Being thin never seems to go out of style, and the latest notebooks take this ideal to a new extreme. Called Ultrabooks, these devices are thinner, sleeker and lighter than the typical laptop, yet they offer a long battery life and a full set of features.
Inaugurated by Intel this fall with a $300 million marketing fund, the company apparently hopes the new series of Ultrabooks will take the notebook market by storm. Intel's executive vice president Sean Maloney told attendees at this summer's Computex show in Taipei that the goal is to have Ultrabooks account for 40% of consumer notebook sales by the end of 2012.
Independent observers aren't so sure. "The Ultrabooks will be popular, but that's very optimistic," explains Bob O'Donnell, vice president for clients and displays at IDC. He forecasts that the Ultrabook market could grow from a niche this year to 12% of the consumer notebook market by the end of next year. "By 2015, Ultrabooks should account for 25%, at best," he adds.
To see if this new notebook category lives up to its hype, I got my hands on the first two Ultrabook PCs on the market: Acer's Aspire S3 and Asus' Zenbook UX31. These are appearing quickly; by the end of 2011, there could be as many as a dozen Ultrabook models from the usual suspects: Dell, HP, Lenovo, Samsung, Toshiba and others.
What exactly is an Ultrabook? According to Intel, to qualify as an Ultrabook, systems should meet five basic requirements (PDF):
- Be less than 21 millimeters (about 0.8 in.) thick.
- Wake quickly from sleep mode.
- Have a battery life of five hours or more.
- Be able to tap into the system's BIOS to use Intel's chip-based Anti-Theft and Identity Protection Technology, which are intended to keep personal information safe and remotely disable the machine if it's lost or stolen.
- Be powered by low-voltage Intel Core processors. The current crop of Ultrabooks uses the Sandy Bridge chips; in 2012, the Ultrabooks should be based on the third-generation Ivy Bridge processors, which will offer lower power use and enhanced graphics.
Give and get
Compared to a typical general-purpose laptop - say, a Lenovo IdeaPad Z370 -- an Ultrabook is roughly 50% thinner and lighter, yet has similar processing power and the same display size. But what do you have to give up?
Like other thin notebooks such as the MacBook Air, Ultrabooks lack a DVD drive. Plus, the first generation of Ultrabooks will have the bare-minimum selection of ports; some will require adapters for connecting to anything other than a USB device.
The biggest thing you'll have to give up to join the Ultrabook crowd, though, is the ability to remove the system's battery and put in a fully charged one. That's because Ultrabooks are expected to have sealed cases with non-removable batteries that can only be changed by the vendor.
This could be important to travelers because, in my testing, neither of the two Ultrabooks I looked at met the five-hour minimum battery life. Granted, that testing, which involves playing a series of six HD videos over and over again until the battery runs out of power, is harsher and more pessimistic than the BAPCO MobileMark 2007 application usually used by vendors to verify battery life. But neither the Aspire S3 nor the Zenbook UX31 came close to five hours of battery life.
Once the Ivy Bridge processors ship in 2012 -- no official date has been announced -- they should offer at least an hour more of battery life over notebooks that use older processors. These new Ultrabooks are obviously meant to compete directly with Apple's popular MacBook Air. When Ivy Bridge hits the market, we may really have a horse race.
While it's slightly smaller and costs 30% less than the MacBook Air, Acer's Aspire S3 fails to live up to the Ultrabook ideal, mainly because of its disappointingly short battery life.
The Aspire is 0.7-in. thick at the front, slightly thicker than either the Zenbook or MacBook Air; it measures 0.8-in. thick at the rear. At 12.6 x 8.5 in., it's is slightly shorter and half an inch narrower than the Air.
The system's 3.0-lb. weight is on a par with the Air but a couple of ounces lighter than the Zenbook. If you add the AC adapter, its travel weight rises to 3.7 lb. -- 2 oz. more than the Zenbook's travel weight. Charging the Aspire S3 requires a three-prong outlet, which can be inconvenient.
I liked the Aspire S3's dull-gray brushed aluminum case, but it couldn't compare to the Zenbook's sleek silvery finish. In fact, the gray-on-gray design meant that at times it was hard to see the keys when typing.
The Aspire S3 is equipped with the Intel Core i5-2467M processor, which runs at 1.6GHz, but can sprint briefly at up to 2.3GHz when needed. The system comes with its maximum 4GB RAM.
The big step forward is the Aspire S3's use of a hybrid storage system that mates a 320GB traditional hard drive with 20GB of solid state storage. In this setup, the most-used data and program code is kept in flash memory rather than the slower hard drive. It helped the system wake up from sleep mode in 3.3 seconds.
The Aspire S3's 13.3-in. display is just as bright and clear as the Zenbook's but offers 1366 x 768 resolution as opposed to the Zenbook's 1600 x 900 and the MacBook Air's 1440 x 900 resolutions. Strangely, the display kept wobbling if I just touched it, which didn't give me a lot of confidence in its sturdiness.
Like the Zenbook, the Aspire S3 uses the Intel HD Graphics 3000 graphics engine, but it has 128MB of dedicated video memory, twice what the Zenbook has. Both can boost video memory to 1.7GB by using system RAM.
Above the display is an HD webcam which can capture sharp stills and video. Its 1280 x 1024 resolution is roughly four times that of the Zenbook's low-resolution cam.
While neither of these Ultrabooks can get particularly loud, each has a high-quality audio system. The Aspire S3 uses Dolby Home Theater software and sounded great when connected to external speakers, but its built-in speakers are underneath the system and sounded muffled and hollow.
As expected, the variety of ports on the Aspire S3 is limited. It has a pair of USB 2.0 (but no USB 3.0), a full-size HDMI and audio ports, but does without VGA or Ethernet ports. It offers 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a flash card reader that works with SD and MMC modules.
At a Glance
Retail price: $799-$938
Pros: Relatively inexpensive; hybrid data storage; HD Web cam; no adapters needed
Cons: No USB 3.0, Ethernet or VGA ports; gray keyboard can be hard to see; short battery life
The system comes with Windows 7 Home Premium and can tap into Intel's Anti-Theft and Identity Protection technologies. It includes McAfee's Internet Security Suite with 30 days of updates. The Aspire S3's one-year warranty comes up short compared to the Zenbook's two-year warranty with one year of accident protection.
While the Zenbook provides the choice of several different operating modes, the Aspire S3 only has a single operating mode. However, the Aspire S3 did quite well in testing with a PassMark PerformanceTest 7.0 score of 986.7 and CineBench 11.5 results of 1.92 and 7.79 for processor and graphics ability. That puts the Aspire S3 on a par with high-performance notebooks. (In comparison, the Zenbook scored a higher 1,280.1 when run in High Performance mode, but a mere 550.6 in Battery Saver mode.)
The Aspire S3's 3,280 mAh battery ran for 3 hours and 14 minutes on a charge while continuously playing HD videos from a USB drive compared to the Zenbook's rating of 3 hours 57 minutes while in Battery Saver mode. In High Performance mode, the Zenbook ran for 2 hours 59 minutes.
In addition to running a media-heavy PowerPoint presentation, the Aspire S3 handled YouTube HD videos without a problem. The Aspire S3 ran the BurnIn Test nonstop for 72 hours and went through more than 200 trillion operations without an error.
The Aspire S3 puts an end to the notion that you have to pay a lot to get a slim, light notebook that doesn't disappoint on performance. If its battery could run longer on a charge and it could match some of the Zenbook's advantages -- a better warranty and have variable performance modes -- the Aspire S3 would be a contender.
Beauty may be only skin deep, but Asus's Zenbook UX31 is gorgeous inside and out. It not only has a design that fuses form and function, but it is powerful and brings a feeling of elegance to mobile computing.
The shiny brushed aluminum case has a swirling pattern on the screen lid that is almost hypnotic to look at. Like the Aspire S3, there's no lid latch, but the Zenbook can be awkward to open because its hinge puts up too much resistance.
While its 0.6-in. thickness at the front is slightly thinner than the Aspire S3's, its 12.7 x 8.8 in. footprint is slightly wider and longer. Still, the Zenbook easily fits on an airline tray table with room to spare. The system comes with a cloth slipcase.
Although Asus specs the Zenbook at 2.9 lb., mine weighed 3.1 lb., a couple of ounces heavier than the MacBook Air and the Aspire S3. The system comes with a lightweight two-prong AC adapter that brings its travel weight to 3.5 lb., 2 oz. lighter than the Aspire S3's.
(Asus also has a UX21 line of Zenbooks with 11.6-in. screens. These weigh about half a pound less than the UX31, and sell for between $999 and $1,199.)
The Zenbook is built around a slightly faster Intel Core i5-2557M processor, which normally runs at 1.7GHz, and can speed up to 2.7GHz when the computing gets intense. The system comes with a non-upgradable 4GB of RAM.
A speedy SSD
The review Zenbook came with a 128GB SSD drive rather than the larger and more innovative hybrid storage system on the S3 (you can also buy the Zenbook with a larger 256GB SSD). The system is certainly speedy -- it woke up from sleep mode in 2.7 seconds, slightly faster than the Aspire S3's 3.3 seconds, but the difference will be hard to notice.
While the Zenbook uses the same Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor as the Aspire S3, its 13.3-in. display offers 1600 x 900 resolution. It comes with 64MB of dedicated video memory -- half that of the Aspire S3 -- but can use its RAM to bring the total up to 1.7GB.
It has a webcam above the display, but the camera is only capable of VGA resolution, roughly one-quarter the resolution of the Aspire S3's webcam. Not surprisingly, images it produced had jagged edges.
The Zenbook 31 has a wider variety of ports than the Aspire S3, including not only an SD/MMC flash card reader, but a micro-HDMI, audio, USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports. It also comes with Ethernet and VGA adapters.
The Zenbook's speakers are located between the bottom of the screen and the top of the keyboard. Based on Bang & Olufsen's ICEpower audio, they sound much better than the Aspire S3's speakers, providing rich mid-tones.
At a Glance
Pros: Well-designed, adjustable performance levels; USB 3.0; fine audio quality; good warranty
Cons: Low-resolution camera; needs adapters for Ethernet and VGA
The Zenbook has another ace up its sleeve: its Power4Gear Hybrid software lets you tune the system's performance and battery life to suit what you need it to do. There are four settings, including High Performance, Entertainment, Quiet Office and Battery Saving, but you can tweak them further by changing individual settings.
I tested the Zenbook using two of its four modes: High Performance and Battery Saving.
In High Performance mode, the Zenbook flew past the competition with a 1,280.1 score on the PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark -- roughly 30% higher than the Aspire S3's results. Its CineBench 11.5 results of 1.22 and 5.51 for processor and graphics tests were, on the other hand, a little behind those of the S3. Meanwhile, the system's 5,985 mAh battery ran for 2 hours and 59 minutes, 15 minutes short of the Aspire S3's battery life.
By contrast, in Battery Saving mode, battery life increased to 3 hours and 57 minutes. However, it took a considerable toll on performance; its PerformanceTest 7.0 score fell to 550.6, less than half its previous score, and the CineBench 11.5 results dove to 0.95 and 3.76.
As is the case with the Aspire S3, longer battery life would be a welcome addition. But, at least with the Zenbook, you can choose whether peak performance or battery life is more important to you.
During testing, the system played online HD videos, media-heavy PowerPoint shows and completed 72 hours of BurnIn without an error.
The Zenbook includes Windows 7 Home Premium, can use Intel's Anti-Theft and Identity Protection technology and comes with Trend Micro's Titanium Internet Security software (with a month of virus updates). A big bonus is the Zenbook's warranty, which couples two years of coverage with a year of accident protection.
Using the Zenbook won't make you more Zen-like or serene. But it is beautifully designed and provides the ability to decide when you want the system to run at full power or to idle along. In other words, it puts you in control of computing.
I liked the Aspire S3's simplicity and enviable price tag, but its battery just didn't last long enough and its assortment of ports didn't measure up to the Zenbook's.
The Zenbook's battery life was better, but ultimately, still a disappointment. Its adjustable performance somewhat makes up for this, and the system does everything else right, from its USB 3.0 port to its solid state storage. Add in the two-year warranty and a year of accident coverage and you have a system built for the long run.
For those and other reasons, the Asus Zenbook is my choice between the two. That said, I expect this genre to evolve quickly as more models come out.
How we tested
To see how these UltraBooks compared with each other, I used them both at my office and on the road for work and play over the course of two weeks. I wrote, did Web research, updated a Web site, edited, prepared and gave presentations as well as played games and watched online videos. Each accompanied me on a trip out of the office.
I measured each system with a digital caliper, measuring their thickness at their rubber feet. Then I weighed each on a digital scale with and without its AC adapter.
After examining every major aspect, I compared each of them to a mock up of the typical airplane seat-back table tray to see if they fit. In the office, I connected to my Wi-Fi network and while on the road each was connected to a mobile hot spot as well as a public Wi-Fi network.
To test the performance of each system, I first looked at overall performance with PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark. The software exercises every major component of the system, including processor, hard drive, 2D and 3D graphics, and memory, and compiles the results into a single score that represents its performance potential. I ran the software three times and averaged the results. For the Asus Zenbook UX31, I ran it in both High Performance and Battery Saving modes.
I also ran Maxon's CineBench 11.5 benchmarks for graphics and processor performance. The software renders several photorealistic scenes that stress the processor and graphics chip by manipulating up to a million polygons. It reports scores for processor and graphics performance, and I averaged the results of three runs.
After loading PassMark's BatteryMon, I charged the system and measured each system's battery life with its power options set to Balanced and the system prevented from going to sleep. With a USB drive containing six videos connected to the system, I set Windows Media player to play the videos continuously while the software charted the battery's capacity. I reported the average of three runs.
To check the ability of these machines to wake up quickly, I put each to sleep and then woke it up by pressing on the power button, while timing how long it took to bring the screen back with a stopwatch. After that I connected each to a pair of M-Audio AV30 speakers and listened to music and spoken-word programming while evaluating its clarity, balance and level of static. I repeated the evaluation using the notebook's built-in speakers.
Finally, I checked out the reliability of the systems by running PassMark's BurnIn Test software. This program runs several strings of operations at once, while looking for errors or faults. While each was running, I checked for hotspots and measured the surface temperature with an infrared thermometer. Both machines ran for 72 hours and more than 200-trillion operations without a problem.