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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  • EnzoFX - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    What about build quality? Those cheap laptops are cheap for a reason. They'll last you maybe two years lol. Let alone the merits of portability and usability (What's the point of some bit laptop that you will hate using because it's built so cheaply and it has shitty kb/trackpad/screen, etc).
  • kyuu - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    What you say might hold some weight if other laptops had better battery life than expensive ultrabooks. They don't. Unless you're getting a sheet battery or a gigantic battery that bulges out the bottom.

    Also, ULV chips really perform pretty much on par with standard laptop chips. I did some research on a particular ULV i5 that was in an ultraportable (though not quite an ultrabook) versus the standard LV i5 that was also an option. My finding was that the ULV i5 had pretty much equal performance in all respects to the standard LV i5, it just drew less power and had a price premium. Not really surprising considering ULVs are generally the same chips as the standard ones, they're just binned to get the ones that run at lower voltages.
  • SetiroN - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    I'm not using the MBA as an example, we're talking ultrabooks. Apple's ultraportable admittedly is a better option, but no ultrabook is on par with it on multiple sides so considering were're talking ultrabooks, I couldn't care less that you're posting from your macbook air (as if the idiotic smartphone tapatalk signatures weren't enough, btw).

    As I said, I have an UX31A (the top version with the 1080p screen, i7 and 256Gb SSD), and it's nowhere near worth the price premium.

    - the screen is good, but it's a common e-IPS that's not worth $500. Also, 1080p is overkill (and 16:9 is just stupid at small diagonals, give me a freakin' 16:10 display FFS) and not prone to desktop usage

    - the ULV i7 performs well, but it's not better than a normal voltage i3 3110m. I find myself limiting the CPU frequency on the go to retain that 1 more hour of battery and I could achieve exactly the same with said i3: at their low power states, 800-1200MHz, they run at the same voltage and consume the same amount of power, something I hadn't considered before

    - build quality isn't all that good: the hinge becomes slightly loose over time and the screen gets damaged over contact with the keyboard border when closed). Yeah, it's made out of an aluminium unibody, but it's absolutely not solid, it easily bends and honestly compares to a normal plastic chassis. Macbooks' sturdiness is way above this

    - the trackpad SUCKS

    - despite the ULV chip, it's still relatively noisy under even slight load

    -at 1.4Kg and 18mm, it's not that much more portable than normal 1.8Kg 25mm 13inchers

    And that's arguably the best ultrabook on the market I'm talking about here.

    So yeah, current ultrabooks are all about style and milking customers.
    Unfortunatly Intel and the industry are pushing towards them enough that the great alternative that could easily be possible nowadays doesn't exist.
    A more average 13" chassis (Thinkpad 430, Vaio 13s) has equal or better quality than this Asus ultrabook and could easily pack a configuration such as this:

    1600x900 non-TN screen
    i3 3120m
    GF 620m or better
    70Wh battery
    128GB mSATA SSD + 2,5" HDD

    for $700 less than the $1500 I paid for my ultrabook

    But no, manufacturers need to follow fashion, stay within Intel's ultrabook specs and push pricey stylish designs, leaving consumers without a smarter option to buy.
  • Shadowmage - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    I have a Lenovo Yoga, which I bought for $825 shipped off Amazon. It has a 1600x900 13" IPS touchscreen, high quality Lenovo keyboard, and quite decent touchpad. Also, it weighs around 3.4lb and 17mm thin.

    A Thinkpad T430 costs just a hundred dollars less and is more than 1lb heavier, a larger form factor (14" vs 13"), and doesn't have the touchscreen (which is surprisingly useful).

    It's not form over function, this is actually a best-in-class machine.
  • arswihart - Thursday, December 13, 2012 - link

    The trackpad rocks on the UX31A with the latest non-Asus Elantech drivers (I forget the driver number). I use them along with Google TouchFreeze (disables touchpad when typing), and I'm extremely happy with the touchpad.

    The ASUS touchpad drivers worsen accuracy and sensitivity. They fool you into upgrading to them by incrementing Elantech's driver version number, as if Elantech developed the drivers. Instead, ASUS is hacking on them and making them worse.

    Personally I love my UX31A, if you don't need a bunch of CPU power and can deal with the 4GB RAM, it's really a beautiful device with a display that is second to none. Battery life is acceptable but agreed it's not great.
  • arswihart - Thursday, December 13, 2012 - link

    I agree the model you bought (i7 with 256GB SSD) is a waste of money. The base model has essentially identical performance and is a few hundred bucks cheaper.

    So, I can see how the UX31A sucks for people like you who bought the expensive version.
  • JNo - 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."

    But you did say:

    "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."

    You may not have shouted it out directly but I think most would agree that any normal person would infer that you actually find your ultrabook lacking at times and could appreciate some more grunt. You may not *need* it but there' s an implication that it wouldn't go amiss. Maybe you should read your own post more carefully before getting too snarky in your reply...
  • SetiroN - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    You're right, I apologise for coming out too sour.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 13, 2012 - link

    Hey, what do you think you're doing!? This is the Internet. You NEVER, EVER apologize on the Internet! Man, when will people ever learn?

  • althaz - Thursday, December 13, 2012 - link

    No, you pay for portability, screen quality, build quality and battery life. As an added bonus you can pretty frequently also get a huge boost to everyday speed and performance with an included SSD (the best thing about ultrabooks).

    I don't give a shit about graphics in my portable PC (the HD4000 is no slouch, btw, it's not the integrated graphics of old), I've got a desktop with a 4Ghz i5 and OC'ed GTX670 with 16Gb of RAM for when I want performance.

    I can't take my desktop on the train though. But with an ultrabook (I'll be picking one up that is also decent as a tablet as well, thinking the Samsung transformer-esque model with ULV i5 and 128Gb SSD) I can do my University assignments on the train (I work full-time so it's the perfect opportunity to get stuff done) and I can take it hiking or camping as well as watch a movie or read an e-book with it at home. I can also browse the web whilst sitting on the couch or catch up on my work emails while I'm on a plane.

    Laptops are universally rubbish for performance, so why not get one that is ACTUALLY portable?

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