Best Ultrabooks: Ultrabooks Rated
Ultrabooks are the new, cool kids on the block, with the Asus Zenbook and Acer Aspire S3 first to hit for the holiday 2011 shopping season. We're still seeing first models from other manufacturers in the late winter and early spring of 2012. Because quality materials and fairly standardized CPUs are a part of the $,1000 price of entry, we can easily say you can't go wrong with most brands and models on the market now. The only one we wouldn't recommend is the base model of the Acer Aspire S3 which does away with the fast SSD drive and uses a plastic rather than metal casing for sub-par performance, looks and durability.
New to Ultrabooks? Read our Ultrabook Guide that gives you the rundown on standard specs and features.
Before we get into the ratings, keep this in mind: though the specs, size and weight are similar among Ultrabooks, they vary in materials (somewhat), ports (somewhat) and weight (somewhat). Really, we're talking 6 ounces here, an extra display or Ethernet port there. Aluminum vs. Magnesium... you get the idea. You'll see up to a $200 price variance for different brand base models: not a lot. But each has a certain appeal and features or a price tag that might be most important to you. We'll cover those here. All run on Intel Core i5 and Core i7 ULV low power CPUs with Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics. Unless noted, they have 1366 x 768 displays.
1. Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch
The latest generation Zenbook move up to Windows 8 and a touch screen. It has a superb 1920 x 1080 IPS display, and other than the Radiant Black color, looks identical to the UX31A non-touch. It has a stunning and strong aluminum casing, excellent fit and finish and a very good backlit keyboard. You get little goodies in the box too, like a slip case, display and Ethernet adapters that other manufacturers charge extra for. For thsoe of you who hate touch, the non-touch Zenbook Prime UX31A is the one to consider instead. The touch model weighs a little bit more than the non-touch, but Asus managed to keep the weight under 3.5 pounds.
Good for: Style and lovers, those who want a higher resolution display.
Bad for: Those who hate backlight bleed.
Important Features: 1080p IPS touchscreen, stunning casing and design, good speed, bright display, good backlit keyboard and Intel WiDi wireless display.
Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch Review
2. Samsung Series 7 Ultra
Samsung's first 13.3" Series 7 Ultrabook is a winner. It features an all aluminum casing, very attractive design and excellent fit and finish. We love the full HD IPS touch screen with wide color gamut, backlit keyboard, dual band WiFi and unsually good port selection that includes gigabit Ethernet and three USB ports. The display is bright and sharp, the trackpad works well and the keyboard makes for fast typing though the key masking is a bit faint and hard to see in middling light. Samsung's display auto-brightness setting is for the birds though, so you'll want to disable it to really enjoy this bright panel. The upgradable RAM (up to 16 gigs) and upgradable mSATA SSD set the Series 7 Ultra apart from most Ultrabooks. The overseas model has AMD Radeon dedicated graphics, but our US version has Intel HD 4000 graphics.
Good for: Touch screen lovers, those who want to upgrade RAM and the SSD, folks who need lots of ports. Long battery life is great for road warriors.
Bad for: Those who look at the keyboard frequently when typing (keyboard masking is hard to see in some lighting situations).
Important Features: Full HD IPS touch screen, upgradable RAM and SSD drive, Intel WiDi wireless display, backlit keyboard.
Samsung Series 7 Ultra Review
3. Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon and X1 Carbon Touch
It's hard to beat ThinkPad quality and durability. No flimsy plastics here and no cutting corners on internal components to bring the price down. Yes, that means this isn't a cheap Ultrabook, but you get a very good 14" 1600 x 900 display with 300 nits brightness, fast SSD drives, socketed wireless cards and the best keyboard in the business. The ThinkPad X1 is also available with a touchscreen and Windows 8.
Good for: Road warriors that don't want to baby their machine, those who need a larger and higher resolution display.
Bad for: Those on a tight budget.
Important Features: Very rugged build, higher resolution and better quality display than many Ultrabooks, business features like remote management via Intel vPro.
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Review
4. Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13
Want a touch screen on your Windows 8 Ultrabook? We can't blame you. The Yoga 13 has a unique 360 degree hinge that lets you use this Ultrabook as a laptop or a tablet. Be warned, at 3.4 lbs. it's a heavy tablet, but it's better than no tablet at all, right? The IdeaPad Yoga 13 runs on third generation Intel Ivy Bridge CPUs and you can get it with 4 or 8 gigs of RAM and an SSD drive.
Best of all, you get Lenovo's excellent island style keyboard that's a dream to type on, a responsive and predictable trackpad and solid build quality. It's stylish and the IPS display running at 1600 x 900 is easy on the eyes.
Good for: Touch screen fans, folks who want a high quality display.
Bad for: Those who need dual band WiFi and backlit keyboards.
Important Features: 1600 x 900 IPS display, lovely design, good build quality and superb keyboard.
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 Review
5. Dell XPS 13
This is currently my personal favorite among Ultrabooks. It's got a gorgeous and strong combo of an aluminum lid, magnesium alloy keyboard deck, Gorilla Glass display and a cool looking and feeling carbon fiber bottom. Dell is good at getting the last ounce of performance out of their machines, and they use top quality components in their XPS line. Thus the XPS 13 has a fast Samsung PM840 SATA 3 SSD drive, Intel dual band WiFi with Intel WiDi wireless display and a fan that never whines like cheap junk. We love the Mini DisplayPort that lets us drive really big monitors too.
The Dell with the base i5 benchmarks well and it feels fast. The full HD IPS display isn't an expensive upgrade and we highly recommend it, not just for the increased resolution but also because it has much wider viewing angles and better colors than the standard panel. It weighs 3 lbs. and has a slightly smaller footprint than other 13" Ultrabooks. The chiclet style keyboard has sculpted keys with good travel and tactile feedback; it's superb and it's backlit unlike the Zenbook. Dell includes upgraded technical support (we've used it, and we're pleased) and accidental damage protection for a year.
Good for: Style and speed lovers, those who spend a lot of time typing.
Bad for: Those who want a touch screen.
Important Features: Superb casing and design, good speed, excellent IPS full HD display option, great backlit keyboard, fan sometimes loud, trackpad drivers aren't great, excellent premium support included.
Dell XPS 13 Review
6. Asus Zenbook Prime UX32VD
All the goodness of the Zenbook Prime at our number 1 position, but this one has NVidia GT620M switchable graphics and you can upgrade the RAM and hard drive if you wish (they're not proprietary or soldered on like most Ultrabooks). The machine has a small caching SSD and a main 500 gig conventional hard drive. That hard drive slows things down compared to pure SSD laptops and it plus dedicated graphics shorten runtimes. But if you need the power and upgrade features, it's worth the tradeoff.
Good for: Those who need more graphics power and storage space. Great for upgraders.
Bad for: Those who don't intend to game or do serious graphics and video editing work.
Important Features: Super-slim yet rigid, elegant looks and upgradable RAM and HDD.
Asus Zenbook Prime UX32VD Review
7. Toshiba Portege Z830 / Z835 and Z935
Toshiba currently makes the lightest Ultrabook yet it has the most ports: two big pluses for road warriors. The drawback? The 2.47 lb. Portege feels a little flimsy and has lid flex. To reduce weight Toshiba uses less metal so you don't get that bulletproof Ultrabook feel, and the design is plain. But when it comes to getting work done, the Z830 and Z835 have 3 USB ports vs. the usual 2, and one is USB 3.0 with sleep-and-charge. It also has Ethernet (not common), a full size HDMI port rather than the micro HDMI port used on the Zenbook, and a VGA port. If you go with the Z830 model, you can order a matte display.
Good for: Road warriors who need more than basic Ultrabook ports, those who want to travel as light as possible.
Bad for: Those who want a stylish and strong portable, not great for typing.
Important Features: Half pound lighter than other Ultrabooks, a full set of notebook ports, reasonable price.
Toshiba Portege Z830 Review
Honorable Mention: MacBook Air
The MacBook Air was Intel's inspiration for their Ultrabook initiative. They realized Windows PC makers could just as easily make something super-thin and light with a metal casing and solid performance for everyday work. Since Intel came up with the Ultrabook marketing campaign and definition as something that has Windows inside, the MacBook Air doesn't get the Ultrabook label. But it's a great machine and I use one as my personal work computer running Mac OS X.
It has the same Intel internals as Windows Ultrabooks, including Intel Core i5 and i7 ULV CPUs, Intel HD 3000 graphics and an SSD drive. It too maxes out at 4 gigs of RAM. It's no faster or different from Windows Ultrabooks. You get great fit and finish, Apple's excellent support and a very good backlit keyboard and excellent trackpad. It has a somewhat higher resolution (1440 x 900) display that has better viewing angles than other 13" Ultrabooks.
But, and this is the big but: it is absolutely fabulous and fast when running Mac OS X. If you want to run Windows 7 (or Windows 8), it actually falls behind when it comes to battery life and trackpad performance since Windows drivers aren't very optimized for power management or trackpad input. We get 6 hours of battery life when running Mac OS X, but only 4 hours 10 minutes in Windows.
13" MacBook Air Review