Ultrabook Ultra-Roundup: 4 Top-Notch Notebooks Reviewed and Compared

Katherine Stevenson

Will this new class of slim, trim, relatively affordable portables be the Next Big Thing?

You’d have to actively be avoiding the tech media over the past several months not to have heard about Ultrabooks. Their coming has garnered a boatload of buzz, fueled in no small part by Intel’s $300 million fund to get hardware and software makers behind the cause.

Ultrabooks are Intel’s answer to the spread of ARM-based tablets—a way to capture the hearts and minds of the masses with an x86-based portable device (of the Intel persuasion, natch). To that end, Ultrabooks are required to meet a few key “desirability” standards. They must be slim, lightweight, have generous battery life, and boot and resume from hibernation in brisk fashion. It’s also understood they should look cool. As Apple products so clearly demonstrate, style sells. And sure enough, Ultrabooks—at least those that have debuted so far—are heartily infused with MacBook Air influence.

So are these new, “cool” devices the next must-have products? Is all the hoopla warranted? We review the first four Ultrabooks to kick off the category. All are 13.3 inch models, but each brings its own brand of hot-newness to the table, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, as you’ll see on the following pages.

Acer Aspire S3

Priced right, but far from perfect

When Ultrabooks were first announced it seemed doubtful that manufacturers could turn out these wannabe MacBook Airs at the sub-$1,000 price Intel was promising. Acer put those doubts to rest with the Aspire S3, which debuted at $900. Given its relative affordability, it’s not surprising that the Aspire S3 makes a few compromises in its Air aspirations.

Measuring .68 inches at its thickest, the ever-so-slightly wedged three-pound chassis is matte silver throughout, save for its black rubber hinge and gray keyboard. An attractive brushed-aluminum lid lends the S3 a solid feel and a classy countenance—at least when the notebook is closed. The inside and underneath are all plastic. Nevertheless, the S3 feels rigid when held by one corner, and we like that it opens almost 180 degrees.

Overall, the S3’s island keyboard is comfortable to type on, although the key press is a bit shallow and many of the oft-used keys around the periphery, such as Enter, Shift, Backspace, etc. are truncated. That’s particularly true of the arrow keys, which also double as volume and screen-brightness controls. Using the S3’s unified clickpad, which supports multitouch functions, didn’t give us any woes.


Closed, the S3 cuts a more impressive figure, with its handsome brushed metal lid on display.

Port selection is spare, a quality of all Ultrabooks, and here consists of a headphone/mic, a media reader, HDMI, and two USB 2.0 ports—the S3 is the only Ultrabook in this roundup not to feature USB 3.0.

Acer tapped the Core i5-2467M for processing duty. While the base clock is just 1.6GHz, it can Turbo up to 2.3GHz, and thus performed better in most benchmarks than the 2.13GHz Core i7-640LM Arrandale CPU in our zero-point ultraportable rig. The S3’s lagging score in Quake III is no doubt the result of its single-channel RAM, which is particularly problematic in older titles. Conversely, its score in Quake 4 demonstrates the advances of Sandy Bridge’s integrated graphics, although the gaming chops of any ultraportable out right now will be pretty limited.

In our video playback test, the S3’s battery lasted five hours; it recharged to full capacity in half that time. Videos themselves looked crisp and color-accurate on the S3’s 1366x768 glossy screen if the screen was tilted just so. Otherwise, color and detail were diminished to varying degrees.

The S3 is unique among these Ultrabooks for featuring a mechanical hard drive, but it’s paired with 20GB of NAND flash for SSD caching, using Intel’s Smart Response Technology (SRT). Thus, your most-often used programs benefit from the SSD’s faster performance. The S3’s boot time of approximately 39 seconds, however, was a good deal slower than that of the SSD competition.

Acer also offers a $1,300 S3 model with a Core i7 and a 240GB SSD. But truth be told, the body is better suited to the lower-cost category, where it must make due with the modest praise of being a decent budget option.

$900, www.acer.com

Acer Aspire S3
RIPE APPLE

Sub-$1K; attractive, sturdy lid; decent performance.

ROAD APPLE

Plastic insides don't match aluminum outside; no USB 3.0; uses HDD; narrow vertical viewing angle.

Specifications
CPU 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-2467M
RAM
4GB DDR3/1333
Chipset Intel UM67
Display 13.3-inch, LED-backlit, 1366x768
Storage Hitachi 320GB HDD, 20GB SSD
Connectivity
2 USB 2.0, HDMI, headphone/mic, media reader, webcam
Lap/Carry
3 lbs, 0.3 oz / 3 lbs, 11.5 oz
BENCHMARKS

Zero Point
Acer Aspire S3
Premiere Pro CS3 (sec) 1,260 1200 (5.0%)
Photoshop CS3 (sec)
183.6 162.5 (13.0%)
Proshow Producer (sec)
1,533
1,497 (2.4%)
MainConcept (sec)
2,530 2,591 (-2.4%)
Quake III (fps)
191.7
168.8 (-11.9%)
Quake 4 (fps)
17 38.5 (126.5%)
Battery Life (min)
240 252 (5.0%)

Our zero-point ultraportable is an HP EliteBook 2540p with a 2.13GHz Intel Core i7-640LM, 4GB of DDR3/1333 RAM, integrated graphics, a 250GB, 5,400rpm hard drive, and Windows 7 Professional 64-bit

Toshiba Portégé Z835

Lightest load, lowest price, least compelling

Toshiba does Acer $100 better, offering the Z835, a Best Buy exclusive, for $800. Its low price is matched by its light weight. At two pounds, 6.6 ounces, it beats all the others here by a good half-pound. But the Z835 also looks and feels the cheapest of the bunch. Its construction seems less solid—particularly the lid, which has a disconcerting amount of flex.

The Z835’s dark-gray and black color scheme is peppered with chrome accents that look a bit dated. All the keys on the Z835’s island keyboard are normal width, but they are also slightly squat, which takes getting used to, as does the shallow travel of all keyboards of this ilk. The keyboard’s backlighting is a surprising feature at this price—and not one currently found on the more expensive Ultrabook models. A traditional touchpad of decent size with discrete right and left buttons stands out among the other Ultrabooks’ clickpads.

The Z835’s hardware specs are another reflection of its low price. The centerpiece is a 1.4GHz Core i3-2367M, which doesn’t benefit from any Turbo boost whatsoever. This renders the Z835 the slowest in the benchmarks of all four Ultrabooks, and even slower than our elderly zero-point, except in Quake 4, thanks to Sandy Bridge graphics.


Only the Portégé Z835 offers a backlit keyboard—a standard feature of the MacBook Air.

The Z835 also skimps on storage capacity, offering just 128GB. It’s full-SSD, but that’s not saying much. The Toshiba NAND flash coupled with a Toshiba controller mustered just 187MB/s sequential reads in CrystalDiskMark—half the speed and then some of the other two SSDs in this roundup. More pathetic still, the Z835’s sequential write speed of 49.23 is 40 percent slower than that of the HDD in Acer’s S3.

On the brighter side, the Z835 offers the most generous array of ports, with full-size VGA in addition to full-size HDMI, two USB 2.0 ports plus one USB 3.0, and an Ethernet port—a rarity in this roundup.

The Z835’s glossy 1366x768 screen isn’t spectacular, but it reproduced pictures and videos without noticeable flaws and the viewing angle is thankfully wider than that of the Acer S3. In our battery rundown test, the Z835 played a continuously looping video for close to five hours. It took about three hours to completely recharge. It booted to Windows in 24 seconds, which isn’t bad.

Even more so than Acer’s S3, the Z835 deserves credit for offering such a svelte and exceedingly portable form factor for its price. But reaching that price entailed compromises—a few too many, in our opinion, to grant this product more than a mild endorsement.

$800, www.toshiba.com

Toshiba Portégé Z835
SLIM SHADY

Very slim and lightweight for the price; lots of ports.

SLIM PICKINGS

Too underpowered; sorry SSD speeds; flimsy lid.

Specifications
CPU 1.4GHz Intel Core i3-2367M
RAM
4GB DDR3/1333
Chipset Intel HM65
Display 13.3-inch, 1366x768
Storage Toshiba 128GB SSD
Connectivity
1 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, Ethernet, HDMI, VGA, headphone/mic, media reader, webcam, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi
Lap/Carry
2 lbs, 6.6 oz / 3 lbs, 1.2 oz
BENCHMARKS

Zero Point
Toshiba Portégé Z835
Premiere Pro CS3 (sec) 1,260 1,620 (-22.2%)
Photoshop CS3 (sec)
183.6 220.5 (-16.7%)
Proshow Producer (sec)
1,533
2,075 (-26.1%)
MainConcept (sec)
2,530 3,660 (-30.9%)
Quake III (fps)
191.7
159.3 (-16.9%)
Quake 4 (fps)
17 38.4 (125.9%)
Battery Life (min)
240 297 (23.8%)

Our zero-point ultraportable is an HP EliteBook 2540p with a 2.13GHz Intel Core i7-640LM, 4GB of DDR3/1333 RAM, integrated graphics, a 250GB, 5,400rpm hard drive, and Windows 7 Professional 64-bit

Asus Zenbook UX31E

Now we're talking turkey

With the Asus UX31E, all the fuss about Ultrabooks starts to make sense. Its all-metal chassis, cut from a single sheet of aluminum, is undeniably handsome. And while this attractive metal wedge that’s just .71 inches at its thickest brings to mind the fine craftsmanship of a MacBook Air, it’s by no means a knockoff. The UX31E possesses a unique character that’s admirable in its own right. And at $1,050, it’s $250 less than its similarly spec’d Apple counterpart.

Silver inside and out, save for a black bezel around the screen and black backing to the keyboard, the UX31E sports a faintly etched pattern of concentric circles on its lid, while the deck is adorned with a pattern of brushed vertical lines, interrupted only by a spacious clickpad. While clickpads can be persnickety and frustrating to use, we didn’t have any issues with the pad on the UX31E. As for the keyboard, the size and spacing of the keys feels right, and although the key press is shallow, there’s a satisfying click at the end of each depression.

Another welcome feature of the UX31E is its 1600x900 screen resolution, besting the 1366x768 of the other screens in this roundup and the 1440x900 of the 13.3-inch MacBook Air. Like all the others, the UX31E’s screen is glossy; it produces a bright, vivid picture and holds up well off axis.


The two speakers embedded in the chassis are powered by Bang & Olufsen ICEpower tech and put out surprisingly full audio for a device of these dimensions.

Internally, the UX31E also impresses. Its Core i5-2557M proc is clocked at 1.7GHz, with a max Turbo frequency of 2.7GHz. Combine that with a SATA 6Gb/s SSD and you’ve got a machine that posts healthy gains over our zero-point in the benchmarks and some of the fastest scores in this roundup. To put it in perspective, the UX31E had sequential read and write speeds of 463MB/s and 341MB/s, respectively—pretty darn close to the spec’s max bandwidth. Sadly, the SSD is just 128GB.

The UX31E’s battery life surpassed five hours in our tests. It recharged to 50 percent in less than an hour, and reached a full charge in three. Booting to Windows took 23 seconds.

Asus throws in a tasteful, brown padded carrying case for the UX31E, as well as a matching pouch that holds two connector dongles: USB-to-Ethernet and Mini VGA-to-VGA. Yes, Mini VGA is built into the unit (who knew it even existed?), along with Mini HDMI, USB 2.0, USB 3.0, headphone, mic, and a media reader.

All told, the UX31E weighs in at three pounds, 2.1 ounces (or 8.3 ounces, if you add the power supply). If going toe-to-toe with Apple’s Air on both design and specs, while beating its price, is what it takes to achieve product hotness, then Asus has done it.

$1,050, www.asus.com

Asus Zenbook UX31E
HOTTY

Stunning design; strong performance; SATA 6Gb/s SSD.

HAUGHTY

128GB storage and no way to upgrade it.

Specifications
CPU 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-2557M
RAM
4GB DDR3/1333
Chipset Intel QS67
Display 13.3-inch, LED backlit@1600x900
Storage SanDisk U100 128GB SSD
Connectivity
1 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, Mini VGA, Mini HDMI, headphone, mic, webcam, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi
Lap/Carry
3 lbs, 2.1 oz / 3 lbs, 8.3 oz
BENCHMARKS

Zero Point
Asus Zenbook UX31E
Premiere Pro CS3 (sec) 1,260 1,080 (16.7%)
Photoshop CS3 (sec)
183.6 168.3 (9.1%)
Proshow Producer (sec)
1,533
1,347 (13.8%)
MainConcept (sec)
2,530 2,354 (7.5%)
Quake III (fps)
191.7
217.3 (13.4%)
Quake 4 (fps)
17 46.6 (174.1%)
Battery Life (min)
240 310 (29.2%)

Our zero-point ultraportable is an HP EliteBook 2540p with a 2.13GHz Intel Core i7-640LM, 4GB of DDR3/1333 RAM, integrated graphics, a 250GB, 5,400rpm hard drive, and Windows 7 Professional 64-bit

Lenovo IdeaPad U300s

Hits all the right notes except price

Lenovo also brings its A-game to the Ultrabook party. And well it should, since it’s asking almost $1,500 for the IdeaPad U300s. That’s premium, business-ultraportable price territory. It’s therefore apropos that the U300s has the most businessy aesthetic, although not at the sake of sleek design. Like the Asus UX31E and the MacBook Air, the U300s is crafted from a single-sheet of aluminum. It eschews the wedge form factor established by Apple and instead uniquely mimics the lines of a hardbound book, with the top and bottom edges protruding slightly all the way around the perimeter, the way a book’s covers protrude past the pages. It makes for a distinct and pleasing silhouette.

Both bottom and top are dark gray—Graphite Gray, to use Lenovo’s parlance (Clementine Orange is also an option)—while the deck and screen bezel are matte silver. The inside is clean and minimalist, consisting of a power button, island keyboard, and large clickpad. The Shift, Enter, Caps, Tab, and Backspace keys are all slightly shortened, but typing on the U300s was a mostly comfortable, trouble-free affair, and the glass-surfaced clickpad is sublime.


We love that the U300s's deck is free of third-party branding, but that tack helps pay the rent.

Ports include one USB 3.0, one USB 2.0, full-size HDMI, and a headphone/mic combo. Lenovo is alone in this pack for excluding a media reader. A small button on the notebook’s left side launches Lenovo’s OneKey Recovery, which walks you through creating a system image that can be launched from the same button should your system fail. The U300s also supports Intel’s Wireless Display technology. So with a WiDi adapter (purchased separately) attached to your TV, you can stream any content from your notebook via Intel’s software.

Enough with the extras, how 'bout the hard stuff? The U300s is powered by a Core i7-2677M, which is clocked just a hair above the Core i5 in the Asus UX31E, at 1.8GHz. The two units traded wins in the benchmarks, although the U300s performed significantly better than the UX31E in Photoshop, for inexplicable reasons. In Quake III, the U300s suffered the fate of all single-channel RAM configs. For storage, Lenovo taps a comparatively spacious 256GB SSD. It’s a SATA 3Gb/s device using a year-old J Micron controller, but it comes close to maximum bandwidth, and subjectively speaking, the U300s feels plenty snappy. It was the quickest to boot to Windows, posting 17 seconds flat.

The U300s’s screen quality is on par with the UX31E’s, albeit at a lower res of 1366x768. Battery life for the two was also similar, exceeding five hours. Lenovo, however, had the speediest recharge, hitting 50 percent in 30 minutes.

So, yes, the U300s offers a good deal of quality for the price. But it’s nonetheless costly, and by contrast, the Asus UX31E is the better Ultrabook value.

$1,495, www.lenovo.com

Lenovo IdeaPad U300s
ULTRABOOK

Attractive design; high quality; Core i7 and 256GB SSD.

ULTRABROKE

Expensive; no media reader; lower-res screen than UX31E.

Specifications
CPU 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-2677M
RAM
4GB DDR3/1333
Chipset Intel QS67
Display 13.3-inch, 1366x768
Storage 256GB SSD
Connectivity
1 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, HDMI, headphone/mic, webcam, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi
Lap/Carry
2 lbs, 14.7 oz / 3 lbs, 8.4 oz
BENCHMARKS

Zero Point
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s
Premiere Pro CS3 (sec) 1,260 1,140 (10.5%)
Photoshop CS3 (sec)
183.6 111 (65.4%)
Proshow Producer (sec)
1,533
1,396 (9.8%)
MainConcept (sec)
2,530 2,259 (12.0%)
Quake III (fps)
191.7
185.3 (-3.3%)
Quake 4 (fps)
17 41.9 (146.5%)
Battery Life (min)
240 310 (29.2%)

Our zero-point ultraportable is an HP EliteBook 2540p with a 2.13GHz Intel Core i7-640LM, 4GB of DDR3/1333 RAM, integrated graphics, a 250GB, 5,400rpm hard drive, and Windows 7 Professional 64-bit

Inside Out: Anatomy of An Ultrabook

On the whole, Ultrabooks aren't the most upgrade-friendly devices. Of the four we reviewed, only the Asus and the Toshiba models seem to grant interior access that doesn't entail potential damage to the machine—and even those devices each require the removal of 12 screws, plus the use of a tiny security bit, in the case of the Toshiba. Here's what Toshiba's Z835 packs under the hood.

  1. USB 3.0 : Like most of the Ultrabooks here, the Z835 features USB 3.0. It comes compliments of an NEC controller.
  2. CPU : To save space, the Z835's Core i3-2367 uses a ball-grid array, soldered to the board, rather than a higher-profile socket. That negates a future CPU upgrade.
  3. RAM : The memory configuration is interesting, consisting of a 2GB SO-DIMM that can easily be upgraded, as well as 2GB of memory soldered to the board.
  4. SSD : A standard mSATA drive allows a future swap out—a nice consolation since the 128GB Toshiba drive that comes with the Z835 is small, as well as slow by SSD standards.

The Upshot on Ultrabooks

Where do they stand in the "must-have" product universe?

Now that we’ve seen what Ultrabooks have to offer, we can fairly say the category has promise. Intel’s success with Sandy Bridge, its strong desire to keep the ARM crowd at bay, and its deep pockets have spurred impressive strides in device development—shoot, two months ago, we couldn’t have imagined an ultraportable as capable and attractive as Asus’s UX31E fetching anything less than $1,400. To see a first-gen product of that caliber hovering just above a grand says something.

Are Ultrabooks ready to overtake tablets? Probably not—right now. Granted, even the current crop’s mix of stylishness, generous battery life, fast boots, and real PC performance will give some tablet shoppers pause when weighing the pros and cons of each device class. But the prices of Ultrabooks are still a little high (particularly for the more lustworthy models) to compete with $200-$500 tabbies.

And then there’s that little matter of touch. For the time being, Ultrabooks don’t come with touchscreens—a primary factor in tablets’ appeal. Nor do Ultrabooks hook into an app marketplace. Expect those things to change with the release of Windows 8 in 2012. Win8’s Metro UI will not only look the part of a mobile OS, but also be optimized for touch, and rumor has it the OS will include an integrated app store.

Yes, a touchscreen has the potential to add to an Ultrabook’s cost, but Intel is already working on that. At the Intel Capital Global Summit in November, CEO Paul Otellini made it clear that touch-based Ultrabooks will be a big focus for the company in 2012. Part of that includes getting the cost of touch down. Intel’s $300 million Ultrabook fund will help with that. Ultimately, Otellini wants to see Windows 8 touch-based Ultrabooks starting at $699.

Ivy Bridge will also figure prominently in Ultrabooks’ future. Intel’s next CPU will be manufactured on a 22nm tri-gate process, making it more power efficient than Sandy Bridge chips, and it will feature an entirely new graphics core that’s reportedly going to offer 50 percent better performance than Sandy Bridge in 3D games and feature DirectX 11 support, to boot.

All told, there’s potential here for these devices to be tablet killers—if value and functionality mean anything. For now, though, Ultrabooks should at least make portable-PC shoppers happy. All the models we reviewed here represent a big shift in the laptop landscape, from design, to form factor, to price. Yes, Asus’s UX31E offers the most compelling mix of all these factors, but we believe that Ultrabooks as a whole have serious merit as ultraportable general-purpose PCs.

BENCHMARKS

Acer S3
Toshiba Z835
Asus UX31E Lenovo U300s
Premiere Pro CS3 (sec) 1,200 1,620
1,080* 1,140
Photoshop CS3 (sec)
162.5 220.5 168.3 111*
Proshow Producer (sec)
1,497
2,075
1,347* 1,396
MainConcept (sec) 2,591 3,660 2,354 2,259*
CrystalDiskMark
Seq. read 85.33 187 462.5* 248
Seq. write 83.95 49.23
341.4* 187.3
Quake III (fps)
168.8
159.3
217.3* 185.3
Quake 4 (fps)
38.5 38.4
46.6* 41.9
Battery Life (min)
252 297
310 312*

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