Laptops

Three Executive-Class Laptops

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.

Asus U36JC A1

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

Performance

With the fastest processor of the trio, it's no surprise that the Asus blew the others away in High Performance mode, with a score of 1,095 on the PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark. That's nearly double the score of the IdeaPad or Vostro. In Battery Saving mode, its score dropped to 588.1, the slowest of the bunch.

The U36JC was also able to process and display more graphical elements when running Trainz Railroad Simulator. For instance, it revealed background details such as snow, plants and rock surfaces, which the other machines showed as plain gray.

Its eight-cell battery (the others had six-cell power packs) powered the Asus for 4 hours and 17 minutes in Battery Saving mode, by far the longest-lasting of the bunch. In High Performance mode, it ran for 3 hours and 20 minutes, roughly equal to the IdeaPad and nearly an hour longer than the Vostro. In my Wi-Fi range test, it stayed in contact with my office's router for 125 feet -- 30 feet farther than the Vostro.

At a glance

Asus U36JC A1

Asustek Computer Inc.

Price (as tested): $999

Pros: Adjustable performance, excellent battery life, two-year warranty, removable battery, USB 3.0 support

Cons: Big and heavy compared to other ultraslims, screen blanks out when switching modes

Asus has another surprise up its digital sleeve: a two-year warranty on the system, whereas the others cover their machines for half as long. The company doesn't offer a three-year warranty, but if you get the system through Amazon.com and choose the SquareTrade extension, you can get a third year of coverage for $120. Asus also provides one-year accidental damage protection, something the others don't.

My test model came with Windows 7 Home Premium (also available: Windows 7 Ultimate, Professional and Home Basic), Office 2010 Starter and a lot of extra software, including a utility for tweaking the video settings. At $999, this model costs as much as the IdeaPad U260 and about $200 more than the Vostro V130.

Bottom line

The Asus U36JC is the best equipped of the bunch and provides the raw computing power needed to get the hardest tasks done on the road, but its size and weight make it less attractive for frequent travelers. It's the executive notebook to get if you need high performance and don't mind a little extra heft.

Dell Vostro V130

The Dell Vostro V130's 0.8-in. profile makes it the thinnest of this trio of executive-class notebooks.

Roughly the same size as the MacBook Air, it is angular rather than rounded. At 12.9 x 9.0 in., its footprint is midway between the IdeaPad and Asus systems' and easily fits on an airline seat-back tray.

The lustrous aluminum case is available in red or silver; it makes for a sharp visual contrast to the softer coatings that the others have, and it feels colder to the touch. The hinges and Dell's lid logo are in demure brushed aluminum. The bottom of the V130 has no hatches and doesn't allow you to change the battery or get at the memory modules.

The version I looked at came with a nice Cole Haan leather sleeve that provides room for plenty of papers but has no handle. On its own, the sleeve costs $180.

At 3.6 lbs., the Vostro is 11 oz. heavier than the Lenovo IdeaPad U260 but 4 oz. lighter than the Asus U36JC. With its small AC adapter, the Vostro hits the road with a 4.3-lb. travel weight, more than a pound heavier than the IdeaPad's travel weight.

While the Vostro has a comfortable keyboard with 19mm keys, its metallic wrist rest can't match the comfort of the padded one on the IdeaPad. Among the three systems I looked at, it was the quietest, with a fan that hardly ever went on.

The machine is powered by an Intel 380UM Core i3 processor that runs at 1.33 GHz, slightly more than half the speed of the Asus. As a result, unlike the other two laptops, it lacks Intel's TurboBoost technology for increasing the clock speed when tasks demand it. (The Vostro can now be ordered with a Core i5 470UM processor -- the same as in the IdeaPad I tested -- but one wasn't available when I did my testing.)

The system matches the IdeaPad with 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive, smaller than the 500GB drive in the Asus I tested. (A 500GB hard drive is available with some V130 models.) There's no built-in DVD drive, but Dell offers an external device for $80.

The bright screen equals the Asus laptop's in both size (13.3 in.) and resolution (1366 x 768) and is powered by the same graphics engine as the IdeaPad (Intel's GMA HD chip). Its assortment of ports is similar to the IdeaPad's, with a pair of USB 2.0 connectors but no USB 3.0 port. There are ports for VGA and HDMI, separate headphone and microphone jacks, a flash card slot and an eSATA connection for plugging in an external hard drive.

For getting online, the system offers 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and an Ethernet connector. Like the others, the Vostro comes with Bluetooth for connecting a keyboard or headset.

Performance

As you'd expect from a machine powered by a Core i3 processor, the V130 lagged behind the laptops with Core i5 CPUs in my performance tests. Its 601.2 score on the PassMark PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark was faster than only the Asus in Battery Saving mode. In real-world use, its response was more sluggish than the Asus machine's in High Performance mode, particularly when moving between open windows, and it showed fewer textures and other details in the Trainz simulations.

At a glance

Vostro V130

Dell

Price (as tested): $808

Pros: Sleek aluminum case, leather bag, inexpensive, quiet operation

Cons: Short battery life, mediocre performance compared to Core i5 machines, battery and memory inaccessible

Its six-cell battery pack lasted for just 2 hours and 21 minutes on a charge, an hour short of the IdeaPad's six-cell battery and nearly two hours less than the Asus' eight-cell battery in Battery Saving mode. The system stayed connected to my office's Wi-Fi network only 95 feet from the router, 30 feet short of the Asus.

In addition to Windows 7 Professional, the V130 I tested comes with Office 2010 Starter and Trend Micro's antivirus software. (Models equipped with Ubuntu Linux or Windows 7 Home Premium are also available.) At $808, it undercuts the others by about $200. Its one-year warranty is second-best compared to the two years of service that the Asus U36JC includes; however, extending the warranty to three years adds just $80, a genuine bargain.

Bottom line

Despite an appealing aluminum case and an enviable profile, the Vostro V130 will likely disappoint mobile workers seeking the right mix of battery life and power on the road. Still, it's a beautiful system at a great price.

Lenovo IdeaPad U260

Looking more like an expensive leather portfolio than a laptop computer, Lenovo's IdeaPad U260 mixes style and power. It's the smallest and lightest of these three thin notebooks but is tied for first place in cost.

At 0.9 x 12.4 x 8.0 in., the IdeaPad is slightly thicker than the others but an inch narrower from side to side, making it the easiest to pack. Frequent fliers take note: It leaves the most room on an airline tray.

The U260 weighs just 2.9 lbs., which matches the 13-in. MacBook Air and puts it on a par with many netbooks. With its small AC adapter, the system has a travel weight of 3.4 lbs., nearly a pound lighter than the Vostro V130.

Of the three, the IdeaPad has the classiest appearance and looks the least like a notebook. Its rubberized coating has an alluring feeling and is available in clementine (orange) and mocha (brown). Open up the case and you'll see the biggest treat of all: a padded leatherette wrist rest that cushions the palms and make typing much more comfortable. Although the system has 18.8mm keys, the smallest of the bunch, the keyboard is comfortable to use.

The system I tested is powered by a Core i5 470UM processor that cruises at 1.33 GHz, but when the pressure is on, it can boost its speed to 1.86 GHz. (The entry-level model has a 1.33-GHz Core i3 processor.) The U260 takes a back seat to the power of the Asus' 2.53-GHz Core i5 460M chip.

Like the Vostro, the IdeaPad I tested came with 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive; the Asus test unit had a larger 500GB drive. There's an $89 external DVD drive option, but while the drive may be useful, it doesn't match the IdeaPad's classy look.

At 12.5 in., the IdeaPad's screen is the smallest of this notebook trio, but the difference is hard to notice and it was the brightest of the three. It offers the same 1366 x 768 resolution as the others. Like the Vostro, it uses Intel's GMA HD graphics.

The ports that the IdeaPad has on tap are sufficient but not impressive, with a pair of USB 2.0 ports, VGA and HDMI connectors, and a combo headphone/microphone jack. It does without the Asus' USB 3.0 port and the more convenient separate headphone and microphone connections. Unlike the others (and unlike virtually every other notebook made today), the IdeaPad lacks an SD slot for flash memory cards.

On top of 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi networking, the IdeaPad has an Ethernet connection and Bluetooth. Lenovo does not offer an integrated wireless data card for connecting to a cell network.

Performance

The IdeaPad was a midrange performer on just about all measures. On PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark, it scored a 664.5, slightly ahead of both the Vostro and the Asus in Battery Saving mode, but well behind the score of 1,095 that the Asus achieved in High Performance mode. In real-world use, the IdeaPad's performance and response times seemed on par with the Vostro's -- that is, adequate but not as fast as the Asus in High Performance mode, and it showed fewer background details in the Trainz simulations.

At a glance

IdeaPad U260

Lenovo

Price (as tested): $999

Pros: Beautiful design, small size and weight, leatherette wrist rest, good balance between battery life and performance

Cons: Expensive, limited ports, no SD card slot, battery and memory inaccessible

The IdeaPad's six-cell battery can power it for 3 hours and 23 minutes, more than an hour longer than the Vostro, a virtual tie with the Asus in High Performance mode and well behind the Asus' 4:17 run time in Battery Saving mode. The IdeaPad remained connected to my office Wi-Fi router 105 feet away, 10 feet longer than the Vostro but 20 feet short of the Asus machine's mark.

Priced at $999, the IdeaPad includes Windows 7 Home Premium, Office 2010 Starter and a translucent smiley face that shows up on-screen and provides shortcuts to a variety of configuration details. It's the same price as the Asus U36JC, but it comes with a one-year warranty, a year short of the coverage that Asus provides. An extension to three years of coverage adds $80, a nice bargain.

Bottom line

If you're looking for a good compromise between size, weight and performance in a notebook that doesn't look like a notebook, the IdeaPad U260 fits the bill.

The skinny on thin notebooks

The Asus U36JC's assortment of ports (especially the USB 3.0 port), its two-year warranty and its adjustable performance settings make it a keeper. Compared to the others, however, it's big and heavy, making it too much of a good thing.

In contrast, the Dell Vostro V130 has a sleek, angular, functional design that comes with a cool leather bag at a very reasonable price. However, it lacks the battery life that I need when I travel.

And while I love the look of the Lenovo IdeaPad U260, its padded wrist rest and its marvelously small and light case, it comes up short on ports.

In the final analysis, none of these three thin machines fully met my needs and aspirations: They were either too big and heavy or too compromised. Unlike Goldilocks, I couldn't find a model that was just right, but the Lenovo IdeaPad U260 came closest to fulfilling my wants and needs on the road.

Ultrathin laptops: Features and specifications

Asus U36JC

Dell Vostro V130

Lenovo IdeaPad U260

Processor

Intel Core i5 460M

Intel Core i3 380UM

Intel Core i5 470UM

CPU speed /

with TurboBoost

2.53 GHz / 2.8 GHz

1.33 GHz / N.A.

1.33 GHz / 1.8 6GHz

Dimensions (HxWxD)

0.9 x 12.8 x 9.4 in.

0.8 x 12.9 x 9.0 in.

0.9 x 12.4 x 8.0 in.

Weight /

travel weight

3.8 lbs. / 4.5 lbs.

3.6 lbs. / 4.3 lbs.

2.9 lbs. / 3.4 lbs.

Screen size / resolution

13.3 in. /

1366 x 768

13.3 in. /

1366 x 768

12.5 in. /

1366 x 768

Graphics

Nvidia GeForce 310M

Intel GMA HD

Intel GMA HD

RAM

4GB

4GB

4GB

Hard drive

500GB

320GB

320GB

Ports

2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, VGA, HDMI, headphone, microphone,

SD card slot

2 USB 2.0, VGA, HDMI, eSATA, headphone, microphone,

SD card slot

2 USB 2.0, VGA, HDMI, combined headphone & microphone

Communications

802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Ethernet, Bluetooth

802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Ethernet, Bluetooth

802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Ethernet, Bluetooth

Operating system

Windows 7 Home Premium

Windows 7 Professional

Windows 7 Home Premium

Warranty /

cost for 3 years

2 years / $120 (from SquareTrade)

1 year / $80

1 year / $80

Price

$999

$808

$999

Note: Specifications and prices are for units as tested; other configurations available.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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