Ultrabook Buying Guide: 6 Things to Look For in a Super-Slim Laptop

The buzzword in laptops for 2012 is Ultrabooks. Why? They have a lot of appeal for shoppers who are looking for a machine that’s thin, light and responsive. By Intel’s definition, Ultrabooks weigh less than 4 pounds and measure 0.8 inches thick or less. They’re also designed to wake from sleep almost as soon as you lift the lid, thanks to the use of flash memory. This last aspect is what really separates an Ultrabook from any other ultraportable notebook, with the goal of delivering the instant-on experience of a tablet.

What should you expect to pay? For now, Ultrabooks start at around $800, which is $300 more than the typical laptop. Over time, though, prices are expected to drop to $600 or less. (Think back-to-school timeframe.) Ultrabooks range in size from13 inches to15 inches, and some even squeeze in an optical drive. While today’s Ultrabooks have a lot in common from one manufacturer to the next, they’re far from identical. Here’s what you need to know to pick the best model for your needs.

1. Mind That Touchpad

Most Ultrabook makers opt for a buttonless touchpad to make their designs sleek, but this minimalist look often comes at the expense of accuracy. Some of these so-called clickpads are jumpy, while others offer poor palm rejection, which can result in a wayward cursor when typing. At present, the Toshiba Portege Z835 is the only Ultrabook available in North America with discrete buttons. Our advice: read our reviews of the latest Ultrabooks to find out how that touchpad stacks up, and try it out in the store if you can. You should be able to navigate the desktop without too many swipes, execute smooth pinch-to-zoom gestures, and two-finger scroll with little to no effort. 

2. Flash or Hybrid Drive?

On some lower-cost Ultrabooks, vendors employ hybrid storage systems that pair flash memory with a traditional hard drive. For instance, the Acer Aspire S3 comes with a 320GB hard drive along with a 20GB solid state drive, and the Samsung Series 5 offers a 500GB drive and 16GB SSD. These hybrid drives promise the best of worlds: lots of storage along with fast boot and resume times. However, Ultrabooks that use only SSDs offer faster performance, whether you’re copying files or opening applications. If you can afford it — and can live with less capacity — an SSD-only Ultrabook is preferable.

3. Design Matters

Given that an Ultrabook is designed to go anywhere, you’ll want a system that looks great and feels sturdy. An all-metal chassis is preferable for durability, as opposed to a design that sports a metal lid and plastic area around the keyboard. The Dell XPS 13 (pictured) is an example of a sleek and sturdy Ultrabook, which is made of aluminum and carbon fiber. The HP Envy 14 Spectre is another head-turner, which uses scratch-resistant glass on the lid and palm rest. It’s an elegant aesthetic but it also adds weight. Also look for a backlit keyboard, which will make it easier to type in low lighting conditions.

4. Screen Size, Resolution and Quality

The first wave of Ultrabooks mostly featured 13-inch screens, attempting to challenge the very popular 13-inch MacBook Air. But now we’re seeing models with 14-inch displays (like the HP Envy 14 Spectre) and even 15-inch LCDs (such as the larger Samsung Series 9). Regardless of screen size, pay close attention to the resolution. A screen with 1600 x 900 pixels is preferable to 1366 x 768 because the former resolution offers more detail. More subjective is screen quality. The panel should offer wide-enough viewing angles so that you don’t have to push the lid very far back to see the image.

5. Get the Right Ports/Slots

Some Ultrabook makers sacrifice certain ports to achieve a thinner design, but what should you be willing to live without? We’re not fans of Ultrabooks that don’t include an SD Card slot because many users prefer to transfer photos and videos from their cameras this way. If you’re a business user, you may want to opt for an Ultrabook that includes both an Ethernet port (for wired Internet connections) and VGA (for connecting to projectors), such as the Toshiba Portege Z835 (pictured). We don’t believe a DVD drive is necessary for most Ultrabook buyers, but you’ll find one included on some models with 14-inch or larger displays.

6. Battery Life: How Much is Enough?

Because the vast majority of Ultrabooks have sealed batteries that can’t be replaced or boosted with an extended battery, you’ll want a model that offers as much endurance as possible. We’ve seen some Ultrabook makers advertise all-day battery life for their machines, but in all cases real-world endurance falls below the claims. Anything that lasts past 6 hours in our tests is good, but 7 hours or longer is better. For example, the HP Folio 13 supplied 7 hours and 50 minutes of juice. The Lenovo IdeaPad U300s offered a solid runtime of 6:52.

Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
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