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Group test: what's the best ultrabook laptop?

The best ultrabooks you can buy

Apple MacBook Air 11in (mid-2011)Apple MacBook Air 11in (mid-2011)

  • Rating: Rated 9 out of 10
  • Reviewed on: 10 April 12
  • RRP: £849 inc. VAT

Since the company has discontinued its popular white MacBook, the Apple MacBook Air 11in (Mid-2011) now stands alone as the most affordable Mac portable. At £849, you get 2GB memory and 64GB of solid-state drive; another £150 doubles both those specs to a decent 4GB and 128GB storage. Whether you’re a student or business professional, it’s a great carry-anywhere laptop with more power than we’d imagine was possible at this size, yet still providing decent battery life.


Apple MacBook Air 13in (Mid-2011) 1.8GHz CorE i7

Apple MacBook Air 13in (Mid-2011) 1.8GHz CorE i7

  • Rating: Rated 9 out of 10
  • Reviewed on: 02 March 12
  • RRP: £1,449 inc. VAT

The Apple MacBook Air 13in (Mid-2011) is available with Core i5 processor as standard – or Core i7 as a build-to-order option, making the very fastest MacBook Air you can buy.


 

Asus Zenbook UX21E-DH52 Asus Zenbook UX21E-DH52

  • Rating: Rated 8 out of 10
  • Reviewed on: 23 January 12
  • RRP: £850 inc. VAT

We’re inclined to affirm that we do believe in love at first sight. But since that initial look was of the laptop that launched this copy, our heart does stay with the MacBook Air. Make no mistake though, the Asus UX21E Zenbook is the best copy of any Apple portable we’ve seen to date, with fantastic all-metal build and signs of the kind of attention to detail that’s rarely seen outside the Mac maker’s design labs.


 

Asus Zenbook UX31E-DH53Asus Zenbook UX31E-DH53

  • Rating: Rated 8 out of 10
  • Reviewed on: 01 March 12
  • RRP: £999 inc. VAT

The Asus Zenbook UX31E is impressive. It's an excellent performer, it's attractive and light, and it plays back multimedia well. Unfortunately, its screen is off-colour and its touchpad needs more work.


 

Lenovo IdeaPad U300s reviewLenovo IdeaPad U300s-1080

  • Rating: Rated 7 out of 10
  • Reviewed on: 02 March 12
  • RRP: £1,207 inc. VAT

Performance and specification are decent, but the author found the keyboard too awkward for comfortable use. There are a few too many problems with the Lenovo Idea Pad U300s for us to recommend it, not least of which is the high price tag.


 

Lenovo IdeaPad U300s-1080Lenovo ThinkPad X1 1291-26U

  • Rating: Rated 7 out of 10
  • Reviewed on: 02 March 12
  • RRP: £949 inc. VAT

For corporate customers, familiar Lenovo fare such as spill-resistant keyboard, fingerprint reader and integrated 3G broadband may be useful. And ThinkPad old-timers will value the trackpoint mouse steerer. Against the best of the competition though, this Lenovo ThinkPad X1 falls short in size, weight, longevity and build quality. And the glass screen is a retrograde step that seriously dimishes screen quality.



Samsung NP900X3A-B01Samsung NP900X3A-B01

  • Rating: Rated 7 out of 10
  • Reviewed on: 09 March 12
  • RRP: £1,099 inc. VAT

It's such a shame that the Samsung can't squeeze a bit more speed from its processor or more life out of its battery, as it is a rather nice laptop. The backlit keyboard and non-reflective screen make it very easy to use in all kinds of environments. We especially like the ports at the side which can be hidden away when not in use.



Toshiba Portégé Z830-104Toshiba Portégé Z830-104

  • Rating: Rated 8 out of 10
  • Reviewed on: 12 March 12
  • RRP: £1,099 inc. VAT

The Toshiba Portégé Z830-104 is an ultraportable for the travelling professional who needs their laptop lightweight and practical rather than attractive. It might look plain but it has plenty to offer if you need portage. It's a tad on the pricey side for the package on offer.


If you’re looking to buy a new laptop, you may have picked up on the recent hype surrounding Ultrabooks. These are thin, light laptops, designed to be easy to carry and fast to boot into Windows.

The category may have only recently been defined by the ‘Ultrabook’ name, but the ultraportable laptop is not a new concept. Rather, it takes its inspiration from Apple’s four-year-old MacBook Air.

Intel invented the label to stimulate mobile processor sales in a declining Windows PC market. It stipulates that a laptop must meet a certain set of specifications to be marketed as an Ultrabook. Intel doesn’t broadcast the actual spec it imposes on laptop manufacturers, but the essentials are as follows.

An Ultrabook must be less than 18mm thick, which leaves no room for an optical drive. With an Intel ultra-low-voltage (ULV) processor inside, the battery must run to at least five hours. Solid-state storage is specified in order to achieve a maximum seven-second boot from hibernation mode. All Ultrabooks that have made it to market thus far also run Windows.

Intel’s aforementioned ULV chips hail from the company’s ‘Sandy Bridge’ family of second-generation Core i-series processors. ‘Ivy Bridge’ CPUs (the third generation) are expected to appear on the market within the next few months, and will offer faster performance and improved energy-efficiency.

Not all thin-and-light models come under the Ultrabook umbrella. The MacBook Air, for example, isn’t preinstalled with Windows, while the Samsung NP900X3A is fitted with a traditional hard drive and appeared on the market before the category existed.

Ultrabooks have found a niche somewhere between netbooks and full-size laptops. With no room inside for an optical drive or discrete graphics processor, they make a poorer choice for entertainment. Yet Ultrabooks offer much faster performance in Windows than a standard netbook, and are up to more than just web browsing and email.

Indeed, while their components are thin and light, they’re also powerful. All Ultrabooks are able to run demanding software programs.

We’ve tested eight of the best thin-and-light models on the market – four of these are Intel-approved Ultrabooks – to find out whether now is the right time to dip your toes into this exciting new ultraportable laptop category.

Apple MacBook Air 11in (mid-2011)

Conclusion:

There’s not much difference in application speed to separate the ultraportable and Ultrabook laptops reviewed here – although its hardly surprising, given their near-identical specifications. Only one machine noticeably lagged the competition, with the Samsung’s 101-point WorldBench 6 real-world speed score some way off the 118-point group average.

Don’t rule out the Samsung just yet, though. Its screen is one of the better examples we’ve seen, if bested by Apple’s two MacBook Airs. And since it predates Intel’s Ultrabook spec, it also includes a useful gigabit ethernet port.

We were impressed by the Asus Zenbook UX31E. It’s not the fastest machine on test, and nor does it have the best specification; but ignore the lower build and display quality – which also mar its smaller sibling – and it makes a significantly cheaper alternative to the 13.3in MacBook Air. Do note, however, that Asus sells the UX31E with a 128GB rather than 256GB SSD in the UK.

Lenovo’s IdeaPad U300s-1080 has a decent specification, with a powerful Core i7 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. Its battery life is good, but the construction is mediocre for a £1,207 laptop. The Chinese manufacturer’s ThinkPad X1 is cheaper, and packs a useful selection of ports, but its screen is disappointing and battery life poor.

Of the other Ultrabooks here we were rather taken with the Toshiba Portégé Z830-104. It’s not beautiful, but if offers the best connectivity options.

Apple’s MacBook Air, in both 11.6in and 13.3in versions, has the edge over the Zenbooks in design, build and display quality. If engineering excellence and the end-to-end user experience count, the MacBook Air is the inescapable winner here.

If your only choice is now which size Air you should buy, consider how you will most often use the laptop. The 11.6in is too small for all-day working, although it offers the best value at only £849.

Before you rush out and buy any of the models in our group test, consider whether you’d in fact be better off waiting a couple of months for faster, more power-efficient Ivy Bridge processor-equipped models to appear on the market. This Ultrabook category remains very much in its infancy.

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