While much of the attention surrounding the long-awaited introduction of Windows 8 has focused on the latest tablets and convertibles, ultrabooks seem to have been lost in the frenzy. But although they aren't Transformers that can assume several computing personalities, ultrabooks tend to be lighter and less expensive -- and, for most business users, more useful.
"They may not be as flashy, but ultrabooks can provide more computing for the dollar than slates and convertibles can," says David Daoud, research director for personal computing at IDC. "They will likely be the value choice for businesses and consumers for the near future."
That's not to say this genre isn't changing with the times. There will probably be dozens of new ultrabook designs coming out in the next few months, including some with touch screens.
I was able to spend two weeks working, playing and living with three of the latest Windows 8 ultrabooks: The HP Envy TouchSmart Ultrabook 4t-1100, Sony's Vaio T13 and Toshiba's Portege Z935-P390.
All three have traditional clamshell designs with a full keyboard, hinged screen and touchpad. All use Intel's HD graphics to create 1366-x-768-resolution images on their screens. However, while the HP Envy and the Sony Vaio T13 have touch screens that measure 14 in. and 13.3 in. respectively, the Portege Z935 has a non-touch 13.3-in. screen.
I put these next-gen ultrabooks through their paces with benchmark testing, hour-by-hour use and a few road trips to see how they compare.
How we tested
To see how these first-generation Windows 8 ultrabooks compare with each other, I used them at my office and on the road for two weeks. After measuring the thickness of each system with a digital caliper, I measured their lengths and widths. Then I weighed each on a digital scale with and without its AC adapter.
I spent some time getting to know each system, examining every major aspect. I connected to both private and public Wi-Fi networks and also tried them out with a mobile hotspot.
For those systems that have a touch screen, I used a finger to maneuver around the Windows 8 Start Screen and also tried them with a Wacom Bamboo stylus. To gauge if it could work with 10 individual inputs I opened Paint and drew all 10 of my fingers across the screen.
Because Windows 8 is a new operating system, I checked each system's compatibility with a variety of peripherals likely to be around the typical home or office.
Next, I tested the WiDi capabilities of each system by establishing a connection between the computer and a Belkin ScreenCast receiver that was connected to an Epson MG-50 projector. I then walked away from the projector with the notebook in my hand to measure its range. When the picture or audio started to break up I took a step back towards the projector to reconnect and marked the spot.
Then, I tested the performance of each system. First I looked at overall performance with PassMark's PerformanceTest 8.0 benchmark test. The software exercises every major component of the system, including processor, hard drive, 2D and 3D graphics, and memory operations. It adds several game routines as well as a visualization of a Mandelbroit fractal set. I ran the software three times and averaged the results.
I also ran the Maxon CineBench benchmarks for graphics and processor performance. The software renders several photorealistic scenes that stress the processor and graphics chip by manipulating up to a million polygons. It reports scores for processor and graphics performance, and I averaged the results of three runs.
To gauge how long each can run on its battery, I loaded PassMark's BatteryMon, fully charged the system, set its power-management options to Balanced and adjusted the settings to prevent the computer from going to sleep. The screen brightness and volume were set to 6/10, and I used the shuffle feature on Windows Media Player to continuously play six videos from a USB flash drive connected to the system. I reported the average of three runs.
The HP Envy TouchSmart Ultrabook 4t-1100 may be a mouthful to say, but it is a well-designed touch-screen Windows 8 system.
The HP Envy is thicker than the Portege Z935 or Vaio T13 (while the company's specs give it as 0.78 in., I measured it at a full 1.0 in.). Its 13.3-x-9.2-in. footprint is nearly an inch wider than the Vaio T13 or Portege Z935. However, it provides the luxury of a 14-in. screen vs. the 13.3-in. displays on the other two.
At 4.6 lb., the Envy 4 is nearly double the weight of the 2.4-lb. Portege Z935 and 1.1 lb. heavier than the Vaio T13. When you add the three-prong AC adapter, the Envy 4 has a travel weight of 5.1 pounds. That being said, I really liked the Envy's rounded corners, soft rubberized coating on the bottom and brushed aluminum cover and deck.
The center of attention is its 14-in. 1366 x 768 touch screen that, like the Vaio T13, responds to ten-finger input. I was impressed with how bright and rich images were, and found that it greatly enhanced the process of working with Windows 8. However, I also found I had to be a bit careful -- all it took was a hard tap at the top of the screen to make the display wobble and risk tipping it over.
For typists, the Envy has a comfortable keyboard that is backlit with white LEDs.
The test system came with an Intel Core i5 3317U processor (as did the Portege Z935) that runs at 1.7GHz and can overclock to 2.6GHz; that was accompanied by the Intel HD Graphics 4000 processor. The unit came with 4GB of RAM; the system is upgradeable to a 16GB maximum.
While the Vaio T13 and Portege Z935 use SSDs for storage, the Envy has a more traditional 500GB hard drive with 32GB of hard drive cache to boost performance. The computer includes two USB 3.0 and one USB 2.0 connection along with an HDMI port, audio jacks and an SD card reader; however, the system lacks a VGA port for use with older monitors.
I really liked the inclusion of Beats audio and a subwoofer, which delivered a rich and full sound.
To communicate with the world, the Envy has a pop-open Ethernet port as well as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It can also wirelessly connect with a projector or TV via Intel's WiDi. When I tried it out, the Envy remained linked with a projector as far as 46 feet away, 9 feet farther than the Portege (which also has WiDi) could.
The system comes with Windows 8, a two-month trial edition of Microsoft Office Home and Student, and a 60-day trial of Norton Internet Security.
With a score of 1,422.6 on the PassMark PerformanceTest benchmark, the Envy was 30% percent slower than the Vaio T13, a result I attribute to a lower amount of system memory, slower processor and the use of a traditional hard drive.
At a Glance
Envy TouchSmart Ultrabook 4 t-1100
Price base/as tested: $800/$895
Pros: Touch screen, backlit keyboard, Beats audio, sleek design, good battery life
Cons: Relatively thick and heavy, no VGA port
It was a virtual tie with the Portege on CineBench 11.5's processor tests with a score of 2.38, but again, was well behind the Vaio T13's 2.77 score. And as far as graphics goes, the Envy's 13.12 frames per second (fps) was well behind both the Vaio T13 and the Portege.
At 5 hours and 15 minutes of battery life, the system's 3,200mAh battery was the long-distance runner of the group, going for nearly an hour longer than the Portege; however, the battery is not user-removable.
The HP Envy TouchSmart Ultrabook 4t-1100 starts at an enviable $800, which includes a Core i3 processor and a non-backlit keyboard. The model I tested had a backlit keyboard and Core i5 processor, bringing the price up to $895.
While it is heavier and slower than the other two units in this roundup, the HP Envy is the value leader because it has the largest screen, is touch-enabled and it has the best sound.
If a nice balance between performance and battery life are what you're after in an ultrabook, Sony's Vaio T Series 13 delivers it along with an excellent touch screen.
There are a variety of configurations available in Sony's T series of ultrabooks, including both 13.3-in. and 14-in. displays; touch and non-touch screens; Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 processors; hard drives and SSDs; and 4GB to 8GB of RAM.
The review unit is at the high end of this list. It offers a 13.3-in. touch screen and Intel's 1.9GHz Core i7 processor (a step up from the 1.7GHz Core i5 CPU used on the other two systems), which can sprint to as fast as 3.0GHz if needed. It also includes a 256GB SSD and 8GB RAM.
I measured the Vaio at 12.6 x 0.8 x 8.0 in.; it weighs 3.5 lb., about 1.1 lb. heavier than the Portege (probably because of the Vaio's touch screen). With its large two-prong AC adapter, the system has a travel weight of 4.4 lb.
Capable of responding to 10 individual finger inputs, the Vaio's display reacted quickly and precisely to input. While I didn't find it quite as bright as either the Portege or Envy 4, I still found the display quality quite sharp and clear; I doubt there will be too many users who will be disappointed.
The lid has two small feet that brace it when the system is open, making the display much sturdier than the Envy's. Its keyboard, however, lacks the backlighting that the others provide.
The Vaio comes with one USB 2.0 and one USB 3.0 connection, down from the three USB ports that the others have. Over my time with the system, this proved to be a minor inconvenience.
There's also an HDMI port, a VGA port, and a combo microphone and headphone audio jack. It has a flash card reader that can work with SD and Memory Stick modules.
For getting online, the system has Wi-Fi (because Sony uses an Atheros radio rather than an Intel, it can't use Intel's WiDi technology). The system also includes Bluetooth and an Ethernet jack.
At a Glance
Vaio T Series 13 Ultrabook
Price base/as tested: $670/$1,300
Pros: Touch screen, thin and light, access to battery, stable screen lid
Cons: Relatively expensive
Along with Windows 8, the Vaio T13 comes with a one-month subscription to Kaspersky Internet Security and a copy of Art Rage Studio, an excellent tablet drawing program. The system comes with a one-year warranty.
With its faster processor and larger cache of memory, the Vaio T13 swept the performance phase of testing with a 2,006.9 on the PassMark PerformanceTest suite of benchmark tests. Its scores of 2.77 and 16.62 fps on the CineBench 11.5's processor and graphics tests were also well ahead of the other two.
When I tested the Vaio's battery, it yielded a runtime of 4 hours and 57 minutes, a few minutes short of the Envy 4's battery life and 35 minutes longer than the Portege's.
Unlike the other two ultrabooks reviewed here, you can change the Vaio T13's battery. It's a little awkward, because rather than a slide latch, it has three screws that need to be loosened with a thick spade screwdriver or a penny, but it only takes a minute.
In the configuration I tested, the Sony Vaio T Series 13 is a bit pricey, but its top-shelf components, high performance and good battery life combine to make this touch ultrabook a winner.
Not quite ready to take the plunge with a touch-screen computer? Toshiba's Portege Z935-P390 is an ultrabook with a 13.3-in. display that lets you get the most out of Windows 8 without lifting a finger.
The Portege is slimmer than the Envy or Vaio T13: it measures 0.6 in. thick in the front and 0.8 in. thick in the back. It has a more businesslike, squared-off gray case with bright chrome accents on the hinges and around the touchpad. Its footprint measures 12.4 x 8.9 in., making it slightly deeper but narrower than the Vaio T13, which has the same size screen.
Weighing 2.4 lb., the Portege is remarkably light. With its AC adapter, the Portege has an enviable total weight of 3 lb., more than a pound lighter than the Vaio T13; happily, it requires only a two-prong outlet to power it up.
The Portege's display was quite clear and offered rich colors; it was about as bright as the Vaio T13. Because it lacks a touch screen, the Portege relies on a 3.4-x-2-in. touchpad, which has a nice texture to it and a button for turning it off when doing a lot of typing. It was able to bring out the Windows 8 Charms Menu with a swipe of a finger right to left and let me zoom in by pinching an image, but I needed a bit of practicing before using it became second nature. The comfortable keyboard is backlit for late-night work or gaming.
Inside the Portege is the same 1.7GHz Core i5 processor that the Envy uses. It also includes a 128GB SSD and 6GB of RAM.
The system's assortment of ports includes two USB 2.0 and a single USB 3.0 connection. It also has an HDMI port, SD card reader, audio port and old-school VGA port. The system comes with a Gigabit Ethernet connection as well as Wi-Fi. Its WiDi system was able to connect to a projector at a range of 37 feet, 9 feet short of the Envy's range.
Along with Windows 8, the Portege includes Norton Internet Security with 30 days of file updates as well as a handy Toshiba PC Health Monitor for observing the system's components. It comes with a one-year warranty.
At a Glance
Portege Z935 P390
Price base/as tested: $1,000/$1,000
Pros: Strong performance, backlit keyboard, thin and light, SSD
Cons: No touch screen, short battery life
The Portege scored 1,680.9 on the PassMark PerformanceTest suite, right in the middle of the pack. Its CineBench 11.5 processor score was halfway between the those of the Envy and the Vaio T13, while the system's graphics score of 14.51 fps was 13% less than the Vaio T13's score of 16.62 fps.
The system's 3,000 mAh battery was able to go for 4 hours and 22 minutes on a charge. Unlike the Vaio T13, the system is sealed and has no way to swap batteries.
It might lack a touch screen, but the $999.99 Portege Z935-P390 provides a bridge between the old and new worlds with a thin, lightweight, high-performance system.
All three of these new ultrabooks are well made, reliable and are worthy of consideration for a place in your notebook bag.
At heart, I am a cheapskate, eager to save money on anything I buy. This time, however, my choice is the $1,300 Sony Vaio T13, the most expensive of the three. It has a great touch screen, the best configuration, excellent performance and the ability to run for nearly five hours on a charge. Of the three, it offers the best balance among size, weight and abilities.