Best Ultrabook: top thin and light laptops to choose from
28th Feb 2014 | 08:21
All the top ultraportable PCs in one place
Introduction and best Ultrabook 1-6
As the popularity of Chromebooks has demonstrated, most of us don't actually need the amount of processing power, especially on the graphics side, that's available to us through large, hefty desktops or laptops.
Not everyone wants something low-powered or cheap though, and the idea of the Ultrabook is to make laptops a bit more convenient particularly in portable terms, but powerful enough for most tasks.
The term Ultrabook is actually pure marketing. It's a specification for ultraportables cooked up by Intel, and backed by a sizeable development fund, for encouraging a new generation of portable PCs featuring Intel's technology.
The best way to think of an Ultrabook is a MacBook Air that isn't made by Apple. They are light like netbooks but without their lack of processing power, and they are required to conform to a certain shape. For example, 14-inch and bigger Ultrabooks can't be thicker than 23mm if they use the latest Intel Haswell processors.
Being an Intel trademark, you only see its processors - Core i3, Core i5 or Core i7 - and they all have fast SSD storage to some degree, and now USB 3.0 connectivity, for speedy file transfers.
The idea is to offer something with the long battery life and and instant-on convenience of a tablet, without having to sacrifice a real, good-sized keyboard or the desktop software you rely on. That said, with the Windows 8 touchscreen capabilities, we're starting to see the lines blur between Ultrabook and tablet.
Ultrabooks tend to be made with design in mind too, so come in more expensive than most mid-range home laptops.
They tend to start from around £699 at the lower end - although you'll note that a couple here have dipped below that where manufacturers have tried to disrupt the status quo - going to nearly £2,000 at the very high end. For the most part, you're likely to spend between £800 and £1,000 for a newer model, though you can get some older models for good prices.
So which of the many Ultrabooks should you consider? These are the best ones we've reviewed recently that garnered three stars and above.
1. Acer Aspire P3
Just to confuse you, let's start off with a slate that's also an Ultrabook via a keyboard dock - trust Acer to be disruptive. Unfortunately, unlike the Aspire S7, this Aspire P3 doesn't entirely deliver.
Acer has tried to go for that heady mix of a tablet's convenience and laptop's usability, but, as we know, heading down that path leads to compromises. Ultimately, it's let down by a weak last gen Core i3 3229Y extreme-low power chip with integrated graphics (Note: the US starter model has a Pentium), which leads to a less than spritely menu navigation and loading times on Windows 8.
The 11.6-inch display at a native resolution of 1,366 x 768 is also below the usual Full HD of most Ultrabooks and is washed out to boot.
Storage is sparse too, a 60GB SSD makes using the cloud seem almost mandatory to avoid perpetually running out of space.
This is a decent enough Windows 8 tablet, but the comments about the Aspire P3's keyboard make for painful reading.
2. Lenovo ThinkPad S431 Touch
The 13-inch S431 Touch treads a tightrope between price and solid performance for business users, and manages to stay on... albeit with a few wobbles.
You won't, however, see any high-end components here. The processor, for example, is a low-voltage Intel Core i5 3337U and integrated HD Graphics 4000, which will handle productivity software in a workman-like fashion and any 'research' you may need to do on the growth of casual gaming.
The changes to the ThinkPad's classic keyboard have had some very vocal detractors, but we found the chiclet-style keyboard very comfortable to use for long sessions. It's a real worker's tool, enabling long typing sessions, and still sports the iconic red trackpoint.
The S431 Touch, however, had two low points for us. Even though Lenovo managed to pack in a 14-ich screen into a 13-inch chassis, it's a sub-par LCD display with a restrictive viewing angle and a lower resolution than the hoped for Full HD. Considering also that this an Ultrabook designed for a working day, we found the battery life lacking.
The Lenovo ThinkPad S431 Touch isn't a flashy number, but it is a snappy performer at a price that will make the bean counters happy.
3. Lenovo Yoga 11S
Starting from £611/AUS$890/$799
This will not be last time you see the name Lenovo Yoga. There's quite a range now and they all have a habit of reviewing well. That doesn't stop the 11S from being a handy 11.6-inch hybrid laptop in its own right.
As the name suggests. this quite a versatile portable: bend the screen back on its solid hinge and it becomes a Windows 8 tablet for a quick surf on the sofa. Alternatively, you can flip the screen back to make a stand and it's great for watching movies in bed.
The hardware specs are respectable: a Core i7 processor, 256GB SSD and 8GB RAM. We'd have preferred a more recent Haswell processor, but unless you like to relax with some serious gaming, it will be fast enough for office work. The full QWERTY keyboard will keep your typing on track as well as it's small and comfortable enough.
The 11.6-inch LCD display doesn't support full HD at a maximum 1,366 x 768 resolution, and the battery will last around 3 hours before you'll need to pull out your charger.
Overall, the Lenovo Yoga 11S is a light and portable companion that will garner appreciate nods from fellow travellers as you wander through an airport, it's only real omission is the lack of USB 3.0 ports, which is a puzzling oversight.
4. Toshiba Satellite U50T
This is a sub-£700 laptop that looks slick, meets the minimum specs for an Intel Ultrabook head on and does a good job of not cutting too many corners on the way.
More expensive Ultrabooks, for instance, would offer an SSD for storage, but the Satellite U50T offers a reasonable compromise with a 32GB SSD cache on a 750GB hybrid drive.
Toshiba has also chosen a decent Haswell processor, the ultra-low power Core i5-4200U supported by 6GB of RAM. This, coupled with the hybrid drive, will slog steadily through spreadsheets, general office work and even the odd game of Counter-Strike with the integrated Intel HD Graphics 4400.
Usually at this point we shake our heads and tut at a mediocre battery performance, but 6 hours 40 minutes of video playback isn't to be sniffed at. That converts to a good day's work in general use, or two days if you're the boss.
Unfortunately, the low blow hits home with the display. It's a generous 15.6-inch screen but an LCD with a native resolution of 1,366 x 768, which is adequate but dull.
The Toshiba Satellite is a nice machine for the money, which loses points for a low-res screen and it's a little too heavy at 2.3kg for that ultimate portability but this is still a quality Ultrabook.
5. Samsung Series 7 Ultra
Stylish. Slim. Sexy? We'll stop using one word sentences now and enthuse about the quality components in the Samsung Series 7 Ultra. It's powered by a solid Core i5 processor, which is to be welcomed, but one of its standout features is the AMD Radeon HD 8500M graphics chip. This means the Samsung has some real graphic clout, while aiding the Full HD display (1,920 x 1,080 pixels) in providing a pin-sharp viewing experience.
There were a few things we didn't like about the Ultra, though. At 1.6kg it's not as portable as others in its price range and, unless you're prepared to trump up for cloud storage, the small 128GB SSD is going to fill up fast if you use this Ultrabook every day.
The whole Series 7 Ultra experience is stylish and the performance is nippy nonetheless. If a quality screen is a priority and you need a little more graphical punch from your portable this is worth a spin.
6. Lenovo IdeaPad U410 Touch
This refresh adds the word 'Touch' to the end of the product name, but that isn't the feature we'd highlight. No, it turns out to be the Nvidia GeForce GL710M graphics, which is capable of some pleasing game performance, such as 52fps on High Settings in BioShock Infinite.
In pursuit of that gaming sweet spot Lenovo has dragged down the resolution of the 14-inch screen to 1,366 x 768, which is an acceptable but washed out affair.
The rest of the core specs are generally good, the Intel Core i5-3337U will handle all the pie charts you can throw at it and the keyboard offers good feedback when you're in a typing frenzy, but is on the small side. The last-gen Core i5 also tends to drain the battery life, which means you'll need to keep an eye out for wall sockets - it ran out after just over two and half hours.
The U410 Touch is topped off with a very generous 1TB hard drive paired with a small 24GB SSD for fast booting, and, overall, we'd say you're getting nippy Windows 8 experience at a pretty reasonable price.
Best ultrabook 7-18
7. Dell XPS 13
This Dell's answer to the MacBook Air, but if the Air is the thin and lithe football player on the field, then the XPS 13 is more compact and playing rugby.
Due to it's Core i7 processor, decent amount of memory and SSD storage, the XPS 13 will handle whatever tasks you wish to throw at it outside of power gaming.
The battery life isn't as good as we'd hoped. It lasts around 4 hours, which isn't even half as long as its rival, the MacBook Air.
If you're after a 1080p viewing experience on a portable this is a crowd-pleaser though. You'll get brilliantly sharp 13-inch 1,920 x 1080 touchscreen. But there are few caveats, most notably the lack of an SD card reader. But all told, this is a capable and desirable, luxury laptop that will pound most tasks into the ground.
8. Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro
Lenovo has a habit of releasing so many similarly named products, we wish they'd replace Yoga with a word that has the same 'bendy' connotations - the Lenovo Pilates, perhaps?
The Yoga 2 Pro, like all of the range, does all the usual bendy tricks. The touchscreen can be flipped back and set in in four positions. For instance, push it all the way back and it becomes a thick tablet or you can 'tent' the Yoga into a swipeable display for watching Glee in the kitchen… or something less musical.
The most notable improvements to this refresh are a lovely 3,200 x 1,800 13-inch IPS screen and a processor upgrade to Haswell. This chip uplift to a Core i5 ought to translate into better battery life but it only lasted three hours.
The gorgeous IPS screen probably has something to do with that we feel, and, to clarify, any horror stories you may have heard about tiny desktop icons and scaling issues on hi-res displays have been resolved by Windows 8.1. The Yoga Pro 2 is also benefits from being half a pound lighter and a little thinner than the old model.
The issue here isn't whether the Yoga Pro 2 will cope with the tasks you want to use it for, as it'll cope with most things aside from high-end gaming, but the issues are whether you like the form-factor and can get enough out of a single battery charge.
9. Lenovo ThinkPad T440s
Changing anything on the classic ThinkPad is fraught with danger due to the laptop's zealous followers, but Lenovo was going to have to modernize the design at some point. The new keyboard, in particular, continues to excel - each press of a key sees it snap back rapidly ready for more typing, although the layout changes may not appeal to everyone.
Similar to the ThinkPad X240 this has two batteries and promises 17 hours of life, which we found to be more like eight if you combine the two individual battery tests together. That, alone, makes the T440s excellent for busy business people.
One downside of that result is that the extra external battery makes the T440s instantly more weighty, than it already is, at 4.2 pounds and thicker.
However, between a speedy Haswell Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM and 128GB SSD, the T440s will handle most people's daily workload. The IPS touchscreen display sees off limited viewing angles too and offers Full HD resolution.
The T440s may irritate ThinkPad purists, but it's as close as you're likely to get to the classic ThinkPad. It's on the chunky side, we feel, but it is a workhorse.
10. Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga
Lenovo wants everyone to embrace the capable and stylish Yoga series and wants you to think of it as the perfect business Ultrabook, too.
The ThinkPad Pro makes a good start by supplying a Core i3 (Haswell) processor, which serves up snappy Windows 8 performance. This is supported by 4GB of RAM and an SDD (albeit a small one at 128GB). Essentially this means the ThinkPad Yoga will have no trouble dealing with complicated spreadsheets or the kind of productivity tasks required at work.
And while all that bendy flipping may not be necessary for some business settings, the fact it has a sturdy hinge means you can bend it flat on a tablet or all the way round to make it tablet of sorts.
Where the Yoga's performance gets all bent of shape is in its battery life, which amounts to only 3 hours. Some of that result is likely sucked away by the strong, but Full HD touchscreen. The amount of storage is a concern - most business users will need more than 128GB of storage for all their presentations, docs and spreadsheets.
The ThinkPad Yoga maybe a step too far removed from the original business-class ThinkPads, but its stylish and could do well, particularly as a commuting sidekick.
11. Sony Vaio Tap 11
This premium priced tablet-ultrabook hybrid certainly looks the part at 9.9mm thick, and makes a good start by including the keyboard attachment. Even if it is a skinny thing, the keyboard's comfortable and accurate to use, and gets automatically charged when magnetically connected to the tablet.
The Tap 11's price allows for the latest gen of Intel chips: a low power Core i5-4210Y along with 4GB RAM, 128GB of nippy solid state storage and a good selection of connectivity. There's also microSD for extra storage.
In performance terms that means the Tap 11 will easily handle the office work and as well as a break to watch True Detective, and the combination of a small 11.6-inch screen at Full HD resolution ensures a sharp glossy viewing screen for you. There's also a stylus included, but it feels like an extra tool for navigation than for busy artists.
Considering that a Haswell-based Ultrabook is meant to supply six hours of HD video playback, our test results were a bit surprising - our intensive test saw the battery fizzle out after only two and half hours.
Premium looks and price haven't entirely guaranteed a top notch performance here, but the glossy looking Sony Vaio Tap 11 does take a step closer to that sweet spot where high-end tablet, keyboard and a full Windows 8 experience meet.
12. Lenovo ThinkPad Helix
Two separate devices or one that tries to be both laptop and tablet? That's the challenge taken up by the 11.6-inch ThinkPad Helix. The fact it's here on our list means it's succeeded in doing that in many areas.
The Helix comes with a keyboard dock that has its own battery pack and airflow fans and - as you'd expect from the ThinkPad name - the truncated keyboard is the best we've tried on a hybrid, and is excellent for lots of typing with its slightly curved keys.
That extra battery in the dock also means we can't fault the Helix's staying power, it managed seven hours while docked and around six as a tablet. We attribute that partially to the last-gen (Ivy Bridge) processor which, we feel, should really have been a Haswell processor at this price.
The rest of the specs are solid enough: a 128GB SSD, 4GB of RAM and a Full HD resolution screen, although, of course, we've seen much better screens at a lower price.
This jack of all trades may suit your needs or you may just end up buying a laptop and tablet bundle that will cost you less. The choice is yours.
13. Gigabyte U2442
G is for Gigabyte and also good, and, indeed, the slim and portable U2442 is good - although it's not got everything entirely right.
We didn't find the keyboard particularly comfortable to use - there's distinct lack of travel in the keys and a woeful size of the screen's bezel mares the 14-inch display.
The screen's resolution at 1,600 x 900 pixels is also a little lower than expected. But if you're a savvy gamer, you'll appreciate the tricky balance taking place here between screen resolution and discrete graphics, in this case Nvidia GT640M, to get the best graphical results.
If you're not interested in games, knowing Fifa 13 is an option won't be of much interest, but in reality the extra graphical clout better serves someone needing to do video editing.
The core specs of i5-3210M with 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD all make for a nippy experience and although we'd describe the Gigabyte U2442 as a little 'boxy', its aesthetics will appeal according to individual taste and ultimately what you're getting is a powerful portable.
14. Asus Transformer Book TX300
True to its name this powerful 13-inch Ultrabook can be turned into a tablet quickly by unclipping the keyboard.
There's a lot to like about this stylish brushed aluminium hybrid. Asus has slotted in an Intel Core i7 (3rd gen, not Haswell) and 4GB which offers a snappy Windows 8, but this isn't where the TX300 stands out. It's features like the lush screen which supports full HD playback, the dual batteries (in base and tablet) and dual-storage of a 500GB drive and 128GB SSD respectively, which distinguish it from the crowd.
There are few caveats: no HDMI, for instance, the USB 3.0 ports are on the keyboard but not on the screen, and the fact it weighs 2kg. The battery life isn't sparkling at around five hours either, but then you are getting a gorgeous screen for your movies.
The Asus Transformer Book TX300 may not beat the likes of the Apple MacBook Pro but it handles the compromise between laptop and tablet in an admirable fashion.
15. Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus
Meet the business end of Samsung's Ultrabooks, where the ATIV Book Plus will beat you relentlessly until you acknowledge its performance and staying power.
First it'll stun with nine hours of battery life, rabbit punch you with its near-silent operation, and uppercut you with a screen that has a native resolution of 3,200 x 1,800.
The ATIV Book 9 Plus does have a few gaps in its guard. Unfortunately, that fantastic screen is its own weakness. The scaling problems associated with hi-res screens have been fixed in Windows 8.1, and ensure that desktop icons don't look ridiculously small any more, but not all software has been patched yet, which turns Windows into constantly switching micro-macro Titanfall-like experience, except not as much fun. As our reviewer noted though, it's likely you'll drop the screen down to 1080p, especially as this is the norm for HD movies.
It's not often we have to complain about something being too premium. Overall, we found the look and feel of the ATIV to be excellent, particularly the touchscreen and multi-touch trackpad.
16. Toshiba Satellite P70
The P70 is a big and weighty at 2.9kg, but it's also a powerful and fast machine sporting a top-end Haswell Intel Core i7-4700MQ processor.
The P70's build isn't particularly premium, the top and bottom are brushed aluminium and the rest is cheap-looking plastic. The screen, however, is stunning and that weight comes from a whopping 2TB of storage, discrete graphics and a Blu-ray writer.
Where this heavy Toshiba really falls over is battery life - 1 hour and 17 minutes makes it even less portable than we'd like. That compromise may be satisfactory for many who want a powerful desktop replacement with a vivid 1,920 x 1,080 screen and speakers, but it also manages to choose discrete graphics from Nvidia, which aren't that much better than an integrated GPU.
17. Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch
Say hello to the refresh of the best ThinkPad money could buy you back in 2012 - and you'll need quite a lot of money to own this new one too, in fact.
When you pick it up you'll quickly grasp how good its design is. It's got a solid, smooth rubberised finish and is lightweight at just 1.5kg, and yet powerful with a high-end Ivy Bridge Intel Core i7 processor clocked at 2GHZ, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD.
This results in an excellent, all singing, but not all gaming portable. it did well in our performance tests, but even so we can't help feeling that you should get a Haswell Core i7 at close to £1,800.
This last gen chip choice also means the battery life suffers. It's not a horrific result, but 3 hours of juice in our testing regime isn't enough. The 14-inch screen is also 1,600 x 900, but despite not being able to offer full 1080p it supplies a clear and bright viewing experience. Connectivity is minimal here too, no Ethernet for instance or HDMI, but you can connect to other screens using DisplayPort.
Even though this refresh builds on the solid design and has touchscreen and Windows 8, it really needs a 4th generation Intel processor at its core to justify and enable us to recommend it wholeheartedly.
18. HP ZBook 14
This is the "world's first workstation Ultrabook" according to HP's marketing pitch. The Zbook is firmly focused on the business user, with features like a fingerprint sensor for added security.
The workstation moniker not only applies to the Zbook's ability to work like a muscle-bound Conan strapped to a grain wheel, but means it's incredibly simple to access the internals on the underside for easy upgrading.
Not that we're saying the starting specs are too shabby. Finally, we're seeing a Haswell high-end Intel Core i7 chip, 240GB solid-state drive, 16GB of RAM and extra graphical grunt via discrete AMD FirePro M4100. Ignoring gaming, the Zbook will handle all your intensive tasks, your ridiculously complex spreadsheets with macros, photo editing, video rendering and playback. The 14-inch touchscreen also offers a healthy 1,920 x 1,080 resolution which will make all your playbacks enjoyable viewing.
Unfortunately, just as we were about to celebrate the synthetic tests for the battery came in - a few minutes under three hours is frustrating, although in general use the Zbook managed over four hours. Still not enough, considering the cost, and not what HP lists in the marketing material.
Make no mistake though, this is a capable Ultrabook. The grey-brushed aluminium may not appeal to everyone, but it's fantastically equipped for its role, even if the price is expensive.