“Budget” Ultrabooks and Ultraportables

We’re going to stretch the definition of ultraportable a bit throughout the guide, as the difference between a 1” thick laptop and a 0.7” thick laptop may or may not matter all that much. Keep in mind that thinner usually means a few things: most thin laptops are inherently lighter, but being thin usually means it’s harder to cool the parts (restricted airflow) and typically the keyboards have less key travel. If you’re trying to keep costs as low as possible, there are a few options: get a non-Ultrabook (either with and AMD APU or an Intel CPU), or look for a very inexpensive Ultrabook with hybrid storage. We’ve got three picks, one for each options.

AMD-based Ultraportables

If you’re after an AMD equipped ultraportable, your options are very limited right now, particularly in the US. Toshiba has a 15.6” Satellite S955D, but we’re trying to find a 13.3” or smaller offering. HP’s Envy Sleekbook 6z-1100 likewise misses the cut with a 15.6” LCD, though it can be configured with an A6-4466M, A8-4555M, or A10-4655M if you’re okay with the larger size—Walmart currently has the A8-4555M model selling for $450, which is a great price. Lenovo ends up the closest with their 14” IdeaPad S405, and sadly that’s the smallest AMD-equipped ultraportable we can find, so they win by default. The good news is that the S405 comes priced quite reasonably at $503 with 4GB RAM, 500GB HDD, and a 1.6GHz A8-4555M (along with Windows 8)—or as little as $400 (with current instant savings) with the A6-4455M.

Let’s be clear here: budget ultraportables are not going to compete directly with high-end Ultrabooks or other laptops. With a price of just $400-$500, something has to give, and that something is a few of the extra amenities. The S405 comes with an always-painful 1366x768 resolution glossy LCD; on an 11.6” laptop that’s tolerable, but on 14” it’s purely a cost-cutting measure. Lenovo’s IdeaPad line represents their consumer focus, so you also lose some of the build quality that you’d got on a ThinkPad or other high-end laptop. Battery life is also relatively weak on the S405, thanks to the small 4-cell battery. At the end of the day, however, we’re looking at $400 for a reasonably equipped ultraportable. The A6-4455M and A8-4555M aren’t going to win any CPU performance comparisons, but they’re still a healthy jump up from Atom and Brazos and more than fast enough for typical computing tasks, plus you get a fairly decent iGPU in the HD 7500G/7600G. That’s all in a package that’s less than an inch thick and weighs just under four pounds.

Intel-based Ultraportables

On the Intel side of the fence, there are a lot more offerings to look at, and the manufacturers have clearly put a bit more effort into the designs. Where we only had three AMD LV Trinity laptops to look at, there are fully 34 sub-$750 laptops with Intel Ivy Bridge ULV processors available at Newegg right now. The least expensive options start at $500, with 20 falling more into the $700-$750 range. The good news is that for that much money, you can get a fully equipped Ultrabook if that’s what you’re after. As with AMD, we’re going to eschew anything larger than 13.3” this time, which leaves us with 14 laptops to consider.

At the bottom of the price list is Acer’s 11.6” V5-171-6422, an almost Ultrabook that Dustin reviewed recently. The fact that it’s not actually an Ultrabook means that it’s a bit thicker and has better key travel, but you get a 500GB 5400RPM stock. The good news is that you can find the V5-171 going for $499 on Amazon, which is a great price for an i5-3317U based laptop. With the savings relative to actual Ultrabooks, you could easily buy a quality 128GB or even 256GB SSD. The V5-171 weighs just over three pounds, and it pretty much puts the nail in the coffin for most netbooks.

As an alternative that’s a bit larger than the V5-171, consider Dell’s Inspiron 13z. It’s nearly an Ultrabook, but it lacks SSD-storage and might be just a hair too thick. At the regular starting price of $600 for the i3-3217U equipped model, I’d give it a pass, but right now the 13z with i5-3317U, 8GB DDR3-1600, and a 500GB 5400RPM HDD can be had for just $550. If you don’t mind the lack of Turbo Boost, the i3-3217U with 6GB model knocks $100 off the price, going for an attractive $450. Dell skimps on a few areas like the LCD and Ethernet (100Mbps, really?), and the keyboard isn’t backlit, but otherwise it’s a very decent laptop. CPU performance should be quite a bit faster than the LV Trinity parts above, but iGPU performance is likely slower. Something else to consider is that the Inspiron 13z is actually upgradeable with a bit of work, so you can swap out the HDD for an SSD and upgrade the RAM.

Budget Ultrabooks

Looking at the remaining laptops in our Newegg list, it’s interesting to note that not a single option comes with pure SSD storage; all of the sub-$750 Ultrabooks have hybrid storage, which is something we’d really like to get away from. The cost of a 24GB/32GB SSD with a 500GB HDD should be pretty much equal to a 128GB SSD, but in the “more is better” category we find all of the manufacturers vying for your dollars with 500GB HDDs and SSD caching. Caching is still a step up from pure HDD storage, but in practice it often feels more like a hard drive when you’re actually wanting it to perform. Note that there are also some Sandy Bridge Core i3 Ultrabooks still hanging around; I suppose they’re not bad, per se, but I’d suggest going with Ivy Bridge and HD 4000. So with that in mind, is there any one specific Ultrabook we’d recommend above the others?

This is a tough call, frankly, as just about everything starts looking similar in terms of features and specs at these prices. None of the Ultrabooks under $750 have anything better than a 1366x768 display, which is a real shame. I’m also ruling out Sandy Bridge and Core i3 equipped Ultrabooks, so what we end up with is just two options, both near the $700 mark: the Lenovo U310 and the Sony VAIO SVT13125CXS. Everything else that meets the CPU requirement (at least Core i5 IVB) tends to be $800 or more. Between the Sony and the Lenovo offerings, Sony gets the nod in terms of RAM as it ships with 4GB RAM onboard with a single SO-DIMM slot, so 8GB is possible and the default configuration ships with 6GB. On the other hand, Lenovo offers an extra USB port and what I consider to be a better keyboard layout. For the small difference in price, you can go either way depending on what you value most.

Update: The Lenovo U310/U410 both appear to have had issues in the past with faulty WiFi, which you can read about on Lenovo's forums. A hardware fix was implemented this past summer, but at least one reader purchased a laptop in November and received a unit manufactured prior to the fix. If you're not willing to deal with the hassle of sending a laptop in for repairs, I'd suggest sticking with the VAIO.

Holiday 2012 Ultrabook and Ultraportable Guide Midrange Ultrabooks/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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