Today seems like the perfect time for ranking, organizing and comparing what we think are THE laptops of the last couple of months and what will probably be some of the most popular computers of the next couple of years: ultrabooks.
We are going to quickly compare in the following lines all the important ultrabooks already released on the market, including the Asus Zenbook and VivoBook, the Acer Aspire S, Lenovo IdeaPad and ThinkPad, Samsung Ultra, Dell XPS and some of the other important lines of ultraportables from HP, Toshiba and all of the known brands we haven’t mentioned yet.
Note: Excuse me for interrupting, I'm gathering my favorite Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals on ultraportable laptops over here, if you're interested.
We’re mainly talking about the 13.3 inch ultrabooks in this post, but the latest update has also added some details about the newer Asus Zenbook Prime, the HP Envy 6 and the Spectre XT, the Sony Vaio T13, the Dell Aspire M3, M5, S5 and S7 or the Dell XPS 14 and 15. And check out the post periodically, I’ll update it from time to time with extra details.
If you’re looking for specific details on the bigger 14 and 15 inch machines, you can find them in this other post here.
If you’re also looking for what I consider the Best Ultrabooks of the moment, based on my hands-on experience with these machines, this other post here on the site is the one you MUST read.
We’re not going to get into many details in this post though, I’m going to insist on the most important features and specs, trying to find out if there is one ultrabook today that manages to detach itself from the rest and be the best choice for a technology enthusiast. For more details about each portable laptop in particular, check out our reviews posted here on the site in the dedicated category.
Design and build quality
In order to get the ultrabook name, a computer needs to be thin. And that comes associated with a nice looking shape and a pretty light weight as well.
Many ultrabooks available today come with full metal casings. Aluminum is usually the material of choice, but there are exceptions that also use magnesium or fiber carbon, like the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, Acer Aspire S5, Dell’s XPS 13 and Fujitsu’s LifeBook U772. These materials does not make the laptops necessarily more robust, but help keeping the weight down.
On the other hand, the budget entries only use metal for the lid cover and the interior, while the bottom and the frame are made from plastic. Plus, you will find some cheaper ultrabooks that have dropped the aluminum all-together for the all classic plastic, like some Dell, HP and Toshiba 14 and 15 inch options.
Talking about footprints, most 13.3 inch ultrabooks are about 0.7 – 0.8 inches thick and weigh around 3 pounds. There are once again exceptions, with the Dell XPS 13 having a smaller body than most of the other ultrabooks, the Toshiba Z935 being the lightest and the slimmest of the pack, while the HP Folio is a bit on the heavy side, weighing 3.3 pounds. Of course, as we step towards 14 or 15 inch ultrabooks, they tend to become more massive and heavier, but they are still significantly more portable then the regular laptops in their classes.
But which is the most stylish and the best built ultrabook? That’s up to you to decide, as there are enough models and styles to satisfy all your needs, from classy and sober models like the HPs or the Lenovos, to fancy and extravagant ones, like the Dell and the Asus machines. My favorites right now in terms of looks and build quality are the Dell XPS 13, the HP Spectre XT and the Lenovo X1 Carbon.
Keyboard and touchpad
Unfortunately, while in terms of design, most of today’s ultrabooks have managed to get very close to Apple’s MacBook Air, as far as their keyboards and touchpads go, almost none of these ultraportable computers are right there on par with the MBA, as very few offer a truly good trackpad+keyboard combo.
You do get very good keyboards on all the Lenovo, HP and Dell machines, with responsive and comfortable keys. The Asus Zenbooks and Vivobooks are OK as well, but only if you’re looking at the second generation Zenbooks, with chiclet keyboard. Some of the Toshibas, Sonys, Acers and Samsungs have good keyboards as well, although they tend to get too flat to offer a proper feedback. But of course it’s difficult to actually have all these laptops in the same pot and try to compare them, as things differ from case to case.
When it comes to trackpads, the Lenovos, Samsungs, Dells and HPs offer decent solutions, although most of them use integrated click buttons and I’m not a big fan of these. Asus, Sony and Acer on the other hand have had issues with their trackpads in the last years, as they were either too cramped on the Acer’s, or jumpy and oversensitive on the Asuses and Sonys.
Some of these ultrabooks also featured backlit keyboards, and you can find more about them in this other article you can find over here.
Bottom point, most of the keyboards packed on ultrabooks these days are a bit shallow, thus the typing experience isn’t great. There are however some decent options even for a heavy typist like me, as mentioned above.
Most of the affordable 13.3 inch ultrabooks available these days sport standard 1366 x 768 px glossy displays (TN panels), with slight variations between the better (on the Toshibas or Dells) and the worse ones (on some Lenovo, Sony and Acer machines) in terms of contrast, viewing angles and color reproduction.
There are some laptops offering 1600 x 900 px LCDs as well (Lenovo X1 carbon, Dell XPS 14, Asus Zenbook UX31E, Samsung Series 9 Ultra).
On the other hand, many of the premium ultrabooks you can buy these days offer Full HD IPS screens, which can be found especially on the new convertible ultrabooks that feature a touchscreen, also called hybrid ultrabooks. More about them in this other post.
There are some options that offer matte displays as well. On the Asus Zenbook there’s even an amazing IPS Full HD screen, while on other laptops like the Lenovo X1 Carbon, Samsung Series 5 Ultra or the Toshiba Portege Z830/Z930 you can get lower resolution non-glare displays.
Hardware and performances
In terms of hardware, there’s a common ground between most of the ultrabooks we can find in stores, but also a couple of distinctive elements and details. Most of today’s ultrabooks are built on Intel ULV hardware platforms, come with 4 GBs of RAM and integrated graphics. We get to choose between two families of processors, the older Sandy Bridge platform and the newer Ivy Bridge, bundled with Intel HD 4000 graphics. Haswell, the new generation of Intel ULV platforms is going to hit the stores in 2013 as well.
We are of course talking about ULV processors here, but they are snappy enough for all your basic tasks and even multimedia playing, although they are goig to be somewhat slow when dealing with massive photo/video editing or 3D rendering, which aren’t actually things one would usually do on an ultrabook. This post will tell you a bit more about what ultrabooks can or cannot do.
Some of the modern ultrabooks can also handle games as well, especially those featuring dedicated graphics, although they are a rare commodity in the 13.3 inch class, but more common in the bigger 14 and 15 inch segments. Still, don’t expect to run the latest titles on high details on those, that’s not going to happen. A selection of the best gaming ultrabooks of the moments is available here.
There’s one more aspect to mention: the storage solutions. While most producers bundle 128/256 GB SSDs on their default configurations, some chose to go for hybrid storage, with a regular HDD and a smaller SSD for caching, in order to save costs. With this approach, there’s also a drop in speed and overall snappiness, both in everyday use and especially when talking about booting and sleep resuming times. Almost all the big ultrabooks producers went down this road for their cheapest models, but they offer of course SSD only storage as well if you’re willing to pay more.
Battery life, connectivity and ports
Based on our battery tests, most available ultrabooks are capable of running for about five hours on a single charge, based on an everyday average use scenario.
There are exceptions though, like some Acer, Sony, Asus or Dell machines, that offer a smaller battery, hence will only run for 4 hours and a bit. On the other hand, some HPs, Toshibas and Samsungs stretch to 6+ hours of average use on a charge.
Of course, those numbers will vary a lot based on what you’re running on your machines. It’s extremely important to understand that we are of course talking about real-life battery life figures, and not those fancy numbers announced by producers (as most claim that their ultrabooks can run for 7 to 9 hours on a single charge).
More on what you should expect from ultrabooks in terms of battery life in this other post, also from our site.
One thing I should notice though is that most ultrabooks come with encased batteries, while the Sony Vaio T13 is among the very few to feature a regular detachable battery.
In terms of connectivity and ports, all these ultrabooks come with the basics, including WiFi, Bluetooth, USB and HDMI, but there are a couple of small details that could make the difference in this area, too.
As a general rule, most affordable ultrabooks, since they are slightly bulkier than the premium lines, offer pretty much all the needed ports and connectors, including card-readers, HDMI, Ethernet and so on.
ON the other hand, the high-end line sacrifice utility for the looks and the thin body, thus either completely miss some features (the Dell XPS 13 for instance lacks an SD card slot), or use miniaturized version of them (mini VGA, microHDMI, only one USB port). If that’s the case, most producers bundle some adapters to the standard sized connectors, but not all of them, in which case you’ll have to pay extra for them.
Connectivity wise, I should mention that all the available ultrabooks come with Wireless N and Bluetooth. However, some also offer MiFi (share your Internet connection), WiDi or even cellular as extra options (some Fujitsu, HP, Lenovo, Sony or Dell models).
Pricing, availability and others
For the moment, it looks like the are two classes of ultrabooks.
The mainstream options, with bulkier bodies, HD ready screens, hybrid storage and so on sell for between $600 to $1000 or even a bit extra, based on the chosen configuration. Many of these laptops feature touchscreens as well.
Premium machines on the other hand start at around $1000 and can get to $1500 and beyond. For that, you get the sleeker cases, the premium materials, the higher quality screens, faster processors, SSD only storage and so on.
Most of the available ultrabooks are sold all around the world, but prices will vary from region to region. And of course, these machines are getting cheaper and cheaper as time goes by, so you might want to check for up to date info on those big shops, like on Amazon or BestBuy.
Comparing so many great laptops is not for sure an easy task, especially when trying to keep the ”story” as short and as straightforward as possible, without missing any important details.
However, I honestly hope that you will find this ultrabook comparison post comprehensive and thorough enough to at least help you make an idea on what are the best ultrabooks at the moment and what you should expect from them.
For more details, you should read all the post in our Comparisons category, plus see the reviews for all of the units listed here in the Reviews Section. Also, you can check out this other article, listing the top ultrabooks at the moment, to get an even clearer picture of what’s going down right now with these new, hip and strong pieces of computer equipment, the ultrabooks!
Of course, this post will be updated as other ultraportables become available, so stay tuned for extra details in the near future.
In the end, if there is anything that’s unclear about today’s ultrabooks, don’t hesitate to hit me up with a question in the ‘’comments’’ section below. I’ll be there to reply.