Ultrabook reviews 2014, scoops and comparisons

Ultrabooks with illuminated/backlit keyboards – what are your options?

By Andrei Girbea - @andreigirbea , updated on March 19, 2014

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.

A laptop with a backlit keyboard is not exactly something you can see every day.

A laptop with a backlit keyboard is not exactly something you can see every day

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 features perhaps the best backlit keyboard you can get on an ultrabook today

The HP Folio 13 features perhaps the best backlit keyboard you can get on an ultrabook today

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.

Devices like the Asus Zenbook UX31, Lenovo IdeaPad U300S or the Acer Aspire S3, also popular first generation ultrabook, are all missing a backlit keyboard.

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

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.

A greatly improved keyboard on the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A

A greatly improved keyboard on the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A

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.

The Mac Air features the best illuminated keyboard you could get on a portable laptop these days

The Mac Air features the best illuminated keyboard you could get on a portable laptop these days

Wrap-up

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!

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Andrei Girbea, aka Mike, Editor-in-Chief and a huge fan of mobile computers. Since 2007, I've only owned smaller than 12.5" laptops and I've been testing tens, if not hundreds of mini laptops. You'll find mostly reviews and guides written by me here on the site.

24 Comments

  1. Cathy

    January 7, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    I feel the entire illuminated keyboard deal is a bit overrated. I mean yes, it’s nice, but I for one would never use a computer in a dark room. I care for my eyes and want to keep them in proper shape, thus I always have this night-lamp on my desk and keep it on.

  2. Barry

    January 15, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    How about the new ultrabooks that were launched at CES? Will any of those offer an illuminated keyboard?

  3. Mike

    January 17, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    @Barry the HP Envy Specter and the Samsung Series 9 Ultra both feature back-lit keyboard, but both are also expensive, starting at about 1400 bucks each.

    The cheaper additions, like he Dell Xps 13, the LG Z330 or the Samsung Series 5 ultra do not offer this feature.

  4. George

    January 24, 2012 at 11:43 pm

    I have an ASUS laptop with a lighted keyboard (with manually controlled settings).
    In short, lighted keyboards are one of those things that you think you don’t need until you’ve used it for a time. Now, using a laptop that doesn’t have a lighted keyboard is like going into the dungeon. When you don’t have to hunt for keys or pause to verify the right key, you quickly get use to it.

    • Mike

      January 25, 2012 at 12:50 pm

      I personally never owned a laptop with illuminated keys, so i can’t really say how important they are. But i agree that it would suck not having them after you get used with such a feature.

      My Lenovo X220 has this lamp above the screen that illuminated the keys. It’\s not the most stylish solution, but it works

  5. LIlian

    February 26, 2012 at 9:03 am

    A bit strange. I expected my Asus Zenbook to have backlit keyboard, but I realize they didn’t and it didn’t bother me much. I used laptops in dark rooms and mostly, the screen lighting is enough for me to see the keys. Backlit keyboard looks cool and is a cool option but the only reason why I think I’ll need it is because if I have it, I’m too used to using it. That’s like how people used to use Gameboys without any backlight and now it’s just like “how the hell did we play like that?”.. maybe that’s different though.

  6. Analog33k

    February 27, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    My Asus U80V has a backlit keyboard.
    Now that it is getting old, I’ve been looking for the perfect netbook / ultrabook for nearly two months now… still looking for that addictive backlit keyboard ;)
    Don’t have too much money to put in it, so I think it will be a Samsung…

  7. John P

    July 1, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    Although not an Ultrabook, THE BEST 13″ notebook I have ever put my hands on remains Sony’s VPCZ13M9E. It’s 2 years old (launched in 2010) and in my opinion still beats everything on the market! Illuminated keyboard, 3G, 128 GB SSD, 6 hours battery life, nVidia graphics and so on, and all this in 2010!

    • Mike

      July 2, 2012 at 2:48 pm

      Hey John. You might be right, but the Vaio Z plays in a different class, going for $1500+ . I for one am not very fond of its keyboard, especially for the 2011 version, that’s why I decided to go for a Lenovo X220 instead. But it’s definitely a very good portable laptop, perhaps the fastest of them all

  8. Terry.A

    July 16, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    Just bought the Transformer TF300 and it’s only been a week and I am regretting having bought for the lack of a backlit keyboard. Shame ASUS decided against doing it. Oh and have you considered the Toshiba ultrabook which I believe has a backlit keyboard? I need battery life as well as backlit…

    • Mike

      July 16, 2012 at 5:32 pm

      Well, the toshiba is alright, but i find it a bit to flimsy and fragile, that’s why it’s not really me top pick when looking for an ultrabook. I’d rather go for the new Zenbook Prime UX31A (as a premium, but also pricey option) or the HP Folio 13 (the later if your want something more affordable)

  9. Mike

    August 6, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    Mike,
    Awesome article. Very well written.
    However I would like to address one point.
    There is a common misconception about the term ” light bleed” from under the keys.
    It is actually called framing. All OEMS can eliminate the framing if desired by simply
    masking the light guide under the circuit board of the key set. Black lines are silk screened on the light guide itself to absorb the light, thus preventing the light from framing the key. Most OEMS have adopted this method due to the fact they like their keys framed for asthetical purposes, and gives a warm glow to the keyboard.

    • Mike

      August 6, 2012 at 7:35 pm

      Hedy Mike, thanks for the input.

      Still, I find this “bleeding” annoying. I mean yeah, the keys look good when looked from straight on top, with their light frame, as you call it. However, one never actually looks at them that way, but from a 30 degrees angle or something like this, when having the laptop in front of them, on their lap or on a desk. In which case, I see no point for the light poring from beneath the keys…

      • George

        August 7, 2012 at 2:19 pm

        I agree.

        In addition to preventing the light bleed, they should also make sure every control button is lighted and the touch pad is at least framed in light.

        The purpose of the light is to assist detection of these things in low or no light conditions, not pretty up on a magazine.

        Form must follow and obey Function the demands of function and that function must be more than a pretty picture in a magazine.

  10. Lisa

    September 8, 2012 at 11:53 pm

    Hello Mike,
    I’m looking for a new ultra book after Windows 8 comes out this Fall, in the 13-14 inch range.
    I’m wondering if you know of any ultra books that offer the a NON “CHIKLET” ~and~ back-lit keyboard ?

    I REALLY hate the new “chiket” keyboard design. (But I think I’m stuck with getting one :-(

    Thanks, Mike !

    • Mike

      September 10, 2012 at 5:07 pm

      Hmmm, i don’t think there is any… The only good non-chiclet keyboard is packed by the Lenovo ThinkPads, but they are not backlit. and even the thinkpads droped the classical design for a chiclet layout on their latest products.

      On the other hand, I’ve trid the Acutype layout on the Lenovo x230 and the other new lenovo machines and after a day or two, I was able to type a bit faster and more accurate on those keyboards than I do on my Lenovo X220. So I’m pretty sure getting used to a GOOD chiclet keyboard is not really that difficult. You’ll just have to find a GOOD one, as most of them are… mediocre, on ultrabooks (i for one only like the one on the lenovos and on the hp folio 13)

  11. Luke

    September 12, 2013 at 4:48 pm

    I think Laptops or Ultrabooks with illuminated keyboards are a must have specially if you are typing during the nigh. I have a Vivobook and it doesn’t have a backlit keyboard. I’m really having a hard time typing during the night.

  12. George

    September 14, 2013 at 12:51 am

    Another feature needed, especially in ultrabooks, is for the computer to reside in the display portion of the fold. Then the keyboard could be thin and light and function more as a cover. The display would then function better as a touch screen when the keyboard is detached or folded away.

    I have a fantastic Samsung Chronos 7 laptop, but the computer is beneath the keyboard.

    What do you think?

  13. John

    February 25, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    Hello all! Thanks for the article, and also for all the precise replies.
    My question and I would really be glad for you to answer, is if the Asus A551LB-XX134H has a backlit keyboard or not. I have a huge dilemma between that and HP Envy 15-j100sv which has Full HD screen AND BACKLIT KEYBOARD (huge detail and must have for me), but doesnt have a dvd drive and also doesnt have that “glassy” feeling on its trackpad that the Asus has. What would you do? Thanks in advance for your replies.
    John

  14. Betty

    March 2, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    Hello!!!! :)
    I am a student and I would like your opinion before I buy anything .
    I would like to get an ultra book for a simple use for assignments.
    Can I find a 13.3-14 inches – white colour ( preferable :p)
    Not heavy (around 1.5kg)AND the most important an illuminated/ backlight keyboard!!!
    Thank you !
    Looking forward for kind reply!!!
    Betty

    • Andrei Girbea

      March 3, 2014 at 10:39 pm

      Hey Betty. If you want it white, you should look at the Acer Aspire S7 392 (the 2013 model,not the older 2012 version) or the Asus Zenbook UX301LA (however, that one might not be available in white where you live). Both are nice options, with illuminated keyboard, touchscreens, slim and light metallic bodies, etc.

      Both are rather expensive though, with list prices starting at around $1300-$1400, but you might find them cheaper these days

  15. Allie

    April 28, 2014 at 8:51 pm

    Hello,

    Thanks for the great article!
    I wonder if you could help me choose a laptop with the following specs:
    -Back-lit and comfortable keyboard (top priority)
    -14-15 inch
    -Up to $700
    Any recommendations would be highly appreciated! Thanks in advance.
    Allie

    • Andrei Girbea

      April 29, 2014 at 12:53 pm

      Hey Allie. have a look at the Lenovo IdeaPads, the Asus Vivobooks and the Acers above. Your budget is a bit tight, but you should find something alright for that kind of money

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