Dubbed the "Ultrabook" class by Intel, who manufactures the processors behind much of the technology, the most diminutive laptops have seen some pretty dramatic changes over the last few years in terms of their performance and design. Now thinner and lighter than ever before, this ultraportable class of laptop computers is competing with traditional laptops and mobile devices like tablets and even smartphones by providing a lightweight, elegant design that also includes competitive pricing, fast startup, long-lasting batteries and processing power that uses very little power while still being robust enough to run software that will meet the needs of the majority of consumers and content creators.
With exciting new features like touch-pad operation, Thunderbolt technology and, in the near future, touchscreen capabilities, in many ways, ultraportables are the best of both worlds—a hybrid between a mobile device and a classic laptop. The first wave of ultraportables is just beginning to hit the market, and it’s likely that this class of laptop will make up the majority of laptop products available within only a few short years.
APPLE MACBOOK AIR
The first MacBook Air was the first laptop to really push the envelope, so to speak, with a design that was about the size of a standard weekend newspaper at less than an inch in thickness. Now four generations in, the MacBook Air is twice as powerful in performance as the previous model, more than enough to run the major Mac photo-editing and -management software as well as Apple’s most recent operating system, OS X Lion. The 13.3-inch Air sports an impressive 1440×900-resolution screen, while the 11.6-inch model packs in a healthy 1366×768 resolution, and there are also internal improvements for smoother video and graphics. Available in up to 256 GB, the MacBook Air uses solid-state flash storage drives with no moving parts that make it less prone to damage and give it faster startup.
Most exciting about the update to the line is the new Thunderbolt connection with data transfer at up to 20 times faster than USB 2.0 and up to 12 times faster than FireWire 800, as well as about twice the speed of USB 3.0. Thunderbolt connections allow daisy-chaining of a maximum of six Thunderbolt-compatible devices through the single connection for adding external drives and peripherals, like Apple’s 27-inch Thunderbolt Display widescreen monitor. There are also two USB 2.0 connections and 802.11n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 for connecting wirelessly. The 13.3-inch model is the only one to include the integrated SD card slot, and after its omission in the previous model, the backlit keyboard has been added once again for working in minimal light. Apple’s esteemed Multi-Touch trackpad uses a literal light touch to perform actions normally controlled through a mouse. List Price: Begins at $999.
ASUS ZENBOOK UX2I/UX31
Asus has dubbed its new line of ultraportables its ZENBOOK series, and the first two entries are certainly models to contemplate. The UX21 is super-thin at only 0.11 inches along the slimmest edge and 0.67 inches at its thickest, while the 13.3-inch UX31 is currently king in terms of resolution with a crisp 1600×900 screen. The 11.6-inch UX21 still packs in 1366×768 resolution, and both models also incorporate USB 3.0 with USB Charger+ technology for charging peripherals through the port at a much faster rate than other systems. There’s a standby time of up to 10 days, running time of around seven hours and instant startup within two seconds. There will be two UX21 models and three UX31 configurations with up to 256 GB of capacity on solid-state drives. Priced at $200 less, both models are aimed squarely at competing with the MacBook Air, and they include a mini-HDMI port, mini-VGA and two USB ports, though only one is USB 3.0. The UX31 adds an SD card reader, and externally, both feature a slick spun-metal finish. The keyboard isn’t backlit, however. List Price: Begins at $999 (UX21).
LENOVO IDEAPAD U300S
With a 10.5-second boot-up time, up to eight hours of use, 30 days of standby power and a 13.3-inch, 1366×768 HD screen, the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s is nonetheless exceedingly efficient at a thickness of only 0.59 inches and a weight that begins at 2.9 pounds. The AccuType keyboard, which isn’t backlit, features a breathable design thanks to Intel Advanced Cooling Technology that brings in cooler air through the chiclet keys while expelling hotter exhaust through rear and side vents. Lenovo RapidCharge powers the battery up to 50% in only 30 minutes. In case of loss, anti-theft protection will track the computer and send an alert when it connects to the Internet, and an Intelligent Touchpad made of glass provides scrolling, zooming and rotating functions. There is support for HD graphics with an HDMI output, and content can be screened to compatible HDTVs wirelessly with Intel Wireless Display (WiDi) Technology. There’s an optional external DVD reader/writer that measures only 0.67 inches thick, and connectors include integrated USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports, and the solid-state drive is available in up to 256 GB of capacity. List Price: Begins at $1,199.
ACER ASPIRE S3 ULTRABOOK
Offered as an efficiently priced ultraportable model, the Aspire S3 combines a large 320 GB, 5400 rpm hard drive for larger capacity than other ultraportables with a 20 GB solid-state drive that houses operating-system files in order to wake from sleep in less than two seconds. Acer Instant Connect also promises connection to the Internet in only 2.5 seconds, and Acer’s Hybrid Standby Technology powers the unit for up to 50 days in standby with up to six hours of continuous usage. The 13.3-inch, backlit LED widescreen display has a 1366×768-pixel resolution, and the ultraportable measures in at a thin 0.68 inches in thickness with a weight of only 2.98 pounds. Connections include two USB 2.0 ports and an HDMI port, which are placed on the rear, while the sides include an SD/MMC card reader, a headphone/microphone connector and power and battery-status indicators. The Aspire S3 is a bare-bones model, and because of that, it meets all of the criteria for being a true "Ultrabook," with fast startup, long life and a price point below $1,000. Models with more powerful processing and bigger capacity are also planned for the future. List Price: $899.