Air Apparents! Ultrabooks and Other Slimmed-Down Windows PCs

The MacBook Air is a hit; here comes the competition

By  |  Friday, November 18, 2011 at 12:30 am

For the longest time, Apple laptops lived in their own world of stylish design, while PC makers remained steadfast in their focus on beefier specs for lower prices. I remember looking two years ago for a Windows PC that aped Apple’s style–awesome keyboard, smooth trackpad, sturdy aluminum build, decent specs–and being disappointed that such a computer simply didn’t exist.

How things have changed. Apple’s revamped MacBook Air became a runaway hit while the rest of the PC market stagnated, and suddenly every computer maker wants to make thinner, lighter and prettier products. Intel calls these creations “Ultrabooks,” and provided PC makers with strict criteria for weight, thickness, battery life, processor power and pricing to qualify for the marketing jargon. This new wave of notebooks run the latest Intel Core processors, cost around $1,000, and go toe-to-toe with the MacBook Air in physical measurements.

Over the next few months, a bevy of these machines will strut their stuff for laptop shoppers. Here’s what we know about every Ultrabook or similar product that’s on the market or on the way.

Acer Aspire S3

Availability: Now

Price: $900

Specs: 13.3-inch display (1366-by-768 resolution), Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, 320GB hard drive and 20GB solid state, up to 6 hours advertised battery life

Dimensions: 0.51 inches to 0.68 inches thick, 2.98 pounds

Defining Features: Resumes from sleep in two seconds if napping for less than 30 minutes; lasts 50 days on standby power.

Reception: Critics weren’t thrilled. Laptop Magazine gave it 2.5 stars, and The Verge called it “an unfortunate first entry,” knocking its battery life, chintzy build materials, and flimsy keyboard.

Asus Zenbook UX21 and UX31

Availability: Now

Starting Price: $999 (11-inch), $1,099 (13-inch)

Base Specs: 11.6-inch (1366-by-768 resolution) or 13.3-inch (1600-by-900 resolution) display, Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, 128GB solid state drive, up to five hours advertised battery life for the smaller model, or seven hours for the larger.

Dimensions: 0.67 inches thick tapering to 0.11 inches, 2.43 pounds (11-inch model); 0.71 inches tapering to 0.11 inches, 2.86 pounds (13-inch model)

Defining Feature: Thanks to its tapered design and aluminum finish, the Zenbook looks almost exactly like a MacBook Air.

Reception: The Zenbook fared well in reviews, with Engadget calling it “the Ultrabook [competitors] need to beat.” But it apparently shipped with a wonky trackpad that may or may not be whipped into shape by software updates. Some models are also hard to find in stock right now.

Toshiba Portege Z835

Availability: Now

Starting Price: $900

Base Specs: 13.3-inch (1366-by-768 resolution) display, Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM, 128GB solid state drive, up to 8 hours advertised battery life.

Dimensions: 0.33 inches to 0.63 inches thick, 2.47 pounds

Defining Feature: At Best Buy’s $800 asking price, it’s the cheapest Ultrabook yet.

Reception: I reviewed one for Techland, and liked it–especially the solid keyboard and smooth trackpad–although the vertical viewing angles are terrible. Probably the best lower-cost Ultrabook you’ll find for now.

Lenovo U300s

Available: November

Starting Price: $1050

Base Specs: 13.3-inch display with 1366-by-768 resolution, Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, 128GB solid state drive, 8 hours of advertised battery life.

Dimensions: 0.59 inches thick, 2.9 pounds

Defining Features: Has “Clementine Orange” color option, RapidCharge restores half the battery in 30 minutes

Reception: Engadget praised the keyboard and trackpad, and The Verge said the U300s “proves you don’t have to copy Apple to make a beautiful laptop,” but the lack of an SD card slot could be a dealbreaker for photographers.

Also: A slightly thicker, heavier version of the U300s, dubbed the U300, will be available in November starting at $799

Lenovo U400

Available: Now

Starting Price: $849

Base Specs: 14-inch display with 1366-by-768 resolution, Intel Core i3 processor, 1 GB AMD Radeon HD graphics, 4GB of RAM, 50 GB hard drive, seven hours of advertised battery life, DVD drive

Dimensions: 4.36 pounds, 0.89 inches thick

Defining Feature: DVD drive, dedicated graphics

Reception: Although the U400 isn’t technically an Ultrabook–it’s much too thick and heavy to qualify–I’m including it here because it’s cut from the same cloth as the U300s, and manages to be pretty trim despite its optical drive and graphics card. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any reviews yet.

HP Folio 13

Available: December 7

Starting Price: $900

Base Specs: 13.3-inch display, Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, 128GB solid state drive, 9.5 hours of advertised battery life

Dimensions: 0.71 inches thick, 3.3 pounds

Defining Feature: It doesn’t look like a MacBook Air

Reception: Harry seemed to appreciate HP’s practical approach as an alternative to ripping Apple off. Battery life would be killer if it held up in real-world tests.

Samsung Series 9

Available: Launched in March, still in stock in some places

Starting Price: Was $1,149 (11-inch) and $1,649 (13-inch), but now cheaper.

Base Specs: Core i3, 2GB of RAM and 64GB solid state drive for the 11-inch model; Core i5, 4GB of RAM and 128GB solid state for the 13-inch model; 7 hours of advertised battery life

Dimensions: 0.62 inches thick, 2.3 pounds for the smaller and 2.88 pounds for the larger.

Defining Features: Wakes from sleep mode in three seconds, and the duralumin enclosure is stronger and lighter than aluminum

Reception: It launched earlier this year, so it’s really a prototype Ultrabook (Protobook?) instead of the real thing. Walt Mossberg approved of the Series 9’s high-quality materials and performance, but its battery couldn’t keep up the MacBook Air, and its starting price is expensive compared to Apple’s machines. Prices haven’t come down enough to rival today’s Ultrabooks, either.

Sony Vaio Z

Available: Now

Starting Price: $1,750 and up

Base Specs: 13.1-inch display with 1600-by-900 resolution, Intel Core i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM, 128 GB solid state drive, 7.5 hours of advertised battery life

Dimensions: 0.66 inches thick, 2.5 pounds

Defining Features: Not technically an Ultrabook, it’s the lightest machine on this list, and includes a docking station with a discrete graphics card and DVD drive (Blu-ray optional).

Reception: Wired raved about the Vaio Z’s display and performance, but panned its loud fan, disastrous touch pad and price “equivalent to feeding thousands of starving children for a month.”

Dell Thin-and-Light

Available: 2012

Price: Unknown

Specs: Intel’s next-gen Ivy Bridge processors, perhaps

What we know: This rumor comes from CNet’s Brooke Crothers, who says Dell may announce a MacBook Air rival at CES 2012. Dell tried this one before with the Adamo line and failed, but as Crothers notes, so did Apple. The difference is that Apple kept working at the design, performance and battery life, while Dell put the idea on ice.

Samsung Ultrabooks

Available: Late 2011, supposedly

Price, Specs and Defining Features: Unknown

What we know: The rumormongers at DigiTimes reported in September that Samsung is preparing two Ultrabooks, one of which will be outsourced to Quanta Computer. Given that we’ve heard nothing from Samsung since then, I’m thinking the company is holding off until 2012.

Sony Ultrabook

Available: Late 2011, supposedly

Price, Specs and Defining Features: Unknown

What we know: Sony hasn’t announced any Ultrabook plans, but that didn’t stop Intel CEO Paul Otellini from saying Sony would release a thin-and-light by the end of 2012. Unfortunately that’s all we know.

That accounts for most of the major laptop makers in the United States, showing just how serious Intel is about getting its partners on board. But if you’re eyeing an Ultrabook, consider this: Come mid-2012, a second wave of Ultrabooks will arrive, using Intel’s Ivy Bridge processors for much better battery life and performance. Some of them may even have touch screens to take advantage of Windows 8’s tablet interface–at least according to Intel’s plans. As with the iPad rivals of 2010, I can’t wait to see how the MacBook Air alternative market shakes out.

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10 Comments For This Post

  1. The_Heraclitus Says:

    "while PC makers remained steadfast in their focus on beefier specs for lower prices."

    Umm, PC laptops STILL have those qualities…

  2. akku Says:

    IN fact between the laptop and Ultrabooks or tablet,i like the laptop better.laptop has more can do everything,but the Ultrabooks or tablet looks like a big smart phone!

  3. Shiraz Makdoembaks Says:

    I think that the macbook air will always be one of the most successfull outthere.

    Shiraz Makdoembaks.

  4. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Now, THIS is "slim"

  5. 99% Says:

    So what? They are running that scroffy WIndoze junk. If you value your work, don't put it on Balmyware!

  6. Collins Says:

    “If you value your work, don’t put it on Balmyware!”

    I’m a PC (Windows) game developer. How will I even do my work by throwing away Windows?

    Can I please have what you were smoking? It seems undeniably potent and fun.

  7. geognerd Says:

    I compared the MacBook Air with the Asus Zenbook Ultrabook yesterday at a store. The Air's light weight was impressive, but the 64GB SSD was a joke. The floor model only had 16GB of free space, so you definitely have to go with the 128GB models. I also found the 11" model lacked space for my wrists when typing, causing the sharp edge to dig into the heel of my hand. The click action of the touchpad felt cheaper than I expected. Otherwise, I was impressed by the 11" and 13" Airs.

    On the other hand, the Asus was disappointing. The driver for the touchpad hadn't been updated, so it was very touchy and caused a lot of incorrect or accidental inputs. The keyboard was awful. The keys lacked travel and had to be hit straight on for the keystroke to be registered. I also managed to keep missing the keys and typing on the area between the keys. The touchpad can be fixed through updates, but the bad keyboard cannot. It's too bad. The Asus has impressive specs, but it is second-rate when it comes to how the user interacts with it.

  8. Greg Zeng Says:

    Battery powered computers suffer in many ways: rapid $$-depreciation, needing charged extra battery & USB drives (DVD, Bluray, SSD, HDD & flash). Especially when away from reharging e.g. travelling. Apple suffers by not having a quickly replaced battery e.g. when the battery is when the Li-Ion battery is dead after two years.

  9. Derek Says:

    I think that for comparison on the specs at least (its harder to compare functionality) you need to include those for the Air itself at the start of the article.

  10. Alarm clocks Says:

    That would be awesome if they launched some awesome ultra books. i am using sony z series 😀