Holiday 2012 Ultrabook and Ultraportable Guide

So far this holiday season, we’ve provided some buyer’s guides for system builders—Trinity-based desktops, Small Form Factor builds, and even DIY Workstations. Today we’re going to ditch the DIY sector and instead look at pre-built laptops, with a focus on Ultrabooks and other ultraportables. Not everyone needs or even wants an ultraportable, so we recognize that the recommendations here are for a specific subset of users, but if you’re looking for something highly portable and you don’t mind paying a bit more for quality, we have some suggestions.

Before we get to the recommendations, it’s important to keep in mind the difference between an Ultrabook and other ultraportables. Simply put, Ultrabook is Intel’s big initiative right now to get more of their silicon into laptops, along with some requirements designed to make such laptops more responsive. Unfortunately, the same things that make an Ultrabook faster also tend to make it cost more, and so we have a split between Ultrabooks that have pure SSD storage and those that use a hybrid arrangement with a small caching SSD and conventional hard drive storage.

On the non-Intel side of the equation, AMD’s low-power Trinity APUs tend to have less CPU performance with perhaps better GPU performance, but they’re almost always targeted at the value market. That means that in addition to swapping out the Intel CPU for an AMD APU, you also typically lose the SSD storage. Still, if all you really want is something portable with great battery life that can be a viable compromise.

Ultrabooks and ultraportables do tend to cost more for a similar level of performance compared to regular laptops—just like laptops cost more for a similar level of performance compared to desktops. Making computers smaller is more difficult, and often manufacturers need to bin parts to find those that run cooler and/or use less power. Just like a Core i7-3770K and an i5-3570K are fundamentally the same part—the i7 part just has Hyper-Threading turned on and slightly higher clock speeds—most ULV parts are the same core design as standard voltage chips, but they’re selected to find those than need less power and/or run properly at a lower maximum clock speed. Instead of paying more for a part that can run faster, you end up paying more for a part that doesn’t use as much power and runs cooler.

With that out of the way, we’re targeting three price categories for these Ultrabooks/ultraportables: under $750, around $1000, and the no-holds-barred $1250+ range. We’ve tried to get a feel for everything currently available for the various categories, and we’ve selected a couple options for each price bracket (as well as some honorable mentions where appropriate).

“Budget” Ultrabooks and Ultraportables
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  • marc1000 - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    What about this unusual notebook from Asus? Near-ultrabook size with a touch screen AND conventional keyboard. What's your opinion about it? Reply
  • Abdar19 - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    I am not sure why there is so much aggression on this forum over how people spend their money rather than the products in particular.

    I seem to see this comparison between a 5lb $500 laptop that is twice as thick compared to something 3-4lb at $1000+ dollars. Whether or not it is worth it is kind of missing the point. I think the problem is lack of variety. Let me clarify that, there is a lack of variety in unique options, there are many options. Ideally one would be able to set a price and a set of features and have a laptop that fits. To jump from 500 to 1000 dollars to get the next group of features is obscene and that is the problem.

    I found one of the only truely intriguing options from Acer being the M5. It sits right in the middle of the price range for $700. Newegg has a $100 coupon now so you can buy a 128gb msata drive and install windows on it instead. This effectively makes it have all of the features of a $1000 (minus the screen) but plus a GOOD graphics card for $700. Value for money then I would argue this is really the sweet spot. Price itself is only a side point in this kind of debate, or should be I think.
    Reply
  • tmok2008 - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    The HP ENVY TouchSmart Ultrabook 4t-1100 is very slick looking. It is 3-4 lbs, and has a 14" touch screen, although not 1080p. The price is reasonable, starting at $799 MSRP. If you look around for a coupon code, you may even save a few bucks.

    Personally, I don't like small screens. I would take a 15" over a 13" any day. For me, the HP Spectre XT Touchsmart with a 15.6" 1080p IPS touch screen would be a better choice. It's not an "Ultrabook", but it is still under 5 lbs.
    Reply
  • wpwoodjr - Thursday, December 20, 2012 - link

    The HP Spectre XT TouchSmart is an Ultrabook. I got one recently, very nice except for 4 hour battery life. My review is here:
    http://www.amazon.com/review/R8FI1889QG6Y3/
    Reply
  • bogieworf - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    There are about 5 different approaches to this class of device:

    1) traditional ultrabook with the idea that all you need to do is make a regular laptop small/ thin enough and light enough
    2) "yoga" type fold over convertible
    3) Dell XPS 12 "flip" screen
    4) MS touch/type cover
    5) tablet/laptop that connects to a keyboard (ie Transformer)

    Some of these ideas are going to take hold, others will vanish. In addition, the marketplace has not yet decided the compromises it will embrace in this kind of device and the ones it will reject. I think we all see that many people are carrying a phone and tablet/e-Reader around and maybe a laptop. And I think most of use would like to go down to at least two devices. So what is it? A phablet and a laptop? A phone and a convertible? Or keep all 3 as long as the price is low enough for each?

    Over time, the answers will come. Today, all we can offer are best guesses.
    Reply
  • JNo - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    Although the Acer M5 is great, it seems that it's older brother, the M3, is even better value possibly. It misses a few modern niceties such as USB 3.0 but it has a still fast enough i5 coupled with what I understand is the full power GT 640M (not the LE version in the M5). And it's cheaper and still very thin. Win win all round for value gaming laptop if you're happy not to have the very latest specs... Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    The M3 version has a slightly slower SNB processor, and while the 640M is technically faster than the 640M LE, the M3 uses a DDR3 variant while the 640M LE is GDDR5. It basically ends up better in some cases, slightly worse in others, depending on the game and settings. Personally, I like having GDDR5 memory on my midrange mobile GPUs, and the M5 is easier to find in stock. Reply
  • Pojosama - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    I recently purchased the Yoga 13, and I think it's an excellent product. Using any of these touchscreen ultrabooks in tablet mode is pretty ridiculous considering the size and weight, but I love being able to flip the screen back and use the keyboard as a stand. It's also nice that you can put the laptop into tent mode to use as a second monitor, so when you touch it, it doesn't wobble. Really, if Windows 8 is good for anything, it's for being a trojan horse for forcing manufacturers to create super thin, light, versatile products. I love where products like the iPad and Windows 8 are pushing computers.

    Good stuff all around. Ultrabooks are made for ultimate convenience: they are very snappy performers and are light enough to move around easily. You definitely get what you pay for, in my opinion.

    And yes, they DO look classy. There's nothing wrong with a bit of superficiality with our tech products.
    Reply
  • Electromikey - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    I've got the UX32VD, which I promptly stuck a Samsung 830 SSD into. I've owned it for about four months, and I absolutely love this thing. It lessened the load of my backpack by quite a bit (had a big ol' entertainment-focused monster before), and I can still play games on the go if I want to. Nothing incredibly taxing, but LAN party fodder is a piece of cake. The display is, as stated, absolutely gorgeous, and the keys are actually rather good for typing. I'm a "HULK SMASH KEYBOARD WHILE TOUCH TYPING" kind of touch typist, and these things give me rather decent feedback. Worth every penny I paid for it. Reply
  • alfling - Thursday, December 13, 2012 - link

    No mentions about the Asus UX51VZ? <2cm thick, <2Kg, 15,6" 1080p IPS matte screen, i7-3612QM, Nvidia GT650M 2GB GDDR5, 6 hours battery...not an ultraportable? Reply

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