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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  • dszc - Friday, December 23, 2011 - link

    Jarred, Thanks for a great review.

    And thanks for continuing to preach the need for good IPS, non-glare display panels that are actually useful in the environments where laptops are used (traveling where there is little or no control over the ambient lighting).

    I'm a pro photographer and I need something portable and useful on an airplane seatback tray (therefore 13-14" max) with battery life that can last a transatlantic flight.

    Another thing that is critical is that with these fairly fast notebooks, you need a way to get data into and out of them. And that REQUIRES at least 2 USB 3.0 ports (and/or eSATA) and a Gbit ethernet port.

    Of course the last and maybe most important consideration is feel and quality of user input. Keyboard and touchpad.
    I just got a U46E-BAL6. It is a fantastic and fast computer. BUT it has the worst touchpad I have ever used, and the screen is poor to mediocre. I would have RATHER paid $100-200 more for a good IPS display, a state-of-the-art touchpad, and two USB3.0 ports.

    Some manufacturer needs to step out on a limb, and make something really good that will properly do the work that people who will buy these things need to do. THey need to think about how these things will actually be used.

    Thanks again for encouraging progress in the right direction.
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