Computing

The Best Ultraportable Laptop Of 2012

Ultraportables have been the only class of laptop that really matters for a while now. Sure, you can find more powerful machines for less money. But the mix of portability, speed and beauty — along with the miniature muscle of Intel’s Ivy Bridge chips — has made ultrabooks the best laptops to own for most of us.

Previously, this category was dominated by Apple. Not anymore. For the first time, there are several ultrabooks that even iSnobs couldn’t justifiably roll their eyes at. And that’s pretty exciting.


Testing Methodology

We used these laptops the same way real people would use them. We ran synthetic benchmarks, punishing battery tests and transfer speed evaluations. These things matter, but only to the extent that they help separate a very close family of machines — these notebooks are more than a little similar to each other.

All of the computers tested here have the signature benefits of an ultrabook — even the non “ultrabook” MacBook Air. They’re all small, fast, and start up and resume quickly. They run on Intel Core i5 or i7 Ivy Bridge processors and have the accompanying Intel HD 4000 graphics. Pretty fine points of differentiation — but ones that add up significantly.

For our battery tests, we focused on heavy-use scenarios rather than some nonsense laptop pleasure cruise. The numbers reflect a battery-slaying helltest. Specifically, we ran 20 tabs — half were self-refresh, and the other half played and buffered a 100-hour Nyan Cat video on YouTube.

We’re also not getting into a Windows vs Mac holy war. You like the operating system you like. This is purely about the machines themselves and how they interact with their given platforms.


Honourable Mention

8. Sony Vaio T
This is unacceptable: The Vaio T feels like a toy. Its internals are mostly in line performance-wise with everything else here, but nearly every aspect of using it is subpar. The keyboard is a bit too spaced out, so typing accurately is hard; the screen is washed out, and build quality is a joke — especially from a company capable of making such wonderful hardware. And for some idiot reason it only has a single USB 3.0 port (the other is USB 2.0). Except for the also-honourably-mentioned Dell XPS 14, all of the other laptops we tested had at least two.

7. Lenovo U310
Oh man, what happened? Last year’s U300 was a bright spot in that generation of ultrabooks, but the U310 screws up a good thing. The keyboard loses some of the depth that made the U300 so pleasant to type on, and its undercarriage is insanely squishy. You can press the middle of the keyboard down nearly half an inch with your index finger. And when you’re doing anything processor-intensive — like playing a game — an unacceptable amount of heat blows right up out of the keyboard. These are all new problems not seen in last year’s model.

6. Dell XPS 14
The XPS is mostly fine — except for its single USB 3.0 jack. It’s decent in most categories. But at 14 inches and 2kg, it’s a little big for not enough features (like the XPS 15′s optical drive) or performance to justify its large imprint.


The Contenders

5. Acer Aspire S5
The Aspire S5 is a ground-rule double. It’s really thin, really light, really responsive and really fast. That’s most of what you want from a laptop. But its usability takes a major hit on account of its neat-but-frustrating mechanical dock on the backside that hides its ports. Its troubling battery life is also a bummer.

About the dock: it allows the S5 to cram a bunch of ports — full HDMI! — into a tiny, tiny body. But it’s so damn inconvenient. To get to any port, you have to press a button that activates a motor, causing the infernal thing to pop out of the laptop’s butt. Then you reach around and fumble with a blind plugin like a clumsy prom date. It’s loud enough that you wouldn’t want to use it in, say, a library or a quiet office — and its just slow enough to annoy you. Also, I’ll bet you $5 that it’s going to break.

Here’s the thing: Acer has figured out how to make completely, refreshingly usable computers. Even the Aspire S3, which wasn’t all that impressive on any objective level, was pleasant to type on. And it had the best trackpad performance of any ultrabook. The same is true for the S5.

But it seems for every great feature there’s an equally bad or annoying aspect: The S5 is absurdly light at 1.2kg, but it’s got that pain-in-the-life dock. Transfer speeds were insanely fast — 20 per cent to 50 per cent faster on large files (10x 300MB files and 50x 10MB files) — but its 1366×768 screen is the worst of the better ultrabooks. Battery life was a measly one hour and 40 minutes in our super high usage test (average was just under three hours). Still, the S5 is a totally usable machine — fast and comfortable, if a little clumsy. Unfortunately, the price tag is a little steep for that kind of description.

Acer Aspire S5
Processor: Intel Core i7-3517U CPU 1.9GHz 2.4GHz
Memory: 4GB
Storage: 256GB SSD
Display: 13.3-inch 1366×7681 resolution
Dimensions: 0.6 inches (H) 12.8 inches (W) 8.9 inches (D)
Weight: 1.2kg
Battery: 2310mAh
Tested battery life: 1 hour 40 minutes
Ports: SD card slot, 2x USB 3.0, Thunderbolt, HDMI, headphone jack
Price as tested: $US1400 (Australian availability not yet released)

4. Vizio Thin + Light
The Vizio Thin + Light does a lot of things right and a few things very, very wrong.

To start, Vizio’s display panel, which you’d expect to be pretty outstanding, is only pretty good. The 1600×900 on the 14-inch model is better than most ultrabook displays — decent colour and a great viewing angle — but it doesn’t punch you in the face with the quality you’ve come to expect from a company known for making such excellent TVs. That’s too bad, because the all-grey keyboard and trackpad funnels your eyes towards the display. It’s a nice little trick, and it makes you wish the screen was a lot better.

Overall, the Thin and Light’s design is wonderful. Its unibody construction isn’t quite as sturdy as Apple’s MacBook Air, but it’s right up there with Samsung’s Series 9 as one of the most visually striking ultrabooks. Unfortunately, even though the non-island keyboard — reminiscent of the pre-unibody MacBook Pro — is part of that great design, it’s just not up to par. The keys feel balanced rather than securely perched on their switches. And while typing at full speed is great, it just feels cheap at slower speeds. And the trackpad. Oof, the trackpad. It feels a little loose and oddly undersized for a 14-inch laptop. Performance-wise, it’s terrible. The cursor jumps around the screen, making it difficult to control what you’re clicking.

Vizio says that it plans on improving the experience as much as possible, which will mean updated drivers for the trackpad in the future. For now though, it’s a tough sell — even as an entertainment option.

Vizio Thin + Light
Processor: Intel Core i7-3517U CPU @ 1.90GHz 2.4GHz
Memory: 4GB
Storage: 256GB SSD
Display: Resolution: 15.6-inch 1600×900 resolution
Graphics: Intel HD 4000
Dimensions: 0.68 inches (H), 14.9 inches (W), 9.9 inches (D)
Weight: 1.7kg
Claimed battery life: “up to 7 hours”
Tested battery life: 3 hours 20 minutes
Ports: HDMI, 2x USB 3.0, headphone jack
Price as Tested: $US1200

3. Samsung Series 9
This is the most beautiful laptop you can own. Seriously. The Series 9 is gorgeous, well built and performs well. But its build quality is its only outstanding characteristic. Honestly, that’s enough to make it desirable, since “standard” for this generation of ultrabook is pretty damn good. But it’s not enough to really stand out or get past a few pretty big letdowns.

The Series 9′s display is one of the big letdowns. The matte 1600×900 screen on the 15-inch unit simply doesn’t look as good as Vizio’s, and it doesn’t have nearly the same viewing angle. But the fact that it’s matte will be enough for some people; the anti-glare and lack of smudging really is nice.

The other big issue is the keyboard. It’s just not comfortable to type on. The keys are far too shallow — most likely in order to keep the Series 9 so thin — and they’re quite stiff.

Reviewer’s note: This is based on the 15-inch Series 9. We will update this with impressions on the 13-inch model soon.

Samsung Series 9
Processor: 1.7GHz Intel Core i5 17w Dual Core Ivy Bridge
Memory: 8GB
Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 4000
Storage: 128GB SSD
Display: Resolution: 15-inch 1600×900 resolution
Dimensions: 0.58 inches (H), 14 inches (W), 9.3 inches (D)
Weight: 1.7kg
Tested battery life: 3 hours 3 minutes
Ports: micro HDMI, 2x USB 3.0, USB 2.0, mini VGA, SD card
Price as tested: $1899 RRP in Australia

2. Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A
Literally every single thing that was wrong with last year’s Zenbook has massively improved. It’s just that massive improvement doesn’t necessarily equal awesomeness in some areas. In other areas, however, the gains are absurdly good.

Without question, the highpoint of the Zenbook Prime is its screen. It’s gorgeous. It’s the best screen on any laptop in this class. It’s not just the 1080p resolution — it handles colour better than any other panel, and its viewing angle is as good as Vizio’s.

But the trackpad. It’s still the trackpad. Last year’s was awful. This year’s is better but not by much. It’s more accurate, but click zones are still inconsistent and loses your clicks far too often. It’s a little too smooth, and it seems to lose your finger from time to time. Scrolling and gestures are also unresponsive or extremely choppy.

Otherwise, the Zenbook was above average in most of the tests we ran, It was middle of the road in the battery test and had a surprisingly good keyboard. It is very, very good. But its tragic flaw is simply too deep for it to be the best.

Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A
Processor: Intel Core i7-3517U CPU @ 1.9GHZ 2.4GHZ
Memory: 4GB
Storage: 128GB
Display: Resolution: 13.3-inch 1920×1080 resolution
Dimensions: 0.3 inches (H), 12.9 inches (W) 8.9 inches (D)
Weight: 1.2kg
Graphics: Intel HD 4000
Tested battery life: 2 hours 30 minutes
Ports: SD Card, mini display, mini HDMI, 2x USB 3.0, headphone jack
Price as tested: $1899 RRP in Australia


1. MacBook Air
The MacBook Air is maybe the most perfect laptop ever made. It doesn’t have the same gospel choir highpoint as the Zenbook Prime’s display, but there is literally nothing subpar about it. Performance, keyboard, trackpad, battery life, transfers — all of them are are either the best or ahead of the curve. There is no part of using this computer that is not pleasant.

But this is the closest this race has ever been. The MacBook Air’s 1440×900 display is really nice, but it gets demolished by the Zenbook Prime’s display. And if you use a mouse with your ultrabook (please don’t, but if you do), the Zenbook’s big problem is no longer a problem.

But that’s not the race we’re in. The totality of the MacBook Air is so consistently great that when features of another comprable laptop surpass it, it feels momentous, even if the rest of the machine can’t keep pace. Maybe that calculus shifts once Windows 8 and its army of hybrids invades later this year. But for now, the MacBook Air is still top dog.

MacBook Air
Processor: 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 17W Dual Core Ivy Bridge
Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 4000 512MB (Integrated)
RAM: 8GB (4GB x 4GB) non-upgradeable
Storage: 256GB Solid State Drive
Display: 13.5-inch 1440×900 resolution
Ports: Thunderbolt (compatible with Mini DisplayPort), 2x USB 3.0, SD card, MagSafe 2.0
Dimensions: 0.11-0.68 inches (H) 12.8 inches (W) 8.94 inches (D)
Weight: 1.4kg
Tested battery life: 2 hours 48 minutes
Price as configured: $1799 RRP in Australia

Upcoming additions:
Lenovo X1 Carbon
Fujitsu LifeBook
Toshiba Satellite


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