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 1366x768 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 1366x7681 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 1600x900 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 1600x900 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 1600x900 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 1600x900 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 1920x1080 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 1440x900 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 1440x900 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



    Damn I'm going to get the Acer with a Display: 13.3-inch 1366×7681 resolution!! That's hot!

    Why wouldn't you use a mouse with a computer when you are at a desk? Mouse >>> any trackpad.

    Does the Macbook Air really only have 2.5 hours of tested battery life??? I thought it would have been more than that?

      I think they put Win7 on it to make the comparison about the computer not the O.S

      yeah i'm sure it's more than 2.5 hours. my early 2007 macbook still have just under 2hours. don't sound right.

    And what if i wanted to play a game. Macbook Air? Fail.

      buy the alienware

      lol windows on mac since 2008 where have you been for the last 4 years?

      I play portal 2 and civ 5 on my air no problem.

    Looking forward to the addition of the Toshiba Z930, quite keen to purchase one!
    Any ETA on those additional 3 ultrabooks?

    Doesn't paint a rosy picture for the market IMO. Wouldn't buy one and wouldn't use one if even if I won it. The only thing Ultra is Intel's hype.

    Is it just me, or does the MacBook Air have very excellent value? The specs and prices are quite similar compared to other ultrabooks. Is the 'Apple tax' gone for the MBA?

      The Air is a Core i5, the others are all Core i7, but it also has 8Gb of RAM and a 256Gb SSD, where the others all have 4Gb of RAM and the Zenbook only has a 128Gb SSD. And you'll never get a deal on a Mac, whereas you'll have no problem getting 20% off a proper computer (PC) at JB.

        $100 off at Myer and 10% off at JB HiFi are quite a regular occurance. Its not a great deal but its better than the RRP.

        try Kogan, they have brilliant deals on Macs at the moment.

    I have an Air and it is brilliant. If I had to choose a Windows 7 laptop (forgetting Boot Camp) it would definitely be the Asus ZenBook - it's downright beautiful.

    I'm sorry but this is just pathetic. No Core i5 computer is better than any Core i7 computer. It just isn't. This result was so predicably biased that I don't even know why I bothered reading it.

    You found one issue with the Zenbook to justify your decision but it simply doesn't gel with my personal experience. My Zenbook's trackpad is as good as any I have ever used and its the one everybody really roasted previously. I think it has far more to do with what you are used to, rather than any absolute issues. I've used MacBook trackpads a fair bit and they are just as bad as every other trackpad. Why Ultrabooks don't all come standard with a trackpoint is beyond me, they are far superior and they would have to be cheaper and lighter into the bargain.

      I'm sorry, but this is pathetic. This comment is so biased that I don't know why I even bothered reading beyond the "[-] MotorMouth".

      I really want to know something. If, as you claim, you hate everyhting Apple, and refuse to have anything to to with them, that they are scum, etc.,etc., why in the name of all that is good and holy do you keep reading and commenting on posts that are often clearly marked as being related to Apple?
      Mate, you need to watch your blood pressure. Just because we are entitled to free speech,, does not mean you need to actually be insulting. Subtle, yes; I don't even have much of a problem with some constructive criticism; but is all this mindless ranting really necessary?

        I use a MacPro at work every day. I always spec out a MacBook when I am doing my due diligence prior to upgrading and would happily buy one if it was the best option. I almost bought an iPod touch, too, but just like with my laptop, doing due diligence exposed several much better alternatives.

        To ignore something based on personal prejudice is ridiculous. I read a lot of the Apple articles here because I am NOT prejudiced at all and if Apple came out with something that stacked up against the competition, I'd happily buy it. The new Retina Display, quad-core MB Pros, for example, are looking hard to beat at the moment and unless someone comes out with a better value PC equivalent, I could easily see myself with one next year.

      Dude, no one cares about your opinion.

      Gotta disagree there. Not sure why anyone would even need an i7 for an ultrabook, and the statement about the mac trackpad is just false. If you really use a macbook as much as you claim then you would know the difference.

    Samsung 9 gets my vote

      saw it at JB and it is impressive :-)

    Still love my 2011 Series 9. Matte screen is awesome.

    I don't understand these 'Best of...2012' features. We're only half way through 2012!

      I assumed it was because once Windows 8 is released and all the PC manufacturers reveal their amazing new devices, no-one is going to be able to say that a MacBook Anything is better and maintain even a shred of credibility.

        Have you seen Windows 8?

        Also windows has been able to run on Mac since 2008

    Wife has had a Mac & did not want again so we got the Sammy 9 in the last tax year before the Asus was out. Very pleased with it

    All these battery life's suck, isn't there a small, light portable eeepc with 8+hrs battery life a contender. Lol, don't mock me yet, but not everyone needs power, some need a full pledge pc with good battery life on the go.

    Vizio Thin + Light is available in Australia where...? Vizio have actively said "Not coming to Australia".
    So why is it included...? Imports...?

    As someone who's typing this comment in from his very own MBA, this tidbit made me gag.

    "The MacBook Air is maybe the most perfect laptop ever made."

    Keep it classy Wagner.

    "Specifically, we ran 20 tabs — half were self-refresh, and the other half played and buffered a 100-hour Nyan Cat video on YouTube."

    Just for the lolz? ... You do realise that if your going for maximum power use there are programs to stress test computers. I see no justification not to use one as if you are already using unrealistic resources you may as well do it right. No one has that many tabs constantly refreshing and non stop nyan constantly buffering.

    how can the air be better than the zenbook?
    I have been using both at work, and the trackpad is not an issue what so ever!

    i5 vs i7???
    non upgradeable RAM vs upgradeable???
    the weight difference...
    the difference in screen resolution???

Join the discussion!