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Buying advice: ultraportable laptops

How to choose an ultraportable laptop

Life on the road can be a lonely business, although it doesn’t have to be. Ultraportable laptops can keep you connected on the move, without adding too much weight to your luggage.
 
Wi-Fi connectivity is a must for getting online from anywhere you end up, while some models also offer built-in 3G mobile broadband. And a webcam is vital for videoconferencing.

Ultraportable laptops tend to be work-focused tools. You’ll need a decent keyboard and trackpad if you’ll be using one in the cramped conditions of a packed commuter train, for example. Where more space is available to work, a wireless keyboard and mouse can make things easier – check your laptop supports Bluetooth first.

For a laptop that needs to be usable in a variety of conditions – indoors, outdoors, in bright and low-light environments – screen quality is important. Although glossy screens offer increased colour depth and sharper-looking images, they have problems in daylight, reflecting too much light into your eyes. Some screens have ‘anti-glare’ coatings that reduce this effect; others have a matt finish that makes the display more easily viewable in all conditions.

Battery life is a key consideration if you need to work on a train or an aeroplane, for example, where no charging point is available. Many ultraportable laptops come with removable batteries, allowing you to switch battery packs when the first runs out of juice. Other manufacturers have followed Apple’s lead, fitting power packs that can’t be removed.

Battery performance can vary wildly – look out for large-capacity packs with high Watt-hour (Wh) figures. Newer processors also tend to be more power-efficient.

Laptops can be all too easy to drop, scrape, bump or spill liquid over, so durability must be taken into account. If you do a lot of outdoor work, or are just plain clumsy, consider a model with a ruggedised design, for extra peace of mind. Some models have utilities that protect the hard drive when vibration is detected; some instead use solid-state drives (SSDs) that are immune to such ill-effects.

SSDs also offer quicker data access, but they’re pricey. For downloading photos from a camera or transferring data on the move, flash-based memory cards are useful.

Ultraportables also have to be adequate alternatives to desktop PCs, and able to run several programs simultaneously without slowing down. Most come with dual-core CPUs and, while we’re yet to see many Intel Core 'Sandy Bridge' chips in this category, some of Intel’s previous-generation Core i3/i5 families are very capable.

You’re unlikely to find decent standalone graphics cards in this category – for casual gaming these models will do the job just fine, but hardcore gamers will demand more grunt.

See also: Group test: what's the best ultraportable laptop?

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