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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  • twotwotwo - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    I had the same experience with the Eee Pad Transformer dock. I was surprised, because it looked a lot like the Eee 10" netbook keyboard, whose keys take very little pressure (in fact, between the small size and the light touch, you tend to get extra keystrokes on the netbook). I half suspect ASUS of angling for reviewer points for "feeling solid" when they made their more recent keyboards only work if you smack the keys. :)

    (I think ASUS did great overall. Software updates came out quickly, docking's nice, good price, etc., etc. But those keys: not so great.)

    So--dear ASUS, premium means never having to smack the keyboard to type. Best wishes, two AnandTech commenters.
    Reply
  • snuuggles - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    I suspect I am the (or one of the) people Jarred mentioned having returned my UX31 because of the keyboard. I had exactly the same issue you are having, and it was basically unusable to me--I simply couldn't do my work on the machine!

    Quick question, I found that pressing the bottom left corner of the enter key didn't register. This was repeatable and not because I was hitting it "too quickly", I could press the key all the way down and hold it with no response... can you replicate this? I'm guessing that this type of issue could become less and less of an issue as the keys "loosen up", but who knows, it could become *more* frequent!

    I gave Jarred a hard time about recommending the UX31 in the holiday special, I was a little harsh, but I think my criticism stands: this is a mechanically flawed keyboard, and I'm not really sure how you can "look past" this issue and recommend it based on all it's other (great) features.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, December 23, 2011 - link

    If I push on the very corner of the enter (and I mean the *very* corner), it won't register, but even an eighth of an inch in and it works fine. I will agree that the keyboard requires a bit more of a firm touch than on other laptops I've used, but it didn't bother me much. The Acer keyboard behaved similarly in my experience -- if you're a light typist, you'll miss key presses on occasion with either one. I'm sure other people will be fine with it, and some will probably even like it -- we've had people say they like Acer's floating island keys for example. I've seen the UX31E at Best Buy, so if you're picky about keyboards but are still considering the Zenbook, see if you can find some local store where you can try one out in person. Of course, that's my advice on most laptops if you're a discerning users. :-) Reply
  • twotwotwo - Saturday, December 24, 2011 - link

    I forget that grown-ups might be reading while I snark. :) For the record, if the UX31's KB is like the original Transformer's, I wouldn't actually recommend someone avoid it just 'cause of that. Yes, checking seems reasonable. Reply
  • Toughbook - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    It's about time someone started to offer some brighter displays. In this day and time of technology it baffles me as too why they are all stuck on the 200-250 NIT rating. I am so spoiled by my 1100 NIT display that when I have to do some work on a 200 NIT machine I feel like I can hardly see it. Being able to have a port replicator would be nice a well on these. Another feature I use almost daily. Drop it in and your done.

    With all that being said... We still must remember what these machines are designed for. Ultra portability. It's like wanting more leg room or trunk space in a 2 seat sports car. Something has got to give.

    I can't seem to under stand what Jarred means by the Windows sticker on the power brick? I'm am totally missing something here....

    Great review Jarred, keep up the good work.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, December 23, 2011 - link

    The power brick has the Windows Certificate of Authenticity (with the license key) on it. Usually those are on the bottom of the laptop or under the battery; obviously the latter isn't an option, but moving it onto the power brick doesn't really make a lot of sense to me. Reply
  • geotwn - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Reading Anandtech for years I wonder why the Thinkpad X220 review is missing for long time. IMHO the IPS models beat all of the light-weight notebook hand down in terms of screen quality - it ought to be the standard to compete against if we are serious about display, but it does not get reviewed or even mentioned. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    Because Lenovo won't send us one; it's as simple as that. Reply
  • twotwotwo - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Via Gizmodo, I saw a detailed tablet display comparison today (search for "Tablet Display Technology Shoot-Out" to find two different comparisons). They argue the raw contrast ratio is "Only relevant for low ambient light, which is seldom the case for mobile devices," and they measure the intensity of mirror-like and other reflections from the screen. Only the Galaxy Tab, iPad 2 and (to my surprise) Nook Tablet came out under 11% mirror reflections.

    I knew something bugged me about raw contrast numbers and this is it: backlight bleed is often less of a problem than reflections. Would be interesting to see, if not a detailed mirror-reflection test like that site does, at least contrast measurements that factor in reflections under whatever "indoor" and "outdoor" ambient-light levels you define.

    Know lots of work goes into the measurements and it's not easy to just throw another figure in. Does seem like factoring in how much reflection you'll be seeing could potentially lead to more useful numbers.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    This is why I point out the high maximum brightness of the ASUS -- that makes up for most reflections (unless you're looking at a dark scene/image/movie). Of course, in direct sunlight it's probably still not enough (I'd say 1200 nits would be needed for such use), but it's brighter and more usable outside than 99% of laptops. Reply

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