In the business world today, you're judged as much by the technology you carry as by the cut of your clothes. You'll impress no one by walking into a meeting with a clunky old-school laptop.
That's where super-slim "executive-class" notebooks come in. Once the domain of sleek but underpowered devices, this group now includes machines that add a healthy dose of substance to their style.
Small and light enough to go everywhere you go, these next-generation ultraportable notebooks squeeze everything into a case that's an inch thick or less. The idea is to make them as easy to take on a weeklong trip to Asia as to a meeting down the hall.
At the moment, the machine to beat is Apple's second-generation MacBook Air, a mobile piece of art with a gently sculpted aluminum case and just enough power to get the job done. At 0.7 in. thick, it costs $1,300 for a model with a 13.3-in. screen and $1,000 for one with an 11.6-in. screen.
But several new Windows-based ultrathin systems are aiming to knock the Air off its throne with stylish designs, high performance and lower price tags. I tested three notebooks that demonstrate a range of strategies for squeezing a lot of muscle into a svelte case: the Asus U36JC, Dell Vostro V130 and Lenovo IdeaPad U260. They all weigh roughly half what a good budget system does while looking like the computer equivalent of a runway model.
They range in price from $808 to $999 for systems with either a 12.5- or 13.3-in. screen -- a bargain compared to the 13-in. MacBook Air and Samsung's new 9 Series ultraslim, which will cost a cool $1,599 when it becomes available in the coming weeks. The machines I tested don't quite match the Air in terms of lightness and slimness, but they also don't skimp on components. Each comes with an Intel Core i3 or i5 processor, 4GB of memory and either a 320GB or 500GB hard drive.
These laptops do make some sacrifices to achieve a thin waistline. First, none has a built-in DVD drive, although two offer external USB-connected optical drives.
Second, stealing a page from the Air design book, the bottoms of the IdeaPad and Vostro machines are sleek and unencumbered by hatches or a removable battery. As a result, the user can neither upgrade memory nor swap the battery, which can be a handy option on the road. In contrast, the Asus U36JC has a removable battery and access to memory chips.
While the Air's design is unmatched, its competitors are no ugly ducklings -- they show off inviting finishes, splashes of color and touches of design brilliance, such as the IdeaPad's unusual padded wrist rest. I'm drawn to the Vostro V130's lustrous case, while the IdeaPad U260 looks like a snazzy leather portfolio and the Asus U36JC has a more traditional angular design.
In other words, these executive-class systems can not only get the job done on the road but look good doing it.
How I tested
To see how these thin notebooks compare to one another, I used them both at my office and on the road for work and play. I wrote, edited, prepared and gave presentations, did Web research and watched videos.
After measuring, weighing and examining every major aspect of each laptop, I placed each of them on a mockup of a typical airplane seat-back table tray to see if they fit. While on the road, I connected each to a public Wi-Fi network.
Then I tested the performance of each system. First I looked at overall performance with PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark suite. The software exercises every major component of the system -- including processor, hard drive, 2D and 3D graphics, and memory -- and compiles the results into a single score that represents its performance potential. I ran the software three times and averaged the results. For the Asus U36JC, I ran it in both high-performance and extended battery life modes.
I also ran a copy of Auran's Trainz Simulator 2009, a resource-heavy game that simulates a working railroad. With the train running at full speed, I checked for video choppiness and which background details were present.
Next, I measured each system's battery life. With the system's Wi-Fi on, Internet Explorer tuned to an Internet radio station and the audio set to three quarters of full volume, I ran each system down as PassMark's BatteryMon software charted the battery's capacity and recorded the time it shut down.
Finally, I checked out each machine's Wi-Fi range: With a connection made to my Linksys WRT54GS Wi-Fi router and the system tuned to an Internet radio station, I walked away from the router with the notebook in hand. I measured the spot farthest from the router where it still remained connected.
If performance and battery life count for more than size and weight, Asus's U36JC fits the bill. This wide-body notebook offers nearly double the performance of the others in the roundup but is the largest and heaviest of the group, and it tied with the Lenovo IdeaPad U260 as most expensive.
It's also the most conventional notebook of the three. It has a detachable battery, a hatch for access to memory chips and the choice of any color as long, as it's black. (The silver model pictured on the Asus Web site is not available in the U.S.) Its angular case is in stark contrast to the rounded corners of the IdeaPad.
The front of the U36JC is 0.9 in. thick, but with its bulky eight-cell battery in place, the rear is raised by an extra 0.3 in. for a total of 1.2 in. This gives the keyboard a 5-degree typing angle; the other machines sit flat. Asus also offers a thinner four-cell power pack that makes for a slimmer profile and lighter load. Measuring 12.8 x 9.4 in., the system's footprint is the deepest and widest of these thin notebooks, but it still fits on an airline tray.
Thanks to the rubberized coating on its magnesium-aluminum alloy case, it felt good in my hand. I also liked the looks of the bright chrome company logo and the touchpad's button. Overall, however, the Asus is a plain Jane compared to the design flair of the Lenovo and Dell machines.
With its large battery, the system weighs 3.8 lbs. -- 0.9 lbs. more than the IdeaPad, but still less than most 13-in. notebooks, which generally weigh between 4 and 5 lbs. Adding the AC adapter to the U36JC brings its travel weight to 4.5 lbs., more than a pound heavier than the IdeaPad.
Buried inside is the most powerful mix of components of these three thin systems. The model I tested is built around an Intel 460M Core i5 processor, which runs at 2.53 GHz -- roughly double the speed of the others -- for most tasks. Using Intel's TurboBoost technology, it can speed up to 2.8 GHz when needed. (Other configurations for the U36JC include a 2.53-GHz Core i3 or a 2.66-GHz Core i5.)
Unlike the others, the Asus has four operating modes -- High Performance, Entertainment Mode, Quiet Office and Battery Saving -- that use different component settings to match real-world scenarios. A handy button above the keyboard lets you cycle through the choices, but when a selection is made, the screen goes blank for an annoying six seconds as the changes take effect.
Like the others, the Asus comes with 4GB of memory and no DVD drive; the company doesn't sell a matching external drive but you could buy a third-party model if you need to read or write to CDs or DVDs. The system's storage is a step above that of the IdeaPad and Vostro, with a 500GB hard drive rather than a 320GB one. (Drives ranging from 250GB to 750GB are available.)
Unlike the whisper-quiet Vostro, the Asus has a loud fan. And while I like the system's 19.3mm keys, it can't touch the luxurious feeling of the IdeaPad's padded wrist rest.
The system's 13.3-in. display matches that of the Vostro and is 0.8 in. bigger than the IdeaPad's. It offers a top resolution of 1366 x 768 but isn't as bright as the IdeaPad's screen. Graphics are top-notch with Nvidia's GeForce 310M processor, which is similar to the GeForce 320M that the MacBook Air uses.
As far as connections go, the U36JC includes two USB 2.0 ports and one USB 3.0 port for high-speed data transfers. There are also HDMI and VGA ports, as well as separate headphone and microphone jacks. It has a flash card slot but lacks an eSATA connection for an external hard drive.
On top of 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi networking, the system has an Ethernet port for getting online. It includes Bluetooth but no options for an integrated cell-network data card for go-anywhere data access.
Next page: More laptops, and a comparison chart