All About Ultrabooks

Ultrabooks: Laptops as Light as Air

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Apple’s most recent MacBook Air is selling like hotcakes, for good reason. Current Airs are incredibly thin and light, and--unlike the first version--they’re powerful enough for most everyday work. But what if you don’t want an Apple laptop? Finally, thanks to Intel and its partners, you have a Windows alternative: the Ultrabook.

Ultrabooks are thinner, lighter, and in some ways faster than standard ultraportables. Most are barely more than half an inch thick. Priced from around $800 to over $1500, these are premium products, and they feel like it. Some early Ultrabooks eschew cheap plastic in favor of materials such as aluminum and magnesium alloy. You’ll find solid-state drives in most units, making them seem snappier and more responsive. Open the lid, and your Ultrabook will go from hibernate to working in seconds, and it’ll resume from sleep in the blink of an eye.

What Makes an Ultrabook Different?

Since Intel has trademarked the Ultrabook name, the company isn’t going to let PC makers slap the label on just any skinny laptop. A few requirements are involved. According to Intel, a laptop has to meet these five characteristics to qualify for the Ultrabook label.

  • Quick startup: Going from hibernate to keyboard interaction must take 7 seconds or less. Resume from sleep should be even faster than that.
  • Long battery life: The minimum for a single charge of the battery is 5 hours, and some models promise up to 8 hours.
  • Thinness: Ultrabooks need to be less than 21mm (0.82 inch) thick. Most models that have come out so far are much thinner.
  • Enhanced security: The laptop firmware has to support Intel’s Anti-Theft and Identity Protection technology.
  • Powered by Intel: You didn’t expect Intel to allow AMD CPUs, did you?

Of course, Ultrabooks ask you to make a few compromises. They don’t have room for optical drives, so you’ll need to add a USB DVD or Blu-ray drive to load software or movie discs. The cramped sides and back mean fewer ports, and a greater reliance on mini connections (such as Mini HDMI or Mini DisplayPort). Most don’t have ethernet jacks; it’s Wi-Fi or nothing, short of breaking out another USB peripheral. For most users, these trade-offs are worthwhile, and buying a new cable or adapter is a small extra price to pay for a half-inch-thick laptop that weighs about 3 pounds.

Ultrabook Reviews

Will your next laptop be an Ultrabook? Our tests of the first four featherweight PCs to carry the label should help you decide whether an Ultrabook is right for you--click the links below to read our full reviews. Don’t worry if you don’t see something you like; in 2012, Ultrabooks are expected to flood the market, improving selection and driving down prices.

Acer Aspire S3-951: The Basic Ultrabook

Acer Aspire S3-951 Ultrabook
Acer is offering its new Aspire S3 for a comparatively reasonable $899, and you can find it discounted to sub-$850 online. Still, $850 isn't a budget price by today's standards. Can the Aspire S3 deliver on the promise of good performance in an ultralight, ultrathin package at a not-unreasonable price? Unfortunately, no: Acer's attempt at a cost-effective Ultrabook ultimately cuts too many corners.

Asus Zenbook UX31E: Sleek Machine, Iffy Touchpad

Asus Zenbook UX31E Ultrabook
Asus's supersleek Zenbook UX31E is gorgeous. With its brushed-aluminum design, it more closely resembles the MacBook Air than other Ultrabooks do, and it really does elicit a Zen-like feeling. Throw in an i5 processor, Bluetooth 4.0, and a USB 3.0 port, and the $1099 Zenbook UX31E is almost perfect--except for its mediocre touchpad.

Lenovo IdeaPad U300s: Thin and Luxurious

Lenovo IdeaPad U300s Ultrabook
If there's a laptop that deserves the moniker "Ultrabook," it's the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s. Not because it's faster or beefier than the competition (it's not), but because it actually looks like a thin coffee-table book when closed. It's also the Ultrabook that many staffers in the PCWorld Labs gravitated toward due to its luxuriously minimalist styling and superior input ergonomics. At least, they did until they heard that it cost $1595, a price tag that reflects the expense of the machine's large (256GB) solid-state drive.

Toshiba Portege Z835: Light Weight, Middling Specs

Toshiba Portege Z835 Ultrabook
At just 2.4 pounds, the Toshiba Portege Z835 is the lightest of the first wave of Ultrabooks. Most rivals, like the Lenovo and the Asus, weigh around 3 pounds. You can immediately feel the difference when you pick up this light-as-a-feather laptop. Unfortunately, this Best Buy exclusive configuration makes a few obvious concessions to reach its attractive $799 price.

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