For a while now, ultraportables have been the only class of laptop that really matters. Sure, you can find more powerful machines for less money. But the mix of portability, speed, Compatible Parts and beauty —along with the miniature muscle of Intel's Ivy Bridge chips—has made ultrabooks the best laptops to own for almost all of us.
Problem was, this has been a class dominated by Apple. Not anymore. For the first time, there are multiple ultrabooks that even iSnobs couldn't justifiably roll their eyes at. And that's pretty exciting.
We used these laptops as real people would use them. Yes, we ran synthetic benchmarks, punishing battery tests, and transfer speed evaluations. These things matter, but only insofar as they help separate a very close family of machines; these notebooks are more than a little similar to each other.
All of the computers Compatible Parts tested here have the signature benefits of an ultrabook—even the non "ultrabook" MacBook Air. Each is small, fast, and starts up and resumes quickly. All of them run on Intel Core i5 or i7 Ivy Bridge processors, and have the accompanying Intel HD 4000 graphics. Pretty fine points of differentiation—but ones that add up significantly.
For our battery tests, we focused on heavy use scenarios rather than some bullshit easy-A laptop pleasure cruise. The numbers reflect a battery-slaying helltest. Specifically, we ran 20 tabs, half of which self-refresh, and the last of which was playing and buffering a 100-hour Nyan Cat video on YouTube.
We're also not getting into a Windows vs. OS X holy war. You like the operating system you like. This is purely about the machines themselves, and how they interact with their given platforms.
8. Sony Vaio T
This is pretty much unacceptable: The Vaio T feels like a toy. Its internals are fine—mostly in line performance-wise with everything else here—but nearly every aspect of using it is subpar. The Laptop Keyboard is a bit too spaced out, so typing accurately is hard; the screen is washed out, and build quality is a joke—especially from a company capable of making such wonderful hardware and Sony Keyboard Cover . And for some idiot reason it only has a single USB 3.0 port (the other is USB 2.0). Except for the also-honorably-mentioned Dell XPS 14, all of the other laptops we tested had at least two.
7. Lenovo U310
Oh man, what happened? Last year's U300 was a bright spot in that generation of ultrabooks, but the U310 screws up a good thing. The Lenovo U Series Keyboard loses some of the depth that made the U300 so pleasant to type on, and its undercarriage is insanely squishy. You can press the middle of the keyboard down nearly half an inch with your index finger. And when you're doing anything processor-intensive—like playing a game—an unacceptable amount of heat blows right up out of the keyboard. These are all new problems from last year.
6. Dell XPS 14
The XPS is mostly fine—except for its single USB 3.0 jack and Dell Keyboard Cover . It's decent in most categories. But at 14 inches and 4.6 pounds, it's a little big without adding enough features (like the XPS 15's optical drive) or performance to justify its large imprint.
5. Acer Aspire S5
The Aspire S5 is a ground-rule double. It's really thin, really light, really responsive, and really fast. That's most of what you want from a laptop. But its usability takes a major hit on account of its neat-but-frustrating mechanical dock on the backside that hides its ports. Its troubling battery life is also a bummer.
About the dock: it allows the S5 to cram a bunch of ports—full HDMI!—into a tiny, tiny body. But it's so damn inconvenient. To get at any port—even a USB—you have to press a button that activates a motor that causes the infernal thing to pop out of the laptop's butt. Then you reach around and fumble with a blind-plug-in like a clumsy prom date. It's loud enough that you wouldn't want to use it in, say, a library or a quiet office—and its just slow enough to annoy you. Also: It's going to break. Bet you $5.
Here's the thing: Acer has figured out how to make completely, refreshingly usable computers. Even the Aspire S3, which wasn't all that impressive on any objective level, was pleasant to type on. And it had the best trackpad performance of any other ultrabook. The same is true for the S5.
But it seems for every great feature, there's an equally bad or annoying aspect: The S5 is absurdly light at 2.65 pounds, but it's got that pain-in-the-life dock. Transfer speeds were insanely fast—20- to 50-percent faster on large files (10 300MB files and 50 10MB files)—but its 1366x768 screen is the worst of any of the better ultrabooks with Acer Aspire Keyboard . And battery life was a measly 1 hour 40 minutes in our super high usage test (average was just under 3 hours). Still, the S5 is a totally usable machine—fast and comfortable, if a little clumsy. Unfortunately, the price tag is a little steep for that kind of description.
Samsung Series 9
This is the most beautiful laptop you can own. Seriously. The Series 9 is gorgeous, well built, and performs well. But its build quality is its only outstanding characteristic. Honestly, that's enough to make it desirable, since "standard" for this generation of ultrabook is pretty damn good. But it's not enough to really stand out, or get past a few pretty big letdowns.
The Series 9's display is one of the big letdowns. The matte 1600x900 screen on the 15-inch unit simply doesn't look as good as Vizio's, and doesn't have nearly the viewing angle. But the fact that it's matte will be enough to get some people to forget that; the anti-glare and lack of smudging really is nice.
The other big issue is the keyboard and Samsung Keyboard Cover . It's just not comfortable to type on. The keys are far too shallow—most likely in order to keep the Series 9 so thin—and they're quite stiff.