Whether you like it or not, you are one of their dedicated fans or, on the contrary, one of their passionate opponents, you have to accept the reality and admit that ultrabooks have hit the computer market with a bang and are here to stay.
With cool designs, solid performances and long-lasting battery life, ultrabooks are clearly not just a passing whim. However, while most ultrabooks are more or less the same when it comes to basic features, there are some aspects that set them apart, with the backlit keyboard being one of them.
Now, I’m not really a big fan of backlit, or also called illuminated keyboards, mainly because I never type in the dark. But I do agree that they can come in handy when having to use the laptop in dim light and perhaps once you get used to this feature, you’ll want it on all your laptops.
With ultrabooks, a backlit keyboard is not a given, but there are several devices that feature one, as you’ll find out from the rows below. I’ll also add some rows on how good the keyboard actually is, as I do find this more important than anything else.
Update: As of early-mid 2013, pretty much all new ultrabooks offer backlit keyboards as standard. That’s why you should choose your device based on other criteria, so I advise you to check out my lists of the best ultrabooks on the market, best gaming ultra-portables, best budget options or best convertibles.
The pros and cons of backlit keyboards
If you ever tried to play a video game in the dark, with just the display lighting the keys, or if you have tried to write that oh-so-important essay (or blog post) with someone sleeping near you and with no possibility of turning on a light, you must already know how frustrating something like that might be.
Therefore, it’s pretty clear why you would want a backlit keyboard on an ultrabook or any other kind of laptop and I’m not going to insist on such a keyboard’s advantages, or rather advantage. Cause yes, there’s only one: you can type in the dark and easily distinguish between keys, that’s pretty much it!
As far as weak points go, I wouldn’t necessarily say that a backlit keyboard has disadvantages, per se, but rather that some illuminated keyboards have a couple of glitches.
First of all, some of the backlit keyboards found on today’s market (including on ultrabooks) are just not bright enough. I myself played on a friend’s laptop a while back, which featured a so-called illuminated keyboard, but this was anything but bright and could only be considered functional in dim-light, not in complete darkness.
Another issue you might encounter on some backlit keyboard is the lack of adjustments. There are keyboards that don’t offer the possibility to turn off the back-lightning when you don’t need it and there are also the ones where you can turn off the backlighting, but that don’t allow you to choose between different illumination intensity levels.
Finally, some backlit keyboards (we will have an example a bit later) are not very well designed, with tall keys and too much space between them and the laptop’s body, which leads to annoying light bleeding from beneath the keys, visible when looking at the laptop from an angle, even when standing at the desk, in front of it.
Those are just some of the issues you might encounter with backlit keyboard and to be frank, it’s complicated to get a regular keyboard right and it’s even more complicated to make a proper backlit one.
Ultrabooks with illuminated keyboards
As I already mentioned, there are a couple of ultrabooks featuring a backlit keyboard nowadays, with more to come in the near future for sure (in fact, I expect nearly all the ultrabooks launched post the Summer of 2012 to feature an illuminated keyboard).
Update: With very few exceptions, all the ultrabooks launched after Mid 2013 offer backlit keyboards. That’s why this feature is no longer a differentiating factor when choosing such an ultraportable computer. Thus, I advise you to pick your device based on other criteria and have a look at my lists of the best ultrabooks on the market, best gaming ultra-portables, best budget options or best convertibles.
First generation Ultrabooks with a backlit keyboard
With first generation Ultrabooks, backlit keyboards were mostly missing. The Toshiba Z835, Dell XPS 13 or the HP Folio 13 were among the few to feature one.
On the Toshiba Portege Z835, a laptop that we reviewed a while back, things are looking quite good. The keyboard is decently good, although better key travel would have been nice, and the back-lightning system does its job. The laptop comes with a light-sensor as well, automatically adjusting the keyboard’s brightness based on the surrounding conditions and even turning the illumination OFF when needed.
The HP Folio 13 packs an overall better keyboard, less shallow than what we get on most other ultrabooks. The back-lightning works fine as well and there’s not that much bleeding from beneath the keys. On the other hand, you can only turn it ON and OF, as there’s no light-sensor or a way to manually adjust the intensity.
The Dell XPS 13 also packs a very good keyboard, with slightly concave keys, but once again they fell a bit shallow. But the back-lightning system works flawlessly and there’s an illumination sensor to take care of all the needed adjustments.
How about the newer generation
Customers want backlit keyboards on their ultrabooks, based on their feedback, thus producers had to comply. So, with the new 2nd gen machines hitting the stores, most of them will have this feature, except for some of the budget versions, like the Lenovo IdeaPad U310, Sony Vaio T13 or the Samsung Series 5 Ultra.
Devices like the
- Samsung Series 5, 7 and 9 Ultra (including Ultra Touch),
- Asus Zenbook UX31A, Zenbook UX51VZ, Zennbook UX32VD,
- Toshiba Portege Z930,U945, Satellite U925T,
- Sony Vaio Duo 11, Sony Vaio T15,
- HP Envy Spectre XT , HP Spectre XT TouchSmart, HP Folio 13, HP Envy 4 and 6 TouchSmart,
- Dell XPS 14 and 15, 13, 12,
- Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 2014,
- or the Acer S5 and S7
feature the much desired illuminated keyboards. I haven’t got to test all of them yet, so I’ll only add impressions on those that I managed to spend some time with till now, with updates to come in the future, as I get my hands on more of these or as other important ultrabooks get in shops.
Basically though, most of the top ultrabooks you’ll find in stores these days already feature a backlit keyboard, while most, not all, of the cheaper units that go for $800 or less left it on the side.
Anyway, my favorite keyboards out of all of these are the ones on the HPs and the Dell’s, with good feedback, nice travel and adjustable illumination. The Lenovos and Toshibas come next, and then are the Samsungs and the Asuses. But of course, it’s difficult to make a general rule here, as the keyboards differ from model to model.
With the Zenbook UX31A, Asus really stepped up their game, greatly improving the keyboard on their first gen Zenbook. While not perfect, as the keys are still a bit spongy, the overall impression is good, the backlighning works and you can easily adjust the brightness with the according Fn combinations, or you can let the light-sensor take care of it. As a downside, the light bleeding around these keys is quite annoying, especially when using the computer in a completely dark room.
With the Samsung Series 9 Ultra, there’s very little travel on those keys and rather noisy clicks when pressing them, which leads to poor typing feedback. The illumination however works fine, but that alone isn’t enough to make this keyboard more appealing in my eyes.
Last, but surely not least, we should also mention Apple’s MacBook Air, which features one of the best backlit keyboards you’ll find on such a slim computer. There’s practically nothing I can find wrong with the Air’s keyboard, except for the rather shallow travel characteristic for all these thin laptops.
In the end, while not all the available ultrabooks feature a backlit keyboard these days, you do have plenty of options to choose from if you really need such a feature.
Besides that, I’m pretty sure we’ll see illuminated keyboards on most of the good ultrabooks we’ll get in stores in the near future, with only the cheaper versions passing on them.
Those being said, I for one would rather pick a keyboard based on how comfortable and accurate it feels, based on the feedback I get while typing on it. If I can get all those and backlit keys, then sure, why not. But for me, a heavy typist for whom a proper keyboard is one of my main selection criteria when choosing a laptop, that option is not really that important.
Also, it has to be said that there’s more to a laptop than just a keyboard, or just a light, and before deciding to buy or pass on an ultrabook today, you should consider all the details and features that make a notebook good, great, the greatest. And you should also check out this article listing your top choices at the moment!