One's too steep and one's too shallow, and they're the Achilles' heels of ultrabooks. What are they? Prices and keyboards, respectively, and HP goes a long way toward fixing them with its entry in the super-slim laptop sweepstakes, the HP Folio 13—$899.99 with Windows 7 Home Premium or $1,048.99 as tested with Windows 7 Professional, and equipped with one of the nicest keyboards in the class.
The HP Folio 13 is nice in other ways, too, from its Ethernet port to its memory card slot. It's a few ounces heavier and a few ticks of the benchmark stopwatch slower than some competitors, but the more you use it the less you'll care about that: Ultrabooks are about convenience and productivity, and the Folio 13 delivers so much of both that it squeaks past the Asus Zenbook UX31-RSL8 ($1,049 list, 4 stars) to become our new Editors' Choice in the category.
At $899.99 with Win 7 Home Premium, the Folio is the second most affordable ultrabook with a true solid-state drive instead of a spinning hard drive with solid-state booster like the Acer Aspire S3 ($899.99 direct, 3.5 stars). The most affordable, the Toshiba Portege Z835-P330 ($799.99 at Best Buy, 3.5 stars), makes do with a tepid Intel Core i3 processor versus the HP's perkier Core i5, as well as a thinner, more flex-prone screen and keyboard. The difference is worth the $100, even if the upgrade to Win 7 Professional is pricey at $149 (blame Microsoft, not HP).
Though not carved out of an aluminum unibody like the Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt) ($1,299 direct, 4 stars) or Lenovo IdeaPad U300s ($1,495 direct, 4 stars), the Folio 13 makes good use of the metal, combining a brushed aluminum lid and palm rest with a grippable, soft-touch plastic bottom. It offers a mix of matte and glossy finishes, with a non-reflective bezel around the mirror-finish display and a glossy tray beneath the matte keys.
Between the aluminum construction and a large-for-the-category six-cell battery, the HP, while still quite light, is heavy for an ultrabook—3.25 pounds on PC Labs' scale, compared to about 2.9 pounds for most rivals and 2.5 pounds for the Toshiba Z835-P330. The difference is barely noticeable; you can still slip the 8.7 by 12.5 by 0.7-inch Folio into your briefcase and almost forget it's there. Meanwhile, the system is flex-, wiggle-, and wobble-free, whether you're grasping the screen by the corners or typing with it in your lap—something you can't say for many ultrabooks.
The 13.3-inch display offers the same 1,366 by 768 resolution as most ultrabooks (trailing the 1,440 by 900 of the MacBook Air and 1,600 by 900 of the Asus UX31). It's nicely sharp and passably bright if you keep the backlight cranked up to its top couple of settings, though white backgrounds aren't washday-miracle white and colors don't pop as they do on some competitive screens.
If the screen is only fair to good, however, the keyboard is very good to excellent, as long as you don't mind having Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn doubled up on the cursor arrows instead of given their own keys (and one quirk: full-sized left and right arrows bracketing half-sized up and down keys). Travel-wise, ultrabook keyboards are by definition shallower than those of thicker laptops, but the HP's soft-touch keys manage to provide good tactile response without the did-that-keystroke-register uncertainty of some rivals.
The keyboard is backlit, too (the F5 key toggles the handy backlight), like the Toshiba's and Apple's and unlike the Asus', and doesn't oblige you to press a Fn key to access the functions such as screen brightness and audio and media controls assigned to F1 through F10. It's accompanied by a touchpad whose silky-smooth gliding and tapping contrasts with fairly stiff mouse buttons.
Deskbound users will look in vain for a Kensington lock slot, but they'll find a full-sized Gigabit Ethernet port as well as Wi-Fi for connecting to office networks plus Bluetooth for sharing data with smartphones. The Wi-Fi worked fine for Web surfing and Windows Update sessions. There are also one USB 2.0, one USB 3.0, and HDMI ports, as well as a headphone/microphone jack and the SD/MMC card slot that's missing from the Lenovo U300s and Dell Inspiron 13. The only thing missing is a VGA port for connecting older monitors and projectors, but HP sells an HDMI-to-VGA adapter for $40.
Intel Wireless Display (WiDi) is another presentation option, allowing you to beam the Folio's video and audio to an HDTV equipped with an aftermarket adapter, like the $99 Netgear Push2TV. The ultrabook's own audio is easily able to fill a room, with hearty, not-too-tinny sound through its above-the-keyboard speakers—which are worth turning up, because the Folio 13's cooling fan makes a faintly audible whir at most times.
Like all 13.3-inch ultrabooks, the Folio 13 lacks an optical drive; the 128GB Samsung solid-state drive is divided into a 97GB C: and 18GB D: or system recovery partition. Preloaded software, despite the Windows 7 Professional OS, skews toward the consumer side with links to movie and music sites and the WildTangent games that are the very definition of bloatware, though you'll also find Evernote, a 60-day trial of Norton Internet Security, and Microsoft Office Starter 2010. HP backs the Folio 13 with a one-year parts-and-labor warranty.
The Folio 13 is built around Intel's dual-core, four-thread Core i5-2467M "Sandy Bridge" processor, the same chip found in the Acer S3, with 4GB of DDR3 memory. Thanks in part to its pure SSD instead of hybrid storage solution, the Folio 13 soundly beat the Acer S3 in the PCMark 7 all-around performance benchmark test, scoring 3,146 to 1,899, although it in turn trailed the Asus Zenbook UX31's score of 3,531. The Folio managed cold start and resume-from-sleep times of 26 seconds and 3 seconds, respectively, in stopwatch tests.
The ultrabook posted competitive, if not head-of-the-class, numbers in our Handbrake video encoding (2 minutes 30 seconds) and Photoshop CS5 image manipulation (5 minutes 27 seconds) tests—easily besting the Core i3-powered Toshiba Z835-P330 (3:29 and 8:17, respectively), if a step behind the Core i5-based Asus UX31 and 13-inch Apple MacBook Air. The only area where it raised the white flag was in gaming graphics, posting an unplayable 14.3 frames per second in Lost Planet 2 and an unbearable 6.6 fps in Crysis. The MacBook Air and Core i7-powered Toshiba Portege Z830-S8302 led the field here with 21.2 and 19.7 fps, respectively, but even the Core i3 Toshiba Z835-P330 did better than the Folio 13 with 16.2 and 14.8 fps, respectively, on the gaming tests.
HP touts the Folio 13 as having a better than nine-hour battery life (and indeed, its 59Wh battery is the main reason for its slightly-excessive-compared-to-comrades weight). So we were disappointed when our first MobileMark 2007 run recorded a battery life of just over six hours. We tested the laptop two more times after a system restore, and unplugged runtime jumped to an average of 7 hours 33 minutes—short of HP's claim but better than the MacBook Air's 5:46 and virtually tying the Toshiba Z835-P330's ultrabook score of 7:35.
Actually, whether the HP Folio 13 is the longest-lasting ultrabook on the market is almost irrelevant. It isn't the thinnest or lightest or fastest. What it is, is one of the most immaculate designs we've seen, with clever attention to small details as well as thoughtful attention paid to big issues like connectivity and typing comfort. We could still wish for a brighter screen, but the Folio 13 deserves to become our new Editors' Choice for ultrabooks.