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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  • DigitalFreak - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    It's an IPS panel. We have a couple of them at work and they're really nice. Don't know if they're worth the price though.
  • frozentundra123456 - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    I was never a fan of Apple, but I have to say that in the thin formfactor, they have come from overpriced to very competitive. The bookstore at the college where I work has the 11.6 and 13 inch MBA on display, and they are very nice. The price is also now very competitive, especially since they come with a true SSD. So if I didnt need windows, I would consider one. Somehow, they just feel like higher quality and more portable than the ultrabooks I have seem in best buy. I also like the very simple line-up of the MBA, not so many models to try to choose from. It is great to have choice, but the array of ultrabooks is just dizzying, and nearly all have some flaw. I do like the Lenovo Yoga though, and to go cheap and really portable, I like the 11.6 inch Asus. They had one of these in Best Buy and it even had a touch screen. I sure would trade it for my crappy tablet in a heartbeat if given the chance.
  • prdola0 - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    Apple is still overpriced. It's the other manufacturers that somehow think that we want to pay as much as Apple fans.
  • EJ257 - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    That's nothing new. Remember the Sony ultrathin line back in the early 2000s. Those things were going for upwards of $2000 fully configured. It had no built-in optical drives because they were so small and this was back when optical was still useful. People still bought them. Couple of years later Apple released the MBA line and history repeats itself.
  • pjcamp - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    The whole point of a portable is *portability* and portability depends almost entirely on battery life. Consequently, I'm disappointed that, after an initial mention early in the article, you've not considered battery life as a factor at all in any of these recommendations. Please don't leave your readers to root around through a mountain of individual reviews to figure out this information. A guide is supposed to guide.
  • Impulses - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    And readers shouldn't have to be spoon fed if they're researching a $1,000+ investment... It's a guide, not a review handbook or Bible. Anandtech's search works just fine and so does their Bench for more direct comparisons.
  • jamawass - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    Shouldn't this have been mentioned in the high end category?
  • estarkey7 - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    I can't believe you put that Dell into the review and omitted the Sony. I think the Sony is by far significantly better than the Dell offering in every aspect, including price and reliability of the Tablet/PC mechanisim.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    Most of the commentary (reviews) of the VAIO Duo are not particularly positive. I think the idea behind the Duo is okay, but in practice I just can't see it being all that great. I've got the XPS 12 in for review already, and I can tell you that I like it a lot. So that's why the VAIO isn't listed while the XPS 12 is.
  • estarkey7 - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    Editor reviews are leaning very negative, but user reviews are overwhelmingly positive. Also, Sony stock of the Duo 11 also gives an idea of how popular it is with the demographic that truly counts - Verified Buyers.

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