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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  • djpavcy - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    Jarred,

    Can you comment further on the touchpad of the UX31? You seem to like it, but Anand in his original review of the UX21 found it to be horrible. For that matter, so do I: I own a UX31 (the 256GB/core i-5 version) and the touchpad is bordering on useless: crappy cursor control, random and erratic shifts of the cursor, etc.

    My suspicion is that the touchpad on Anand's review sample and on my laptop are ones made by Sentelic but the one in yours is made by Elan which seems to be much better. Do you know anything about this? Is it a luck of the draw whether you will get a sentelic or an Elan touchpad or is it model dependent?
    Reply
  • snuuggles - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    I owned the same model, and had an equally horrible time with the touchpad. I can't confirm the manufacturer, as I've already returned the unit based on this issue, and more importantly, what I suspect is a flawed keyboard design (though since some people seem to be ok with it, I'll admit it *could* be that I had a bad unit).

    But the touchpad was, indeed, horrible.

    PS I followed up by purchasing a 13" MBA and installing win7. It was awesome, and I would have kept *that* except within the 2 week refund window I heard that there would be a huge number of ultrabooks introduced at CES this jan.

    I just stuck an old SSD in my current laptop and am waiting till spring.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    I know Anand didn't like the UX21 he initially reviewed, but I had no problem with the UX31 touchpad. As I noted in the review, our sample is using Elan hardware/drivers, so if some are using Sentellic that would be a serious problem. Frankly, the worst touchpads I can recall using had Sentellic hardware. Reply
  • SirKronan - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    "We’ve got excellent 10.1” IPS panels now shipping in $400 tablets; why can’t we get a similar panel in 13.3” trim in a $1200 laptop? I’m probably preaching to the choir, 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)."

    I couldn't agree more. It makes no sense. They'd certainly look a lot more attractive sitting on display in the store with a good LCD. I guarantee that's one of the main reasons Apple's laptops grab so much attention from passers-by. Their screens are bright, contrasty, and display a good range of colors. If you set the Asus or Acer next to the Macbooks, along with their $1000 Ultrabook price tags, they won't look nearly as impressive. Performance and battery life are fine and dandy, but like you said, would it REALLY be soooo dang hard to put in a good screen at that price point?
    Reply
  • Toughbook - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    What is so frustrating is that if Apple can do it, why can't the others? It's not like Apple makes a damn thing, it's all 3rd party work. Reply
  • Death666Angel - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    The power plug looks similar to my Acer one and I disagree that it is inferior to the old 2 cables with one PSU in the middle design. Those things always gave me trouble because I never had a good place to stuff the PSU, it would sometimes hang or be on the edge of something and fall down. It also has more connections to get loose and is more unwieldy in my experience (harder to store when on the go). :-) Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    My problem is the cable ends up being shorter, and the plug takes up more of your electrical outlet real estate. Not everyone will mind, but I certainly wouldn't call it an improvement over standard laptop power bricks. Reply
  • Death666Angel - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    You keep mentioning how great the MBA is compared to these in some areas, but you fail to mention any negative aspects of it, which distorts the picture quite a lot. I realize this is an article about 2 ultrabooks, but then either don't mention the MBA at all or include it fully.
    And if you say that the MBA can also run Windows, show it in the graphs as well.

    The way you do it seems like just a promotion for Apple tbh.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    I linked our MBA review; unfortunately, I haven't had nearly as much time with a MacBook Air, and we didn't run all of our Windows tests on the MBA13 I don't think, but it's still mostly comparable. The one issue with MBA under Windows is that the keyboard keys are "mislabeled". I personally wouldn't buy an ultrabook or a MacBook Air -- the Dell XPS 15z is probable the best overall laptop for my personal usage habits -- but for those in the market I'd at least look at all the ultrabook style devices before plunking down money on one of them. Reply
  • vision33r - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    Today's world of $299-499 13-15" notebooks. People in general have gotten used to seeing Dell and HPs for under $500. While these are ultrabooks, people in general still have problem buying a $1000 Windows notebook unless it's a premium brand like Sony or Apple.

    What will end up happening is these will drop down to $699 and some parts getting cheapen and quality goes down. The Alienware m11x is the perfect example, the quality gotten worst with the m11x R3 versions because the price went down.
    Reply

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