Introducing the Ultrabook Contenders

When Intel initially put out the idea of the ultrabook as a new type of laptop, I admit harboring plenty of skepticism—isn’t the ultrabook just a gussied up rebranding of an ultraportable? Unfortunately, being a skeptic/cynic  has served me well over the years, and so now here I sit in front of two ultrabooks trying to determine a couple of things: which ultrabook is the “best” right now, and are any of them actually worth buying. The first question may be a bit easier to answer, but the second….

I hinted at this in our Holiday 2011 Mobile Buyer’s Guide, but if you’re in the market for a good ultrabook, you could do a lot worse than to go out and grab a MacBook Air and call it a day. If you don’t like OS X and are happier running Windows 7, the MBA can of course run Windows as well, and it still probably rates higher than several of the ultrabooks floating around right now. Yes, the MBA will cost more for similar specs, but what the specs often don’t tell you is how laptops compare in the more subjective areas like build quality, keyboard quality, and display quality. That said, we still have these two ultrabooks to review, so let’s where they compete and where they fall short.

In the one corner we have Acer’s Aspire S3, with a 256GB SSD and an i7-2637M processor (1.7GHz base with Turbo up to 2.8GHz). Pricing on the S3-951-6432 we have in hand starts at $1230 online (down from the $1300 MSRP—and we’ve seen it as low as $1200 during the past few weeks). The base model S3-951-6646 on the other hand can be had for just $875 online (down from the $900 MSRP; we’ve seen t as low as $850). The entry-level model is different in a couple key areas from what I’m reviewing; first, it has a lower spec i5-2467M processor (1.6GHz base with Turbo up to 2.3GHz), and second it uses a hybrid HDD + SSD arrangement for storage. It’s that second item that worries me more, as the main HDD is a 5400RPM 320GB model and the SSD is a small 20GB unit. What’s more, the SSD isn’t used for any form of caching as far as I can determine (Intel’s Smart Response Technology requires the Z68 chipset), so it’s really just there to act as a swap file and a hibernation file repository. We’ll get to the full specs in a moment, but let’s introduce the other contender first.

In the other corner we have the ASUS UX31E, the big brother to the UX21E that we reviewed as our first ultrabook encounter. ASUS also sent us their higher end UX31E-DH72 model, sporting a 256GB SSD and an i7-2677M processor (a 100MHz clock speed increase over the previous model i7-2637M). The base model UX31E-DH52 has a 128GB SSD and an i5-2557M CPU for around $1100, sometimes less. Intel originally set a target price of $1000 or less for the base model of any ultrabook, but this seems to be a pretty loose definition as we can’t find a $1000 UX31E right now. The UX31E-DH72 we’re reviewing tips the scales at a rather hefty $1399 (MSRP and online price).

The market for ultrabooks has also expanded to include a few other laptops, like the Samsung Series 9. We’ve seen that in person, and the one area where it’s clearly better is contrast ratio on the LCD—and a matte LCD as well. We haven’t been able to test it yet, but we should have that one soon enough. Performance of the base model with an i3 ULV processor will certainly be lower than what we’re testing with the Acer S3 and ASUS UX31E, but we saw the upgraded NP900X3A-A02US model with i5-2537M and a 128GB SSD going for as little as $999 last week; sadly, the price is now back up to $1430, which isn’t nearly so interesting. It’s one to keep an eye out for, though, as $999 is a massive discount compared to where the Series 9 launched and that particular model has pretty good specs.

Both the Acer and ASUS offerings are 13.3” ultrabooks, which puts them in the same family as the Toshiba Portege Z835 and the MacBook Air 13, so that gives us five potential ultrabook-like devices to discuss (seven if we include the UX21E and MBA 11). How do all these ultrabooks compare to each other, and can one of them rise to the top? Not surprisingly, the answer to that question is rather complex and will ultimately distill down to what you value most in a laptop. We have examples of longer battery life, better displays, higher resolutions, larger and/or faster SSDs, and faster CPUs. There’s also the keyboard, build quality, and overall design to consider. Let’s give the rundown of the Acer and ASUS ultrabooks before we hit the benchmarks, and then we’ll wrap up with some thoughts on the ultrabook market as a whole.

Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook
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  • Hector2 - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    I think Intel has it right with the move to Ultrabooks, but these early SandyBridge-based models without Touch aren't what I'm looking for --- though much better than the old non-Ultrabook form factor.

    I'll get my Win 8 Ultrabook when there's one with a nice medium size, Touch screen model with Ivy Bridge inside, that has only an external wireless keyboard (no physical keyboard buttons on the UB itself), with wireless mouse and a Thunderbolt or Lightpeak connection for an external Monitor, when desired.

    This would serve as a nice, portable Touch tablet when I'm mobile but also able to use as a full blown i7 Core PC workstation for work plugged into nice keyboard, nice mouse and my 24" LCD monitor

    It'll happen. Just a question now of when
    Reply
  • Paedric - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Ivy Bridge really seems interesting, as it combines reduced power consumption with better integrated graphics.
    I think the CPU is already powerful enough for what it has to do, with only graphics lacking.
    It will also be the second generation of ultrabooks, so a lot of "newbie" errors should be fixed.

    I'm not sold on Win 8 and touch though.
    I think it's the role of tablet to be able to change to notebook, not the other way around, the Asus Transformer is the perfect example of this.
    Reply
  • Nexing - Wednesday, December 28, 2011 - link

    Plenty of people wants to have a powerful, portable, battery lasting -at least for daily duties-, price competitive... sleek laptop.
    These ultrabooks do come close, except for the terrible omission of Intel's "Ivy bridge" 22nm CPU, which means that whatever CPU this ultrabook, (or any other released up to May 2012) comes with... will bear the almost obsolete 32nm "Sandy Bridge" CPU technology. Which means that this whole early ultrabook generation will not be battery efficient enough(4 hrs vs Ivy's 8-10 hrs of real usage, or will not run cool enough (not to be used at bed, on a coach, on your legs, etc).

    Very different story to the REALLY new ultrabook laptops to be released somewhen after 2012 Q2 that will come with Ivy Bridge CPUs...

    And to worse matters, those who actually buy one of these pre-Ivy Bridge Ubooks will never be able to upgrade into the coming 22nm tech, just because Intel said so (it is technically feasible and the norm for actually , confirmed to be upgradeable Sandy Bridge desktops)... So good luck with the niche & soon-to-be-obsolete 2011/Q1 2012 Ubooks,
    BUYERS BEWARE!!!
    Reply
  • seapeople - Saturday, January 14, 2012 - link

    First of all, there is no Ivy Bridge, and if you want a computer within the next ~HALF YEAR then you'll have to buy one with poor old inefficient Sandy Bridge.

    Second of all, there's no way Ivy Bridge is going to increase battery life by 2.5x over Sandy Bridge. Just because it's a new architecture does not mean it will blow us away; Arrandale ULV laptops gave almost no benefit over Core 2 Duo ULV in terms of battery life, and actually decreased battery life in many cases (albeit with a fair performance increase, but not mind blowing).

    Third, if you think current Ultrabooks with Optimus and/or integrated graphics run too hot to be used on your lap, you are insane.
    Reply
  • Pessimism - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    I'd suggest adding the MBA display data to your graphs since you heavily compare these systems to it and complain about the overall lack of display quality. Since Joe Public thinks Apple products can do no wrong and are made out of unicorn horns and fairy dust, lets see some hard data. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Added. Obviously we don't have the performance results for the MBA on most tests, but the LCD results are at least something we can easily compare. Reply
  • Pessimism - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    Thanks! Hopefully with enough direct numeric comparisons in reviews we can convince PC makers to stop using horrible, horrible panels. Reply
  • Deelron - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Occasionally Joe Public isn't wrong. Reply
  • UrQuan3 - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    "but seriously: first IPS panel in a 13.3” laptop for under $1000 gets an Editor’s Choice award (as long as the rest of the laptop doesn’t completely suck)."

    That might be my favorite quote from this site. I hope some vendors are reading. I've been wanting and sRGB under 14" laptop for a decade. Settled for a Samsung 9 for now. Far from perfect, but it'll do for now.
    Reply
  • jasondunn - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    I purchased a UX31 in October. I wanted it so badly I paid $68 to get next-day shipping because I was traveling and wanted it before I left. There are many things that are excellent about the UX31: I was impressed with the screen, the performance, the speed of sleep resume and boot, etc. But there's a *giant* problem with this laptop: the keyboard requires a heavy-handed style of typing. I type quite quickly, and apparently I type too "light" for the UX31.

    I've owned and used well over a dozen different laptops over the past decade, and the UX31 is the first where I found typing to be a disaster. I don't use that word lightly: I'd venture that 25% of all keystrokes were dropped. That means every single word I typed longer than a few characters would have errors it it. I contacted Asus support, they had me install a software update, and nothing changed. I went to a local Microsoft store and used the UX31 display model...it had exactly the same problem. If I slowed down and typed with more force, I got 100% accuracy. I don't believe I had a defective UX31 - I think this is simply the awful keyboard that Asus put in it.

    I should add that I found Asus' tech support to be quite lacking and would be very wary of dealing with them again.

    So my advice is this: make sure you're able to test the keyboard in person before putting down $1000+ to buy it. I regret my purchase and had to settle for a $1349 in-store credit rather than getting my money back.
    Reply

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