Ultrabook Showdown: Which is the Best?

Now that Acer, ASUS, Lenovo, and Toshiba have released Ultrabooks (and HP is hot on their heels), which one comes closest to the Intel ideal of a machine that weighs less than 3 pounds, measures less than an inch thick, boots quickly, and lasts a long time on a charge? And which of these machines is the best MacBook Air altnerative? Read on for a round-by-round comparison of the Acer Aspire S3, ASUS Zenbook UX31, Lenovo IdeaPad U300s, and Toshiba Portege Z835.

Design

The most MacBook Air-like of all the Ultrabooks is undoubtedly the ASUS UX31, which not only has the same wedge-shaped profile, but one-ups Apple’s device with a two-toned look. The darker lid has a circular brush pattern, while the lighter-colored deck and bottom have a more traditional brushed-metal finish.

Lenovo’s U300s and Toshiba’s Portege Z835 have roughly the same thickness throughout and are more subdued in appearance, as befits their business-focused customers. The only design we didn’t like was the Acer Aspire S3’s; the plastic deck feels chintzy, especially when you consider its competitors are all metal. While all four weigh 3 pounds or less, the Z835 comes in at a netbook-like 2.4 pounds.

 

Winner: ASUS UX31. When you’re choosing an ultraportrable, you want it to turn heads, and even the packaging and peripherals for the UX31 scream luxury. In fact, we think the Zenbook is better looking than the MacBook Air. However, the Toshiba Z835 gets points for its sturdy yet lightweight design.

Keyboard


This was a tough round, in that none of the keyboards stood head and shoulders above the other. All of the keyboards have an island-style layout, but none of them have as much travel as we’d like. We had high hopes for the U300s’ keyboard given Lenovo’s pedigree, and while it was comfortable it wasn’t as good as the ThinkPad X1’s. Sadly, only the Z835’s keyboard was backlit.

Winner: Toshiba Portege Z835. Its backlit keyboard nudges it past the other Ultrabooks.

Touchpad

Three of the four Ultrabooks featured integrated buttons in the touchpad, and we had trouble with all of them, especially the UX31, which was so jerky that it felt like it was fighting our every move.  The Toshiba Z835’s touchpad, which looks similar to those of its other Portege ultraportables, has discrete buttons that don’t interfere with the pad and therefore provides highly accurate navigation and smooth multitouch gestures.

Winner: Toshiba Portege Z835. While not as fancy as the others, its touchpad and mouse buttons functioned correctly all the time.

Display

Every Ultrabook we reviewed has a 13.3-inch display. However, only the ASUS UX31’s screen has a resolution above 1366 x 768 pixels. Not only did its 1600 x 900 panel show more of web pages, documents, and movies, but—at 380 lux—it was also brighter than all its competitors, including the MacBook Air (330), the Toshiba Portege Z835 (260), and the Lenovo U300s (162).

Winner: ASUS UX31. Its display is both higher-res and brighter than the competition’s—including the MacBook Air’s screen.

Audio

In order for speakers to work well, they generally need to be able to move a lot of air. That’s hard to do in a notebook less than an inch thick, but generally all the Ultrabooks produced sound that was above average for your typical laptop. All four came with audio-boosting software: The Acer has Dolby Home Theater v4, the Toshiba Z835 uses Wavemaxx, the Lenovo U300s has SRS Premium Surround, and the ASUS UX31 has ASUS SonicMaster.  

Winner: ASUS UX31. Its Bang & Olufsen’s ICEpower and ASUS SonicMaster combined for loud, well-balanced audio.

Ports

With the exception of the Acer Aspire S3, all the Ultrabooks we’ve reviewed feature at least one USB 3.0 port. All have an HDMI port, except for the UX31. The ASUS uses a microHDMI instead in order to accommodate a micro DisplayPort (it’s the only Ultrabook with this port). Only the Toshiba Z835 has an Ethernet and a VGA port, though the UX31 includes an adapter, as well as one for VGA. Lenovo’s U300s gets points deducted for the lack of an SD card slot.

Winner: Toshiba Portege Z835. USB 3.0, two USB 2.0, HDMI, VGA, and Ethernet ports make this the most functional Ultrabook.

Performance

Lenovo sent us its top-of-the line configuration of the U300s, which includes a 1.8-GHz Intel Core i7-2677M processor and 4GB of RAM. It was rivaled by the ASUS UX31’s 1.7-GHz Intel Core i5-2557M processor and 4GB of RAM. No surprise, then, that those two systems rocketed past the Aspire S3’s 1.6-GHz Intel Core i5-2467M Processor and 4GB of RAM, and the Toshiba Z835’s 1.4-GHz Core i3 CPU and 4 GB of RAM.


To be fair, both the Acer and the Toshiba Ultrabooks cost $899, which is well below the ASUS ($1,199) and the Lenovo ($1,459). Still, we like the fact that Toshiba included a full-size SSD, rather than the SSD/mechanical hard drive combo in the Acer S3.

Winner: Lenovo U300s. Its Core i7 processor and SSD combine to make it the best overall performer.

SSD Performance

One of the requirements of Ultrabooks is that they resume from sleep within a few seconds. The only way to achieve this is through the use of an SSD.  ASUS, Lenovo, and Toshiba hew to the spirit of the law by using only an SSD, but Acer’s S3 has mere 20GB SSD that’s used only to enable quick resumes. As a result, its performance suffers elsewhere.

The 128GB SSD in the ASUS UX3—the first SATA III SSD to appear on a notebook—was the fastest on our transfer test, duplicating 5GB of multimedia files at a rate of 97.9 MBps. The Lenovo was hot on its heels (83.4 MBps), but the Toshiba’s poor write performance brought its speed down to 28.4 MBps.

Winner: ASUS UX31. Its Adata SSD was the fastest when transferring files.

Boot and Wake From Sleep

The Toshiba Z835 was the fastest to boot into Windows 7 Home Premium (21 seconds), but the ASUS (29 seconds) and the Lenovo (34 seconds) were hot on its heels. The Acer, which uses a mechanical hard drive, took three times as long.

All the Ultrabooks were pretty fast to wake from sleep—the slowest was the Lenovo U300s, but the difference between it and the winner (the UX31) was negligible.

Winner: Tie between ASUS UX31 and Toshiba Z835. The UX31 was fastest to wake from sleep, but Toshiba’s 21-second boot time was the best.

Battery Life

When you can’t replace the battery, you better make sure it lasts a long time. Fortunately, three of the Ultrabooks we tested are very capable performers, but only two of them beat the category average of 6 hours and 42 minutes.

Winner: Lenovo IdeaPad U300s. Its runtime of 6:52 just beat out the Toshiba Portege Z835 (6:48) and was an hour longer than the UX31 (5:58), and almost two and a half hours longer than the Acer S3 (4:23).

Value

When it launched its Ultrabook initiative, Intel hoped that prices would remain below $1,000. Acer and Toshiba kept to this ideal, pricing the S3 and the Z835 at $899. Both the ASUS Zenbook UX31 ($1,199) and the Lenovo U300s ($1,495, starts at $1,095) are much more expensive.

Winner: Toshiba Portege Z835. It offers the most features for the least amount of money.

Verdict

 


Both the Toshiba Portege Z835 and ASUS UX31 took five rounds apiece, and the Lenovo U300s came away winning two. While it may not boast the flashiness of the UX31 or the raw horsepower of the U300s, the Z835 has an attractive design, a touchpad that works, good battery life, the lightest weight, and a backlit keyboard–all for $899 (and just $799 at Best Buy). All those factors make the Z835 the best Ultrabook—for now.