Holiday 2012 Ultrabook and Ultraportable Guide

So far this holiday season, we’ve provided some buyer’s guides for system builders—Trinity-based desktops, Small Form Factor builds, and even DIY Workstations. Today we’re going to ditch the DIY sector and instead look at pre-built laptops, with a focus on Ultrabooks and other ultraportables. Not everyone needs or even wants an ultraportable, so we recognize that the recommendations here are for a specific subset of users, but if you’re looking for something highly portable and you don’t mind paying a bit more for quality, we have some suggestions.

Before we get to the recommendations, it’s important to keep in mind the difference between an Ultrabook and other ultraportables. Simply put, Ultrabook is Intel’s big initiative right now to get more of their silicon into laptops, along with some requirements designed to make such laptops more responsive. Unfortunately, the same things that make an Ultrabook faster also tend to make it cost more, and so we have a split between Ultrabooks that have pure SSD storage and those that use a hybrid arrangement with a small caching SSD and conventional hard drive storage.

On the non-Intel side of the equation, AMD’s low-power Trinity APUs tend to have less CPU performance with perhaps better GPU performance, but they’re almost always targeted at the value market. That means that in addition to swapping out the Intel CPU for an AMD APU, you also typically lose the SSD storage. Still, if all you really want is something portable with great battery life that can be a viable compromise.

Ultrabooks and ultraportables do tend to cost more for a similar level of performance compared to regular laptops—just like laptops cost more for a similar level of performance compared to desktops. Making computers smaller is more difficult, and often manufacturers need to bin parts to find those that run cooler and/or use less power. Just like a Core i7-3770K and an i5-3570K are fundamentally the same part—the i7 part just has Hyper-Threading turned on and slightly higher clock speeds—most ULV parts are the same core design as standard voltage chips, but they’re selected to find those than need less power and/or run properly at a lower maximum clock speed. Instead of paying more for a part that can run faster, you end up paying more for a part that doesn’t use as much power and runs cooler.

With that out of the way, we’re targeting three price categories for these Ultrabooks/ultraportables: under $750, around $1000, and the no-holds-barred $1250+ range. We’ve tried to get a feel for everything currently available for the various categories, and we’ve selected a couple options for each price bracket (as well as some honorable mentions where appropriate).

“Budget” Ultrabooks and Ultraportables
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  • mayankleoboy1 - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    Ultrabooks -- Shiny Things For The Stupid
  • di1in - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    Just because you didn't need them (or can't afford), does not mean others don't.
  • SetiroN - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    After being seduced by the hype and getting an UX31A zenbook prime, I can only agree with him.
    Similar performance to $400 laptops for 4 times the price with a weight and battery life that still leave something to be desired.

    I'd much rather have a standard i3 (which performs better) than those overpriced ULV cpus, in a thicker laptop that takes advantage of it with a seriously hefty battery and acceptable dedicated, switchable graphics.

    Shiny things for the stupid - or overly rich. Apple products in a taiwanese package.
    Spending $1500 to still have absymal performance and the same kind of battery life just for the sake of some thinness is ridiculous, especially considering that they're not really all that incredibly more portable than standard 13".
  • karasaj - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    Why would you buy an ultrabook if you need more performance and heavy graphics... there's a reason MBA and iPad's became popular, and it isn't because of their price per performance.
  • SetiroN - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    I'm not sure what post you've read, but nowhere did I say I needed more performance or heavy graphics.
    As most people, you read what you want to read instead of trying to understand other people's perspective.

    I'll try and help you: what I said is that
    there is no reason to pay 4-5 times the price just to have a fashion item, because a normal 13" with an i3 could allow for a much larger battery and a dedicated GPU (which doesn't mean a 680m as you thought, just something more acceptable than the absymal HD4000) at a fraction of the price of high end ultrabooks while maintaining similar portability; Ultrabooks aren't really all that more portable because their battery still lasts 4 hours while weight and thickness aren't lower enough to justify the price. Nor does the cheap e-IPS screens that they market as if were EIZO while in reality they just cost just a little more than TNs.
    If you need your CPU to consume less power, you can configure a power profile that lets any Ivy Bridge CPU consume the same kind of low power of the overpriced ULV processors that Intel is so willing to shove down our throats.

    You pay for FASHION, not real added value.
    The reason MBAs and Ipads became popular is that they offer good enough performance while being STILISH, regardless of their cost.
    A smart buyer that doesn't care about making an impression with their laptop would save $500 and get the same thing half an inch thicker, while improving graphics performance in the process.
  • Nvidiaguy07 - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    Im sure i can pay much less for a big clunky piece of crap, but lugging around something like that - with many inferior parts isnt just about style.

    -sent from my 13" macbook air
  • aahjnnot - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    You make the mistake of assuming that everyone is like you.

    Like many people, I have absolutely no interest in gaming so performance on my 13" MacBook Air is more than adequate. It launches applications instantaneously, resumes from suspend in a few seconds and is even fast enough for light video editing.

    Of far more importance is the weight (it's light enough for me not to care about carrying it), the battery life (enough for an evening on the sofa), the screen quality and resolution and cool operation (my sperm don't care if it's on my lap).

    If you think I bought it as a FASHION statement, you're an extraordinarily bad student of human behaviour.
  • Ananke - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    I got $250 Asus made Pentium laptop, which is actually lighter than MBA, has decent build quality and allows me to do with ease the same what you are doing with your MBA :). ..The guy is right, ultrabooks are overpriced fashion statements, that command huge profit margin - the only reason manufacturers introduced them and still trying to market so desperately. The reality is that almost nobody buys them, and the pace of sales of ultrabooks actually decreases. These are the same as Aston Martins - beatiful things, but with very limited number of customers.
    Now, if a nice equipped ultrabook is sold at regular price of $300 , that's different story.
  • aahjnnot - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    Does the $250 Asus have an SSD? Does it have more than 1280x768 screen resolution? Does it have 5+ hours battery life? Is it slim as well as light?

    If so, I'm impressed. If not, it sounds as if it meets your requirements perfectly, but it doesn't meet mine.

    We're all different. But to assume that someone else is driven by fashion is extraordinarily naive. I looked long and hard for an alternative to the MacBook Air, but, at the time, I couldn't find any equivalent on the market. I personally couldn't care less about fashion, but I'm happy to pay good money top get the features that are important to me.
  • rickjr82 - Friday, December 14, 2012 - link

    Also, what about the touchpad and keyboard? I do a lot of development work on my machine and don't want to put up with something that isn't reliable or easy to use.

    I looked all over for a well reviewed laptop with an ssd and high screen resolution and would have much rather spent $600 than $1099 for my MBA, but I couldn't find anything.

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