Ultrabooks for business: our top 10
21st Dec 2012 | 11:45
The business Ultrabooks to buy
The Ultrabook market is booming at the moment with super svelte, super portable and, crucially, super powerful notebooks that make computing on the go easier than ever. Apple kicked off the slimline revolution when it unveiled the first ridiculously skinny MacBook Air back in 2010 and now, thanks to a substantial investment and an aggressive marketing campaign from Intel, we now have mega-thin Windows stunners filling the shelves at PC superstores as well.
Intel's guidelines state that Ultrabooks need to be "ultra-sleek" and "ultra-responsive". More specifically, this equates to a maximum thickness of 18mm for 13.3-inch laptops, or 21mm for 14 inches or larger, a minimum battery life of five hours, low-voltage Intel Core processors packed inside and boot times from sleep or hibernation of less than seven seconds, thanks to super-speedy SSD storage options.
The result is a bunch of ultraportable laptops, from all the major players, that make even some tablets look chunky. At the tail end of last year the first wave of Ultrabooks arrived from the likes of Acer, Asus, Dell and HP and, since the third-generation Intel Core CPU platform (codenamed Ivy Bridge) landed in May 2012, the likes of Sony have come to the party and we've seen a tidal wave of ultra-lean innovation from all the major players.
In no particular order, here are our ten favourites from the Ultrabook brigade…
10/ Samsung Series 5 530U4B
An oldie, but a goodie – the Series 5 is still the only official Samsung Ultrabook to date. Released at the end of last year, Samsung's effort lacks the third generation Intel Core power of some of its rivals, but makes up for slightly outdated hardware by offering a slick design, a generous amount of storage and, crucially – an attractive price point.
So, if you're looking to kit your workforce out with nice-looking, decent performing portable laptops without giving your accountant a coronary, the Samsung Series 5 could be the answer - especially as it's recently seen its price tag slashed to around £530 after the £100 cashback.
Available in two screen sizes; 13.3-inch and 14-inch, the Series 5 packs a mid-level, second generation, Intel Core i5-2467M processor. The larger model comes with an optical drive and has a hard disk upgradeable to 1TB of storage space; 500GB is standard.
Ultrabooks rely on solid-state drives (SSD) for their rapid boot up times and, as such, Samsung has fitted the Series 5 with a small 16GB SSD, which is dedicated solely to booting the Windows OS. The inclusion of a HDD as well does mean that the Series 5 is slightly chunkier than some of its rivals, however. It's 20mm thick but it does boast a slick looking sloping, blade-like appearance and weighs a respectable 1.5kg.
9/ Novatech nFinity 2367 Plus
Another old timer, from the first wave of the Ultrabook revolution, this effort from British company Novatech is the cheapest way of tooling your team up with slimline Ultrabooks.
The base model, boasting a Sandy Bridge i3-2367M CPU, 4GB of DDR3 RAM and a 128GB SSD can be yours for less than £400. There's no operating system installed on this super-cheap setup but, with Windows 8 on the horizon – and Microsoft offering some fantastic small business deals – this is not necessarily a bad thing.
There is a downside to this great value, however. The nFinity's build quality isn't great with the all-black appearance being extremely minimalist; or in other words - boring.
The 2367 Plus is plenty usable though although the keyboard and trackpad are no better than what you might find on an average netbook. You do get some extra keys though, such as Home, End and PgUp/PgDn: which come in handy for quick document editing.
At 1.7kg, it's hardly a heavyweight but, in Ultrabook terms, it isn't particularly light either. It's still thin enough though, measuring 21mm at its thickest point – which is the maximum an Ultrabook can be.
In our battery tests it performed brilliantly, managing 258 minutes before it was fully drained. This may be down to its Core i3 processor, which is less demanding than the Core i5 used in other Ultrabooks.
Read the full TechRadar review of the Novatech nFinity 2367 Plus
8/ Dell Inspiron 14z
Dell's first Ivy Bridge Ultrabook doesn't disappoint, with a wealth of cutting edge tech packed into its, admittedly slightly chunky, frame at a very affordable price point.
As mentioned, the Inspiron 14z isn't the lightest or sleekest Ultrabook in town; weighing 1.9kg and with measurements of 344 x 240 x 21mm. However, there is plenty of port activity taking place with a combi headset and microphone port, multi-card reader, HDMI, Ethernet and two USB 3.0 ports.
As with all Dell laptops, you can customise the specs for your business' needs. There's a choice of the latest generation Intel Core i3, i5 or i7 processors along with the integrated Intel HD Graphic 4000. You can also opt for discrete graphics too if your work tasks involve a lot of graphic-heavy operations.
You'll have no worries taking the 14z out and about - there's enough metal in the chassis to ensure solidity and the rounded edges make it an aesthetically pleasing machine too. The screen bezel is on the large side though, and makes a bit of a meal of the 14-inch, 1,366 x 768 display.
An optical drive is on offer, however – a rarity in the Ultrabook world – so the 14z also makes for a great machine if you have a lot of content stored on physical discs.
Read the full TechRadar review of the Dell Inspiron 14z
7/ Toshiba Z930
Toshiba impressed us with its original Ultrabooks and the Ivy Bridge powered Z930 only serves to highlight the Japanese giant's commitment to the new form factor.
The Toshiba Z930 sticks to the same design guidelines and connections of the original Z830 – but the spec sheet has been given a heck of a revamp.
Built around a 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U CPU, the speed and efficiency of the Z930 is far greater than anything in the first-gen Ultrabook club. Given that there's also a generous 6GB on offer too and you'll see why multitasking on this skinny PC is no issue.
All that the Z930 offers in terms of storage is a 128GB SSD, so it's more suited for someone looking for speed rather than massive storage although you can always expand using SD cards or an external hard drive.
Measuring at 20mm thick, Toshiba's latest toy is incredibly light at just 1.1kg. Ivy Bridge processors are designed to consume less power and improve battery life; the Z930 lasted 210 minutes under stress before giving up the ghost, indicating a real-life life cycle of around five hours.
You can also use that power for another useful feature: sleep and charge, which lets you power up a smartphone or other USB device, even while it's on standby.
Read the full TechRadar review of the Toshiba Z930
6/ Sony Vaio T13
Sony's first ever Ultrabook is a well-designed and moderately powered slim laptop that is available for a great price if you're prepared to scale down the spec-sheet a little bit.
And while the price tag is fairly cheap, the design and build quality of the T13 Ultrabook is anything but. Despite not being as sleek as Apple's MacBook Air, or as pretty as the Asus Zenbook range, it is a superb machine with an industrially sharp finish unlike any other slimline notebook that we've seen.
At 17.8mm thick, and weighing 1.6kg, it's not the most svelte Ultrabook model on the catwalk but its tough, square edges set it apart from the rest of the bunch. The chassis is made up of a mix of aluminium and magnesium alloy, with the lid's brushed aluminium finish creating a reassuring sense of robustness.
Powering the cheapest T13 is a second-gen i3 dual-core processor clocked at 1.4GHz, with Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics and 4GB of RAM. There are third-generation Intel Ivy Bridge versions available but these will cost you at least £100 more.
The response time from sleep mode is very quick thanks to the hybrid storage system made up of a 320GB HDD and a 32GB SSD. The SSD aspect allows the Intel Smart Response Technology and Sony's Rapid Wake to kick into action, meaning almost instantaneous wake times.
Read the full TechRadar review of the Sony Vaio T13
5/ Lenovo IdeaPad U410
The Lenovo IdeaPad U410 is a 14-inch Ultrabook that offers a top-end hardware setup, in a decent looking chassis, for a reasonable price-tag.
At 21mm thick and with a weight of almost 2kg, the U410 isn't likely to worry the ultra-skinny Ultrabooks in terms of build but where it does trump many of its competitors is value for money.
For less than £700 you can equip yourself, or your employees, with an Ivy Bridge i5 powered ultraportable boasting 6GB of RAM, discrete graphics from Nvidia and a healthy 750GB HDD and a 32GB SSD too.
Intel HD Graphics 4000 are part of the Ivy Bridge package but, in what is still quite a rare-occurrence in the Ultrabook market, you also have access to discrete graphics courtesy of the included 1GB Nvidia GeForce 610M GPU.
The result is a raw benchmarking score for general performance that is as good as we've ever seen on an Ultrabook. The U410 has no issues playing back HD and casual media editors shouldn't worry that the i5 chip isn't up to the task; we edited large image files with little fuss and basic video editing is also a breeze.
You won't be disappointed by the audio quality on this small machine either. Powered by Dolby Home Theatre V4 tech, the stereo speakers perform with aplomb and there is a reassuring bass response.
The only major downside to the U410 is the battery. In our stress test, it only managed a disappointing 181 minutes.
Read the full TechRadar review of the Lenovo IdeaPad U410
4/ HP Envy 6
The HP Envy 6 comes with a price-tag that is almost half the price of the original HP Ultrabook – the HP Spectre – but offers a pretty impressive tech setup.
Inside the brushed black metallic chassis you'll find a dual-core third-generation i5 CPU running the show, complete with Intel HD Graphics 4000 and 4GB of RAM.
In regular day-to-day use, in areas such as document editing, web browsing, social networking, movie streaming and listening to your music collection the Envy 6 excels.
Audio is also one of the Envy 6's strong points courtesy of its Beats Audio speakers and control panel. The 15.6-inch, 1,366 x 768, display impresses as well, with decent viewing angles - although the contrast ratio could be a little better.
On the sides you'll find three USB ports (two of which are of the quicker 3.0 variety) an Ethernet port for wired Internet and a HDMI port that makes it a doddle to hook this Ultrabook up to a big screen TV for business presentations.
Battery life is great – it managed almost five hours in our intensity test; you can add a couple more on for real world usage.
All of this, along with a 500GB HDD and a further 32GB of super speedy flash storage make the HP Envy 6 an incredibly attractive Ultrabook for the masses.
Read the full TechRadar review of the HP Envy 6
3/ Acer Aspire Timeline U M5
A business ultrabook with gaming credentials you say? How's about the Acer Aspire Timeline U M5 which packs not only an Intel Core i5-3317U 1.7GHz CPU with 6GB of RAM, but a powerful Nvidia GeForce GT640M graphics processor as well?
While we're not advocating killing work hours killing zombies (virtually, of course) the GT640M packs the latest GeForce architecture meaning an unrivalled Ultrabook multimedia processing performance – fantastic if your work-load includes graphically intensive tasks.
It also packs a 15.6-inch display, which is rather large for an Ultrabook – making it fantastic for presentations when you're out in the field. And even though the pixel resolution is a fairly standard 1366 x 768 – not enough for native 1080p playback – there is a real crispness and brightness in the display that almost makes up for it.
The M5 also benefits from a built-in optical DVD RW drive and also features two USB 3.0 ports for fast data transfer times.
During use the chassis keeps cool and the engine room quiet, and the overall impression is that you're dealing with a premium machine. Whether or not the M5 is the right purchase for your business comes down to how much you value dedicated graphics.
If you want a portable workstation, there are better suited machines. However, if you want a lightweight machine with graphical prowess the M5 could be just the ticket.
2/ Apple MacBook Air
The Apple MacBook Air may not officially be described as an ultrabook, however it ticks all the requirements, so it's in.
And how could we resist the best looking laptop available? A laptop that set new standards for design, portability and power in small packages.
It is a design, however, that is perhaps becoming a bit tired. The 2012 Air refresh packs the latest tech in the same slimline chassis that we originally fell in love with way back in 2010.
The Air boasts a ridiculously thin unibody aluminium machine that measures just 3mm at its slimmest point and 17mm at its thickest. There are two display size options, 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch, with the smaller of the two weighing less than 1.1kg and the larger just 270g more.
The most notable change for 2012 comes by way of the CPU, which has been souped up with Intel Ivy Bridge power. The 11-incher features a 1.7GHz dual-core i5 and there's a 1.8GHz i5 CPU for the 13-inch.
For storage it's SSD all the way - the cheapest option offers just 64GB of flash space, although you can go up to 512GB of storage for a whopping £640 extra.
In a market place that's becoming ever more congested with slimline Ultrabooks, Apple is still leading the way in the cool stakes – although, at last, there are some serious challengers to its throne.
Read the full TechRadar review of the Apple MacBook Air
1/ Asus Zenbook Prime UX31a
Keeping the same awesome design values as the original Zenbook Ultrabook that was unleashed last year, the Prime has undergone a heavyweight hardware overhaul, and now packs the latest Intel processing power along with an awe-inspiring display panel.
The result is an ultra-portable notebook that will not only amaze onlookers with its dazzling aesthetics but also has the power to help you accomplish your daily digital demands.
The display because is the first jaw-dropping moment that you'll experience with the Prime. It boasts a Full HD, 1920 x 1080 IPS panel. That's over 2 million pixels for your eyes to focus on, with an incredible pixel per inch count of around 165.
HD videos look absolutely brilliant and you'll be able to edit digital photos, or make changes to even the most detailed documents with supreme accuracy thanks to the incredibly deep blacks and the vibrant colours.
Its dual-core 1.9GHz i7 CPU smashed through an array of digital tasks in testing; photo editing, even super high-res images, was a cinch and, thanks also to the 4GB of RAM packed in, you'll also have no issues when carrying out multiple tasks at once.
Sure, it's extremely pricey and sure, there are chunkier machines that offer a meatier CPU punch, but if you're looking for the ultimate Ultrabook, then the Asus Zenbook Prime is the obvious answer.
Read the full TechRadar review of the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31a
What to look for when choosing an Ultrabook - Connectivity
Obviously, one of the key strengths of any Ultrabook is that it's incredibly portable. But it's all well and good your super-slim machine sliding in your bag with ease and not weighing you down when you're out and about – you're also going to need plenty of connectivity options to make the most of your chosen Ultrabook.
Fortunately, connectivity is another strong point of the Ultrabook clan with all models packing the latest Wi-Fi Technology, Bluetooth is usually on board as standard, and a number of physical ports are on offer as well.
Wi-Fi hotspots are ubiquitous nowadays and there are a number of ways of gaining access to premium hotspots such as BT's WiFi network and The Cloud for free such as signing up for BT home internet, or by being a Sky customer.
Ethernet, for wired web, isn't always available on Ultrabooks (due to the chunky size of an RJ45 connector) but USB to Ethernet adapters are cheap and simple to use.
3G connectivity hasn't yet hit the Ultrabook range as of yet, although future launches such as the Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1 do include space for a SIM card – so we wouldn't be surprised to see this become a more prolific offering going forward.