around the same idea: stylish, sleek and fast portable computers.
However, many of you probably know that before Intel decided to create this Ultrabook brand, there was already such a thin, light and fast computer in stores: Apple’s Macbook Air.
Preceding the ultrabooks by a couple of years, the Macbook Airs are right now the most popular premium ultra-portables and there are plenty of reasons why people like them. However, many of you looking for such a portable computer today will want to know how good ultrabooks are when faced with the MacBook Air, and I’m going to tell you a couple of things on this subject in the rows below.
Ultrabooks vs MacBook Air – the similarities
Both ultrabooks and the Macbook Air are laptops, with a body, a display, a keyboard, ports and internals. So Apple’s computer should be pretty much on par with most ultrabooks when put side by side, and if we’re looking at what you could do with the two types of laptops, that’s actually true.
However, when looking at HOW you can perform the various tasks, at how good the overall feel and everyday experience is when using the MBA or any of the available ultrabooks, things are a bit complicated.
In terms of design and build quality, Apple set the bar high, with their unibody thin and light approach. In fact, the 13.3 inch MBA measures about 0.7 inches and weighs 3 pounds. Most of the premium 13.3 inch ultrabooks play in the same class as well (although some are lighter and cheaper, like the Toshiba Z930), while taking various design directions. The Asus Zenbooks for instance is a close replica of the MBA, with the same feather shape and aluminum body. The Lenovo, HP, Fujitsu or the Samsung ultrabooks however feature metallic cases as well, but with their own characteristic styles.
What matters is that you can find devices as beautiful and as solid built as the MBA between ultrabooks, and there are plenty to choose from.
In terms of battery life, both the MacBook Air and the new ultrabooks go for about 5 hours of battery life during daily use, despite producers claiming they should last longer. In fact, there are some ultrabooks that can indeed go for 6+ hours of use, but that’s mainly because they pack a bigger battery, which also makes them slightly heavier and bulkier. On the other hand, there are plenty of ultrabooks that can’t really last for 5 hours of average use.
The hardware platforms are also pretty much on par on the MBA and on the recent ultrabooks, as they are all built on Intel ULV Ivy Bridge platforms. The standard configs feature Intel Core i5 processors, 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB SSDs on all of these, and both the Macbook and many of the premium ultrabooks can also be upgraded with better Core i7 processors or a bigger 256 GB SSD. You should notice however that ultrabooks cover a wider range of hardware specs, packing hybrid storage solutions or Core i3 processors on the budget models, but also dedicated graphics on a select number of devices.
Now, despite featuring the same hardware, that doesn’t mean that the two types of computers perform the same during daily use, and that’s mainly a software matter, as the Macbook Air runs OSX, while the ultrabooks run Windows.
Ultrabooks vs MacBook Air – the differences
Once again, all the things listed in this chapter are mostly present on both of these laptops, but the way they are actually implemented makes on side better or worse than the other.
We’re going to start with the keyboad and the trackpad. The Macbook Air features a good combo, a nice chiclet backlit keyboard with good feedback and a spacious and accurate clickable trackpad with support for plenty of gestures.
Now, with the ultrabooks, things are a bit complicated. Most of them also feature chiclet keyboards, but not all of them are backlit, while many offer poor feedback and shallow travel, which leads to a rather poor typing experience. There are however some ultrabooks with good keyboards, some better than the one on the MBA, and I’d include the Dells, Lenovos and the HPs in here, closely followed by the Toshibas.
With trackpads, things are however worse for the ultrabook camp, as many devices in this family feature spacious click-able trackpads, but most of them are either jumpy, tacky, imprecise or too stiff. For many, the issues are software related, but as a potential customer, you don’t care about that, you just want that bloody trackpad to work as intended. Which isn’t the case in most cases. Once again, the Dells, HPs and Lenovos tend to offer higher quality trackpads.
Most ultrabooks feature a 13.3 inch screen, like the MBA does. There are some that can match the smaller 11.6 inch MBA (check them out in here), but also some bigger devices with 14 and even 15.6 inch screens.
However, what’s more important here is the quality of these screens and many ultrabooks trail the Macbook Air, with their 1366 x 768 px TN panels. Now, the display on the MBA also uses a TN panel, but with higher 1440 x 900 px resolution and better contrast, colors and viewing angles.
However, there are several ultrabooks that clearly outmatch the MBA these days, with either Full HD non-glare IPS panels or IPS touchscreens (found mostly on hybrids), and many more are being launched each month. I do expect the next MacBook Air to get a better screen as well though, probably a Retina screen like the one on the MacBook Pros.
When it comes to operating systems and performances, the MBA runs OSX, an OS built around the hardware around the computer, thus everything will work smooth on it. Of course, that’s pretty much the same with the modern ultrabooks running Windows, as most apps will work as they should, although you might encounter some drivers and software glitches from time to time. Still, it’s up to you to choose one camp over the others, each has its pros and cons.
There’s usually little space for ports on these types of computers, and that’s why you’ll usually find 2 USB ports on them, a card reader and the classic headphone/microphone jack, plus the PSU.
However, on the MBA you’ll also find a Thunderbolt connector, but none of the classic video output methods, like VGA or HDMI. And there’s no Ethernet slot either, although you can buy adapters for most of these. On ultrabooks you’re usually going to find more connectivity options, even on the very thin machines that tend to replace Full-sized ports with miniaturized ones.
So while both camps provide the basic posts, one could easily say that ultrabooks kind of have the upper hand here.
And then there are the prices.
The 13.3 inch Macbook Air starts at $1199, for a config featuring a Core i5 processor, 4 GBs of RAM and a 128 GB SSD. It can be found slightly discounted online though.
Premium ultrabooks on the other hand usually start at around $1000 for a pretty much similar configuration and most of them come with solid discounts, if you’re looking for them online. And while there are many models and configurations available in stores, most of them tend to be cheaper than a similarly configured MacBook Air.
Of course, you ca find ultrabooks that sell for between $500 and $800 in stores as well, but those aren’t exactly close competitors for the MBA.
The 11.6 inch Macbook Air is slightly cheaper, starting at $999, and it too can be found cheaper online. How about 11.6 inch ultrabooks? Well, you can find a handful of them in stores these days, and you can read all about them in this post.
Those being said, while there are plenty of ultrabooks available on the market these days, only a handful of them are able to stand next to the Macbook Air. And even then, it’s tough to say that any of them is plain superior to the MBA.
Yes, many have something on top of Apple’s ultraportable, like better screens or more ports and features. But most of them also have things dragging them down. Still, there are several very good alternatives to the MBA, and all of them are mentioned in my list of best ultrabooks of the moment.
In the end, we can say that the MBA is an excellent device and for many, it might be the perfect ultra-portable. However, for others it might feel outdated, and hopefully ultrabooks could offer them what they need. So there’s no universal winner in this Apple Macbook Air vs Ultrabooks fight, it’s up to you to pick your own winner.
So before we wrap up this post, don’t forget that each device has pros and cons, as each of your have your own requirements from a computer. Find the balance between these aspects and you’ll end up satisfied with your acquisition.