The speed and portability of Ultrabooks (and their tiny-but-not-a-piece-of-crap-netbook nature) have made them a popular option, but which is the best Ultrabook currently available? Gizmodo gets benchmarking. Australian prices listed.
While 2011 saw the first wave of Ultrabooks hit, it's still a class very much trying to find its footing. Here we've rounded up the most notable Ultrabooks available to pin down which are worth your time, and which aren't. We took into account performance, build quality, usability, battery life, and the general je ne sais quoi of using the laptop as an everyday machine. The SKUs on the models tested didn't quite match up, but except for a few explicitly denoted instances, performance and specs weren't major differentiating factors in the experience. So yeah, we ran benchmarks and battery tests, but just as important -- or more, even -- was which were a delight to use, and which tempted us to smash them into tiny silicon bits. Here's how they shook out:
Note: CES is just around the corner (ie next week) and we expect to see more models arrived. This round up reflects the best of what's actually available right now.
Seventh Place: Toshiba Satellite Z830
Here's the thing about the Portege Z830: It does what it says it's going to do. Just not much else. It's the lightest 13" laptop out there, and it's got a smorgasburg of ports. That sounds awesome -- for, err, some people. But when it comes to using the Portege in the real world, it doesn't have much going for it compared to its competitors.
It's a totally unfair thing to base any kind of opinion on, but there's a symbolism to the TGIFridays-like lump of stickers waiting for you just below the keyboard. And it's a symbol for "Ugh." The garish chrome trackpad buttons. The flimsy, plasticy design. The performing way under spec for both its guts and its "Ultrabook" moniker. The extremely disappointing battery life. There's a lot to gripe about with the Portege, and not too much on the other side. It feels a lot like the Netbook of Ultrabooks. At least it's got those Ethernet, RGB, and HDMI ports, though?
The Z830 does have a spill-resistant keyboard, which is a half-decent consolation, and its magnesium alloy body is actually decent-looking, even if it feels like it might crack in two at any moment.
Toshiba Portege Z830 Specs As Tested
Thickness: 1.6cm Weight: 1.12kg Processor: 1.4GHz Core i3 Memory: 4GB Storage: 128GB SSD Screen Resolution: 1366 x 768 Battery Life: 4h10m PCMark Vantage Score: 5641 Price: Only the faster Core i5 version of the Z830 is available in Australia, starting at $1540.
Sixth Place: Acer Aspire S3
In a lot of ways, the Acer Aspire S3 isn't as good as the ZenBook or the Vaio Z -- not nearly, in some cases. But day to day, the Aspire is just plain simpler and more pleasant to use. There's an honour to that.
If you're looking for a true performance ultraportable, you should probably look elsewhere. The Aspire S3 is competent enough, but you'll get some slowdown here and there that you won't see on other computers on this list. The screen isn't all that sharp -- it's a little washed out -- and the overall build just feels... cheap. The battery is also not up to snuff compared to the other ultraportables; it got just a little over two hours during heavy use, and about four hours in our standardized battery test, which simply reloads a web page every 30 seconds.
So what's redeemable about it, then? It works. You can do stuff on it. The keyboard doesn't feel well-made at all, really, but typing on it is easier and surer than on the Zenbook or Vaio, which is worth something. Same goes for the trackpad: it's a little undersized and feels plasticy, but it does what you want it to without much hassle.
Aspire S3 Specs As Tested
Thickness: 1.27cm Weight: 1.36kg Processor: 1.6GHz Core i5 Memory: 4GB Storage: 128GB SSD Screen Resolution: 1366x768 Battery Life: 4h15m PCMark Vantage Score: 5258 Price: $1199 (Core i3 model starts at $999)
Fifth Place: Asus Zenbook
Okay, so the Zenbook is the cloniest MacBook Air clone out there, but that doesn't have to be the worst thing in the world. It looks great and has very solid specs and performance. The ZenBook does a lot right and is really impressive in some areas, but messes it up with design and usability oversights that keep it from living up to its spec sheet and glamor shots.
The Zenbook's problems are a lot the same as the things that weigh down the Vaio Z. The keyboard is purdy, but the keys are shallow enough that it loses keystrokes and, frankly, feels kind of cheap. Same goes for the trackpad. When we first saw the Zenbook, we were excited because its trackpad is big and beautiful. But using it -- oof. Not only is the scrolling jerky, but actually clicking or dragging is terribly difficult. You basically have to click in the verrrry bottom left corner of the trackpad to be sure it won't misclick; and even then it might not register your click at all, or maybe the cursor moved off somewhere else as you were banging on the buttons. The "one finger open" lid actually turns into a death lock that you have to pry open with two hands if you leave it closed for too long. The lid's also built like a refrigerator door, and because it's so heavy, it's impossible to keep it in place if you're sitting at any kind of angle.
It's all a shame, because underneath that is a really great machine. Browsing doesn't lag at all, battery life is great, the screen looks good (note: the Zenbook we tested was the 11" X21; the 13" X31 has a 1600 x 900 resolution), and it's actually a really nice looking machine. It's also cheaper than the laptops at the top of this list, so there's value to be had, too.
Zenbook Specs As Tested
Thickness: 1.7cm Weight: 1.1kg Processor: 1.8GHz Core i7 Memory: 4GB Storage: 128GB SSD Screen Resolution: 1366 x 768 (11" model; 13" is 1600x900) Battery Life: 4h40m PCMark Vantage Score: 10514 Price: Around $1400 (13.3-inch UX31E; from $1100 for Core i5 model); 12.1-inch UX21E with Core i7 available from around $1200.
Fourth Place: Sony Vaio Z
Sony's Vaio Z is really fast, really light, and really, really, really hard to use. Which is a shame, because it's actually a great little machine that outdoes the other laptops on this list in a few areas.
Let's start with the good. It's fast. You can load up a few dozen web pages, a video, and a few other apps and not really miss a beat. That's mostly to do with the i7, but it was impressive how much we had to load up the Vaio before it started to slow down (it killed on the synthetic benchmarks we ran). You also have the option of using the Power Media Dock and the Radeon 6650M it houses, though the onboard integrated graphics are passable for most usage. Still, it's nice to have the option. The Vaio looks great, and its matte plastic body makes it light and deals with heat better than the aluminium bodies on some of the other laptops. And the screen: It's very, very good. The screen can be customised up to 1920x1080 (on 13 inches!), which is the highest of any display on this list, but Sony's colour performance and the brightness of the screen are big plusses too. Watching a video side-by-side on the Vaio and the other Ultrabooks, there's a very noticeable difference in picture quality.
The not so good? Kind of everything about using it. The keyboard looks good -- the green tinted backlit keys are pretty -- but the keys are a little too short (in both height and depth) and have a tendency to not pick up keystrokes because there's not enough throw to them. And then there's the itty bitty, faux carbon fibre trackpad with cheap plastic buttons that are hard to press. The trackpad is fairly responsive, but after using the large, beautiful pads on the other laptops, it's a really tough sell.
Vaio Z Specs As Tested
Thickness: 1.67cm Weight: 1.18kg Processor: 2.7GHz Core i7 Memory: 4GB Storage: 256GB SSD Screen Resolution: 1920x1080 Battery Life: 5h20m (Double with battery pack) PCMark Vantage Score: 11555 Price: From $2999
Third Place: Lenovo U300s
Lenovo's U300s is the Ultrabook that proves that class of computer doesn't have to be a MacBook Air clone. It's light and powerful and falls into the world the MBA created while being legitimately different and smart and its own thing. The U300s is the most expensive "Ultrabook," but it's also the one that bears paying attention to.
The keyboard has a much deeper throw to it than every other laptop on this list, which is a good thing for most people. The keyboards on Apple and Samsung's machines are great, but for anyone who's looking for something resembling a more traditional keyboard on their laptop, this here's your peach. The U300s also feels sturdy, more so even than the MacBook Air and its unibody shell. It's just a really solid, really pretty machine. Its performance falls mostly within the totally-workable range of Ultrabook specs: quick SSD, strong processor, good batter life.
That said, no SD card slot kinda stinks at this point in the game, and the screen doesn't stack up to the Vaio or MacBook Air. And while the big trackpad is also one of the nicer ones found on an Ultrabook, we ran into some firmware issues with the trackpad that seem to crop up for some owners. And even when it is working, it's a little herky jerky with two-fingered scrolling. Clicking and navigating is silky smooth, though, so if you don't run into the same issue, the trackpad is actually a big positive.
U300s Specs As Tested
Processor: 1.8GHz Core i7 Memory: 4GGB Storage: 256GB SSD Screen Resolution: 1366x768 Ports: 2 USB 2.0/3.0, HDMI Battery Life: 5h50m PCMark Vantage Score: 9973 Price: $US1500 (Not yet officially listed by Lenovo Australia)
Second Place: Samsung Series 9
The Samsung Series 9 is the best, least MacBook-like ultaportable laptop. More than the MacBook Air or the Zenbook, this is the one that people perk up and ask about when they see it. And it's shocking, but aside from the sensible-but-garish glossy plastic that surrounds the keyboard, the design and aesthetic of the Series 9 might be stronger than the MacBook Air.
There's no standout spec for the Series 9, really. Its screen is good, but not astonishingly so like the Vaio's. It handles multiple tabs, movies, and the heat generated from use fairly well, and it's got just-above-average battery life. The build quality is very strong, too, and even the eyesore glossy plastic serves the purpose of dissipating heat.
And then there's this, inexplicable as it is unexpected: The Series 9 has the best and most usable two-finger scrolling to be found on a Windows laptop. That's kind of a really big deal for day-to-day use. On top of that, the trackpad can go toe-to-toe with Apple's, and the keyboard might actually be better than the MacBook Air's. The only complaint to be drummed up experience-wise, really, is a bit of light leakage from the backlit island keyboard that can get distracting in darker environments.
The Series 9 isn't a powerhouse quite like the the Vaio or the Zenbook, but the user experience and build quality of the Series 9 is so, so, so much better that if you need to be on a Windows machine, it makes sense to pay the premium for the Series 9 (or the U300s).
Series 9 Specs As Tested
Thickness: 1.63cm Weight: 1.31kg Processor: 1.4GHz Core i5 Memory: 4GB Storage: 128GB SSD Screen Resolution: 1366x768 Battery Life: 5h10m PCMark Vantage Score: 8205 Price: From around $1300 (cheaper models start at around $1150). View model comparison.
Bestmodo! MacBook Air
It's not fair, really. Apple's still working with too much of a head start for this generation of Ultrabooks/portables to put up much of a fight against the MacBook Air, especially now that it's not gimped with generations-old guts like it had been with the Core 2 Duo.
The keyboard, screen, and trackpad are all top notch and make interacting with your computer almost totally double-check-free. The touchpad specifically is the best on any laptop at all. The only real negative hardware-wise is the general lack of ports that all Apple laptops suffer from, but that's mitigated by the Thunderbolt port that you probably won't use too much just yet, but will be mighty impressed with when you do.
Yeah, we'd like to see an option for more than 4GB of RAM, or at least make it expandable. And yeah, the price tag can be tough to swallow. But the MBA does everything that ultraportables are supposed to do better than everyone else. Things like two-fingered scrolling, keyboard ergonomics, battery life, design and build quality -- for now, Apple's still got a leg up. The gap should narrow over the next few years, but for now, the MacBook Air's still the one to beat. For now. Tune in next week to see what's new at CES.
MacBook Air Specs As Tested
Thickness: 1.73cm Weight: 1.08kg Processor: 1.7GHz Core i7 Memory: 4GB Storage: 256GB SSD Screen Resolution: 1440x900 Battery Life: 6h40m PCMark Vantage Score: (Windows) 10,458 Price: From around $1799 for this top-end 13.3-inch model (11-inch models start at around $1099). View model comparison.
Battery Test: Brightness set to 50 per cent, refreshing a webpage every 30 seconds to simulate browsing.